Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poultry Basics: Shelter, Roosts, and Nesting Boxes

Today is my first day leading the Poultry Group for our local 4H. As you can see by the title of this post, we're going to start with their basic needs and I thought it might be helpful to post here for anyone who is new to raising chickens and thinking about it in the future! (Because of the volume of information, I'll be breaking it up into several posts.)




Just like any living thing, chickens need food, water, and shelter. but to be happy and healthy, they need a few more things as well: roosts, nesting boxes, a place to range (or roam), and protection from predators. Each of these items will insure that your chickens are safe and productive. After all, we certainly want to see them laying a lot of eggs or getting nice and fat with meat, right?


Chickens are really very easy to keep and maintain once you get them set. For the most part, they are happy just to scratch, eat, lay, and sun bathe. But a word of wisdom here... don't bring a chicken home until you are completely set up with the basics. Don't start out with chicks in a brooder with the plan to build a coop as they grow. From personal experience, I can assure you that this will cause tension in your home and a lot of headache and unnecessary stress. Since most feed stores don't carry chicks until spring, now is the perfect time to get the basics set up so you're ready when the time comes and they arrive at the feed store. (You can order on-line year 'round, but consider your climate and the chicks needs before doing so.)




Shelter - The Coop


Chickens need a place to be out of the weather and safe at night, but it does not need to be especially warm or insulated unless it's very large and you have just a few chickens. I've talked to people up in Canada who just keep them in a wood structure and the chickens do fine since the birds create some warmth themselves if the space isn't too big. However, you may wish to select a breed that is cold hardy if your climate is extreme. (See Henderson's Breed Chart). 


Cleaning.You need to think about how you will access the coop to clean it. Coops come in all sizes and shapes, but you must be able to easily get to eggs, feed your birds, and clean it out on a regular basis. So definitely think about this a lot! I had a small coop, much like a dog house and the lid lifted up so I could clean inside. The problem was that the lid was so heavy I couldn't lift it myself, which meant my husband had to be home when I got a notion to clean! Then, because I had to reach over and inside, I couldn't really get it cleaned out like it needed. Thus, my man ended up doing all the work - NOT the original plan! Now I have a coop where we can walk in and do whatever needs to be done.


Outdoor Access. How are your chickens going to get from inside the coop to their exercise yard or run? This is fairly easily solved, but they need a little door and if it is elevated off the ground, a ramp down. We are in a Zone 7 for the general area, but closer to a Zone 5 or 6 in terms of a microclimate and we have never put anything over this door (heat rises). It just stays open all year long. However, there is a run attached that is secure from predators so raccoons and such can't enter through this door.


Photo Credit: Dry Creek Mini Barns


Security. Usually when I hear about someone loosing a chicken to a predator during the night, it's almost always because the coop was not secured. No joke... we actually lock our coop doors at night. No, I'm not worried the neighbors are going to snatch a bird, but raccoons are notorious creatures for figuring out latches and such. Why risk your investment? Keep it secure! And that includes a well constructed roof, flooring, and windows with wire over them in case you want to leave the open for a breeze during warmer weather.


Ventilation. Yes, you want a secure coop,but you need some kind of safe ventilation as well. If your coop is kept clean and you put down some kind of liter on the floor, you shouldn't have a smelly coop. But sometimes life happens and you just can't get it cleaned out on schedule. Add heat and you have a foul (not fowl!) condition for a build up of ammonia! This is not healthy and should be avoided by venting either by opening a window or small vent up in the rafters and roof.


Photo Credit: Dry Creek Mini Barns

Location. You can help regulate the temperature in your chicken coop just by selecting the right location. Building your structure under a deciduous tree provides shade in the summer and sun in the winter. If this same tree covers their yard as well, then they can stay out of the sun in the summer without going indoors where it might be too warm. If your coop is already in place, consider planting a fast growing tree nearby.


Light. A hen's laying cycle is determined somewhat by light, therefore, you don't want your coop to be too dark. Yes, their nesting boxes should be in the darkest part of the coop, but you'll want some windows to bring in as much natural light as possible. Depending on your philosophy of chicken care, you may or may not wish to add a lightbulb during the shorter days of winter to encourage laying. But having electricity in your coop will give you this option, so I highly recommend it... just in case.


Space. Inside the coop,you will need 4 square feet per grown bird as long as you plan to let them out during the day. Also, chickens need roosts and nesting boxes to fulfill their natural inclinations. This will encourage a sense of security and a desire to lay. Be sure your coop has adequate space for these two items as well as a place to feed them inside during inclement weather and storage for extra feed and supplies.


