Chickens provide natural, chemical-free bug and weed control for your yard – and they manufacture some of the best natural fertilizer for your garden.
After you’ve checked with your local city or county ordinances and homeowner’s association to be sure you’re allowed to house chickens, it’s a good idea to make your neighbors aware of your new farming endeavor (the promise of free farm-fresh eggs is a nice gesture).
So which comes first – the chicken, or the chicken coop? If you’re going to raise chickens, you’ll need a home for them that stimulates healthy laying conditions and keeps your feathered friends safe and comfortable.
Room to Roam
Chicken coops can be as simple as a floorless wood frame with chicken wire and a roof on top, and as complex as a spacious, multi-story chicken-size mansion that rivals some human homes. Whatever you decide, one of the most important features is making sure the coop has enough space for your chickens to stretch out and move around comfortably.
A general rule of thumb is about 3 to 4 square feet per chicken inside the coop, and about 5 square feet per chicken for a running or exercise area outside of it.
If your chickens will be cooped all winter – chickens aren’t fond of going out on snow-covered surfaces – then allow for 7 to 10 square feet per chicken inside the coop.
Where ample ground space is available, stretch it out. The more room chickens have to roam, the better. If the coop you decide on doesn’t have an extended run already attached to it, you can buy the chicken run portion as an add-on to your coop.
A chicken tractor, which is a movable coop without a floor, is another option. Chicken tractors are typically lightweight and can be easily positioned in various areas of your yard.
Chickens literally have a “pecking order,” which means there will be a top chicken in the coop. Issues like pecking and aggressiveness can be cured with more space, so plan for a coop as generously sized as possible.
The Nest and Roost
Having a secure nesting box with a lid for easy access to the eggs is important. Preferably you’ll want the nesting space to be in a darker area. Nest boxes should be about 1 foot square and should be above the ground floor.
Chickens need a private sleeping space, too. They like to roost in higher areas, an instinct they inherited from their wild cousins, so choose a coop that allows for this. A general guide is about 6 to 10 inches of roosting space per bird. Roosts should be at least 2 feet off the ground, and should be above the nest boxes.
Other considerations include providing a roosting bar and a ramp to the roost from the ground level foraging area.
Safe from Elements, Predators
Make sure you choose a coop that’s sturdy enough to keep any potential predators at bay. A solid wood constructed frame is best, with wire mesh to allow your chickens plenty of fresh airflow. The advantage of wood is that it breathes and moves with the seasons, and is better suited to extreme temperatures because of the natural ventilation it provides.
A waterproof asphalt roof adds protection from outdoor elements, especially rain. Chickens don’t like rain, so be sure there is ample cover for them.
For added protection, consider adding a fence around the coop as well.
Now that you’ve decided on a home for your chickens, consider some of the accessories you might want to go with it.
Food and water are obvious needs, so choosing a durable feeder is important. Suitable options range from plastic hanging feeders to weight-activated treadle feeders made of wood or plastic that deter pests and mice.
Fountains made from galvanized steel work well because they help keep the water cool during warmer months. Heated drinker bases are available so that the water doesn’t freeze during colder weather. Plastic hanging water fountains function well, too.
In addition, consider these accessories to keep your chickens in optimal comfort and health:
- Egg incubators, including some with built-in circulating fans
- Roosting bars
- Egg-collecting baskets and cartons
- Chick brooders to keep the little ones warm
- Nesting boxes
Now that you’ve decided on a coop that will accommodate the number of chickens you wish to raise, it’s time to think about what kind of chickens to get. You’ll find several sources available on the Internet that sell and ship a wide variety of chicken breeds. The prices range from about $2 to $5 for chicks, and about $15 to $25 for young chickens, called pullets, that have just begun to lay eggs.
Ideally, it’s smart to get your chickens when they’re young so that they can grow up together and learn to live amicably as a group. Also, when possible, acquire adult chickens from the same owner so that they’re familiar with each other. When you get adult chickens from different vendors, introduce them to each other slowly, so that they have time to acclimate to one another.
With a little research and mindfulness, you can set up an awesome space and habitat for raising chickens, and you’ll enjoy the benefits that chickens bring.