Our homesteading adventure began 4 years ago with 5 hens and an old shed-turned-chicken coop. We now have over 50 hens and we sell our extra eggs. We have learned a great deal from experience, from other’s experiences, and from information shared online. Our newest coop is a combination of lessons learned, advice given, and experimentation. So far, this coop has been a big success.
Our biggest issues we have had to face to date have been predators, mites, food spillage (and waste), production and cleanliness. This new coop takes each issue we have had to deal with into consideration, and, as with all homesteading experiences, attempts to keep us one step ahead of the problem!
Raise Your Coop!
Our most destructive predator to date has been mink. A cousin to weasels, they are small, smart, and exceptionally destructive. Once they have made their way into the coop they can wipe out an entire henhouse, one bird at a time, overnight. They are small enough to get into even rat or mice holes, and vicious enough to keep even you away. They attack, generally at night when the hens’ vision is practically nil, suck the blood out of their prey, and then often sever the head. One good way to tell if it is a mink attacking your hens is that the hens’ combs will be almost white, for lack of blood. Our first coop was an old shed, and full of rat holes. The only way to deal with a mink in a coop like this is to trap them or kill them, and this will be AFTER they have already killed, since you won’t know they are there, otherwise. Prevention is best, and the key to keeping them out is to have your coop raised above the ground, with no holes for entry. Our latest coop is 5 feet off the ground and very secure. While you don’t need to have it this high, higher is better. This will prevent a number of predators from getting in. It will also help keep mice, rats and other pests out.
Your bedding will remain drier if the coop has air flow underneath. This will help prevent mold, ammonia issues, and pests like mites and ticks.
Water Drip System
The best way to keep your hen’s water sanitary is to use a drip system, also known as a nipple system. The chickens peck at and drink the drips that hang from the nipple once it has been nudged by the chicken. This method is what commercial chicken producers use because once it is installed it is virtually maintanence-free, and pretty much the only truly sanitary watering method. I highly recommend investing in this kind of system. Contact a local commercial poultry supply warehouse or check online. if you only have a few chickens, you can even buy the nipples individually and install them in the bottom of a hanging bucket.
Our water system is fed via a large food-grade barrel purchased from a barrel company. At present the drip system is fed from this large barrel, and we need to fill the barrel about once a month from a hose. Our future plans is to convert this system into one that would collect rain water from the roof to full the barrel, and then supply water to the nipple system. One of our older coops functions well this way.
Large, Deep Feeder
We feed our hens certified organic layer mash. The convenience of pellets is lost when you switch to organic since the product they use to bind the feed into pellets is not organic, so the organic feed is all mash. We had a great deal of trouble with our original feeders because the hens would peck out what they liked to eat, leaving the parts they didn’t like, and scattering it all over the coop. Eventually the bedding seemed to be nothing but old feed. Our final solution was turkey feeders, because they are large, and much deeper. The hens are able to peck the feed, but unable to pull it out of the feeder and scatter it around. This results in the birds eating ALL of their food before we fill it, which results is better quality eggs, since their feed is “a complete meal”. (Of course they free range all day as well). These feeders hold a 50lb bag of feed and last 30 hens 3 days or so before we have to refill the feeder. Hang your feeders to keep them off the ground. This helps keep them from filling up with bedding as the chickens scratch.
Oyster Shell feeder
We provide all of our hens with free choice oyster shells to help promote strong, healthy shells.
“Fondly” referred to by us as a poop deck, all of our coops now have a deck beneath the roosts that are lined with old feed sacks, which we roll up and compost in the manure pile every week or so. This keeps the bedding MUCH cleaner since they sit and poop on their roosts all night. It also provides a rich manure for the compost pile! Whatever you do, make sure you change the papers once a week or as needed, because the poop will eventually breed flies and other pests. This poop deck method has saved us a lot of time and keeps the coop so much cleaner and nicer smelling, especially using the deep litter method.
Deep Litter Method
To save time, to keep the coop warm in the winter, and to make a rich compost, you can add a foot or so of white wood shavings to the bottom of the coop. The chickens turn it over by scratching in it, they use it for dust baths, and the manure that starts to compost in the wood chips keeps the coop warmer in the winter. If used properly, this method is good for months without cleaning, and is an accepted, safe method of maintaining your coop. We do a complete cleaning of the coops once every 4 months or so.
In the long Canadian winter months our chickens will come to a complete production stop, will molt, and will not start laying again until mid spring. This can mean up to 6 months of almost zero production, and since we are raising chickens to sell their eggs, this will not allow us to meet our costs. By keeping one single lightbulb lit in our coop for 12 hours we will be allowing our chickens 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness to sleep. This is enough to keep our chickens producing, and while they will molt and stop producing for 6 weeks or so, they will start up again and continue as before. Chickens are native to Central America, and are not meant to be in the dark for 16 hours a day, sitting on roosts for 16 long hours, which is what we would be putting them through in the middle of our Canadian winters. While I don’t advocate 24 hour lighting, I do recommend 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness in the winter months. There is a minimal daily
One of the worst pests chickens can come up against are mites. They can destroy a chicken’s health in a short period of time. Chickens’ natural defense against mites is to dust bath. Dust will cut up mites and smoother them. You will notice free-ranging chickens finding the most perfect (to them) locations to dust bath… namely, in your flower garden, in the sand box, or at the base of trees. Providing your hens with a box 3/4 full of diatomaceous earth will give them an opportunity to dust bath and keep the mites in control while they are locked in their coop. Keep it free of manure and wood shavings.
It is recommended that a coop has at least 1 nesting box per 5 hens. We use old milk crates, turned on their sides, and filled with clean hay. Make sure you change the hay regularly to keep the bedding and eggs clean. We cover our boxes with a “roof” now, simply a board on an angle, to prevent any hens from roosting on top of the boxes where they will poop into the nesting boxes.
We have a large window in the front of our coop that we found free on craigslist. It allows daylight in which makes electric lighting unnecessary in the spring/summer/fall months.
Keep your trap door for the chickens up above the ground. Chickens can fly, and some predators can’t. The chickens will quickly learn to fly back up into the coop if your trap door is a few feet above the ground. One of our coops’ doors is about 5 feet up, and while most of the birds can fly in and out, the heavier ones can’t, so I recommend 4 feet above ground. This helps keep pests like mice, mink and rats out (although they may eventually find a way up) and predators like dogs and coyotes out. We use a simple trap door that hinges at the bottom, and provides a “landing spot” for the hens when they fly up to the roost. Once the trap door is closed, we simply latch it shut with a piece of wood.
Our chickens free range all day, every day. We have lost a few occasionally to coyotes, but for the most part, our dog keeps the coyotes away, as well as bears, mink, raccoons, and stray dogs. Free ranging gives chickens access to a more natural environment including scratching, dust bathing, and fresh greens and bugs which enhances the nutritional value of the eggs, and keeps the chickens healthy.
An Extra Tip:
One thing we should have done when we first built the coop was to paint the walls and floor. Paint helps keep mites down since mites will burrow in the walls and come out at night, attacking the chickens. Paint seals the walls, and also makes the walls easier to clean off when you are spring cleaning the coop.
Our coop is by no means perfect, but we have been working on improving our coops for years now, and have come up with certain things that work, and others that don’t. Learning from others’ experiences has been highly beneficial to us, and I hope that sharing this information will help you on your homesteading journey. Please take a moment to comment and let me know what has worked for you in the past, and what hasn’t. Online information through sharing with others has been a valuable resource for us. Thanks!