Photo Credit: Dry Creek Mini Barns


Roosts. Chickens feel safe at night when they are at least two feet off the ground on a roost of some kind. It can be as simple as a thick branch you've cut from a tree or a dowel rod from the hardware store, but chickens will do best on a square bar about 2 inches thick. some people put these at different heights (starting at 2 feet and stair stepping up), but if you put them all at the same height, they will all feel "equal" and not fight as much over the top roost (ever heard of a pecking order?). Be sure to allow 10 inches of roost per bird and place them 18 inches apart. And there should be a pit underneath with plenty of liter to catch excess droppings that accumulate during the night.


Nesting Boxes. Hens will lay eggs anyplace they desire, but if you give them a nesting box, they will be happier and so will you! And keep your boxes filled with plenty of fresh cedar pine shavings (my preference) daily and your eggs will almost always be clean (poop-free!). 




Chickens are very particular about nesting boxes. You should have one for every 4 hens, but don't be surprised if you have 10 hens and they all want to use the same box! They definitely have preferences! The easiest measurements for these boxes is 14" x 14" x 14", but you can go a bit smaller if you do not raise the larger dual breeds. If you get the boxes too small or too short, they'll step on the eggs and break them. Each box should be placed about 18-20 inches off the ground and have a roost on the front so they can jump up and walk in the box easily. A slanted roof on top will keep hens from getting on top where they will want to leave droppings and possibly get the eggs dirty. Remember, you want clean eggs!


Whew! I know that's a lot of information, but trust me, some forethought and planning ahead of time will make a world of difference whether your chickens thrive or not. And since this is your biggest investment in keeping chickens, you'll want to get it right the first time. If you plan to build it yourself, books on coop plans can be found at most local libraries or search for plans on line. Otherwise, check out local sources by asking around or looking in the yellow pages. Keep in mind, most sheds can be adapted with a few basic carpentry skills. 


Have fun planning!











31 comments:

  1. Great information. Here is my favorite part, and so true. "Don't start out with chicks in a brooder with the plan to build a coop as they grow... this will cause tension in your home and a lot of headache and unnecessary stress." This was our experience after I built the little brooder house in the spring - so proud of me! However, building the bigger coop while they were growing FAST was stressful! Have fun with the kids. I miss 4-H and being a project leader! -Tammy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Unbelievable timing! I just came home from my first poultry show, with my first hen. Since she is a bantam breed, and has been used to being cooped, the housing I already have for my rabbits will do for her. This is great information!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you! I have plans to get chickens in the future, but it is a little intimidating to get started. I would prefer to do things right the first time.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am so into chickens right now, and really needed this! We have 2 week old chicks (our first) and just finished the coop-(check out my latest post). Thanks for such great advice, I believe we are on the right track. I look forward to your upcoming info. We are loving the chicks so far and can't wait for eggs one day :)
    Blessings,
    Becky C
    Buckets of Burlap

    ReplyDelete
  5. Our chicks arrived yesterday! I am very happy you are doing segments here of information. Thank you!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. We love are Chickens..they become a part of the family..and my children Love them..especially the ones that have become little pets...We would love to be able to do 4-H but the one that we could get involved in is just to far..and would become more of a headache than a joy...with all the driving...We are happy that the High Temps are gone and we are starting to get eggs once again...
    Have a great time in 4-H Amy with your children..

    ReplyDelete
  7. Very concise! We've got six young hens (seven months) already in the coop and about to introduce nine more very young chickens (eight weeks) that are currently being kept in a large crate. Any advice???

    ReplyDelete
  8. Julie, is there any way to divide your coop or section it off into two areas? I had my husband build a wall with studs and then put chicken wire over it (and a screen door) so that the younger and older birds can get to know each other without the older birds actually getting to the younger birds and pecking them to death. Be very cautious mixing pullets until they are the same size and can at least attempt to defend themselves if there is a strong pecking order in your flock.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow that is a lot of info! I had no idea that light affected their laying!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Really great! Our chicken coop and yard have been around for a while and this reminds me that I need to look it all over and do some repairs. Great ideas and beautiful too! Lisa~

    ReplyDelete
  11. Enjoyed the start of your chicken keeping 101.
    We have learned so much from blogs and on line chicken forums, thank you for adding more good basic info.
    Must add that my hens like a large covered cat litter box full of wood shavings and hay for egg laying. I purchased some young hens that were not supposed to lay for another two months, then a week later I found an egg on the ground. Husband brought a nice big covered litter box home to sub until we could build some nest boxes. The hens liked the litter box so much we just added another. You never know what they will like, have seen photos of eggs in a front loading washing machine. LOL

    ReplyDelete
  12. Wonderful post! I adore chickens! I currently have Seramas, but next spring will be widening my flock greatly.

    Amy
    www.crazyforthecountry.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you!!! I'm in the process of having my son and husband plan a coop. One of my sons (he's 10) homeschool lessons is researching how to care for chickens. We are planning on 4 or 5. I will be glued for future lessons on your post. You are a God send!
    Peace to you and yours,
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  14. Amy ~ what a wonderful post! My husband and I have wanted to raise chickens for eggs, but have been hesitant to because of the wildlife around us. I really appreciate all the information you have provided. Thanks so much!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks so much for this posting! Very informative! We don't have chickens (yet), but I'd love to learn more about keeping them, so as to make an informed decision someday. Very informative.

