While I had admired my sister's chickens and considered having backyard chickens of my own for years, I never had a good idea as to where in our yard might work for a coop. Then last November, as my husband and I were covering our fenced garden area with black plastic for the winter, I suddenly envisioned a chicken coop in that space, with the fenced garden area turned into a run.
I talked with my family about the idea. My daughter immediately said "Yes!!!" to chickens, and I desperately needed some distraction from goings on in the wider world... and what could be more positive than chickens?
Starting my chicken research, I read 3 books about chickens, the most helpful being Harvey Ussery's book (https://www.amazon.com/Small-Scale-...282&sr=8-1&keywords=small+scale+poultry+flock), which led me to decide on deep litter with an earth floor in the coop. After settling on what breeds/how many/straight run versus sexed, I placed my chick order, with a delightful but also somewhat unsettling sense of venturing into the unknown.
Discovering BYC, I happily continued reading. I drew up coop plans and repeatedly revised them, considering a "dueling gardens" idea for a bit. We ended up using the whole garden space for the coop and run, and got a community garden plot nearby, in order to maximize space for the birds.
After finding a reference to open-air coops on BYC (https://www.backyardchickens.com/threads/woods-style-house-in-the-winter.445004/), I read Prince's book on the topic (https://www.amazon.com/Fresh-Air-Poultry-Houses-Open-Front-Healthier/dp/097217706X). I was intrigued by the concept that chickens need fresh air more than they need a warm coop, and that built-up humidity in a heated coop is more likely to result in frostbite than simply having things open to the outside and allowing the chickens to acclimate to colder temperatures.
Based on the layout of the garden space, which was around 20 feet east to west and 12 feet north to south, I decided on an east-west orientation for the coop, with dimensions 12 feet by 7 feet. Our prevailing winds are from the west, so I planned an open east end, with large windows on the south side for light and warmth, which could be opened for increased ventilation in hot weather. The roosts would be in the west end of the coop, protected from drafts.
With the generous help of my husband, we began our construction with a treated-wood foundation, with a 6x6 bottom layer laid on gravel and secured by pounding in rebar, topped by three layers of 4x4 timbers, anchored with Timberlok screws.
For the sake of versatility, I decided to divide the inside of the coop with hardware cloth walls and a removable door. I created a smaller section, consisting of around 1/4 of the total area. This way, I could brood chicks in the smaller section, seclude an injured chicken within sight of the flock, or put cockerels without food for a day before harvesting them. There is a pop door on the west wall in the smaller section, so we could let the chickens out from there directly into the run if needed.
Using 2x4 lumber, we built the wall frames on our driveway and then screwed them to the foundational timbers.
We built rafters from 2x6 lumber, spaced every 2 feet and supported by the front and back walls.
In order to close the space between the rafters, we cut and installed pieces of wood to fit flush with the walls. Then starting with the roof, we enclosed the structure. We topped the rafters with plywood sheathing followed by a layer of Ice Guard and then metal roofing. For the north, west and south walls, we installed T1-11 paneling, which we painted with a latex-based stain. There is no insulation, as this is an open-air coop.
On the south wall we installed two inexpensive slider windows, each 3 feet by 4 feet. At some point we may install hardware cloth in lieu of the flimsy screens they came with, but so far it hasn't been necessary.
We covered the east end with hardware cloth and installed a screen door we made mostly from 2x2s, also covered with hardware cloth. We built and installed a hardware-cloth-covered pop door as well.
Because we want our chooks to be able to get out in the winter (without our having to shovel for them!) we decided to cover a large portion of the run. As we live in a relatively cool climate and there are nearby buildings that provide shade for a fair amount of the day, we opted for clear polycarbonate roof paneling so the chickens could enjoy as much sunshine as possible. This also allows the morning sun to flood the coop from the east. We built the structure out of 4x4s and 2x4s, with the east end supported by 4x4 posts set on concrete deck post bases.
I learned that the only likely predators where I live in town are dogs and cats (and possibly birds of prey), so it was necessary to protect the whole run from these predators, which are as likely to cause trouble in the day as at night. In particular we needed to protect the run from our adult dog, who likes to dig and loves to chase any critter that runs away from her. Our existing garden fence was chain link with plastic slats on north and west sides and cattle panel on the east and south sides. In order to keep the chickens in the run, we installed chicken wire to cover all the cattle panel (using zip ties, primarily). To keep our beloved pooch from digging along the portion of the fence that is adjacent to our yard, we installed (in an L-shape) 1/2-inch hardware cloth from the lower part of the hog panel out over the grass (using zip ties on the hog panel and garden staples on the grass). Prior to this we had moved the gate to a more convenient spot and extended the gate upward (with cedar 1x4s), with a frame built around the top of the gate. We had buried a 4x6 treated timber below the gate to prevent digging, and we extended hardware cloth out from this as well (using 1 inch long crown staples to attach the hardware cloth to the 4x6; we also had used crown staples to attach hardware cloth for the interior dividing wall and for the east wall of the coop). We covered the gate (which has hog paneling in the lower portion) with chicken wire. The hog paneling, which runs the entire length of the fence that our dog can approach, is certainly sturdy enough to keep her out. And the chicken wire has small enough spacing to keep the chickens in.
Before allowing the chicks to roam outside the coop, we installed wild bird netting running from the top of the fence (and from the frame around the gate) up to the roof line all around the coop, serving the double purpose of keeping our more adventurous flyers in and keeping wild birds out. Birds of prey are likely to be deterred by the netting, which runs nearly vertically in the relatively small space between the fence and the roof line. In the following picture, you can see the netting, which was attached to hooks along the roof line and with zip ties along the fence (and crown staples on the gate frame). As a finishing touch we added trim around the windows and at the west corners.
