On Chicken Coops

chicken coop

In my series on raising chickens self sufficiently, I will be offering advice on how you can establish a symbiotic relationship with your flock–where you take good care of them and they take good care of you. I will teach how to minimize your costs and how to take full advantage of the resources chickens provide.

But in all of that, the reality is that a chicken coop is going to be a big, upfront cost for people, so we should probably address coops early on.

chicken coop
Here’s our coop that my husband converted from a shed. Instead of purchasing windows, he saved money by building very simple plexiglass windows. I like that our coop is big enough that I can walk in and visit with the chickens during our long winter months.

There are many options for coops. You can buy them, build them, covert a shed, but you really want to keep in mind five basic things when it comes to coops:

  1. You need to be able to provide shelter from the elements, whether you live in hotter or colder climates.
  2. Your coop needs to be sturdy enough to provide protection from predators. Now, there is no such thing, I think, as a 100 percent predator-proof coop, but you do want to do your very best.
  3. Coops need good ventilation, and we have found, over the years, that we need to adjust our ventilation depending upon the season and the number of chickens we have, so need vents you can open and close.
  4. As a rule of thumb, you want to aim for at least three square feet per chicken in your coop.
  5. You will need to make sure your coop has room for nests and roosts.

Buying a Coop

There are pre-made coops you can purchase online that range a great deal in price. There are coops for as little as $200 and as much as $900. There was even a $100,000 coop I saw once, but it had a crystal chandelier, and you probably don’t need that.

I have seen mixed reviews on the pre-made coops. Some people curse them; some people love them. Just be sure to do your diligent research and read the reviews before you buy any pre-made coop online or from a store.

You can also purchase smaller coops from local builders. Here in Maine, we have Facebook forums dedicated to all things chicken, and people who build coops will list them for sale. The price might be a little higher in some cases, but I have seen some really sturdy-looking coops for sale for $400 to $600.

Building a Coop

If you are handy or know someone who is, you can also simply build a coop. There are free plans online for building chicken coops, such as those listed at this site, at the Backyard Chicken Project.

You can also purchase coop plans for a very reasonable price on Etsy, and I like this idea because a lot of the excellent plans there include reviews, pictures from folks who have built the coops from the plans, and excellent information on the cost of materials.

This coop plan is one of my favorites because the coop seems really sturdy and covers all of the basic elements I think someone needs. The cost for building materials for this one is $700 to $800, but I am convinced it can be done more cheaply. One of the things I am seeing right now is a lot of people trying to help each other out. Get into your state and local farming, chicken, and homesteading Facebook groups. I am seeing people sharing materials and donating extra materials to others. Sometimes, the kindness in humanity is profound to me and gives me so much hope.

Converting a Shed

This is the option we took on our homestead because we wanted a big coop as cheaply as possible. If you convert a shed to a coop, you will need to add a small door for the chickens (at least this is preferable), nest boxes, roosts (which can be built from tree branches), and in an ideal world, windows for extra light. However, I know a lot of people who were not able to add windows and do okay. I think they would be a preference though.

Screen Shot 2020-04-08 at 10.13.52 AM
This is inside our coop. It’s not fancy, but it works very well. We have lots of roosts and six nest boxes for the 20-25 hens we have at any given time. Of course, they all still want to lay eggs in the same nest box.

Other Considerations

Coop Placement

You want to place your coop away from woods and easy access to predators. We have ours close to our house for that reason, but, in the summer, when the windows are open, the chickens are quite loud–even the hens–especially the hens. Ask me sometime about the egg song.

You also want to make sure you place your coop on good ground that is high enough not to be flooded.

Runs and Free Ranging

I will write about about the pros and cons of free ranging in another post, but, at the very least, you will need a run or some kind of fenced area for your chickens. If you plan to let them completely free range, there are risks to your birds and risks related to neighbors.

Food and Water Placement

Some coops are not large enough for food and water to be placed inside the coop. In those cases, you can place the food and water outside in the run. However, if you have a coop large enough, as with our coop/shed, you will have to decide whether or not you place the food inside. We place our food and water inside because, in the winter, our chickens stay in the coop, but if you have a run you can protect in the winter, you may  not need to place food and water inside.

There are pros and cons to keeping the food inside. I like the easy access, but we did have rats in the coop one year and had to trap for several weeks to get them all.

I hope this is helpful enough to get you started. If you have any questions, post it in the comments section. I will do my best to answer questions!

On Preparing Your Backyard Chickens for the Winter

It’s that time of year. The snow finally arrived here in Maine, and our chicky girls are laying fewer eggs. There’s still some molting going on, and the days are getting shorter and shorter. I saw a post on a chicken Facebook site (yes, we have those) that read “Let the freeloading begin.”

