Much like a brooder, a chicken coop must provide four essential elements for your feathered gals: shelter, warmth, food, and water. And whether you construct your own chicken coop from scratch or purchase one, your coop isn't quite ready until these essentials have been built into it. Once you've worked through the nuts and bolts of your coop, you can consider adding additional amenities to help your flock feel right at home. Regardless of your budget, flock size, or backyard space, there are a few principles that will help guide your coop planning and building:
- Although hens naturally flock together, they also like to stretch their wings.
- Hens are just slightly less vulnerable than their tiny, fluffy brethren. Safety is key.
- Hens need access to fresh grass: forage and bugs keep them healthy.
The size of your chicken coop and whether or not it includes a chicken run are decisions determined entirely by individual circumstances, such as the size of your backyard space, the number of hens in your flock, and your budget. My chicken coop on our rural Vermont farm may look entirely different in size and shape from yours in downtown Cincinnati or in the suburbs of Atlanta. As a general rule of thumb, your coop should be spacious enough for each hen to have about 2 square feet to herself.
Securing your coop
Much like their baby selves, grown chickens are choice prey among the world of predators, so your coop must be secured and closed at night. Most predators seek out their prey at night, dawn, or dusk, making it imperative to close your hens into their coop before sunset and wait, whenever possible, until the sun has risen to let them back out. Unfortunately, foxes and hawks are the great exception to this rule: these animals are highly intelligent and happy to sit back and amend their scheduled strike as needed. Hawks will attack from above, while foxes are land bound and nimble. To combat this, build a secure perimeter for your hens with a four foot high (or taller) fence and provide "cover" in the form of trees, bushes, or a manmade structure so that they can hide from swooping hawks.
Adding a chicken run
The fear of predators is enough to make any chicken owner want to keep their birds safely inside all day, but it's important to remember that hens need space to walk, scratch, peck, and display their natural behaviors and instincts. When denied this space to roam, they'll inevitably become stressed, peck at each other, lay eggs with muted yellow yolks from lack of bugs and plants, and be generally miserable. If your space isn't conducive to free roaming, I highly recommend attaching a large, fenced in run to their coop. This gives them the space they need to walk about and scratch in the dirt. The key is to place this combination coop and run on fresh lawn every few weeks, and this is important for two reasons: so the hens always have access to fresh “pasture” and also so they do not destroy or burn out a single portion of your backyard. If you're unable to move their coop and run periodically, be sure to provide them with fresh forage in the form of veggies, fruits, or other supplements.
Protecting your land
Chickens' natural scratching and pecking behaviors can and will destroy a small vegetable or flower garden, backyard, or any delicate landscaping. If you're able to let your flock wander free in the backyard, consider fencing them out of the gardens and putting barriers up around small young plants. There are countless benefits of allowing your hens to roam free: they'll rid your backyard of ticks, mosquitoes, and other pests; lay nutritious, flavorful eggs with dark golden-orange yolks; and provide fertilizer in the form of chicken feces, obviating the need for you to purchase chemicals or sprays that could harm your local ecosystem.
The inside of your chicken coop should have an 18-inch perching space for each bird. Hens love to perch; sitting safely above the ground is instinctual for them. Their perch need not be anything too fancy or even purchased, and can easily be fashioned out of saplings or long, thin tree branches fastened to the coop with rope or nails. Perches should be about 1-2 inches thick so that the hens can rest comfortably on them.
Build or buy?
If you're handy or have any desire to be, building your own coop from scratch is worth the endeavor. There are many simple, A-frame style plans available online that can yield a much cheaper and more personalized chicken coop. Following a building plan is a great way to accomodate your exact flock size, the needs of your property, the best location for the door, and more. Of course, there is always an opportunity to buy an already built coop: you can purchase them with built-in runs, rooftop gardens, and every amenity your chickens could not even think to want.
Once your chickens have settled into their coop, you'll need to tend to them as they grow. Read on to learn how to care for your flock.
A note from Pete & Gerry's: For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.