Inside Our Chicken Coop: Lessons learned, Key Features and Tips

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.


Poop deck

“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.

Lights On!

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

Dust Bath!
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.

Nesting Boxes
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.

Windows/lighting
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.

Entry/Exit
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.

Free Ranging
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!

This article has been linked to From The Farm Blog Hop and The Homesteader’s Hop #19.

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Comments

  1. Great article! I did notice what looks like heat tape on the auto waterer. Other wise how do you keep it from freezing? I live in North Central Minnesota and fight having to much humidity in my barn from wet shavings. I do the deep litter method year round.

    • Yes we have heat tape on the water, but we live on the coast of BC Canada so we don’t get a lot of freezing temperatures. The heat tape plugs in. We also have good ventilation around the eaves which is VERY important when dealing with temperature changes, deep litter method, and humidity. Chickens can handle very cold temperatures as long as they are sheltered from the elements. Do you have good ventilation? Hope that helps!

  2. A lot of great info here. I’ve raised chickens for years & never thought about using feed sacks under the roosts. Thanks for sharing that tip & teaching an “old-timer” an easier way to handle that chore.

  3. As we are about to “remodel” our coop to allow for more hens, I am so thrilled to have found your article. Great way to using the poop deck to collect, our coop has a concrete floor with a large drain hole to wash out, but I love the poop deck idea. BTW, there is a seaside bar in Galveston called Poop Deck.

  4. Sheri Kay says:

    Thank you so much for all your advice. I live in California and am going to start with just two hens for eggs. I am getting a small coop which I will keep up off the ground and paint. Love the idea of your poop deck, how creative and useful. Nice way to keep it clean!!!!!! I might have to bug you some more when I have questions!!!!!!!!

  5. Great article! I’ve been mixing oyster shell into the feed for our chickens and seeing a lot of waste around the feeder. Your free choice oyster shell feeder looks like a great solution. I’ll be setting one up in our coop this week. Thanks!

  6. Ryan Phipps says:

    Great article with a lot of useful information!

  7. Jeanne-marie Hawkins-Brown says:

    Thanks for the info, Im about to start to keep some hens :-)

  8. I went to Tractor Supply and purchased the large aluminum oil drip pans and my husband built the roosting deck to fit the size. They were about $10 each but are very durable and they work great. I pull them out, dump the contents onto the compost pile, hose them off, replace, and we are good for about three or four days. If you don't want to remove them then using a plastic dust pan to scrape and scoop the poop before tossing into a 2.5 gallon bucket works too. I like the idea of the feed sacks too. Wrap the poop up and compost! Happy hen-ing!

  9. I live in North Idaho and want chickens like I had in California. The snow is what holds me back. Any thoughts?

    • If you mean the cold, there are a lot of cold-hardy breeds. If you mean snow cover, most chickens adapt well. They don’t get as much scratching benefits since everything is buried in snow, but they’ll do fine other than that.

  10. be careful about breathing the dust!

  11. Magdalene Becerra says:

    Thanks for all this great info!! I think it will be helpful in many, many ways!!

  12. Very interesting. Is part of a sentence missing? “There is a minimal daily”

  13. Jodi L. Barck says:

    good ideas

  14. Thanks for all the great information, since I am a beginner with chickens. I think I will be implementing a lot of your suggestions. It helps knowing someone else who has raised chickens, and knows what works and what doesn’t.

  15. A mask is definitely in order!! I get those from a local drug store by the box full.

  16. What are the dimensions of this coop/hen house, please?

  17. Melissa Fuhriman says:

    Chickens actually do better in the cold than in the heat. I don't heat my coop and my chickens have been fine when the temp goes below zero. They don't really like to walk in the snow, so you would want to have at least part of your run covered.

  18. Will LaPerriere says:

    Thank you for all your advice it was very helpful maine winters are very cold and you have giving me some great ideas

  19. Linda Lawson Reynolds says:

    We are just starting on our coop, in a barn stall. My husband and I were just debating painting the walls today. Glad I read this today, because we had decided not to paint!!!

