A How-to Article
Link to my three coop pages:
My pond coop. The side walls of the coop are 8 feet tall, plus the eaves and the roof.
The building basics:
If you haven’t yet built your coop, then there are a few design things to think about.
First, the roof line:
Will all of the icy rain be splashing you in the face when you are gathering eggs from the nice exterior access nest boxes?
Will there be a giant snow berm in front of the coop door that you must shovel in order to reach the chickens?
Trust me, don’t forget the snow berms, all of the snow that slides off the roof is going to have to go somewhere. Are you going to have to crawl up and down the berm to enter the coop or the run? Also, exactly where the berm ends up might block doors, block windows, or block vents. The life of the snow berm will be determined by where it is located. If the berm is on the sheltered northern side of the building it might last a full month or more longer than an identically sized berm on the southern side of the building. In addition, when that snow eventually melts, (you know, like in May and June), all of that water will want to run somewhere. Things flood much more easily when the ground is still too frozen to allow the water to seep in. Think that through.
The second version of my chicken coop. Notice that the run gate can no longer be opened. This coop has side walls a full 8 feet tall, and is two full steps above ground level.
Second, your doors and gate:
I see people’s coops, in cold climates, with their doors right at ground level, and they tell me that they don’t mind shoveling the snow away from that door. That boggles my mind. Personally, I think that upteen hours a day of snow shoveling is sufficient. I do not want to do ANYTHING that will increase the amount of snow that I am shoveling. I can hear you saying how I have 5 boys, 5 boys who could be shoveling. Why of course the boys shovel! I don’t shovel, I have boys to shovel. However, even when I combine the angry voice on one hand, and giant bribes on the other hand, there is still only so much shoveling that I can talk them into doing.
Take home message? How about we just set up the coop and run so that no shoveling is required!?!
For the gates into the run, Dutch doors! This is a bit tricky, because you want to make the lower part the correct height. The correct height is how deep the snow pack will be in a slightly higher than normal snow fall year. However, you don’t want the bottom part to be so tall, that you can’t step over it. With a little snow and ice, that bottom part will be immovable, and still a bit of a step. If you end up with a deep snow pack on an average winter, you might want the lower part to be rather large, this might be a problem. (Remember, snow pack is not your snow fall, snow pack is your snow fall that has been mashed down and compressed by walking on it. There is usually a significant difference between the two.) If you are worried about having too tall of a bottom door to step over, them make your Dutch door in three or even four panels. Anything to reduce shoveling! You could also put a log or step on both sides of the bottom Dutch door panel.
The door into the run of my bantam coop. Notice that the 2x4s on the bottom are wedged between T-posts, so that they can be slid out if I want to roll a wheelbarrow into the run. Only the top part opens on hinges.
The coop door can also be set up like a Dutch door, but then crawling into your coop all winter long through only the top section might be a bit trying on the nerves. (My run doors tend to be taller than my coop doors, not as much stooping is required) You can solve that in three different ways. First, elevate the coop. Those stairs might start to disappear mid-winter, but at least you can still open the door without using a shovel. Second, make the door open inward. If this inward facing door is directly at ground level, you might still end up shoveling, since there will be an avalanche of snow when you open the door, that rushes into the coop, which you will have to shovel out before you can close the coop door. The third option is to place the door so that the roof protects it enough from the snow, that even if a giant snow berm forms, you can just climb over it, slide down it, and then enter the coop without shoveling.
When considering whether you want a door that swings inward or outward, the downside to an inward swinging door is that it is less predator proof. A large dog jumping up against the door, might be able to pop it open. Also, if you choose an inward swinging door, make sure it is at a minimum 6 inches above the floor to give room for bedding. (A foot above the floor is probably best)
There are pros and cons to insulation.
For most of us, you probably ended up with a coop that has wind oozing through every single joint. In that case, putting in insulation, and then a second layer of plywood, or other solid surface, will be fantastic, since you will have achieved a draft free coop (which is what we wanted).
