With all the buzz about farm-to-table dining and organic eating over the past few years, chicken coops became trendy. After all, you can’t get more local than your backyard chicken coop! But what does it take to start a chicken coop, exactly, and perhaps more importantly, to keep it going?
In some ways, it’s a lot easier than you think, but it’s certainly not a “set it and forget it’ endeavor, says Claire Woods, the author of Backyard Chickens: the Practical Handbook for Raising Chickens, and the expert behind the popular blog, The Happy Chicken Coop. With 15 years of experience raising chickens, Woods knows a thing or two about setting up a chicken coop. But before we dive into how to get one going, consider why you’d like to have a chicken coop in the first place.
The vast majority of people want a chicken coop for the eggs. However, some hens can also be “tapped” for their meat. If that’s the case, your timing has to be right or the meat will be tough. The younger the adult hen is, the better the quality of meat, generally speaking.
Here’s a look at the basic tenets of starting a chicken coop. With a little patience and know-how, you’ll be enjoying healthy, organic eggs from your very own coop in no time.
Choose the Right Location
First and foremost, it’s important to think about where your chicken coop is going to live. Chickens require not just a coop but access to the outdoors, too, so they can run around, peck, and release energy. You’ll need to choose a location where they are protected from predators, such as raccoons, coyotes, and foxes, but you also want to keep your hens from roaming too far. Although it’s true that hens will always come home to roost at the end of the day, they tend to wander, and some neighbors may not like having their grass pecked to near extinction. A chicken run that’s attached to a coop or a fenced-in yard is ideal.
Make Sure your Coop is the Right Size
A chicken coop should be weather-proof and predator-proof, with good ventilation and a door that can securely hatch. Its size depends on the number of chickens you plan to raise. A good rule of thumb is about 2 to 3 square feet per chicken inside the coop, and 8 to 10 square feet per chicken in an outside run — but more square footage is better.
Decide how many Chickens you really Need
Keep in mind that hens lay an egg every 1.25 days on average, which is about four to five eggs each week. That’s a pretty good return on your investment considering baby chicks cost only about $3-$5 each. “Start with a couple so you can get the hang of it, but choose a coop with the assumption that you will get more birds,” says Woods. “If you have a family of two, four chickens are plenty as they’ll lay about three to four eggs per day. For a family of six, six chickens are more than enough. Beginners should stick to anywhere from four to eight chickens, tops.” After two or three years, hens will slow their production and you’ll need to buy more chickens. By then the meat becomes tough, too, so most people end up giving these hens away or they keep them around for sentimental reasons.
Chickens are Likely to Arrive via U.S. Mail
Though the vast majority of people starting a chicken coop buy baby chicks, you can buy hatching eggs, chicks, pullets (aka, young hens that aren’t laying eggs yet), or adult birds. The best place for beginners to buy their chickens is from a local farmer, a hatchery, or a farm supply store. Unless you live in a rural area where there’s at least one of these nearby, most people buy their chickens online from a hatchery and have them delivered via U.S. Mail. “People are surprised to learn that the United States Postal Service has been shipping chicks for about 100 years,” Woods says. “Most get delivered in two days.” Because chicks are just a couple of days old when they’re shipped, hatcheries make sure they’re hydrated and have enough chicken crumble inside the box to make the trip without any problems.
Several Factors Decide what Chickens You Buy
There are different breeds of chickens, but most people who set up a chicken coop want egg-laying birds. Leghorns and Australorps are good examples of prolific egg producers. Dual birds are raised for both their eggs and their meat while so-called meat birds are best for — you guessed it — quality meat. “Most people just buy a dual bird,” Woods says. Heritage birds are the top of the line in the chicken world. These have a slower growth rate and live a bit longer than other chickens. Your choices should depend on what you want the chickens for (egg production, meat, or both), the climate in your area — some breeds fare better in frosty climates — and the size of your coop, since some require more room to roam than others. If you care about the look of your birds, you may want to take that into consideration, too. “Also, different chickens have different types of egg-laying habits, so you have to find the right match for you,” Woods says.
