My poultry’s housing has evolved over the years. First we went from a tiny, unworkable coop for two birds to a spacious, well-designed, and attractive coop that can comfortably house 8 to 12 hens.
Experience drove multiple experiments to increase the efficiency and cleanliness of the coop. Backyard free-ranging was tried (it really was!) but ultimately rejected in favor of a more conventional coop-and-run set-up.
Then we brought ducks into the mix. Ducks added their own significant complications: all mallard-derived ducks are terribly messy and in love with water of all kinds, but drakes (male ducks) are also horrifically ungentlemanly.
First we kept our duck flock in a separate pen and allowed free ranging, but predators and poop (oh the poop!) eventually convinced us that containment was a better plan. There was a series of ponds – built with love, excitement and all natural water-sealing clay, they were filled back in with grumbling chagrin and no small amount of cursing. Small artificial ponds simply cannot sustain ducks.
Which brings us, more or less, to the current set up. My mixed flock of hens and ducks is co-housed in a nice, spacious coop and mostly contained to a nice spacious run. Cleaning and maintenance is simple, the birds are secure, and we even managed to squeeze a water feature in for the ducks.
Here are the features, tweaks, remodels, and systems that I love about our current poultry housing solution.
1. Metal Roof
When we initially built the coop based on slightly modified plans from The Garden Coop, we installed clear plastic roofing panels. While this let in a lot of glorious light, making the coop feel spacious and open, there were some real drawbacks.
First, in the summer in my town, days are very long. At the solstice, day length is something like 16 hours, with another 3 hours or so of “not actually totally dark” book-ending proper sunrise and sunset. Chickens wake up with the sun, and in the summer, having the hens lose their minds in solar-powered excitement at 5 AM was irritating.
Second, within just a few years, UV exposure had weakened the plastic so much that it began to embrittle. We are located in an area with quite a few trees and typical Pacific Northwest autumn windstorms. One unfortunate hit from a mid-sized branch was all it took for the edge of one of the plastic panels to shatter. We tried to “repair” the panel-end with duct tape to get us through the season (who wants to replace roofing panels in the winter?) but by the time the dry weather of summer rolled around, the interior of the coop had suffered water damage.
We replaced the plastic panels on the coop with cute red metal ones, which solved both of our problems. The darker coop helps the hens sleep in a bit in the summer, and the metal is far stronger and more durable. To anyone building a coop from scratch, if you can afford the increased investment, I highly recommend metal roofing panels over plastic.
2. Easy-Clean Interior (A): Accessibility
There are many ways to design a coop that’s easy to keep clean. In my experience two of the key components are easy access to areas that become soiled, and the ability to easily disassemble components of the coop as needed for deeper cleanings.
The roosting and nesting area of my coop is covered by one rather huge door, which swings up and completely out of the way, allowing unfettered and stoop-free access to the coop’s inner sanctum.
Initially, a pair of junk-yard hood struts from a Cadillac (!) held up the coop access door through hydraulics (you can see one in the center of the photo). Hydraulic Caddie Coop was, I must say, incredibly pimpin’. However, the hydraulic pressure eventually petered out so now we use a simple bungee cord to keep the coop’s upswing-door out of the way.
3. Easy-Clean Interior (B): Ability to Disassemble
A chicken coop is a lot like an oven. No matter how good you are at regular maintenance, eventually you have to strip the interior down to it’s component parts for a deep-clean. But that analogy doesn’t quite capture the reality of chicken coop cleaning, so imagine that instead of just baking muffins in your oven, muffins lived in your oven and pooped all over everything, all the time.
Ah, muffin poop.
Having the ability to remove pieces of your coop for a more thorough clean is wonderful. A handful of weeks ago I slid the entire nesting box unit (featured below) out of the coop and pressure washed it. Because it is removable and portable I was able to do this and then set the nesting box unit up to dry in the sun. Marvelous!
To deep clean the floor in this upper section of the coop, I remove the sections of 2×2 that serve to contain the sawdust litter in this area. They are tension-set between the edges of the coop and the center post, so it’s no effort to pull them up. This makes it very easy to scrape spent or dirty litter down to the floor of the coop, or into a wheelbarrow or bucket set underneath.
