Tuesday, July 21, 2015

To Coop, or not to Coop...that is the Question!

So you want chickens. Yay!  I am truly happy for you because I know first hand the joy of owning chickens. My birds make me smile with their antics and puzzle over their 'interpersonal relationships,' and sometimes, they bring me to the brink of using bad words...but wait! This post is supposed to be about COOPS...so let's save the drama for another day!

If you followed a similar path to me, once you decided to actually go for it, and buy some chickens, you have spent countless hours scouring the internet and any available library book for information on how to house your feathered flocks. You have probably bent the ear of any and everyone you know who actually has chickens and now, when they see you coming, they suddenly remember an appointment for a root canal, that they just cannot miss!

Have no fear, relentless researcher!  I am here to save you any more grief. That is, if you take the path that I have walked and dive into Open Air Housing (OAH) for your flocks. I first heard of OAH from a fellow lady homesteader at a Ladies Homestead Gathering meeting. She referred me to an awesome book called The Small Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery. I checked it out at the library (am I the only one who does that? Get it free first and make sure I like it before I spend cashola on it?!) and immediately knew that I had found a book that would help me define my Chicken Philosophy.

Initially, it seems that most new chicken folk think that they have to lock up their birds in tight houses during the winter or risk losing them all to death by cold air and bad weather. I know that is what I thought! So our first chicken coop was a sight to behold! It was made over from a play house that had crashed in the woods, and my husband did a masterful job turning this wrecked structure into a safe place for our first flock.

Our first chicken coop and run...we called it Fort Knox, as it was built to resist all local predators...and it did!
We covered the windows with 1/2" hardware cloth, and built the run of the same material, with a 12" apron of wire coming out horizontally from the base. Over the two years we were at this farm, this house had many uses. Initially, it housed our layers, then later, we used it as a home for broody hens, new chicks (meat and layers) and even as our hospital for sick animals.

It was a great chicken coop, or so I thought until I started reading chapter 6 in The Small Scale Poultry Flock. Mr. Ussery writes about the benefits of OAH which are better air quality, less frost bite and fewer respiratory issues in the winter and healthier birds overall. And as I read what he wrote, I realized that he was right! In the hot summer months, I could not make this closed coop smell good. And I knew if I did not want to be in there, then it was not a good place for the Girls to be sleeping all night!

That first hot summer was followed by an unusually cold winter. Thankfully, I did not have to deal with any frost bite (most of my birds had rose combs), but knowing what could happen in such a moist, cold environment, made me think long and hard about how to change the housing situation for my Girls.

Enter Coop #2, our use-what-you-have coop.  Almost the entire structure was built with what we had on hand, though we did have to buy wire and a few 2 by 4's. Most of the wood was from an old playhouse structure we had from our last home, plus some barn wood from a friend and scraps we found buried in the leaves in the woods (the benefit of living in an older house where people just dumped excess building materials in the woods!)

Front view of new coop

Side and Rear View of new coop

Nest box detail on new Coop - the front dropped down for egg collection

I LOVE this coop!!  The Hillbilly and the Kids and I built this coop over a two week period in July of 2014. Don't ask me why we were outside building in July, in Georgia...I guess the heat addled our brains!  Things I love. It was a bright, open, sunny coop. Never hotter than the outside air, and tucked as it was in the woods, there was almost always and breeze and it was never nearly as hot as the closed coop! We tarped the top all year, to keep the Girls dry in the rain, and tarped the west facing side in the winter, to protect their backs from the wind. The bedding was a mix of composting leaves from the woods, with an occasional bale of pine shavings, when we did not have time to go bring in leaves.

The overall dimensions were 8 feet deep by 16 feet long. The roof was sloped..hmmm...I am thinking at the back it was a little over 5 feet and in the front, closer to six feet. The outside was covered in 1/2" hardware cloth again (including the 12" apron around the base). We had a divider of chicken wire down the center of the coop, so that we could separate flocks when needed. Each side had a five gallon water bucket with watering nipples and a large metal feed holder, both suspended from the ceiling. And finally, there was a nest box on each end. The roost was a flat 2 by 6 which ran the 16 foot length of the coop, that enabled the girls to keep their toes warm all winter long.

This coop was my interpretation of what I was reading about open air coops.  I have since read Fresh Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods, M.D., which is the book that got Mr. Ussery thinking about and using OAH. When I build my next winter housing for my birds, I will do a variation of the house above for them. The main change  I will make is to cover the sides better in the winter, so that there is more of a wind break. That said, I had zero frostbite, no frozen toes and no sickness in my birds for the winter they spent in this coop.

Then came our move to Virginia. By now, I am convinced that this OAH works, so I have the Hillbilly build our next iteration...the Eggmobile.  In Virginia, we are out of the woods and on to grass dotted with fruit trees, nut trees and some larger deciduous and pine trees. Our plan is to move the Eggmobile around the property, keeping the Girls on fresh grass and utilizing Electronet to keep them safe from predators (and to keep them from poopin' on the porch!).

Winter view of the Eggmobile

Summer view of the Eggmobile
The Eggmobile is basically a cube, built from 1 by 2's. It is wrapped in 1/2" hardware cloth and the Girls are locked up in here at night, to keep them safe from the skunks, possums and coyotes that roam the area. Every week or two, we hook this up to the lawn mower and tow it to a new site (hopefully it will soon have wheels to make this move a little easier). In between, we move the Electronet around the coop to give the girls fresh grass and bugs. The perches are all on the same level, so the girls can walk over them to get to their preferred spot. The nest box opens up into the coop, and the lid also lifts for easy egg collection.

During the winter, as you can see in the first pic, we wrap the top and two sides in tarps, leaving the remaining two sides and bottom open. We position the coop so that the prevailing winds hit the coop on the wrapped sides, protecting the birds from the cold winds. In the summer, we leave the top covered and raise the tarps up to allow the breeze to blow through the coop and to provide shade for the Girls. In addition there is a tarp off the side of the coop that covers the food and water buckets to keep them dry.

This winter, I plan on parking the Eggmobile in the middle of the garden and letting the girls eat the leftover gardens items and work the soil. I am hoping to sow some winter grasses on one end of the garden, knowing it will provide some food and warming exercise for them in the colder months. Ideally I will be able to build a hoop house from cattle panels, so that I can give the girls a more sheltered place to spend the cold winter days....we will have to see if we can actually pull that one off this year!

What have you found works best for you and your birds?

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