Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door

Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop

Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

Our principles for emergency preparedness

The following are some principles that we’ve learned, pondered, and/or developed in the area of preparing for the unexpected – particularly for disasters or long emergencies. It’s not a complete list and we’re likely to update it as often as new principles begin to emerge in our thinking.

Fear Not
Fear leads people to make stupid, knee-jerk decisions (believe us, we’ve done it often). Fear will lead you to making poor decisions, secure the wrong resources, not to mention, cause you unnecessary anxiety. Emergency preparedness should not be fueled by fear, but by a sound mind set on wanting to sustain a flourishing lifestyle despite what’s happening in the world –  even in adverse circumstances.

When not If
Plan on a disaster or emergency happening in your lifetime. That might sound apocalyptic or dystopian, and some approach this topic from this point of view. The rest of us think it’s just good sense. Do you keep jumper cables in your car? If so, why? Because it’s reasonable to expect that some day, your car or someone else’ won’t properly start. Planning for disaster or long emergency stems from the same understanding on a larger scale. Instead of you car not starting, maybe the normal food or water supply breaks down. Planning for disaster forces your brain to develop a model for handling the resulting adversity. If you do so without growing fearful, it will be a positive exercise that will result in greater stability during times of crisis for yourself and your community. Furthermore, advanced preparation in many areas will also lead you down the path to sustainable living in those same areas of life – hence why we discuss these issues here on our blog.

Stockpiling is NOT a sustainable strategy
When thinking about preparing your family for a long emergency or disaster, this principle is essential. This idea is the foundational driver behind how we plan for every aspect of emergency planning. The encouragement to stockpile resources is found everywhere in disaster/emergency preparedness literature! Yes, you SHOULD have adequate supplies of certain items, but you cannot stockpile enough resources to be an adequate solution. The length of an emergency or disaster could always be longer than your stockpiled supply will last. Then what? You must have a plan for securing your fundamental needs when your stockpiles are diminished. Otherwise, you’re just delaying your demise rather than preventing it. So, when it comes to stockpiling resources for a long term emergency, you need enough of a given resource (food, shelter, water, etc) to see your family through until you can implement a more sustainable means to secure these resources.

Think of this like the top-down triangle below. At the top (the beginning of an emergency or disaster), your needs of a resource are small and compact. That’s what you need to have on hand for immediate consumption and survival. Next, you have some intermediate needs. That’s the part of your strategy for obtaining additional resources before you can implement a more permanent (if necessary) solution. Lastly, the base of the triangle represents a sustainable and ongoing means for obtaining a given resource. This principal should apply to every aspect of disaster preparation and should guide your preparation strategy.

The Preparation Triangle

The Preparation Triangle

Example: Food. A common idea found on the internet among emergency supply vendors is to stockpile things like “textured vegetable product” (umm, sounds good! NOT!). If you look at the space required to store the amount of food recommended, it’s prohibitive to many people. Not to mention, once the food’s gone, it’s gone! A better strategy might be to store several 1-3 months worth of food, then develop a strategy for hunting, gathering, raising and growing additional food items. To put this in really simple concepts, it’s better to have a fishing pole than a few fish.

No expectations or assumptions
As the old saying goes, when you assume, you make an ass of u and me. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of people in western culture assume that things will always be okay and will always work out. There’s a distinction between faith and optimism. Faith is essential in life. Optimism, while helpful at times, can lead to complacency and a lack of planning for lean times. An overly optimistic worldview is ignorant of world history, modern events, and human nature. An overly optimistic view expects or assumes that if the power goes out for a month, or you run out of water, that the government, neighbors, charity will sweep in with salvation and rapidly meet those needs. The reality that one can see from events like hurricane Katrina, the Northeast blackouts of 1977 and 2003 is that services can take a long time to restore. Meanwhile some people become quite inhumane and criminal rather than helpful. Bottom line – don’t expect someone else to be responsible for the essential needs of your family. Expect nothing from others unless you’ve worked out a plan in harmony and cooperation with your friends and neighbors. That leads us to our next point…

“We COULD do it ourselves” vs. “We CAN do it ourselves”
Americans thrive on a self-sufficiency mindset and attitude. So do survivalist usually. Having the knowledge and preparation to be the sole provider for your essential needs is a good idea, and could save your life. A better ideal is that have this knowledge, share it with your friends and neighbors whom your trust, then work together on a cooperative plan for dealing with emergencies. This allows for the sharing of labor, resources and responsibilities and increases your ability to weather long emergencies and disasters. Aside from the fact that there really is increased safety and security in numbers, there’s also increased happiness in having people to share adverse experiences with rather than being alone. Know how to be on your own in a disaster – because that could always happen, but plan on handling emergencies as part of a group. That’s the ideal.

Saving Money is not preparation

Many people will seek to have three months worth of living expenses in the bank, but not consider having three months of food and water on hand. This view assumes that money is all that will be needed to handle emergencies or disasters. You cannot eat or drink money, and it won’t keep you warm (unless you burn it). Having some cash on hand for emergencies should be part of your preparations for the unexpected, but don’t think that you’ll be able to rely on money alone. You’re better off using your funds to purchase resources that will allow you to be better prepared.