I had to giggle. Thinking about our girls as little freeloaders. I mean, they are certainly spoiled and very demanding. I can’t even walk out the front door without them running up and whining for a treat. But they do give us a delicious breakfast every morning, and with all the research about how beneficial eggs are to our diets, I think it’s okay if we have to support our girls a little as they molt and adjust to light changes. They can be little freeloaders if they need to be.

But shorter days and fewer eggs is a good reminder that we have to get our flock ready for the cooler weather, and after making it through our first fall and winter with our girls last year, I think I have some helpful tips from the lessons we learned based on both experience and lots of research online and in books.

It took a little time, but our little Rhode Island Reds finally got brave enough to visit the snow!

1. Handling molting

If your girls are molting, they will lay fewer eggs, so try not to panic if you see egg production drop down suddenly right now. While they molt, it’s a good idea to give them some extra treats for their health. Sunflower seeds are a nice treat and can help their little bodies as they go through the molt. Of course, if yours are like mine and still molting a little even though the snow has arrived, make sure your girls have a warm place to go. I noticed our little girl who molted really hard hangs out in nest box quite a bit. Thankfully, the feathers are finally coming!

2. Thinking about light

You can supplement with light as the days get very short. This will keep your egg production from completely plummeting because chickens do need light to produce eggs. However, I read that you have to be careful with light supplements with young birds. It can lead to laying problems, apparently, if you supplement light when they are too young.

Most of our girls are in their second year now, so my husband just started supplementing with a light that is on a timer in the coop. He has it set to give the girls an extra hour and a half of light each day. The egg production right now is still not nearly what it was this summer with those long, lovely days, but we at least have enough for breakfast every day and a little sharing.

3. Keeping clean, fresh water

When it starts to get really cold, water will freeze, so you really, really have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. That is a great idea. We have an insulated coop, plus the girls put out a lot of heat, so we haven’t had to use a water heater. However, a water heater would work best if you don’t have enough warmth in your coop. And you have to make sure the water is fresh and clean every single day. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.

4. Preventing chicken boredom

Be aware of chicken boredom in the winter months because it’s a real thing and will cause your girls to be mean to each other. Your chickens could get hurt. Our girls go from free ranging everywhere to only having their coop, a run, and some paths my husband shovels. We also have a few girls who do not want to go out when it’s snowy at all. So we have to find ways to get them some space and some things to do.

One thing you can do is just make sure they get as much space as possible in the snow. They really do need to get outside to play, even when it’s cold.My husband was great about shoveling our girls’ run, and we read this year about saving the leaves from your trees this fall in bags and spreading them in the snow for your chickens to walk on and peck around in. This is actually the best tip I can share. It’s genius. It gives a great use for your leaves and will really help your chicky girls. Our girls have loved this so far, and it’s the only we’ve been able to coax some of them out of the coop since they are a little worried about this first snow.

But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. Check out my infographic here for more information.

Just make sure they are healthy treats, and, of course, always keep a balanced diet in mind. But, last winter, we would share fruit and vegetable scraps, and the variety was good. Working on the fruits and veggies also kept the girls busy.

5. Protecting their combs

And, when you let your girls outside to play in the winter, you should keep an eye on their combs. If you have chickens with large combs, it’s a good idea to put some petroleum jelly on them to help keep them safe in the winter cold.

6. Preparing for the deep freeze

Finally, if you haven’t done this already, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to winterize your coop. Just as we work on winterizing our homes here in Maine, it’s important to think about the temperatures for our chickens during the long winter months and what you will do during those long cold nights.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that chickens, depending upon how many you have, do put out some heat all on their own, so you may not have much winterizing to do, depending on how many chickens you have.

You may not need to insulate your coop, but, if you do, make sure your coop has proper ventilation. This is really key. You may think that keeping out the cold is the most important thing, but you also have to keep ventilation in mind. Chickens can get serious respiratory illnesses, and no one wants that.

According to my research, chickens can be okay and temps down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe a little lower, depending upon breed), so I recommend just keeping a thermometer in your coop to allow you to keep an eye on things.

Our coop is insulated, so we only had to heat our coop a couple of times last winter, though some people will argue you don’t have to heat at all. In fact, unless you are really careful, it may be best not to heat. My husband built a cage to go around a small oil heater, so it didn’t put out much heat and was safe for our girls. It just kept temps above 0 degrees during the worst nights of February.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the cooler temps. If you have other tips or advice, please share in the comments section. It would be great to hear your tips as well!

And, remember, stay warm, my chicken friends!