Now, I am not what I would call an expert on chickens, but we’ve been keeping them for a few years now and we love to experiment. That means we’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way here at Haven Homestead. Based on this, here are some ways you can make your chicken coops work for you.
More Chicken Math: Coop and Roost Space
If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ll know that I know that numbers matter, but for me numbers are hard. That is why I love having a community to help me with it. The best resource I’ve found is this article on the Natural Chicken Keeping Blog. Check it out for the numbers and math you’ll need to do before you build your coops.
Keep on reading for some stories and lessons we’ve learned from experience.
The Chicken Tractor Experience
When we first got hens, my husband was greatly enamored with the idea of a chicken tractor. It was a moveable coop, we wouldn’t have to feed the hens as much or build a run, and we wouldn’t have to do any mucking out of anything. They pooped where you put them, and that’s where you left it!
In all, it wasn’t a bad experience. The trouble was that we didn’t give them enough roosts so they roosted in the nesting boxes. If you’ve ever had chickens, you’ll know why this is a bad idea. Chickens poop all night long while they are perched on their roosts. If your hens roost in the nest, that means you have to clean out your nesting boxes every day, hopefully before the hens start laying, or else you have to deal with poop-covered eggs.
Two lessons we learned from our chicken tractor was that:
1. Roosts should be somehow separated from the nesting boxes.
2. You need the right amount of roosting space.
The Free-range Coop Experience
After the tractor, we tried free-ranging. We thought it was much easier than having to move the pen twice a day, and we didn’t have to feed them quite so much. In fact, I once had a pile of chicken feed lay out in the yard for nearly a week before I had to feed them again.
All in all, our free-ranging experience was pretty good, but I can tell you with surety that free-ranging is not for the faint of heart.
First of all, let me premise this with the fact that half of our flock at that time were Americaunas. They are one of the more flight-prone, wild breeds of chicken.
Second, we did what we were supposed to, but the chickens didn’t. Whenever you move chickens to a new coop, you need to keep them cooped up for a while so they get used to it. The idea is that they will remember where to roost and lay their eggs. Our chickens didn’t seem to know that.
At the beginning most of the chickens roosted in the new coop, but almost from the start the Americaunas preferred to roost about 15 feet up in our fir trees. After awhile, we had hens roosting in the trees, under the farm truck, and we even hens roosting on our porch and pooping in our shoes. Not to mention the daily egg hunts were a bit much. I prefer to have egg hunts once a year. On Easter. And I prefer to hide the eggs. That was the end of free-range chickens for me.
We learned that having a dedicated coop with roosts and nesting boxes simplified the whole chicken-keeping, egg-gathering process, and it kept our shoes clean!
The First Coop
Next, we built a dedicated coop and run and talked about building paddocks. We had read some books, heard some podcasts, and talked with some folks about the benefits of having paddocks. We soon decided that paddocks would be our next experiment. Our first coop was four pallets nailed together with some tin roofing screwed on top. It was set right on the ground, and we could move it if we needed to. We kind of used it like a chicken tractor until we built our first paddock. It had no nesting boxes at first, and we just tossed hay into the bottom of it. We had sticks stuck between the pallet boards for their roosts. It worked well to have the roosts on one side and the “nest” on the other, but that coop was not easy to get into.
From this experience, we learned we needed nesting boxes that were easy to access from the outside.
The Second and Third Coops
I don’t know if I can really call these different coops, as they are just the first coop that we changed up and added things to, but I will anyways. We first added nesting boxes that were above the roosts. Then we put the coop up on stilts. We thought it would keep them from pooping in the nesting boxes. It didn’t work like we planned, though.
From that experience, we learned that chickens like to roost high up, and they like to nest low to the ground. (Sure we could have read that in a book, and probably did, but hey, it’s a well-learned lesson that you learn from experience, right?)
The Most Recent Coop Iteration
Again, we still have the pallets nailed together and a tin roof, but it’s been reinforced and raised off the ground. We blocked off the higher nesting boxes and added some that were lower to the ground but were outside of the poop zone. We have, in a word, success.
We even had a broody mama hatch out a chick, and he did very well with our lower nesting boxes.
The Next Coop
The next coop we build will have something like an extra shed roof to help keep the hens out of the rain and snow. Our roosts and nesting boxes are in a good way, but our hens don’t have enough floor space when we’ve got harsh weather. I hope that this is a lesson for you that it’s okay to experiment and change things up when they aren’t working.
In Short ...
• You need a dedicated coop for a lot of reasons.
• Make sure you have enough roost space.
• Don’t put your nesting boxes above your roosts.
• Keep the nesting boxes clean (and out from under the roosts)!
• Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Good luck with your coops, roosts, and nesting boxes. Let us know what works for you!
Stay tuned for more on the following:
Having Dust Baths, Grit and Other Necessities.
Keeping Them Watered
Using Chickens to Till and Fertilize
By Lindsay Hodge