The simpler, the better
Choose the simplest solutions you can find for your needs. Complexity during an emergency is your enemy, not your friend. If everyone in your family cannot be made to understand how something works, work on making it simpler!

Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!

Falling off the roost

A few days ago, we experienced our first dose of the reality of caring for small animals. It all started when one of our hens started exhibiting some strange behavior. The kids came in the house exclaiming “I think Risa’s dying!”. She had fallen off the roost in the coop and hadn’t landed well. She had been very still most of the day, was off to herself, had her eyes closed, etc.

There were no other apparent symptoms, so diagnosing the ailment wasn’t going to be easy. The symptoms this bird exhibited were common for just about every chicken illness. After some consideration and research, we thought that maybe she was “eggbound” – a condition when an egg gets stuck inside a hen and can cause death soon afterward is not passed. While some people do take some drastic measures in these cases – from probing around inside of their chickens to seeking veterinary care, we chose to do neither. Instead, we gave Risa (the hen) a nice warm bath – something we’d seen recommended for this condition. She was completely listless. At one point, we laid her on her side while we retrieved a towel and she just stayed there – totally unnatural for a chicken. We dried her off and set her in her own cozy straw-lined box for the night.

When we awoke in the morning, what we had expected had taken place – Risa passed away sometime in the night. In 24 hours we had gone from apparently healthy chicken to a sick and then deceased chicken! While we wonder why, and continue to examine our flock for signs of illness or distress, the reality is tat these things happen. Birds, like all living creatures will come to an end of their lives.

Rather than dissect this bird who had become a pet to our kids, we chose to just chalk it up to a sickness – likely Marek’s disease or something else that is common to chickens. We then cremated the carcass in order to quickly and humanely deal with it in a way that would not pose any health threats to ourselves or our flock.

Our children (4,9,12) all handled things pretty well. The younger two did not like the cremation idea but were more accepting of the outcome once they understood the humane reasons behind it – to protect the flock, and to avoid seeing Risa’s carcass dug up by some other animal. Yes, the cried – and at times even screamed. We don’t think this was so much because of a fondness for this hen, but because of the reality of death which no human enjoys being reminded of – particularly children. Ultimately, we found it a good opportunity to discuss issues of life and death and our kids came out of the ordeal with strength and new understanding.

We know this isn’t instructional per se – but in our journey to a simple life, sometimes the unexpected happens. Hopefully our sharing our experience will help someone else go through this process.

Eggs at Last!

Well, after nearly four months of waiting, our hens have begun to lay eggs! At the moment, 2 of 10 hens are laying eggs on a daily basis. We purchased them as 6-week old pullets and have been patiently waiting since then for the day when we could begin to collect eggs from the hen house.

Chickens at 5-6 weeks old

Our experience has been mostly good so far as “chickeneers”. We’ve not had any pets in our family history, so the number one pain-in-the-rear so far has been getting people to look after the chickens when we’re headed out-of-town. This hasn’t been overly painful, just hard to always remember to do sometimes!

Aside from that, my only other complaint with raising chickens in a typical-suburban neighborhood is this: Chickens don’t recognize boundaries. Much like shepherds have to herd their sheep, we often have to herd our chickens off our neighbors lawns, etc. We deal with this by only letting them free-range for a portion of the day and staying outside with them during that time. Unlike many others, our chickens don’t seem to have an interest in the neighbors gardens, flowers, etc (or ours PTL!) The only real danger to the neighbors is the occasional chicken turd here and there – which is actually good for the soil in moderation 😉 We still pick it up when we see it and return it to our property.

Our Chicken Coop

So, here’s some other questions we and others have had about raising chickens in a sub-urban environment:

1. Is it legal?
Uh… no comment.

2. Do they smell?
We’ve not noticed any strong smells from our chickens, nor do our neighbors. We clean the droppings out of the hen house about every 2-3 weeks and compost them. At no time has it ever been overwhelming. Growing up cleaning up after dogs was worse in my experience.

3. Are they noisy?
We have all hens – they make very little noise. They more or less murmur. If they squawk beyond that, it’s once a week or so, and usually because they feel in danger.

4. Are they expensive?
We had a few hundred dollars in building a coop – but we wanted a nice one that would compliment our property. Aside from that, feed, shells, grit, etc. might cost less than $10/month for ten hens. Unless you’re planning on selling your eggs,  raising chickens for your own eggs isn’t necessarily economically advantageous. We can get free-range eggs for $1.50/dozen from nearby farmers.

5. Why have them if it’s cheaper to buy local eggs?
We don’t want to assume that buying from others will always be as accessible or affordable – plus it’s a great experience for the whole family learning to look after animals that provide you with an ongoing food supply. Further, chickens provide pest control, a ready source of nitrogen-rich compost material, and quite honestly, many zen-like moments while watching them do their thing.

6. What do they eat?
At first, they ate medicated feed to get them off to a healthy start. We then moved to “grower” meal, then onto “layer” pellets. We give them this every day, although they eat from it quite moderately and prefer scratching for bugs, grubs, etc. They get much of their diet from foraging. They also love table scraps – again in moderation. Grass-clippings is another great food for chickens. Our tomatoes in this area of PA were effected by Late Blight, and so the chickens are given any of the produce we cannot eat because of rot, etc. as well. They’re not quite as versatile as pigs, but they can eat a wide-range of foods!