I’m devoting this segment to providing a home for laying birds and any associated roosters… chickens you want to overwinter for the foreseeable future. Again, I am talking from the perspective of someone living in Zone 5B (western Massachusetts), and the needs here. Right now I have 11 hens and one rooster. For your first flock, I’d recommend anywhere from three to 10 hens, especially if you have friends, neighbors or a community center nearby willing to buy extra eggs. If you have more than 5 females, do bring in a male (zoning permitting). I’ve noted elsewhere that my extra hen was actually supposed to be a meat broiler, but she was way too sweet a personality to end up in “freezer camp”.
Be flexible on what you might do. If you have an existing set-up, it is possible in many cases to adapt and go with it.
There is no absolute need to have a coop and run as upscale as this one… I didn’t have anything pre-existing to use, so I went to the Mennonites on this: Food and water are supplied in winter inclement conditions in both the run AND the coop area to the right. The Mennonites do some awesome build and construction!
Chickens are social, so you really DO need at least three. I chose to raise 9 hens largely because I knew I had a market here for the occasional extra dozen or half dozen eggs. I was also interested in investigating behaviors of various winter-hardy heritage breeds.
Before your day old chicks arrive, it is best to have their future home in place. Ask me how I know… my birds spent an extra three weeks they did not need to spend in my basement, waiting for their coop to arrive. It had been stated it would arrive the week of May 26th. It didn’t.
I’m not assigning blame on this, just a note that even if everything seems to be going smoothly, Murphy’s Law takes precedence. I’ll note when it did arrive in June, I was more than pleased with its facilities! So…were they!
You may luck out into an existing hen house on your property – that’s awesome. I did have the option of taking an existing hen house from a neighbor (with her two already-existing chickens) for free if I could provide a way of transporting it to my property. It was a large-ish, semi-barn like structure that needed work, and I’m not exactly sure it would have survived the transport process without collapsing. But, however, if you see a deal like this, consider pros and cons for your specific offer. It really is not necessarily a bad idea… depends. I didn’t do it, but I can see using that facility if it is still available for other farming purposes. If still available, I could see it being used for an adjunct housing for sheep/goats when they are lambing/kidding.
Okay, you decide to buy a brand new coop, either something you see at Tractor Supply, or something that can be made to specific specs a la some of your local very creative Mennonites.
First Rule: Coops don’t hold as many chickens as the brochures say they hold. Are you a camper? Do you prefer tent-camping to RV camping? I have a 5-Man Camping Tent. It holds TWO people. Okay, if we were all short people, it would hold THREE people, because you can lay them in the perpendicular direction. Turns out chicken coops are constructed and sold on the same principle. The coop/run I bought was sold as a 16-18 hen facility, but fortunately I’ve gone camping enough I didn’t believe that!
The roosting spots actually DO hold at least 18 birds (a foot each bird for roosting). 10 chickens would be optimal in there, I have 12 birds, but it helps that they often free range — alas, not in winter where there is nothing to forage. At night in the coop proper, they like to huddle on the roosts, so this works out, and as indicated, I have plenty of roosting platforms. Not so good when the temps are minus 1 F, and I want to keep them inside during the day. Yes, they really do stay warm enough, but they really do need more daytime space. With too little space, they tend to live up to the term, “hen pecked”. And no, they don’t peck on the rooster – he’s quite capable of standing up for himself – but on two or three of the lower ranking hens. Optimally, my coop/run would be best for about 8-10 birds, counting the run.
This coop does come with a covered run, and when it is warm enough that they can be out and about, this is ample space during much of winter. I do have to keep them “cooped up” when the temps are below 10 F or so. This is how I’ve learned that my next coop proper may well be larger, depending on the number of my birds.
Chickens, like (most) humans, are diurnal. For someone who has lived with cats for around forever, this is unique to me. This is actually a helpful feature for these critters. They go to bed when it gets heavily dusk, and are up when the sun begins to peak over the eastern horizon. They just do this, and they gradually adapt as the sun adapts each season. They don’t cotton to “Daylight Savings Time” or other temporal time things us humans have used to pretend to deal with sunlight vagaries.
You CAN get lights to adjust your chicken egg laying cycle, but this year I don’t have this. (WORD here: don’t try to do a laying cycle of all 24 hours a day of light… when I get electric to my coop for next year, I WILL give them a reasonable amount of Night Down Time. Too much can be stressful, even if light does encourage egg laying.)
Features every coop and associated run needs: (Assuming you have Winter, and you are raising hens for their eggs)
- Roosting areas. At night, they like to go and elevate up, probably a predator-avoidance inherited instinct. Even though they may be safe in your locked coop, they wanna get UP. Two or three long wood platforms are adequate, just don’t make them too narrow. I’d say at least three inches wide, plenty of gripping space. The word is a foot of roosting space per chicken. I do have 24 feet for 12 birds, and plus in this regard. In winter, they’ll really cuddle up.
- Clean out pan. When I bought the coop, and was told about the clean out pan, I was like, well, whatever. I did NOT realize what seems like 90% of their pooping actually seems to occur at night while roosting on the roosts. They recommended an optional roosting pan, and I am glad I listened, even if they didn’t tell me why. You pull it out and dump the poo, re-line it with pine chips, and return it so they can fill it up again in no time flat. This coop has wire above the tray – which helps when the hens are learning where to lay NOT to drop their eggs down with their poo. My only problem has been when the temps have not gone above freezing for nearly a month, and thus the pan was built up too high to pull the pan out… and yes, that stuff DOES freeze. I’ve re-named it The Poop Tray. Clean this out about every 10 days when possible – this will vary with number of birds and size of tray.
