Your chicks are on order and the brooder tub is all set up and ready for them. Now you just need a place to put them when they're ready to move outdoors. You need a chicken coop, a henhouse, a chicken tractor -- but which one? And how big should it be? Can you convert an old shed to a chicken coop?
What Kind of Coop Do You Need?
The type of coop you choose depends on whether the chickens will live full-time in it, have access to an outside run or larger portions of pasture, or whether it will be a movable coop that can be relocated frequently for fresh ground.
So first, decide: do you need a movable chicken tractor or a coop that is going to stay in one place all the time?
How Big Should Your Coop Be?
Next, figure out the amount of space you need for the number of chickens you have. Think about how many chickens you plan to keep on an ongoing basis. You might want to build on the large side, allowing for new baby chicks or more hens added later.
Here's a handy guide:
- If your birds have access to the outdoors, allow 2 to 3 square feet per bird inside the coop. Of course, more is better.
- If your birds will be cooped up (sorry) all winter or all year long, aim for 5 to 10 square feet per chicken.
- If your birds will live in a chicken tractor that moves with them, 5 square feet per chicken is about right.
These are just general guidelines. The bigger the chicken, the more space it needs - so meat birds, in general, require more space than laying hens, and full-grown pullets need more space than baby chicks. Most annoying chicken problems like pecking and aggressiveness can be cured with more space, so plan for as generously-sized a coop as you can fit or afford.
Which Features Does Your Coop Need?
Chicken coops vary from a very simple floorless wooden box with chicken wire surrounding it and a piece of roofing on it to some digs that are more spacious than some human habitats! There are so many options that choosing can seem overwhelming.
If you're in an urban or suburban setting, you may need to consider both security and aesthetics as well as any building or homeowners' association codes. There are many plans for chicken coops that look attractive. Sometimes they have a whimsical design aesthetic.
If you have laying hens, they will need:
- Nest boxes. One nest box or one square foot of community nesting space per 4-5 hens. Make nest boxes at least 2 feet off the ground and about 1-foot square. Milk crates or plastic tubs lined with shavings or straw make fine nest boxes; just attach them to a shelf or to the wall directly.
- Roosts. Most laying chickens like to roost. A good rule of thumb is 6-10 inches of roosting space per bird. Roosts should be at least 2 feet off the ground. Roosts can be as simple as a ladder fastened to the wall at an angle, or twigs attached to the walls of the coop.
You'll also need to make sure your coop has:
- Ventilation, so that gasses from birds' respiration and poop don't build up inside.
- Shade. Chickens love the shade, so a coop and run should include shady spots.
- Dust baths. Areas, where hens can dust bathe, is a nice addition. This can be as simple as a box filled with dirt or sand if there isn't a spot on the floor of the coop. Hens with access to outdoors will find places for their dust baths. In winter, my hens just pick a clean spot somewhere in the coop, usually a corner.
- Predator protection. Make sure that everything from loose dogs to weasels can't get into your coop.
Should You Reuse, Build or Buy?
Do you have a doghouse or shed that can be repurposed into a coop? Don't build a new structure if you don't have to. If you're not a builder, you can search craigslist or other classifieds for potential coop buildings small enough to be moved to your property. A new coat of paint, some ventilation put in (cut holes and cover with chicken wire or install windows), and some nest boxes and roosts inside, and you're in business. One thing to consider is the floor system - a wood floor can rot if you use the deep litter method, so expect more frequent cleanouts. A building without a floor can be put on the earth for the deep litter method, or on a concrete slab.
If you can't find an already-built structure to reuse, consider whether you want to build the coop yourself or buy one premade. For urban homesteaders and hobby farmers with small flocks and aesthetic considerations, buying a premade coop might make sense. For small farmers with a few dozen hens, building a coop is probably a better economic choice.