4. Floor Protection
If you have any wood in your coop, I highly recommend you take steps to protect it from poop and moisture. Under the sawdust litter in the upper section of the coop, I’ve protected the floor with all weather, commercial floor mats.
In the past I used scraps of vinyl flooring to protect this wood section of the coop floor, but I found it was very difficult to deep clean the stapled-in vinyl without it starting to rip and shred. The chickens also found it very slippery if they managed to scratch down under the litter layer.
It’s possible that gluing down a section of vinyl permanently, as you would in a real kitchen floor, for example, would provide the stable underlayment necessary for vinyl, but simply stapling it in, or tension setting sections of vinyl, didn’t work for me.
Although a bit more expensive initially, I’ve found heavy duty indoor/outdoor floor mats to be the perfect solution. The heavy rubber backing protects the wood, the heft of the mat keeps them firmly in place without stapling, they provide a cushioned and high-grip walking surface for the chickens, and if they get terribly soiled I can simply pull them out, hose them off, let them sun-dry and set them back in the coop. In this way the mats are also nicely removable for cleaning (see point 3 above).
5. Nipple Watering System
This is an addition to our coop that’s really stood the test of time. I think we installed this gravity-fed method of keeping our hens (and now ducks) in fresh water about five years ago, and with only periodic cleaning and maintenance it’s done its job admirably.
The goal when we built this nipple-watering system was to get away from the standard jug-type watering systems that get messy and dirty within – let’s be honest – minutes of being set out in a chicken coop.
Our system is made with clip-on poultry nipple-waterers and PVC pipe. Tension clamps secure the PVC to a 2×4 which is mounted to the coop. A food-safe black hose runs from a standard five-gallon bucket mounted up and outside the coop to the pipe, keeping the birds in clean, fresh, and poop free water with little work beyond keeping the watering bucket full.
At the time we built this system, there were not a lot of ready-made nipple watering options for the backyard poultry-keeper. Since then, options have grown. If you want to make something like this yourself, there are purchasable options that will make the project simple. (See: PCV nipple fittings, the BriteTap Chicken Waterer, and this all-in-one 5-gallon chicken waterer.)
6. Concrete Floor and Compressed Wood Pellet Litter
How many floor and litter systems have I tried? Roughly all of them, I think. We did deep litter with straw and deep litter with wood shavings, both over dirt. For a while I was convinced that sand was the best thing ever, but the advantages in cleanliness and drainage were offset by the weight and expense of the stuff. Besides, it doesn’t compost.
When the rats chewed through the metal mesh that had slowly been rusting away under the dirt floor and made their way to the never ending chicken food buffet, I knew we had to take action. That action was concrete.
Dear Concrete Chicken Coop Floor:
How do I love you? Let me count the ways.
- You are so satisfying and easy to clean with everything from a broom to a pressure washer
- You stay so nice and dry
- You keep the f%&!king rats out.
Compressed wood pellets (ours are sold as pellet stove fuel and we stock up in the fall and winter when bags are cheap and readily available) make an ideal overlayment to the concrete, particularly in our mixed-flock coop. I continue to be impressed by the low relative cost, ease of transport, light weight, excellent moisture absorption, fast breakdown into compost, and cleanliness of wood pellets as a coop litter.
The wood pellets break into sawdust as they get wet, and are the only thing I’ve tried which ducks can’t turn absolutely filthy in a day or two. There is none of the “trampled down duck poop frosting” effect that happens with both pine shavings and straw – other duck keepers know what I mean. This is a serious miracle.
Once they break into sawdust the chickens use the dry sawdust to dust bathe.
7. Convenient Interior Storage For Cleaning and Maintenance Items
You might notice that most of the things I’m listing in this article relate to cleaning. That’s not a coincidence. I think fantasy Pinterest coops filled with fabric and fake chandeliers and wicker furniture (WTF?!) are completely, without exception, ridiculous. Your chicken did not just marry Prince Harry. She doesn’t need to live in a castle.
Your poultry housing should be designed with two primary goals in mind:
- Security for your birds
- Ease of maintenance for you
If anything about your coop doesn’t serve one of those two functions, you should really reconsider it.
Which brings me to interior storage. I screwed two simple ceiling hooks into one of the cross beams in my coop. This provides a nice place to store my fine tine stall rake. I use this rake several times a week to easily sift through sawdust and wood pellets and scoop up poop. It’s seriously one of the best chicken coop things I’ve ever bought.
