Picture this: you’ve decided to add chickens to your backyard or homestead. You’ve spent hours researching basic healthcare and anatomy, you’ve visited all the forums (and become totally overwhelmed), and you think you know what chickens need to be happy. Now comes the big job – deciding on how you’re going to house them.
Once you start down the road of choosing a style of housing for your new flock, you quickly discover there are as many plans and opinions about plans as there are chickens in the world. I’m exaggerating, but honestly, it feels like it at first.
There’s the traditional coop and run, chicken tractors, pastured poultry pens, and paddock systems. And each one of those has countless different styles and systems to choose from. It’s exhausting work to figure out what’s going to work for your ‘girls’ (and maybe boys too), especially if you’ve never raised chickens before.
The last thing you want is to discover 6 months in that your coop plan was the wrong one for your specific situation.
So how do you figure out the best plan for your new flock? It’s actually quite simple when you use a system. Here’s one I put together back in 2011 to help me evaluate the best housing for our original flock of 15 (now 20).
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Coop Plan
Not every chicken coop plan is going to be suitable for your specific situation, so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions before you even start looking at plans (trust me – this will save you a ton of time later):
- How many birds will I have eventually? You might start out with only 5 hens, but what if you want to expand your flock in a year or two? You don’t want to have to start over or be renovating a coop (not fun). At the very minimum, and depending on their body size, chickens need from 2 – 4 square feet each inside a secure house if they have outdoor foraging, and 10 square feet each in an outside run… minimum (ref: McMurray Hatchery). If your birds will be free-ranging most of the time, they’ll still need an adequate sized secure outdoor space for the days they can’t range freely (and there will be those days). Overcrowding of birds can cause not only social problems (pecking and fighting, and the resultant injuries you’ll then have to deal with, not to mention egg production reduction from stress), but creates a situation ripe for disease transmission as well. You’ll need to consider space for roosting as well – about 18” of roost per bird on a raised roost, not too far off the ground (max 4 or 5’) preferably made of rough, ‘branch-like’ materials – at minimum you’ll need rounded dowels – 2” diameter. I’ve seen a lot of plans for roost system with square roosts – not very comfortable for your chickens’ feet. Imagine sleeping in a bed with corners sticking in to your back and you get the picture…?? You’ll also need enough nest boxes for your hens – one box generally works for 3 or 4 hens, but know that there will be a ‘favorite’ spot that they’ll fight over and pile on top of each other to get to. We decided on a ‘communal’ nest box, which is one long nest box with bedding and a little slanted roof (to keep wayward chickens from pooping on) for coziness. We also have one ‘nest’ separated out from the rest with a simple wood divider, for those girls that like a bit more privacy…
- What breed will be living in your coop/run? Different species do well in different conditions, so birds that require more space for optimum health are not going to do well in more confined spaces. Be sure to research your chosen breed thoroughly. It will pay off bigtime in the long run.
- What’s the topography of your property? Our 6+ acres are hilly, rocky, and mostly forested – not so good for the portable rolling pens or pastured pens I’d love to have. If you’ve got a flat property, your options are WAY increased.
- Do you have room near your house to create the housing for your girls? Not right beside your house, but if you live in an area with predators (and most of us do), you’ll want to be within earshot of the chickens at night so you’ll be awake and aware should something with teeth go marauding in the dead of night… not to mention you’ll be making multiple trips per day to the new digs – you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to get to.