If you are a magnificently skilled carpenter, then perhaps your coop is built in such a way, that it is actually wind tight. No drafts, no whistling wind shooting in at the corners. If your coop is built this well, then you have one fantastic coop! In your case, you might still want to put in insulation; simply because it will help keep the heat that your chickens produce, inside the coop, where you want it. If you have a great deal of wind, insulation is even more important, since it will keep the unrelenting wind from pulling away the heat.
OK, now you are thinking, why ever would I NOT want to insulate?
Well, it costs money. The insulation costs money, and the second layer of something to keep the chickens from eating the insulation costs money. That second layer of something can be junk you found lying about.
Junk you can use to cover the insulation:
- Feed sacks, but they only last one to two years
- Road cloth, Typar, looks to last about two years
- Roofing paper, I was worried about the possible toxic stuff on the paper, so painted it after I installed it, I haven’t seen any wear on it, but I tried not to put it in “high traffic” spots.
Junk you can use for insulation:
- Almost anything; hay, crumpled up newspaper, worn out clothes, or layers of junk mail, all of those things and many more can be used as insulation. None of those are anywhere near as good as the stuff you can buy in the stores, but anything would increase the insulation value over nothing (unless it gets wet).
The other giant potential negative about insulation is rodents. Yep, rodents. Rodents will love walls filled with insulation, whether you paid good money for that insulation or used something free. They will turn those walls into seething condos filled with families of rodents that love running out and eating all of your poultry feed.
My first coop I spent quality money on. As part of the money that I spent, we took good quality, brand new hardware cloth and layered the entire bottom of the coop, and about 2 feet up the walls. That hardware cloth has worked. The door is actually tight enough that rodents can’t crawl in there (I can’t say that about my house door). It has worked beautifully, and I highly recommend it. However, it does cost money.
Hardware cloth was put between the framing and the exterior plywood sheets.
None of my other coops were lined with hardware cloth, so none of the other coops are insulated. I have considered, and wanted, to insulate the roof of my chicken shed. However, that costs money, so I haven’t.
Of course, maybe you have carpentry skills, and can make nice tight corners with your plywood, making sure that there are no entrances for rodents. In that case, you probably don’t need any hardware cloth. You might also simply put up small bits of hardware cloth over any areas that you think rodents might find access, that way you wouldn’t have to use as much hardware cloth. Do remember though that rodents can chew holes in wood.
Now the question is, how important is it to insulate, do I have to do it?
Well, I currently have 5 coops that I use for winter. Of the five, only one is insulated. All of the coops are drafty except for the one that is insulated. I also have a great deal of wind.
Remember that poultry come with their own little down coats, and are actually very hardy. How hardy they are, and how comfortable they are at low temperatures, does depend greatly on what kind of poultry we are talking about. Geese are extremely hardy even at very low temperatures. How hardy ducks are depends on which kinds. Fatter, rounder breeds are almost as good as geese, but skinny ducks like runner ducks are not as hardy. Muscovy are not quite as hardy as chickens, but do well. My quail need to be protected from all drafts, and live in a truly draft free cage. My chickens don’t look fazed by the cold until it is in single digits. They are clearly cold at -10F and lower, but still do well with good management. However, different breeds are better at handling the cold than others.
Insulation will keep your temperatures more moderate as well as more stable. This will make it easier for you to introduce young stock to the coops during cold weather. While adult birds handle cold weather well, young stock is more delicate. My insulated coop, even with good ventilation, is always clearly warmer than my other coops.
If you tend to stay in the -20F range and far below, for prolonged periods (instead of just a short dip), you and your chickens (and the less cold hardy poultry) will probably be much happier with some insulation.
The last consideration in regard to whether you want insulation is how highly you value egg production. Light is the biggest factor with regard to egg production during the winter months (or whenever your daylight hours are shortest). However, there are other factors that affect egg production. Some examples are access to food and water, stress due to predation, molting, and the cold. This article from Poultry Science says that “egg production is depressed by low winter temperatures. The drop is more pronounced when the onset of cold weather is sudden or when its duration is prolonged”. You can read the abstract for free, but the article will cost you money.