- Nesting boxes. Mine comes with 6 built in boxes. Most of my hens are smart enough to use them for egg laying. I do have one hen (not sure which one) who wants to lay her egg every time up in the roosting area. (There is wire in my coop that keeps egg sized objects, or hens themselves, from dropping down into the pan.) Otherwise they’re pretty bright about this. You need one nesting box for every 2-3 hens. I’m compliant on that, there are six here for 11 hens, and I hope the weird hen someday gets the memo. (NOTE: she hasn’t done this for a few weeks…)
- Coop itself. This is what really could be larger. This one is great for up to ten birds, especially since they almost always have access to that run (exceptions are those super-cold seriously sub freezing dates). IN this case, the flooring is a wonderful epoxy, which will be a dream to clean out come a true spring. But at any rate, things you NEED to consider:
- Coop Ventilation. Roofline vents are seriously important, especially if you live in a region with major highs and lows of temperature variation. Do It.
- Screened in windows that function. Also for ventilation purposes (and temperature: cooling/warmth). Close in winter, open when the weather permits.
- Bedding. There are various types to use, straw or pine chips tend to be the most common. Pine costs more but is easier to work with (and easier to find, at least around here.) Pile it deep in there in winter, if you live where you have winter – will help them keep warm. There will be a massive floor clean up here early in April.
- Electric (if doing). My electric is not yet in place. NEXT YEAR, I will have electric to my coop. If you live where you get frequent freezing temps, having heated roosting strips, and a source of electric to heat the water the chickens will drink is a blessing. Right now I am bringing them water out once or twice a day, occasionally thrice. Y’don’t wanna be doing this, in this day of Reddy Kilowatt. This will also provide a light that I can modulate (should I choose) for the hens’ diurnal cycles. Do note that winter-hardy birds will deal with most low temperatures a lot better than we otherwise think they can.
- Water. In the warmer times of the year, I have a water hanger in the run with your traditional feed-down system. I’m going to be modifying this but for right now, and if you are just starting out, this works. I want to go to a nipple watering system.
- Water. In winter, I use pans. I bring the water out, toss out old ice, and replenish. I keep this water in the coop proper, so that the water takes longer to freeze. It is definitely warmer in there. This system is undergoing revisions as noted previously.
- Feed: I have two feeding stations, one in the run and one in the coop proper. Both hang from chains I’ve installed from the roof. I also have a place where I hang squares of home-made lard with chicken treats, out in the run.
- Run. The basic run came with the Mennonite set-up It has a roof (essential) and is closed in. I keep the chickens in here and in the coop when the ground is icy/snowy. Also if I am going to be away for a significant amount of hours. I look forward to when I can allow them to free range once the snow is gone. (Predator protection outside of the main body coop and run is a FUTURE post!) I do like the factt this run has a roof — provides protection from the elements as well as those flying predators.
- Oyster shell feed: Hens need calcium. Especially overwintering, you want to supply oyster or egg shells to them. You do want to make sure they don’t think any egg shells you provide them for calcium resemble those eggs that they lay as gifts to you. That way certainly lies trouble!
- Gizzard pebble feed: Here in New England, above the glacial line, there are PLENTY of pebbles for chickens to put into their gizzards for food digestion. That is, of course, when they can get outside and swallow them up at will. I put a grit feeding station into their winter run, and re-fill it when it goes empty. They know what they need…
- Some sort of bin or storage space NEAR your coop and run: For now, I’ll just say that this is where you want to keep most of the chicken supplies and within easy reach. Some medical needs will need to be stored elsewhere, as many medical needs don’t do well with vagaries of temperature, but that’s a future post in this series.
Okay, the ultimate function of a coop for your laying hens is to provide the basic necessities based on your local environment and climate. It also provides security especially at night time (again, like most of us, they’re diurnal animals). It provides a place to lay eggs and nest, and when they’re ready, to go broody without being overpopulated. Feed can be within the coop proper, with supplemental outside in a run, or free-ranged (if and when appropriate). It provides night time roosting space. It needs to be large enough that the chickens don’t typically “hen peck” each other.
It should be easy to clean. Maybe not in the depths of winter…
Mine has an epoxy floor, and that pull-out drawer. In cold climates, it may well be that you don’t do a FULL cleanout during winter, waiting until spring — add a LOT of bedding in such a case. This will keep the coop space warm and, amazingly enough, healthy. I’ll discuss cleanup in a separate post in this series.
Past Posts in this Series:
- Raising Chickens Part I: Intro & Overview
- Raising Chickens Part II: Welcoming Baby Chicks
- Raising Chickens Part III: Trekking to My Chickens in Zone 5 Winter
- Raising Chickens Part IV: My Chicken Run and Coop
- Raising Chickens Part V: The Bin, or Storage at Your Coop
- Raising Chickens Part VI: Feeding Those Layers
- Raising Chickens Part VII: Predation!
- Raising Chickens Part VIII: Is Organic the Way to Go?
- Medical supplies and treatments for your chickens.
- Broody or Not?
- Recommended book, magazine and online sources for chicken learning!
Follow my Homesteading Page for 2019 updates as things happen here! Unfortunately, you won’t get notifications whenever I add a new date/addendum to that, so if you get a notification from the blog itself, do drop in to see. (PS I’d love conversation there, too.)
~ Link Party Links ~