We had begun construction (thanks to a very mild March) a few weeks before our chicks arrived, and while they were brooding in the garage we were hard at work on the coop as the weather and our schedules allowed. By the time the chicks were 3 1/2 weeks old (in the below photograph), they were absolutely ready for more space than permitted in their 10-square-foot brooder in the garage.
We moved them initially to the smaller portion of the coop, an area around 21 square feet, big enough to feel roomy to them at that point but not so big they'd get lost. We did finishing touches on the larger side of the coop while the chicks enjoyed their new space.
A week later, the chicks seemed ready to start using the whole coop. While they enjoyed their roomy new digs (84 square feet), we worked on building the covered portion of the run, moving the run gate and predator-proofing the run.
Before long, we finished our work enough that the chicks could explore their run (which is approximately 170 square feet). We have left the pop door open continuously. The chicks had already demonstrated inside the coop that they would go to roost as dusk approached, and they have reliably "put themselves to bed" since then. One advantage of predator-proofing the entire run, rather than the coop, is that our chickens enjoy more freedom. They are out foraging in their run at first light (and so have no need to make a racket to be let out) and they have chosen to be out in weather that surprised us, happily pecking and scratching under the covered portion of the run on a blustery, rainy, cold day. They also seem to enjoy roaming the area that extends around all four sides the coop (this seems less boring for them than if the run simply extended out from one side of the coop). Most of the time, the whole flock is together foraging or resting in a given area, but this setup also allows for an underdog to escape the attentions of a more aggressive flock-mate.
Just recently, after our birds had stripped the run of most of its vegetation, they were able to have their first field trip into our yard (under supervision and with the dog inside!).
Here's an interior shot of the coop (with the interior door removed), looking from the east door. The roosts extend through the hardware cloth wall and are each 7 feet long total. The roosts are 2x4s oriented horizontally, rather than vertically, to reduce the risk of frostbitten toes (another tip I found on BYC).
While I have finished making the nest boxes, I am waiting to install them until our chicks are closer to laying. As I've read that some chickens prefer privacy and others will squeeze in for a communal laying session, I made the boxes with removable dividers so we can adjust the size of the boxes. I imagine we'll start out with one divider in (making a 12x12 inch box and a 24x12 inch box) and then add another divider or perhaps remove the first divider, depending on what we observe our pullets to prefer. So that the birds choose to continue to sleep on their roosts, rather than in the nest boxes, and as we're not concerned about predators in the coop, I'm planning to put the nest boxes on the floor of the coop, below the windows.
What I learned:
1. How to build a chicken coop!
2. When planning a coop, it doesn't hurt to revise your plans repeatedly before you build (I completely rebuilt it on paper multiple times and was by far the most satisfied with my final plan).
3. Expect your coop to cost twice what you hope and to take five times as much work to build as you anticipate.
What I'd do differently:
- I'd have ordered windows that slid open on the inside from left to right, rather than from right to left. I didn't think it mattered when I ordered them and went with the option that, for no apparent reason, happened to be cheaper. But when it's hot out I like to have the windows in the coop open, and because on the west-most window the part that opens is over the roosts, if it's raining and there's a hard wind blowing from the south and the window happens to be open, mist can wet a portion of the roosts. Which is okay during the day, but I wouldn't want my sleeping chickens to get wet and chilled. So if it's really hot, I'll open both windows during the day but only leave the east-most window open at night.
So far the chickens seem happy and healthy in their coop and run. I am hopeful that this coop design will work as desired this winter, and will post an update after I have gained the relevant experience!
Summer Update: There is one other thing that we would have done differently. My husband wanted to heap up gravel next to the foundation timbers. Knowing intellectually that chickens scratch and love to flatten piles, I was concerned that the gravel would end up scattered everywhere, but I acquiesced to his greater building experience. Well, by the time the chickens had been using the run for a month, the gravel covered much of the run surface. This made it hard for the chickens to scratch and dust bathe, and when the gravel got wet, it stank of manure. So my loving husband shoveled out a ton (literally) of gravel and hauled it to the dump. Now the chickens are fully enjoying their run again! So I would recommend just putting gravel under the timbers, not next to them.
It is January and we have had some extremely cold weather this winter, with several days seeing below zero Fahrenheit. The first morning it got down to around 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the chickens complained at me (Brrraaaaghhht? What is happening here? Where did the warmth go?). The next day, same temp, and they were happily scratching away, no complaints. This process seemed to repeat each time it was about 10 degrees below the previous low. When it got below zero, they still stopped complaining after the first day. However, they spent a lot more time during the day up on the high roost together, though they would still come down when we entered the coop, to see what treat we brought (hot oatmeal a few days!).
When there was little enough snow, our chickens enjoyed getting out of the coop and foraging.
They still seem happy, despite spending much of the past few weeks entirely in the coop. We have had zero frostbite (we only have two birds with sizable combs and wattles, our Australorp girls). We have not put petroleum jelly on combs and wattles (a frostbite preventative I read about on BYC).
Laying slowed tremendously when temps got down around zero Fahrenheit: our Australorp pullets stopped altogether and we have been getting one egg total per day from our three Easter Egger pullets. (Our Silkie pullets have yet to lay, at nearly 9 months old.) It seems reasonable to us for our chickens to expend their energy staying warm this time of year, so we are okay with this slowdown in eggs.
Overall I am very pleased with how our chickens have fared in the Montana winter in this open-air coop! If the temperature suddenly dropped in the fall from 50 degrees to minus five degrees Fahrenheit, I think the birds might be in danger, but as it is, they have had a chance to acclimate gradually and they seem to be thriving.