First let me show you our setup before I discuss other options. I’m sure I’ve shared before, but this is what our chicken coop looks like.
It’s a rather large coop because we originally had 40+ chickens we housed in there. There is a ramp on the left-hand side that comes out of the coop and gives them access to the open area underneath the coop (it’s like a maze!). There is a flap door which is propped open in the picture that allows the chickens to come outside into a fenced-in area. That door is easily closed up at night and we use a shepherd’s hook to lock it against predators.
The coop ramp flows into an enclosed run. This is nice as it gives the chickens more room to roam during the cold winter months.
It was originally built with just chicken-wire sides, but we were able to snag a dozen storm windows for free a couple of years ago and Papa indicated that it might someday become a combination chicken-run / greenhouse for Mama, but so far it’s just for the chickens. The structure comes complete with our lovely “hick-town” tarp roof and a storm door on top. The storm door helps hold the tarps down, but also keep critters like racoons from trying to tear off the top (although we do have chicken wire underneath the tarps). Some day maybe this will have a proper roof. Pardon all the spider webs you see inside … the chickens haven’t done their spring cleaning yet!
There is a little side door to the coop for easy access to the interior. We also have a nice “barn door” on the backside of the chicken run that allows us to actually walk inside … for refilling food and water and for cleaning. (I didn’t want to walk closer as it’s it really muddy on this north side of the structure!)
I certainly wouldn’t recommend someone start off with this size structure for their first coop! Our structure(s) have been a work-in-progress for the last three years – and we knew that we would be keeping chickens for a long time. To start off, I would look for a small option to house your chickens.
Unless you’re able to use an existing structure, the coop will be the biggest start-up expense. Limiting the size will keep the costs down.
If you have limited space to keep your chickens and/or you don’t want to kill the grass in your yard, your best option may be to have a combined coop and tractor. A tractor is just an enclosed run that is portable. It needs to be large enough to let your chickens move around – and maybe even fly (if it’s high enough), but small enough that it can be moved around easily.
Moving it means that the chickens will have access to new bugs and grass – thus not killing the grass in one place. Using a tractor is a safer alternative to letting them free-range since larger predators won’t be able to get to them. A problem we had a couple of springs ago :-(.
Tractors can also vary in style and design. I’ve seen many that are triangular shaped – giving them larger access to the ground area. There are as many different styles and designs of coops as there are breeds of chickens. Just take an afternoon and peruse all the different varieties on Backyard Chickens. I especially like this “kirk” (church) design. If you’re handy, you can come up with your own designs and plans. If you’re only semi-handy, there are many coop designs you can purchase, including several at My Pet Chicken. Otherwise, people have used existing garden sheds and child’s playhouses to house their chickens. Let your imagination run wild!
Here are some things to keep in mind when designing a coop:
- The minimum size recommended for chicken coops is 4 square feet per bird, and 10 square feet per bird in the run. More space is better, but they’ll do fine in these conditions.
- You will want at least one nesting box for every 4-5 birds. The nesting box should be a couple of inches off the floor, but not too high.
- You should have roosting poles that are approximately 1-2″ wide with rounded corners. These should be higher off the floor than the nesting boxes. How many roosting poles you need will depend on how long they are and how many hens you have. Hens will cuddle together on the poles to keep each other warm, but they still need to be able to fit on the poles comfortably.
- If there are predators (especially raccoons) in the area, you may want to have a door leading from the run/tractor into the coop that has a lock so you can tightly shut in your girls each night.
Since our coop is rather large, Papa came up with the great idea to have a small pull-down door right next to the nesting boxes to make it easier to collect the eggs. Well, that is if the hens always lay their eggs in the nests. You still need to look around to make sure they didn’t make a deposit somewhere else.
- If you live in a climate such as we have in Wisconsin where the temperatures vary by 100°F or more each year, you want to keep that in mind with your design. There are cold-hardy breeds of chickens that handle the cold well, but we had such an extreme winter this year (temps well below -20°F for several days) that I was glad we had an insulated coop. Chickens can get frostbite on their combs rather easily.
- Keeping the coop as small as possible will also help the hens keep each other warm, but you don’t want it so small they can’t move around – or to make it difficult for cleaning.
- In the summer time, you may want a way to let air into the coop so it doesn’t get too hot as chickens can suffer heat stroke if they are unable to cool off. Just be sure that any method you use for opening up the coop doesn’t cause drafts in the winter time.
Some other helpful tips to keep in mind:
I would highly recommend making sure the bottom of the tractor is lined with chicken wire. The chickens will be able to walk on it freely and still have access to the bounty on the ground below, but the chicken wire will offer some protection to predators who either live in the ground or to sneaky little critters that know how to get around preventative measures.
It would also be a good idea to give the tractor area has some sort of roof. Not only will this help keep snow out of the run so they have a little room to move in the winter time, but it also will help shade them in the summer time.
If you have a coop already, I would love to see some additional designs and ideas!