    It was great to go to your blog and find a new posting, by the way! I hope and pray all is giong well for you. I love your blog!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Yeah Amy! I hope all is well with your family; glad to see you are back online and one of these years I will be in a place I can have chickens so this will be in my mind. all my best to you honey, A.

    ReplyDelete
  17. My husband and I just got our first chickens a couple months ago, and this would have been so helpful! But, even without these words of wisdom, I think we're doing pretty well.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Amy, thanks so much for the advice concerning introducing my new chicks to the rest of the flock...my husband is currently extending our coop and partitioning off part of it for the new birds.
    Now if I could just figure out why one of my best laying birds is "laying" while on the roost?!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hmmm... don't know about that one, Julie. I've had it happen once or twice, but not regularly. Have you tried putting a golf ball in the nesting box to encourage participation in the "proper place"?

    ReplyDelete
  20. I would have to say Amen to this statement.. "Don't start out with chicks in a brooder with the plan to build a coop as they grow."

    I have never done this in the right order and know I would save a lot of heart ache if I had done it the right way. It rarely goes the way you plan when you do it backwards ;o).

    ReplyDelete
  21. We only have one adult chicken, and she refuses to use the perches though they are easy to reach and higher than the nesting boxes. She roosts and lays in the nesting boxes. Should we close off the nesting boxes at night for a few nights to see if she gets the idea?

    ReplyDelete
  22. Colby, it certainly couldn't hurt her to close it off at night. I take it that she isn't broody and she's like this all the time. Chickens want to feel safe when they are nesting, but also when their roosting. Is there anything about the roosts that might be making her feel unsafe. Another thought, since there is just one of her and not a flock, perhaps she doesn't feel safe on the roost alone. Just a thought.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks for such an informative blog!! I'm thinking of converting a playhouse in the back yard into a chicken coop! This will be my first foray into keeping hens for their eggs, so I have lots of questions, but I'll stick to just two for now.

    1) The existing 'window' of the playhouse measures 37.8 inches wide. If I fit three nesting boxes, they'd only be about 12.5 inches wide each. Is this close enough to the 14 inches you suggested, or should I consider another option?

    2) If the measurements of the coop are 5 feet wide by 25 inches deep by 4 feet high, how many chickens would you recommend for this space?

    Thanks so much for your advice!

    Cheers,
    Lyn

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lyn,
      Glad you like the blog! The 12.5 inches is more than enough for bantams and pushing it a bit for regular hens. I originally had 12 x 12 boxes and they were not happy with that. Could you just do 2 nesting boxes at 14"? I have 4 nesting boxes and RARELY do they use the lower two. They all want the one box that some other hen is sitting in! Go figure!

      As for the amount of space... I can't remember, but I believe it is 10 square feet per bird is ideal but it can be less, particularly if they get outdoor time daily.

      Delete
  24. cedar shavings are a no-no in the chicken coop. cedar releases toxins that can harm their delicate respiratory systems. pine shavings are great, but not cedar. great page by the way. beautiful homestead and handsome animals.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dan, you are correct... I stated that incorrectly. I actually DO use pine shavings. I'll make that correction. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Delete
  25. Sorry if this is a stupid question, I know nothing about chickens and was merely recruited to build a coop for my parents. You state that the birds need a ramp to use an elevated door to get in and out. Do they not need assistance accessing an elevated roost or nesting box? Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. id... not a stupid question at all!! But I'm sure by now you've long since built that coop... sorry for the delay in answering. The birds can fly up onto the roosts, but because of their wing span, doing so to a door way while not impossible is less desirable. My entrance does not have a ramp at all, but it's close to the ground... a small hop or step up is all that is required. So it depends on where you put your chicken door.

      Delete
  26. Here is a well made galvanized nest box. Light weight so you can pull it off the wall for cleaning and pretty snazzy looking too.

    http://www.thecarpentershop.net/chickennestboxes

    The folding perches are great for keeping my birds from roosting in the boxes.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I love your website. I am fairly new to having chickens and gardening. I am loving it though. I first started with the garden, then I got the chickens and made a small coop. I did the best I could but not as nice as I would have liked. So when it came time to get a feeder and nest boxes I decided I would just order online to get one from someone that was better than I am since I had not so much luck on building the coop. I got a "ratproof" feeder with a treadle system and a 2 hole nest box from "thecarpentershop.net" and am very glad that I did. Very professionally made and easy to clean since it is made from galvanized metal.

    This is a wonderful and relaxing way to add to my mental health. Just feeling like I am going back to nature is great.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for visiting Homestead Revival™! Please feel free to contribute to the conversation by leaving your comments. "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear." Eph. 4:29

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails