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Build a Chicken Coop For a Healthy Flock
If you’re preparing to build your first coop, the question on your mind is probably something like, “What does a chicken coop need for chickens to thrive?”
How to build a chicken coop and all the many features that can be built-in or around them is a huge topic. If you search online or even in magazines, you’ll find everything from functional, sustenance farming structures to designer chicken coops and everything in between. Your choice will depend entirely on your goals for your flock.
The sustenance farmer, like me, will want an entirely different design and look than a backyard pet keeper. This doesn’t make one chicken keeper better than the other, it just simply means we’re different. As my grandfather would say, “There are as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there are farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.”
What is a chicken coop?
A chicken coop is a structure that gives your flock shelter from weather and predators. Have you ever picked up a chicken when it’s asleep? They’re true zombies. They are helpless. This makes it imperative to give them a safe roost. They need to feel safe and be safe. No matter what your choice for design, there are a few basics.
The amount of space each bird requires depends on how much outdoor time they have. If your flock will free range during the day, they only need a small shelter in which to sleep and get out of the weather. If your birds will be totally confined to your chicken coop, including the yard space around it, they will need more space to avoid overcrowding issues. Likewise, larger breeds require more space than smaller breeds.
If your flock is a small, fully confined one, a good rule of thumb is a minimum of 5 square feet per bird. If you have a large flock, you can figure 8 square feet per bird. Again, this is for birds confined to the building with a small run.
The larger the yard area around the coop, the less indoor space each bird requires so you can adjust accordingly. When allowed free-ranging or access to an open yard, you can easily house a dozen chickens in the space as small as 7’ x 8′ because they’ll only be sleeping, laying eggs, or seeking shelter there.
When making your plans, think about food storage and cleaning out the coop. You’ll be glad if you make the roof high enough to stand up in and work with a shovel. The pitch of the roof is also important as this will allow rain and snow to run off quickly and easily.
In my experience, having a short walk from your home to the chicken yard is a nice thing. Besides being able to hear predators and gather eggs, I like having them close for visits.
Some areas require building permits so find out whether you do or not. Especially those who live in town. Your area may have other building restrictions for chicken coops so be sure to check on those.
If you’re in the South or in any warm climate, you won’t have to worry about insulation. Your main concern will be providing protection from storms and a place for them to keep cool. In colder climates, you will need to have a well-insulated, ventilated coop constructed to keep your birds warm.
If you choose to put a window(s) in your coop, be sure you have enough roof overhang to keep the summer sun from beating through it. You may consider putting the window on the south side if you live in a cold climate. I don’t have windows in my coop because my birds are free range every day. Lighting is important for the fertility of the rooster and the hen since they are both affected by the amount of light they are exposed to. The more the better.
The debate on whether to have electricity in your coop is a hot topic. I personally have never had electricity to my coop. I grew up and lived most of my life in the deep South, I used an infrared heat bulb when temperatures dipped into the 20s using an extension cord. In later years I stopped doing this. Now that I’m in the “deep” North, I’m still undecided and go back and forth. See, it’s a matter of preference.
Whether or not you choose to use artificial lighting in your coop be sure you do your research and provide for the safety and welfare of your flock. It’s always a good idea to talk to chicken keepers who are keeping their flock in ways similar to how you want to do it.
Ventilation is of the utmost importance. The more chickens you have in your coop, the more moisture there will be in the air because of their respirations and poop. Chickens have a high respiration rate because they can’t sweat. Instead, they exhale excess moisture.
If there isn’t proper air circulation, the litter will get wet which will result in a buildup of ammonia. The buildup of ammonia in your coop can cause health issues with your birds including ammonia poisoning, damage to their respiratory systems, foot damage, and more.
Ventilation is important even during winter. My coop is ventilated on both ends and the door is covered in hardware wire. This allows for excellent ventilation, especially in the hot summer months. In the winter, I put insulation over the doors to block the cold air, but leave the ventilation in the roof open. Regular window screening does not allow enough air flow which is why I choose hardware wire.
