A backyard henhouse for only a dozen or so chickens year-round should be commodious, a minimum of around 5 square feet of floor space per hen, which is much more than a commercial poultryman can afford. My henhouse design, based on what I’ve learned so far by building three coops of my own, differs from the standard designs in a few other ways, which you might find interesting to think about when building your own.
1. Predator Proofing. I would have preferred that my latest chicken coop be built on a concrete footing to make it more or less predator-proof. But pole construction was cheaper and easier. The bottom wall boards are of treated wood for rot resistance, and the wall is sunk into the ground 6 to 12 inches. Cats will not dig that far under to get in, and cats have always been my most troublesome predator—not my own, though, which I train not to bother chickens, but feral cats. I keep the dog tied next to the coop for further insurance.
2. The Size. I knew that for part of the year I would house approximately forty-five to fifty chickens, although there would be less than twenty year-round. Every year we buy six Rhode Island Red chicks and about thirty White Rock broiler chicks, the latter for meat, the former to add to the laying flock. The broilers are butchered when about ten weeks old, and later on I’ll butcher some old hens as they quit laying, so that the flock dwindles to around fifteen through winter. We buy chicks in June so have no need for brooder facilities. (The first few nights I might use a heat bulb on the chicks.) Anyhow, by my own idea of space requirement, a 10 by 20-foot building is more than ample. And it is tall enough so I can walk inside without hitting my head, as I did in the old coop.
3. The Roof. A slanted shed roof is adequate for a chicken coop, though if it pleases you, you can build a gable roof. The coop should face south with ample windows on that side for winter warmth. Ideally, the roof should extend out far enough over the windows to cast shade on the glass to keep out summer’s piercing sun. On a slant roof, that means adding a cowl-like extension on the front.
4. Divided into Two. The coop should be divided into two sections, with a door between, and a door for each section to the outside—three doors altogether. The divsion allows you to raise young chicks on one side separate from the adult hens on the other. Old hens drive young chickens away from the feeder, and so it is best to keep them apart. When the broilers are butchered and the pullets grown, I open the door between the two secitons and let the chickens meld into one flock. The dividing wall is of chicken wire fencing only, so the two groups of chickens have had a long time getting used to each other—growing up across the fence from each other so to speak—and this cuts down on the ferocity with which the older hens establish a pecking order when the two flocks are joined
The division of the coop is handy another way. Occasionally, a chicken will get out when you don’t want it out. Then you can run the inside chickens all to one side, close the between door, open up the other outside door and run the errant hen back in, close the outside door, and then open up the between door again. Without the division there is no way to open an outside door without all the other hens running out. You will find this feature very handy on occasions. You can also use one side in an emergency for other animals. I had a pair of quail in one section last spring. Occasionally I have had a need for a place to put a lamb or a pair of ducks.
5. The Roosts. I do not have catching boards for the manure from roosting hens to drop on. I don’t need one, with all the space in the coop, and the small number of hens. Catching boards for manure are only necessary when you crowd hens into a coop at a ratio of something like one per square foot. My roosts are two 2 x 4s, one in each section, nailed across a corner of each section, hardly 2 feet off the ground and about 12 feet long. With plenty of bedding, the hens scratch the nightly manure deposit under the roosts into the straw, making of the whole a crumbly moist compost that does not stink. Catching boards, on the other hand, collect putrid piles of pure manure where flies can breed and disease infections begin if not cleaned out often.
In a situation like mine, if the bedding gets wet and foul, you either aren’t putting enough down or you have too many chickens for this system. I hardly use two bales of straw per month for bedding. If the coop were as small as customarily built, relative to the number of hens, I’d have to spread more straw than that, so with straw at $2 a bale, eventually my extra space will pay for itself. The compost the chickens make of the bedding is garden-ready for use every June—and the most effective fertilizer I know of.
6. The Floor. I have no floor in the coop other than the dirt nature put there. I strongly advise against floors in chicken coops. Rats and mice get under wood or even concrete unless there is a good, deep footer around the concrete. Rats kill baby chicks. But the rodents will not live in coops without floors because there is no place for them to escape to when a hen takes out after them. My hens eat mice if they can catch them.