I know that it sounds stupid, that you would want to have no drafts, and add expensive insulation, and then add great big open vents. But, it isn’t stupid, it is very smart, and will keep your chickens healthy, with LESS illnesses!
Chickens breathe. Every exhale is full of moisture and CO2. Chickens poop. Every poop is full of moisture and ammonia. All of that moisture has to get out of the coop. All of the stale air needs to be replaced with fresh clean air. You need ventilation.
A scientific article about ammonia levels is http://ps.oxfordjournals.org/content/48/1/347.abstract and the quote:
Ammonia is a colorless, highly irritant gas. It is one of the products resulting from bacterial action on nitrogenous substances. It takes place in animal manure and results in a loss of its nitrogen content while producing a gas toxic to animal and humans.
Confinement rearing, reuse of litter and cold weather rearing have led to conditions favoring continued release of ammonia from the manure and litter into the air of the animal environment.
I can hear the people worried about the heat escaping.
Think about it this way, if you are walking outside in the freezing cold, with regular clothes, and a hat, you feel much warmer and better than if you are walking outside with regular clothes and NO hat. That hat holds in a large amount of heat, even though all the rest of your body is being exposed to the open air, and lots of ventilation.
Trust me, lots of fresh air will help your poultry stay healthy.
The side of my chicken shed. Notice the 6.5 inch tall gap all along the top of the exterior wall. The solid wall at the front of the photo is my greenhouse.
OK, well now you are going to say that you will toss them under a tree and be done with it, since that would be cheaper. Uh, no. We want them under a roof to protect them from rain and snow falling directly on them, and we want them to be able to roost in a draft free place.
Now comes the question of what is a draft verses ventilation.
Sit in your coop, and imagine a line going from every opening to every other opening. If your coop isn’t insulated, and isn’t well built, you might be imagining a string going from every board edge to every other board edge, as well as every corner and every join. That can end up being a very large number of strings, a veritable tangled mass. None of those strings should cross over where the birds are sleeping.
How do I, with my poor construction skills, manage a draft free area where the birds perch? I have one set of ducks that get to sleep in a plastic dog kennel, and a second set that sleep in a hay filled wooden box (that someone else built, so is draft free). For one chicken perch I put a large dry erase board on the back wall, for another perch I have a plastic sheet behind it, for a third perch I have it up against the plywood roof, and have two store bought 1x4s on the back wall below the roof. All of the chicken perches have solid poop trays below them. The solid back wall, with the solid poop tray, are very good at keeping the perch area draft free.
The perch in my bantam coop. I screwed a large dry erase board onto the back wall. That dry erase board is solid and blocks drafts. The poop tray blocks drafts from below. The main perch is a 2×4, and the perch I screwed onto the front edge of the poop tray is a 1×4. The birds perch on the wide sides. That window is not open in winter, and is a functional double pane (not fogged).
My quail get a very nice area that is double walled and insulated on two sides, the top and bottom are very solid. The top is actually a poop tray, and so acts as some insulation. There is only a little leaking of air on one short side, and the large front wall is open for 2/3 of its length for the ventilation.
It is best, if at all possible, to keep the water outside (unless the temps are staying at -10F and below, then you will probably want to have food and water inside)
Reasons to keep the water outside of the coop:
- It will keep the bedding drier. Moisture in the bedding will either help the bedding get moldy (which is clearly very bad), or turn the coop floor into an ice block (which is annoying, cold, and slippery).
- Water inside the coop, especially heated water, will increase the humidity in the coop, and higher humidity greatly increases the risk of frostbite.
- The chickens are forced to go outside to drink. This forces them to move more, and have at least some outside time, which will help them stay healthy, and happy.
- Any electric used to keep the water thawed will now be far away from the coop and coop bedding and so greatly reduce fire risk.
