Sunday, March 16, 2014

Building a Chicken Coop

We built a coop in Summer 2012 for a small flock of 5 hens. It was our first time raising chickens, so we learned a lot along the way. Here's an overview of the design and construction of our coop and food and watering systems.

We had built a shed in 2009 (actually, other people mostly built it, as part of a compressed earth block building workshop); the shed had a deep portale off the back (east) side where we planned to put the enclosed/covered part of the chicken coop.

Shed construction, 2009.
The henhouse was built almost entirely from recycled materials from our home's construction, as well as some old aqua-colored posts from a friend's porch. We only had to purchase the chicken wire and some roofing material for the extra run space.

The laying boxes were easily constructed with recycled bits and pieces from building our house.
The aqua-painted posts were recycled from a friend's porch. The
 area under the east-facing portale is shady, but the extra run space
(covered by the clear plastic) gets a lot of good sun. The tank in the back is for
 collecting rainwater off the shed roof. It's not the prettiest coop, I admit. Our
 building style is more "function" than "form."
The coop door. The chicken wire skirt (under all those rocks)
extends about a foot out from the coop all around to protect from
digging predators.
Looking into the henhouse. The lower door accesses the food and
water; the upper door allows access to the nesting boxes.
The chicken coop was a little small, and we don't have a yard through which the birds could safely roam free. Although this was a badly-planned afterthought, we decided to build a tunnel so the birds could get to the enclosed garden area. We figured we'd let them have open access to the vegetable garden during the off-season, but we would close the tube off during the growing season. We called this the "chube."

The Chube between the chicken coop and vegetable garden.
The chickens had a ladder to get to the Chube. However, they could not be enticed to use it; they were afraid, I guess. We even tried putting food across to get them to try it.

Crabapples as enticement on the Chube.
In the end, the birds never took the Chube, so we dismantled it. It was also just the wrong height overhead and we kept walking into it. We tried to give the birds more space to spread out...but they didn't take it.

For frivolousness and airflow in the henhouse, Aaron cut out a chicken-shaped ventilation hole with a jigsaw.

We picked up 6-week-old birds in March, 2012: two Rhode Island Reds, two Americaunas, and one black Australorp.

The 6-week-old hens checking out their home.
We believed our chicken coop to be bombproof. It was not, however, coyote-proof. On the third day of living with us, an animal broke into the coop and killed those five adorable hens. We're not sure whether it was a dog or a coyote, because there were paw-prints of both all around the coop (our neighborhood has dogs that run around in packs with free reign). The animal was able to tear back a piece of chicken wire near the coop door and get inside. Although the animals tried digging, they could not get in that way because of the chicken-wire skirt all around the coop, so at least that part worked.

Before getting a new batch of chickens, we reinforced the coop so that there was also stronger fencing around the whole bottom section. We also made sure there wasn't just chicken wire tacked on to framing; we doubled up the framing to make a sandwich: wood, chicken wire, wood.

Compare this to the earlier picture of the door; we've added thicker-gauge
wire down low. On the far right you can see how we sandwiched chicken
 wire between two pieces of wood so an animal can't peel back the chicken
 wire easily. The right side of the door is where the animal got in and killed
 the chickens before these reinforcements.
Before getting any more chickens, we "tested" the coop by hanging a piece of cheese in there to see if any animals could break in and get it.

The cheese test for coop security.
Nothing got in, and we got five more hens, all Rhode Island Reds. These girls fared much better than the first: no animals have broken into the stronger, reinforced coop.

A young hen from the second batch of chickens.
A few final details about the coop: we ran power to the henhouse in a totally jury-rigged system of extension cords through a PVC pipe, as seen behind the young chicken posing in the picture below:

Electrical power runs through an extension cord in PVC pipe
behind these girls. Without the PVC, critters and the hens
will chew on the extension cord. Not that this is a great
system, either. At some point maybe we will get an electrical
line buried.
The chickens get food through a simple slump feeder constructed out of a empty kitty litter container with a tray below:
The feeder was easily constructed by attaching a kitty litter bin
 with holes cut in the bottom to a plastic tray. Although it's not shown
 here, the feeder is usually suspended from the ceiling at the right height
 for feeding, which keeps little rodents from accessing the feeder.
After about a week of dealing with open water systems that the birds pooped in and otherwise got filthy, we went with the Avian Aqua Miser nipple on a 2-gallon bucket. It is a GREAT system. I cannot think of a better way to do it.

The Avian Aqua Miser nipple on a 2-gallon bucket.
The power cable seen on the roof of the henhouse in the picture above is used to power a small submersible fish tank heater, of which you can see the cable dropping into the water bucket through a hole in the top. The heater turns on when the temperature drops below freezing.

Those are our systems for keeping the chickens safe, and feeding and watering them. For litter, we do the "deep litter method" because it best suits our busy life, but we do feel somewhat guilty about it. We may not have enough humidity where we live for the straw to adequately degrade in place. However, we find that it doesn't really smell and it's convenient for composting the straw every 6 months.

The compost heap with freshly added straw from the coop.
An old batch of well-composted chicken poop straw.