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Getting Started With Chickens: Planning Your Chicken Housing

My coop- it's still a work in progress, those are gutters on the ground.  I'd also like something to make it prettier on this side.
So you've decided you want to keep chickens.  What next?

The next thing you need to do is make sure that you are allowed to have chickens, and if so, are there any limitations to the number you can keep or to where you can build your coop?  For example, I live 6 miles from town, so you would think that I could do whatever the heck I want.  However, here in MN we have townships, and townships have rules.  So (until I appeal, which I plan to...) we're limited to 30 chickens.  Updated to add- just in case you're interested, I found out that due to an exemption linked to loss of acreage during some road construction back in the day, we are entitled to 2 animal units... that's between 200 and 400 chickens, depending on waste disposal and type of chicken... heck yeah!)

Once you've confirmed that you are allowed to keep chickens, the next thing you should do is at least START to think about housing.  Think about what you have available already that could be re-purposed- an unused dog run or an old shed would both be great starts.  Your coop and run options are only limited by your imagination, though.  People have built coops out of old tree houses, wooden pallets, defunct vehicles, childrens playhouses, wooden shipping crates...  Here are some creative coops to get your creative juices flowing:

Maurice the Car Coop

The Chicken Ranch- A Playschool Coop

The Chicken Hole

Pallet Coop

Camper Shell/Truck topper Coop

Camper Coop

School Bus Coop

And in case you have an extra Bale Feeder Laying around...
Enrichments in my chicken run- what can I say, I was bored one day and decided to decorate:)

My broiler tractor- it's not pretty, but it does the job!
You could also copy my chicken tractor (not claiming creativity here, I copied the idea)- I took an old metal swing set, two 4x4 treated fence posts, two 8 foot 2x4's, and a bunch of hardware cloth and zip ties.  I built a frame that fit the bottom of the swing set, with the treated fence posts as the ground contact portion, then duct taped (yes, duct taped) the frame to the base of the swing set so it would slide.  Then I covered the entire thing with hardware cloth that I wired and zip tied together.  The "gate" is a piece of leftover welded wire that is cut off and hooked on one side, so I can hook it closed (it's a pain in the ____, feel free to do a better job if you want).  I also put an apron around the bottom of chicken wire to prevent digging.  I covered half of the structure with 2 cheap tarps for rain protection and shade, secured with bungee cords, and also gave them a plastic doghouse for further protection and a place to sleep.  It took me about a day to build.  It's sufficient for about 20 meaties in any climate (raised in spring and/or fall) or 4-6 layers in a mild climate.

