Home Is Where the Hen House Is

If home is where the heart is, then the coop is where the chicken is.

The coop is definitely one of the most important considerations to make when you decide to get chickens. If they are unable to free range, it must be able to satisfy the ladies’ every need. But what exactly should you do when designing the coop?

  1. Size Does Matter
    Chickens, compared to other livestock, take up a really small amount of space but they still need to be able to walk around and stretch their wings. Most estimates say that a chicken needs 4 square feet in the coop and 10 square feet in the run, per bird. I say, like with men and chocolate bars, bigger is definitely better. By having backyard poultry, you’re probably trying to provide a better life for a hen than they would have in an industrial farming system. Don’t you want them to have all you can offer?

    Chickens need room to move around. They need exercise, especially if you enjoy letting them overindulge in chicken crack (AKA scratch). They should be able to run, jump, hop and dig. A fit hen is a healthy hen. A healthy hen lays healthful eggs. Healthful eggs are just one of the ways you’re getting a return on your investment on the Taj Mahal of chicken coops that you’ve built.

    In addition, the more room you have per hen, the less often you’ll have to clean the coop because the waste is less concentrated. If it gets to yucky even for them in a certain spot (such as under the roosts), they can just walk over to where it is
    slightly less disgusting.

  2. Ventilation
    Chickens poop. A lot. As much as I love every part of my sweet birds, they have some potent shit excrement and extremely sensitive lungs. Without adequate ventilation, their waste can turn into ammonia gas, causing some serious damage to the health of your flock. The solution? Add windows. Those little holes drilled into the side of store bought coops? Puh-lease. Your chickens need fresh air and (if you want eggs) sunshine.

    I will admit, I live in sunny Southern California where freezing weather means 65°F (18°C) and it rains a grand total of four times a year. We don’t really have what most people call “seasons”. But I have read that most chickens are great at handling real freezing temperatures without additional heat so long as they have a draft-free, dry home.  You can create such a chicken haven by properly insulating the whole coop and adding windows above roost level so that any drafts will not be hitting their little bodies directly but moisture will be able to escape.

    In contrast, our summers here last from May to October (yes I am serious, no it is not fun) and routinely pass 100°F (37.8°C). Chickens handle the cold with aplomb…not so much the intense heat. Again, windows allow the heat to escape from an otherwise stuffy coop and, when directed at the hens’ level, what would have been a draft is suddenly a welcoming breeze.

  3. Nest Boxes
    If you’re keeping chickens for egg laying, you’ll need nest boxes. You only need one nest box for approximately every 4 to 5 hens as they’re usually happy to share but fighting might ensue if more than one hen has to lay at a time. This altercation may be marked by the loud and incessant singing of the poetic, graceful, lovely egg song so as to let the world understand the urgency of the situation. Although, you could get lucky and just have both hens pile into the box together and act like the sisters that they should be.

    Because we only have the three hens, we have one nest box but if we were to size up, I would add what is known as a communal nest box, which is twice as long as a standard nest box but has the same depth and height. This would prevent fighting over the “superior” box while allowing the ladies to do their business comfortably.

  4. Bedding
    One of the most overlooked decisions when it comes to the coop is what you’ll put in it (besides chickens…of course)! There are several options to consider:
    • Wood Shavings: This is the standard way most people keep their chickens and very straightforward, with a thin layer of shavings placed over the floor of the coop regularly.
      Pros: Easy to find, compostable and fairly inexpensive to purchase but some are better than others. Pine is ideal. Aspen, although pricy, is quick to compost.
      Cons: Most labor intensive bedding method as it has to be cleaned out and replaced approximately once a week and it can be dusty. Cedar can also irritate the hens’ sensitive lungs and should be avoided.
    • Deep Litter Method: The premise is that if you add a thick layer of carbonaceous bedding material (leaves, shredded paper, wood shavings, etc), it will decompose with the chicken poo and eventually turn into rich, luscious compost. This is especially true if you encourage your hens to scratch in the droppings and turn the compost for you.
      Pros: Coop clean-out occurs only once or twice a year. Bedding waste is minimized and thus can be a very frugal method. If you have a dirt floor, the bedding becomes a home for various insects to move in, resulting in free chicken dinner. Provides something for the hens to scratch and dig in which means that your prized dahlia bed is not the only spot where the hens can flex their inner archeologist muscles.
      Cons: If not properly managed, it can be a bit *ahem* yucky. The bedding can become a home for various insects to move in, resulting in an ongoing parasite problem. Bedding in such great quantities can be expensive. Can lead to moisture and ammonia build up, which could hurt your birds and rot the wood of the coop.
    • Sand: Put a thick layer of sand on the floor of your coop and use a kitty litter scoop to clean up droppings every 1-2 days.
      Pros: Sand is cheap and there is virtually no bedding waste. You only have to top off the sand every few months as opposed to every week when using wood shavings. Droppings dry quickly and become rather unoffensive to deal with. No moisture or ammonia build up as no decay is taking place.
      Cons: You don’t get a large volume of material for your compost pile. You must be able to dedicate a little bit of time regularly to maintain the coop. Probably impractical if you have more than 10 birds. Can get very dusty.

