Build a Chicken Coop

Before the bird or the egg, you need the coop.

By Karen Keb

Illustration by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.

Illustration by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.

There’s no denying the benefits of raising chickens: fresh eggs for eating or hatching, droppings for garden fertilizer, farmyard entertainment, of course, and at the end of the line … the stewpot.

But before you place that call to your favorite hatchery, you’ll need to think about housing, because it doesn’t take long for chicks to become chickens. With a little planning and some DIY acumen, you can set yourself up with a low-maintenance coop for the birds. Consider the options:

A pre-fabricated coop delivered to your door: This is the epitome of instant gratification, however, prepare to spend some significant cash. Plus, there will be “some assembly required” on your part. Available from many manufacturers easily found on the Web, these coops range in price and complexity. If you are concerned with aesthetics, and want nothing but the best for your birds, a pre-fab coop is a great way to go.

Re-purposing an existing structure: The most inexpensive option, using something you already have “laying around” will require some ingenuity and perhaps retrofitting. Candidates for conversion include an old barn, shed, grain bin, hog shelter, unused livestock trailer or truck camper shell.

Building with recycled or new materials: You’ll need a plan (see web link at right), but this option provides the most flexibility. If you’re the creative type, you’ll love designing the coop to meet your needs for functionality and aesthetics.

Considerations

Decide on one of two setups: a coop with a fully enclosed, attached run (confined housing), or a coop inside a fenced-in yard where the chickens range freely (open housing). All coops need the basics: protection from predators and extreme weather, nest boxes and roosts.

Build the coop to withstand weather at its worst and to protect your chickens from ground and flying predators. Also, when drawing up the plans, consider the need to clean the coop and accessibility to nest boxes for gathering eggs.

Place the coop in a wide-open space—not under trees, near fenceposts (where birds of prey may perch before nabbing a chicken), or adjacent to heavy brush or woodlands, all of which are predator habitats.

Space

Depending on the breed, minimum space requirements for chickens range from 3 to 4 square feet per bird for open housing, to 7 to 10 square feet per bird for confined housing. Go with the smaller spaces for light breeds, such as Leghorns, Americanas or Hamburgs; larger spaces work for heavy breeds such as Jersey Giants, Orpingtons or Barred Rocks.

Materials

When building your coop, look around the farm for scrap materials. In addition to the usual suspects, such as scrap lumber, plywood, decking and roofing materials, consider the following: wood or vinyl siding (for the exterior), PVC pipes (for framing the structure), vinyl or linoleum flooring (for easy-clean coop floors), and Plexiglas or fiberglass sheeting (for windows, walls or skylights).

Nest Boxes

Hens prefer a dark, protected place to lay their eggs. A good coop design will provide exterior access to the nest boxes to make egg collection easy. Rather than a large “community” box, install multiple, small boxes for your laying hens that turn out cleaner eggs and discourages egg eating.

You can make nest boxes, buy them from a farm supply store, or simply use an old crate or box. Size the boxes according to the breed, but for typical Leghorns, a 12- x 12- x 9-inch will do. The low ceiling provides the cozy cave that hens desire, and it prevents the birds from standing in the nest, fouling it and scratching through the bedding. Bed the boxes with about 2 inches of straw or shavings to prevent eggs from cracking when laid.

Roosts

Birds need a high place to sleep at night, so outfit your coop with a roost or series of roosts. Think “natural” when it comes to roosting material—rounded edges are easier for birds to grip. A sturdy tree branch, an old ladder or broom handle, or a wooden dowel are all suitable materials. File smooth any rough or square edges.

Allow 1 linear foot of roost space per bird. Install roosts starting at 2 feet off the floor with at least a 12-inch vertical and horizontal separation. Due to chicken droppings, do not place roosts over each other or directly over the feed area.

Predator Protection

Seal any of the coop’s unintended openings with ¼-inch hardware cloth; it allows ventilation while excluding the smallest mice. Build the coop to sit off the ground by at least 1 foot; this way, rodents, skunks, raccoons or opossums don’t feel safe to nest in the space below. Rest the coop on concrete or pressure-treated wood blocks.

Fencing

Mesh—woven wire or electric netting, 5 feet high—makes the best poultry fence. Bury 6-foot wire mesh fencing 6 to 12 inches below the ground, bent outward to thwart digging predators. Avoid standard chicken wire. It’s flimsy and won’t hold up against predators or weather.

Karen Keb is editor of The Heirloom Gardener magazine and operates Prairie Turnip Farm in Osage County, Kan.