I recently relocated storage for our chicken food, supplemental calcium, and nesting-box materials from the back porch into the coop itself. Although I have not lived with this remodel long enough to declare it a winner, initial impressions are all positive.
It’s a dream to refill the chicken pipe feeders (more on those below) without having to walk back and forth to the patio several times.
8. Gravity Fed Pipe Feeders
In a pipe feeding system, the feed is stored above the opening from which the chickens eat. As the birds make space by consuming food, more food drops down to fill that opening.
Here are the advantages of a pipe feeder:
- Space efficient – instead of a big feeder in the center of the coop, you can tuck feeders up against a wall, helping to preserve floorspace.
- Volume of feed – you can put a lot of feed in a small footprint, so feed doesn’t need to be topped up as often.
- “Spill free” – this is in scare quotes because it’s not true. But it can be almost true if you construct your pipe feeders properly.
All in all I love these pipe feeders. We’ve been enjoying them for over a year now and I would highly recommend this style of feeder. However, there are two specific things we could have done better – consider this a “learn from my mistakes” piece of advice.
First mistake: we made our pipe feeders too tall. They are 5-feet tall. This is really too tall to cleanly pour poultry feed into the tubes, even for tall people like me. If you look closely you’ll see some spilled feed behind the PVC pipes. Not good. Plus, there is no way a child could hope to fill these things, and as we all know as many homestead chores as possible should be outsourced to the kids. I would recommend something closer to three or possibly four feet.
Second mistake: the feeder opening is too big. The way the “eat-from pipe” intersects with the “feed-storage pipe” is very important. Feed can’t flow like water, so it won’t push up above the intersection between these two sections of the feeder. Instead the feed flows only up to the point of that opening.
We created this intersection with a standard Y-fitting, and that works quite well. However, the opening of the Y-fitting is too large, so chickens and especially ducks find it very easy to swipe and scoop their feed out of the tubes and onto the floor (you can see some of that wasted feed in the photo).
Half-blocking the opening with duct tape worked okay, but over the past year that tape has started to degrade and break apart. When we eventually modify these pipe feeders, I’ll add an opening constrictor to make it more difficult for the birds to knock the feed out.
9. Hardware Cloth Exterior
Moving to the outside of the coop, if you live in an area with any kind of critter or predator who might want to exploit your poultry (from rats to dogs to raccoons to coyotes) – I highly recommend you invest in hardware cloth, a tough, small-grid metal mesh that is far more rugged and secure than chicken wire.
The original plans we modified to build the coop called for hardware cloth, and though it was a much more expensive choice than chicken wire, it’s lasted very well. I have lost birds to predators, but never when they were in the coop, so I think the added security has justified the upfront cost.
In terms of maintenance, the hardware cloth has been pretty trouble free. Periodically the sections on the exterior coop door work loose, and we staple-gun them back into place.
10. Easy Exterior Access to the Nesting Box
Sometimes I gather eggs as I’m tucking birds in for the night. Sometimes (often) I send my kids out to collect eggs on my behalf. For any number of reasons, we often want access to the nesting box where the eggs are laid, without having to open the main door to the coop.
The nesting box “hatch” built into the exterior of the coop makes it simple to gathering eggs without risking a “chicken run” scenario where birds sneak past into the run.
11. A Duck “Pond” That Actually Works!
In one of those it-just-evolved-this-way situations, some cherry trees planted near our coop back when we were still free-ranging our birds influenced the shape of the run and the fence we built to define it.
The fence was bumped out further than the edge of the coop on one side so that we would not have to cut down one of the cherry trees. This created a troublesome little pocket around the back-side of the coop. Birds frequently escaped out from under the fence because of the slope of the ground in that part of the yard.
This odd and annoying little cul-de-sac has turned into the perfect spot for our duck “pond” – a Rubbermaid tote half-buried in the ground. (See the first photo in this article for a more birds-eye view of the tub location compared to the coop.)
A very effective filtration mechanism means that we don’t have to empty-and-refill the duck tub very often, and a piece of metal roofing screwed into the exterior of the coop serves as a backsplash to keep the coop itself dry.
What are your favorite features of your chicken coop?