The great thing about a good design is that it should work for you and doesn’t have to be limited to one choice. My hen house, for example, has a foot print of 4 ft by 10 ft, with the coop (4″x4″)  itself being situated above the run (4″x10″). We have two large windows we keep open almost all the time on the sides, open eaves and a dormer at the top. In the coop, I use sand to keep things tidy and a deep litter bedding of leaves (can’t get much cheaper than free!) in the run that I clean out twice a year to use in the garden. We have one nest box in the rear of the coop that we use pine shavings in and the entire front wall is actually a door, making clean up a breeze. My only regret is that the chicken access ramp is in the floor, which the hens despise. Those spoiled ladies truly have the nicest problems.

Molting Mania

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Molting Mania

Fall is officially here: the hens are molting. The yard looks like the aftermath of an epic pillow fight.

It started with Phoebe, who now looks more like a turkey than a chicken due to her losing ALL of her head and neck feathers.

Then Hazel got wind of the idea and is leaving her pretty blonde feathers scattered everywhere. She isn’t looking like a ragamuffin yet but it’s only a matter of time.

Stella, ever the diva, decided she’ll arrive at the molting party fashionably late and will put off her wardrobe change until next month at least. Silly girl.

Chickens, Worms and Permaculture

My gardening days started innocently enough, with flowers and shrubs. Then they morphed into some perverse obsession with compost and soil ecology. Now, I can happily say I’ve (mostly) recovered to the point of caring more about chickens and kohlrabi than the perfect carbon to nitrogen ratio in my compost pile.

Still, a lush, edible garden gets me going and, as such, I’ve come to find a new and improved hobbsession. Permaculture. Permaculture is kind of like the love child of organic gardening and forest ecology. It’s most basic tenets include care of people, care of the earth and sharing the surplus. As a design system, it also embraces having one item fulfill multiple needs.

Enter worms. Healthy plants come from healthy soil. Healthy soil comes from biological activity on the microscopic level (bacteria, fungi) to the macroscopic (insects, worms). Worms and their castings play an integral role in creating nourishing, rich soil by decomposing organic matter, improving water retention and creating pathways for moisture and air to travel through.

Worms also satisfy another permaculture need. Chicken dinner. Yep, worms rank up there as one of the hens’ favorite treats and the mere mention of worms sends the ladies into a wing-flapping frenzy. But why keep the chickens at all if they’re going to eat my amazing dirt-makers?

  1. My hens are first and foremost members of the family. They, like Marley and my brother, are pets.
  2. Eggs. Have you ever had a real free range egg from happy chickens? No? I can assure you, there is no going back to what factory farms pass off as eggs.
  3. Chickens are excellent at pest control. Spiders are no more in my yard. Same with pincher bugs, rollie pollies and most beetles.
  4. No matter what time of day, chickens do two things: breathe and poop. Luckily, poultry manure is considered a top-notch fertilizer.

So can I have my worm and eat it too? Absolutely. Worms, like all other living organisms, are very adept at making more worms. A well managed worm bin will yield both castings for the garden and wiggling protein for the ladies. It’s a win-win. Unless, of course, you’re the worm.

Moral: If you think that there is any possibility that you may have caught either the gardening bug and/or the chicken-keeping craze, go out and get yourself some worms. You will not regret it.