My grandmother’s coop had a dirt floor. My husband built mine to be portable, so it has a wooden floor. Granny’s chickens were free ranged too so cleaning the dirt floor was never an issue for her. If you plan on keeping your birds confined, then a dirt floor is probably not ideal. It’s hard to keep clean and dry. It’s also easy for critters like mice to tunnel in! There’s also the parasite factor. It can be difficult to impossible to remove parasites from the soil.
If you go with a wooden floor, you may want to consider building it off the ground to prevent mice from living underneath and gnawing through. This will also allow your floor to dry from underneath. The drawback, of course, is that wood rots over time especially when exposed to moisture.
For some, I suppose concrete would be an option. Although it is expensive, it would last a long time and you could hose it out. You would probably want to be sure your floor had a slope in it from under the roost toward the door to make cleaning out easier.
I saw a cool idea when visiting a fellow chicken keeper. They had a plywood floor covered in Tyvek. At first, I thought this was kind of a strange idea and wondered about the risk to their birds. When I questioned him, he said it keeps the moisture from the wood, it’s a breeze to clean out, and he had had it for several years without any problems. I did observe that the floor appeared as if no one had been pecking at it. It only seemed to have wear and tear.
The list of what you can make a nest out of is practically endless. Just make the nests at least 10 inches squared. I’ve decided it doesn’t really matter how many nests you have, whichever nest another hen is in, that’s the nest everyone wants. If you just want a number, a good rule of thumb is one nesting box for every four layers.
I get tickled watching them fuss outside of a nest while one hen is laying when there are six other open nests. Some people put curtains on their nests, I don’t do that. My nests are 12×12 and about 14” deep. The hen feels safe and they’re not in the direct sun.
You may have to change the nest litter occasionally if your hens poop in it. While I do freshen them, I find the litter only needs changing once a year and that’s mostly just for my peace of mind.
When I had a snake in the coop, a couple of my hens started laying under the roost. I wasn’t happy about having to reach under the roost to get their eggs. Every day I busted up the makeshift “nest” they formed in the litter. It took me actually catching her in the act, removing her from under the roost, and placing her in the laying box to break her.
Chickens roost. This means they fly up and perch curling their toes around the roosting bar. Because of this, it’s important to add a pole or round the edges of whatever you choose to use for a roost in your chicken coop. If you don’t provide them with a roost, they will fly up into the trees if possible. Their instinct is to do this because they are such sound sleepers.
The roost can be made of anything at least 2 to 3 inches in diameter and set from 2 to 4 feet off the floor. You don’t want to use anything that’s smooth because they’ll lose their grip and slip. We usually use green tree limbs. They’re free and last for years. Remember, your birds poop during the night so don’t place your bars too close together.
In cold weather, your flock will crowd together, but under normal conditions you want to allow 18 to 24 inches per bird on the roost, depending on the size of your breed. Be sure you place litter under your roost to make cleaning out the manure easy. I use straw or hay.
Remember to consider the breed when designing your roost. Some breeds prefer to roost higher than others. The Bantam prefers higher roosts while many of the feather-footed breeds prefer low roosts even one inch off the ground.
Chicken Coop Doors
You’ll want easy access to your coop so include a people-size door. I like the Dutch setup. I can leave the top closed during the day and the bottom open for easy access for my flock. When you want to enter, just open the top door. This makes it easy to check for eggs, clean out the coop, and leaves an open pathway for when I find a mouse or snake in the coop!
If you don’t want the Dutch type door, be sure you have a people door and a chicken door. The people’s door can be shut to minimize drafts and offer extra protection from predators. The smaller door will allow your chickens to get to their nests, get out of the weather, and escape predators. This can be designed any way you want.
If getting up early in the morning to open the coop door isn’t in your plans, you may consider designing it with a timer. Timers open the coop doors automatically but would require some power source. I’ve never used one. I enjoy getting up early and doing the chores, counting heads, and inspecting the flock.
More Chicken Info
We LOVE our chickens and have many other articles to help you raise a healthy flock.
Do you have a coop tip you’d like to share with us? Have a photo of your coop you’d like to share? We’d love to hear your tips and see your photos. Share them in the comments below.
Happy Coop building!