If you have to build up the floor above the surrounding ground level to keep it high and dry, I advise dirt rather than gravel. I made the mistake of putting limestone dust gravel in mine, and in summer the chickens scratch through the gravel, which sends clouds of dust into the air. And gravel is not the best material for hens to ruffle their feathers in to protect themselves from lice, either.
7. The Windows. The windows have to open for summer ventilation. Rather than installing elaborate sliding windows and screens, I used old windows I got for next to nothing—most builders have a supply they don’t know what to do with. I made the openings in the wall a little larger than the size of the windows. Then I (actually my son did the work) built a frame on the outside of the wall that these old windows would fit against from the inside, the way a picture fits into its front frame. To hold the window vertically in place, all that is needed is a bit of sill on the bottom and two door knobs from scrap wood at the top. When I want to open the window for ventilation, I turn the knobs at the top and lean the window back about 6 inches. To hold it there, I either nail a board across the studs for the window to lean on, or I attach two pieces of string or light chain between the window and wall. Very little rain can get in with windows tilted open in this fashion.
8. The Nest Boxes. Nest boxes need to be installed, of course, in one of the sections. Five-gallon buckets turned on their sides make nest boxes in a pinch. Nest boxes should be semi-dark inside to discourage hens from examining the eggs too closely and getting a notion to peck one open. We built our nests with slanting tops so the chickens can’t roost on top of the nests, which they otherwise will invariably do. Our nest boxes are a little too open, as you see in the photo. If I run into problems of egg eating, I will drape the fronts of the boxes halfway with pieces of burlap to make it darker in the nest. (Chickens have poor eyesight in the dark.) My nests are too big, too. Ten inches square is enough. I built these bigger as an experiment. It seemed to me that with only twelve to fifteen hens laying, more than three nests was ridiculous, but my hens, which continually remind me of people, all decide to do everything at the same time, including laying eggs. This resulted in two chickens trying to occupy the same space at the same time, which anyone who has taken physics knows is impossible. So I decided this time to build the nests big enough to accomodate two hens. The result? You guessed it. Three hens trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Whether they step on and break more eggs with a bigger nest than a smaller one I don’t know yet.
9. The Waterers and Feed Troughs. You can spend money for a fancy waterer, but I prefer the bottom half of a plastic jug. One or two of these, refilled morning and night, suffice for a small flock. Such waterers are practically imperative for me in winter, since I think it is silly to go to the expense of a heated waterer for so few chickens. The water freezes in my plastic jug, but all I have to do is rap the container sharply on a solid surface and the ice cracks out. Simple and cheap. If the plastic cracks, I make a new container from another jug. For feeding troughs, I have built some out of boards, with a broomstick above the trough, inserted by way of nails driven into each end into holes in the ends of the trough. The broomstick rools over if a chicken tries to roost on it. But mostly, I use two metal troughs I’ve fallen heir to over the years that have wire covers over them. The larger one is handy not only for feeding but to set the container of water inside. Then the chickens can’t spill the water.
My neighbor hangs his feed trough (and waterer) from the ceiling, regulating the height to the size of the chickens—chickens do not like to roost on a swinging perch. Also, as the layer of bedding builds up, you can raise the trough. Mostly though, the reason for a hanging feeder is to keep the hens from scratching bedding into it.
10. The Door. One goes in and out of a henhouse frequently, in most cases needing to close the door afterward. So a door latch is needed that can be worked from inside or out, but still be cheap and uncomplicated. My son built one that answers the requirements. It is a sliding bolt of wood, with a handle that extends on through a slot in the door so it can be worked from either side.
Curing the Egg-Eating Hen
There are various folkways proposed for curing the egg-eating hen, the only foolproof one being to roast her for Sunday dinner. However, the problem is often solvable by other less drastic measures. Some hens, for example, will just quit eating eggs all of a sudden and then maybe start up again four months later. Hens usually get started on their addiction because of a soft-shelled or weak-shelled egg being laid by the sisterhood. As hens scramble in and out of the nest, such eggs break. Pecking at the yolk, the hens learn soon enough that they can break weak eggs easily with their beaks too.