You don’t really need a Rooster
Roosters have zero to do with your hen’s ability to lay eggs. They simply fertilize the egg if they’re around (it’s perfectly safe to eat fertilized eggs, by the way, so if you do get a rooster, that’s nothing to worry about). But beware; roosters can be mean. “I wouldn’t recommend having a rooster if you have small children,” Woods says. If you live on a farm or have lots of outdoor space, however, a rooster helps keep predators away, especially at night, when they’re most active.
Before the Coop comes the Brooding Box
If you opt for baby chicks, you’ll need a brooding box with a heat lamp that can provide warmth while their feathers develop. Each chicken will need its own brooding box, but this can be as simple as a large cardboard box, says Woods. Most people place brooding boxes in garages or barns, but some choose to place them directly in the coop if it’s big enough and fitted with a heat lamp. If there are other hens in there already, you’ll need to keep the baby chicks in a separate location so they can take full advantage of the heat source. “Some people choose to have a second, smaller coop to raise chickens but if it’s a typical family then cardboard boxes will do,” Woods adds. A heat lamp, food, water, and pine or wood shavings are all you need in a brooding box. After about two weeks, chickens are ready to move into the coop, but it usually takes about two months before they start laying eggs.
You can Build or Buy a Chicken Coop
It’s relatively easy to build a chicken coop. The Happy Chicken Coop has 44 plans available online with step-by-step instructions. Just plug in the number of chickens you plan to raise, how much you’re looking to spend, and the level of difficulty you prefer; you’ll then be matched with a plan that fits your lifestyle and your pocketbook. Be prepared to pay at least $500 for a good chicken coop. Anything cheaper will only last a year or two, Woods warns. Premium chicken coops that are big enough to walk into can fetch well over $1,000. If you’re starting out, go for something smaller until you’re assured that a chicken coop is likely to become a long-term or even permanent fixture in your life.
Nesting Boxes and Roosts are a Must
Inside the chicken coop, you’ll need nesting boxes where the hens can lay their eggs. One box for every three hens is acceptable but having at least two is ideal. “For some reason, hens usually want to lay in the same nesting box, but they tend to put systems in place on their own and will even wait in a line for their turn,” Woods says. You’ll also need a roost where they can sleep. Roosts are just perches suspended above the ground and away from the nesting box. Some chicken coop owners use wooden ladders as roosts. “Hens will generally sleep on the same perch, although some prefer to be by themselves if they feel safe,” Woods adds.
Chicken Coops Need Your Attention Twice per Day … At Least
It won’t take long, but cleaning the coop every morning and evening is considered a good rule of thumb. You’ll also need to make sure your chickens have an adequate water supply (one adult hen drinks anywhere from two to three cups of water each day) and a healthy, balanced diet. On average, well-fed hens will produce eggs for two to three years, though five is not unheard of. Crushed corn is a popular chicken feed, but it’s best to choose food specifically designed for chickens that includes protein, calcium, and a healthy amount of grit — a rock-like substance that aids in digestion. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with diseases and conditions that affect chicken coops, like mites and frostbite, so you can check for those daily. Finally, chickens need to be released every day outside the coop, which is why a chicken run or fenced-in yard is a must. It’s OK to let them choose how long they’re outside (as the saying goes, they’ll always come home to roost), but be aware of predators and always lock the coop at night.
Remember, They’re not really Pets
Chickens are downright adorable when they’re babies and hilarious and full of personality when they’re adults. Yet few will let you hold them and play with them unless you’ve been handling them since they were very young. If you have kids, let them play with the chickens while they’re in the brooding box so the baby chicks can get used to it, but be aware that as they grow they may not like it too much. You’ll know when that’s the case because they’ll run away from you and if you’ve ever tried to catch a chicken on the run you know it’s not easy. Once your coop is up and running, daily care becomes a habit — a habit that rewards you with healthy, delicious, organic eggs just about every day.
Ana Connery is former content director of Parenting, Babytalk, Pregnancy Planner and Conceive magazines as well as parenting.com.
While editor in chief of Florida Travel & Life magazine from 2006-2009, she covered the state’s real estate and home design market as well as travel destinations.
She’s held senior editorial positions at some of the country’s most celebrated magazines, including Latina, Fitness and Cooking Light, where she oversaw the brand’s “FitHouse” show home.
Ana’s expertise is frequently sought after for appearances on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and CNN. She has interviewed the country’s top experts in a variety of fields, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and First Lady Michelle Obama.