The water doesn’t have to be in a sheltered location. However, having the water up against a wind block is nice. Blocking the wind means that the water will not freeze as quickly, and the poultry will be more comfortable when they go out to drink. A wind block can be almost anything, a sheet of plywood, a sheet of plastic, or an old fogged window.
Notice the black water pan up on the shipping pallet and against the bit of ripple plastic that is attached to the fence. The birds in the front are my Muscovy.
I have tried, and broken many different waterers and heated waterers. The only waterer that stands up to my abuse, as well as the abuse of my boys, is a black rubber water pan. You can kick it free of the ground, then jump up and down on the upside down pan until the ice cube pops out. After it is empty, put it right side up and fill it up again. YEAH! They come in many different sizes. I also use the 3 gallon size, which is nice for my large flock of standard hens.
The stock tank de-icer that I use, (Farm Innovators Aluminum Utility DeIcer) and that has NOT broken when I have run it dry is this one. There are some stock tank de-icers that 1. will break if run dry, and that 2. will melt rubber or plastic if set directly on the rubber. This one is safe in both cases. It only runs when it needs to (so you don’t need a separate temperature cube), and when my power goes out, so that it ends up freezing in the middle of a solid block of ice, it CAN thaw itself out. It truly is only a deicer, so it keeps the water from freezing, but doesn’t use up your electricity by making the water warm. If you don’t want to use any water de-icer, I would suggest simply carrying out water two to three times a day.
Sixth, perches and sleeping:
If you have non perching birds, the trick is to make sure that they can sleep in a clean warm spot. So, for quail, ducks, geese, etc., you need a nice wind sheltered location with bedding. Don’t let the bedding get too dirty, since a frozen poop slick isn’t going to offer much warmth. Deep bedding is also helpful, since they can almost bury themselves in the bedding. The bedding, if it goes up the sides of the sleeping area, will also block any drafts.
A nice thick bed of wood chips. Some are piled on the outside of the angled plywood to increase insulation since she is brooding eggs during a very cold fall.
For those poultry that perch, the width of the perch is very important. Bent toes might restrict blood flow, and restricted blood flow will increase the risk of frostbite. It is the combination of flat feet, and full coverage of the feet by the fluffy warm belly feathers, that keeps the feet healthy.
A good wide perch is a perch that allows the bird to have their feet flat, or at least pretty close to flat. I find that 3.5 inches or wider works well for most standard sized chickens. I have used 4x4s, the wide side of a 2×4, and the wide side of a 1×4. 1x4s can be used if you take two 1x4s and put them together in a ‘T’ shape. When put together in the ‘T’ shape then it will not bend or warp. I do find that a 2×4 will sag over time if used in an 8 foot length.
If you have heavy breeds, or very clumsy breeds, you will want to carefully consider how high your perches are, and if the poultry will be tempted to jump down from a great height and land with a thump. The bedding is often harder in the winter because if there is even the slightest moisture in the bedding, it will freeze solid. This means that the landing area will be harder than in the summer. If toes are bruised or broken in the winter time, this will affect the circulation in the feet, and again increase the risk of frostbite.
Have fun with your coop! Even if things don’t end up the way you wanted, or you already built a coop and are now looking at its flaws, don’t despair. Many problems are wonderful opportunities to be creative and make something even better, and maybe even bigger. We all love chicken math!
If you want to see coop examples, links to my coops are here:
Achem. I didn’t mention heat, because I don’t heat.
Heat, in fact any electric, greatly increases the risk of fire in your coop. A coop is a prime tinder box. It is full of dust as well as dry bedding, so it needs very little to start the entire thing blazing.
I do use heat lamps with baby poultry that have no mother to provide heat. So, there are sometimes that I use heat, but I do not use heat in the winter.
If you are worried about your poultry being cold, I would recommend adding insulation and wind blocks. Make sure you don’t block the ventilation.
I think that my poultry are much hardier without any heat, I also have frequent power outages so getting my poultry used to heat would be unwise.