  20. Greg Thibeaux says:

    Wow, I am so glad that I found your website/blog. And while it’s answered pretty much every question I have as for as what needs to be included on the inside, I need to know what makes it so strong that you can walk up inside the coop and it’s strong enough to hold you and not collapse. Both my wife and One of us weighs weell over 200 lbs and now that I realize that the coop has to be built up off of the ground (I had first thought the chickens would just be inside our former greenhouse turned coop) I realize that I’ve got to make it really strong for us to go inside of it. The Greenhouse/coop is strong because on all 4 sides of it are 4 X 4 studs and 2 X 6 boards tie them together. We can walk on the ground fine in there and the ground doesn’t break (a joke), but now I’ve got to build it up off the ground and have it sturdy. Our greenhouse was 12 X 12, so the coop will be able to be fairly big once we build it inside, but I think I’ll have to cement more 4 by 4 studs into the ground to support it. And, while I know I need 1 on each side of the square or rectangle, do I need some underneath to support the full length of the floor? I’m having trouble wrapping this around my brain at the moment if you would take the time to advise me. Thank you so much.

    Greg Thibeaux

    • Hi Greg!
      The floor is made with 2×8 floor joists on 24 inch centres but it feels a bit springy. If you want it to be as secure as a house floor go with 2×8 or even 2×10 floor joists on 16 inch centers. Cover it with 3/4 inch tongue and groove plywood and it will feel very secure :) Good luck!

      • Greg Thibeaux says:

        Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. By “centres” or “centers”, do you mean that underneath the joists I need to put them either 24 or 16 inches apart? Also, the joists (2 X 8), the “2″ is two inches wide and the “8″ is 8 inches from the bottom to top (I know what 2 by 8 pieces of wood are). But, what do these boards rest on that are 4-5 feet up off of the ground? There have to be some boards (4 X 4 ) cemented into the ground somewhere, right? Is there any way that I can view the outside of your coop? Most everyone shows pictures of their coop from the outside but no one shows things so well from the inside like you do with such good explanations, etc., but now I’m needing to see yours from the outside, if possible. Is it possible that you can send me a picture (or a few) of the outside via email? Yes, I do feel like the dumbest one on this forum/website, but that’s okay. I’m good with wood but still need a bit more info before I can start building the coop.

        By the way, we’re going to incorporate every one of your tips on the coop, from the barrel of water to feeding (no pellets but the mash). I just love what you’ve done and are doing for all of us. I think that when my coop is done it’ll be the best in this area as far as functionality, safety, etc.

        Thanks again and I’m sorry for the length of my questions.

        Greg

        • Yes, inches. I’ll take a picture and get back to you. :)

          • Greg Thibeaux says:

            Well, I figured it out with just common sense. I have the subfloor built and just have to get the floor on now. I may have more questions once I progress more on the coop. If you’d like for me to give you my email address so that we can get in touch that way, I’m fine with doing it. Though, I did have to give it to be able to post here, so maybe you have it. I just don’t want to take up a lot of room that may not be beneficial to others on your site.

            Thanks.

            Greg

  21. Greg Thibeaux says:

    I’m sorry but I have another question, and it’s a pretty important one. The coop is coming along well now, but it’s time for me to start purchasing some of the main components that go into the coop. Specifically, where can I purchase the items necessary for the watering system and do you have an idea of how much this system, the barrel, the nipple feeders, etc., costs. I need to get this little chicks into their coop soon as it’s a lot of trouble to continue keeping them in this little cage. If you’d rather email me, my email address is thibeauxgreg @suddenlink.net, except that there is no space between the last “g” of my name and the @ sign. I didn’t want to put my address exactly as it is on here, and I realize it’s still probably stupid that I did it any way, but I’m desperate to get this through. I’m an accountant, and things like this just don’t come as easily to me as they might others, not that accountants can’t be good at their jobs and at building things, but I digress……..

    Thanks.

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