Not terribly creative?  Me neither.  I was lucky to have a shed just the right size for my chickens that only needed a few modifications.  If you don't already have a shed or doghouse on your property that can be re-purposed or the creative drive to create something like I listed above (or the materials to copy them!) you still have a lot of options.  Here are a few:
  • Buy a kit to build a coop and run- these are expensive and are limited in size, but if you want something fast and (relatively) easy and only plan on a small flock, this may be the way to go.
  • Buy plans online- plans are cheap, $20 and up, and there are even free ones available.  Then you can decide how much to spend on the materials, or take a little more time and look for cheaper recycled materials.
  • Buy a shed and convert it- this can be cheaper and faster as most of the construction is done, depending on where you get your shed (look at Craigslist if you have a way to haul a shed).
  • For a small flock (like 4 hens) a large doghouse with an added roost would be sufficient- you could build outdoor nest boxes if you live in a mild climate.
But what exactly do the chickens need in their new home?  Here are the things to consider when planning, designing, and building:
  • VENTILATION!  Chickens need a lot of it, around 1 square foot of ventilation per chicken, even in the coldest of climates.  The best ventilation is in the roof or at the top of the walls, so that it doesn't cause drafts where the chickens nest and roost.  Make sure all ventilation is covered well with heavy duty hardware cloth to keep out predators.
  • Light.  Chickens need light for their health, and it encourages laying.  While artificial light helps, natural is best.  Windows also provide an added source of ventilation and heat in the winter.
  • Security- keeps predators out at night.  All openings should be screened or covered with hardware cloth.
  • Space- Chickens need a MINIMUM of 4 square feet per chicken of indoor space, but if you have harsh winters especially, more is better.  Remember, this only applies to floor space they can use, so anything that takes up space on the floor cuts down on this space.  Cornish Cross meat chickens only need 2 square feet of space AS LONG AS it's in a tractor- they aren't as active, but they poop a LOT, so if not in a tractor more space will lessen your cleaning burden.
  • Roosts- chickens need roosting poles.  I have 2x4's with rounded edges hung in my coop.  For cold climates, put the 4 inch side up (it helps them keep their toes warm at night), otherwise you can put the 2 inch side up.  Roosts should be higher than the nest boxes and about 18 inches apart for standard sized chickens (and 12 inches from the wall).  They need about 10 inches per chicken of roost space, but as with space a little extra doesn't hurt.  I also have a temporary roost, a 2x4 with the 2 inch side up and mounted only about 6 inches from the floor (actually, from the top of the wood chips...) for them while they're young.  You don't need roosts for Cornish Cross meat chickens, as they're too heavy (and dumb) too roost.
  • Nest boxes- this is where they will lay their eggs.  In their simplest form, nest boxes are simply an enclosed place for chickens to go to lay and to potentially hatch eggs.  People use buckets, storage tubs, milk crates, covered cat litter boxes, or wooden boxes.  A traditional nest box is a series of 12x12 or 12x16 wooden boxes with a slanted top (so they don't roost on it).  Each box has a lip in the front to keep bedding material and eggs from falling out, and be in the darkest area of the coop.  You need one nest box per 3-4 chickens.  You don't need nest boxes for meat chickens.
  • Pop door or other way for the chickens to get in and out.
  • Person access- keep cleaning in mind when planning this.  You want to be able to get a wheel barrel into or right up to the coop.  But don't be intimidated by the prospect of building a gate for your run- I built mine in 1 hour... although it took me two to hang it, not because of any shortcomings of the gate, but because one of my gate posts was put in crooked.  But even then I made it work!  Send me an email or leave me a comment if you want pictures and instructions on making an easy gate.
  • Weather considerations.  If you live in the South, where you you extreme heat and mild winters, you could build an open air combined coop/run- it's basically a chicken run with all or part of two sides enclosed (by plywood or whatever) and part of the roof covered for rain cover.  This is most appropriate in mild climates that don't get a lot of wind or slanty rain.  Similarly in mild climates, if you do choose to build an actual coop (which I would), one or two entire sides could be screened windows that could be closed by shutters or the like during cooler weather.  If, on the other hand, you live in the frigid North (like me), you may want an insulated coop with heat sources.  Just make sure that you don't skimp on ventilation in the North- they need it, even in the winter!  But it would be wise to make any vents close-able, so that if the wind is blowing from one particular direction that side of the coop can be closed.
  • Build a run or free range?  This is a personal decision based on your location, circumstances, and feelings.  I LOVE the idea of free ranging, but I live at the intersection of two highways in a relatively populated rural area (we have neighbors on pretty much all sides, despite our rural locale), with lots of dogs (including ours) that run free as well as hawks and raccoons.  And I am a basket case.  I worry, a LOT.  But I want my chickens to be able to be outside all day.  So I built a super secure and large yard for my chickens.  However, there are predators in pretty much every area of the country, but lots of people free range their chickens during the day (enclosing them at night, when predators are most active) with minimal losses.  Based only on reading it seems that one of the biggest keys to free ranging successfully is breed choice- you want to keep breeds that are hardy and clever, so they know when to hide from predators.  Geese and large roosters are also helpful at deterring some predators.
Once you at least have an idea of what you are going to house your chickens in, you can start thinking about what kind of chickens you are going to get, how many you're going to get, and where you're going to get them.  Here's a hint, though- have a general idea of what you need to do and how long it may take you.  If you're building a coop from scratch, for example, and have limited construction experience it may take you months to finish, so you may want to wait to order chicks.  Be realistic.

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