Therefore, to avoid the problem in the first place, it helps if the chickens are getting enough calcium in their diet—through good wholesome grains and greens (alfalfa hay) plus oyster shells or bonemeal. Bonemeal is one of the folk remedies for egg-eating hens. In my experience, it doesn’t cure the addiction, but the increase in shell strength tends to cut down on egg eating or the incidence of broken eggs that leads to egg eating. By the same token, having enough nests so none are crowded with three hens at a time is helpful. And providing fine particles of sand or gravel, which allow the hen to digest her food better (and thereby makes nutrients like calcium more available to her body) is a part of the regimen for curing egg-eaters.
A neighbor says that bedding the nest with torn strips of newspaper will cure egg eating. The newsprint gives the eggs an odor hens dislike, so the theory goes, ruining their appetite. Newsprint often does that to me, so there may be some truth in this.
I haven’t tried the newsprint remedy because I’ve found a couple of other ways that suffice. If hens can range outside, egg eating diminishes rapidly. Instead of standing around in the coop bored to death, the hens can chase flies and scratch for worms and get their minds off their addiction. Or perhaps they balance their diet better and have no urge for an egg.
Penned in the coop, a hen can be discouraged, if not cured, from egg eating by putting curtains (pieces of old burlap bag) over the front of the nests, or otherwise making the nest boxes dark. The explanation given is that hens can’t see well enough in the dark to aim a good shell-cracking peck into a solid egg. But I’m not sure. I think the reason has more to do with psychology. The hen likes a dark, hidden corner for a nest, and it prompts her to act more according to her nature, which is not to eat eggs. And while she likes the darkness for laying eggs, she wants afterward to get back off the nest and out into the light of day quickly. Perhaps instinct still rules in such a situation, and the hen does not linger there so as not to draw the attention of predators to the nest. Or maybe she is a bit afraid of the dark.
A modification of the darkened nest box theory has proved to be my most effective way of curing egg eating. I discovered it by accident. One day I decided to move a 4 by 4-foot piece of plywood that was in the coop—left there from construction days for reasons I don’t rightly recall. I started to carry it out of the coop, but it began raining and I didn’t want to get the plywood wet. So I leaned it “temporarily” against the wall. It will probably stay there forever. What happened is that the hens loved that dark, narrow lean-to. Most of them began laying their eggs behind the plywood and avoided the nest boxes. And for unfathomable reasons, they do not eat these eggs. What’s more, you can’t build a faster, cheaper, or better set of nests than leaning a piece of plywood against a wall. Just tip it back and pick up the eggs.
Lights in the Henhouse
Here’s the history behind this henhouse lighting business. Back when utility companies were stretching elecric lines out into the country, there wasn’t much money in rural electricity. To remedy this situation, the utilities went to all lengths to get farmers to increase the amount of electricity they used. (It took a great deal of social pressure just to get some farmers to “take the electric”—which is another of those facts the speechifiers of wonderful technological progress never mention in their biased histories. There was a whole class of country people who didn’t particularly want electricity.) Since it was known that the egg-laying season in nature is influenced by the amount of available sunlight, wouldn’t egg production increase if the chickens were kept awake longer in the shorter winter days? Agricultural researchers (with money from the utilities) leapt into the breach, and sure enough electric lights did increase egg production… for a while. So what if the hens suffered egg “burn-out”? Get new hens.
So egg production was increased at an increased cost in chickens, in electricity, and in feed because the hens ate more. The increase in egg production (which actually was more the result of up-breeding chickens) only made the price of eggs go down so badly after World War II that farmers sold their small commercial flocks because eggs “don’t pay no more.” Of course not. The poor farmer had been duped into spending his profit on off-farm supplies, including foolish things like lights in his henhouse.
Update - October 2008: What I wrote in Practical Skills still stands. Still using the same coop, even the same feeders. A tree fell on the coop a few years ago in an ice storm and I had to replace some roofing and patch some more. What I would add is that when a “make-do” coop like this gets to be 30 years ago, it develops holes which need to be covered with hardware cloth. Otherwise, as happened, mink or weasels will get in. The boards next to the ground started to decay even though it was treated wood, so I put a row of old concrete blocks all around the bottom of the coop, dug in a little, sort of like a makeshift footer. Keeps raccoons and skunks and possums out, so far. ~Gene
(1985), with update - October 2008