- What sorts of predators live in your area? This will dictate how secure your housing will have to be and what sorts of materials you’ll have to use. We have weasels, raccoons, fishers, coyotes, bears and cougars to be concerned about, not to mention flying predators like red tailed hawks and all sorts of smaller birds of prey. Lots of coop plans have external doors for accessing the nest boxes – in our case, we decided against that style, as it would have made it easier pickin’s for the resident black bears (they’re weirdly dexterous with their mouths and paws). We also had to use heavy gauge wire fencing (which we were lucky enough to pick up cheap at a garage sale). You’ll also see a lot of plans with open flooring so the poop falls through into some sort of collection space – apparently this reduces cleaning requirements, but it would not be at all safe in our neck of the woods, as any gauge of wire mesh that would be big enough to let feces fall through would also allow the resident weasels an open door to our hens and rooster. I don’t think so… Plus the idea of the birds having to walk on wire just seems wrong to me. And drafty…
- What’s your budget? You can build a coop and run for nothing out of found materials, or you can spend thousands. Ours cost about $250 in hardware (no material costs – my dad owns a small sawmill (thanks, Dad!), and we used recycled windows and cementboard, and the labour was donated (but if paid for, probably would have run in the $800-$1000 range or more based on the hours involved). Know this ahead of time and stick to it, or the costs can add up quickly.
- Do you have access to reused materials? If you start planning your coop long before you get your chickens, you can keep an eye out on Craigslist, garage sales, reclaimed building materials stores or recycling centres for some really unique materials. We built ours with old frosted glass bathroom windows, recycled cement board (to keep the weasels from chewing through to the nest boxes), hand-split cedar shingles, old corrugated metal for the roof, lots of reclaimed wire fencing, and the lovely rounded roof joists from a deconstructed single wide trailer. It was fun to figure out how to use this old stuff in an attractive and serviceable way. We did have to buy all new hardware, but everything else was either reclaimed or recycled – even the lumber was from cedar logs rejected from the dryland sort down the road.
- What sort of flooring does it call for? Certain types of flooring will not work in certain situations. For example, with the weasels and other digging creatures around here, there’s no way we could have a dirt-floored coop unless we buried hardware cloth into the floor and beyond the perimeter of the walls. We’ve got a super thick wood floor covered with linoleum. The coop is just a year and a half old, but it’s holding up really well. We’ll see how it’s holding up after 5 years. If you need a coop that’s portable, your flooring set-up will be different as well than one that is meant to be permanent.
- Do you want to purchase a pre-designed plan, or customize a plan according to your own needs? For some of us who are running businesses, donating time to our communities and keeping animals fed and healthy, buying a plan makes the most sense. But if you’ve got the eye and the skills (and the time), designing your own plan is super satisfying. Our coop was sort of built on the fly with just some basic design elements in mind, but I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone. I was lucky enough to have some talented construction guys making suggestions, but honestly, if I had planned it better I wouldn’t now be thinking of how to renovate it to house more birds (or sick birds, or baby birds, or…).
- What sort of climate do you live in? Hot, dry climates allow for more open coop arrangements. No predators? You’ve got it made! Winters to 40 below? You’ll need ways to keep the drafts out, build deep litter and possibly a bit of insulation (with the required ventilation). Live in the rainforest like us? Your challenge will be keeping everything dry, so rooflines, ability to easily add dry bedding and remove wet bedding, and covered areas for your girls will be mandatory. Regardless of the plan picked, make sure it has adequate ventilation! Super important… birds can handle cold – but cold and wet… not so much.
- Where will you store your feed and supplies? You’ll want to make sure your feed is stored close to your birds – schlepping 50lb bags of feed from one building to another is not fun. But neither is losing your feed to rodents. We’ve got ours in 40 litre galvanized steel garbage cans sitting in a little built-in cubby in the back of the coop – no little teeth can chew through those suckers! Now that I’m considering mixing our own soy-free organic feed, I’m wishing I had more space for secure grain and feed storage. Something to think about, for sure.
Evaluate Your Shortlist of Plans
I put together this little spreadsheet to help you evaluate the plans you come across – you can download it here:
I hope this helps you feel more confident in picking our your chicken housing plan. It’s definitely a learning experience, and your situation will be completely different from even your neighbours down the road, but these basics will help you avoid the hassle of spending money and time building housing only to find out the local bears rip it up and decimate your brand new flock in the first month. This is important stuff!
Finally, here are a few examples of chicken house designs from our friends on our Facebook page:
Do you have any advice to share on finding the right chicken coop plan? Let us know in the comments below. Your advice may just help someone keep their girls safe and sound – and happy!