This is our first post in our series on how we manage our chickens here at Willow Creek Farm and we thought the best place to start would be housing.
Our chicken housing has evolved quite a bit over the years, especially once we started the breeding program and had different housing needs for the flock. Because of our breeding program, we have housing needs that go above and beyond what an average backyard flock of laying hens needs. But the basics about our housing are pretty similar to someone who owns just a few hens in their backyard.
Almost all of our chicken housing has been built from free, recycled, or clearance priced materials. Husband is in construction and thus is able to collect scraps headed for the dump from job sites and then put them to use on our farm. More details about this will be given in the next housing post where we will share photos and explanations about each of our coops and pens.
The Basic Statistics
We aim for our housing to include at least 2.5-3 square feet of indoor coop space per bird, plus 5-8 square feet of exterior covered pen space per bird. In addition, most of our chickens free-range during the day (in good weather) in a fenced barnyard that is close to half an acre.
Our nests range from 12x12x12 to 12x15x12 inches in size and we provide about 1 nest per every 4 hens. Our nests have a 2-inch lip edge on the front and are lined with 2 inches of pine shavings.
We give about 12-15 inches of roost space per bird, and our roosts range from 1-4 feet off the ground in our coops. The higher roosts have lower roosts that kind of stair step up to them.
Our chicken-sized doors measure approximately 8×11 inches. And any door higher off the ground than 9 inches is given a ramp.
In our neck of the woods security of the chicken housing is of utmost importance. We have predators aplenty, all just waiting for a chance to steal a nice chicken dinner, or even an egg snack. When planning our housing for up here in the Rockies, security from predators is the number one priority, with protection from the weather being a close second.
Each coop is built as securely as possible, with thick walls, floor, and roof. They include an interior and an exterior wall (at least one of which is one-by) hooked onto either 2×4 framing, or recycled pallet framing. This thickness gives security, but also gives us the ability to insulate a bit against the cold. We have mostly used the foam foil insulation because we had access to that for free. But we have also used rags and wool skirtings in our lower coop. All the doors into the coop, whether human-size, chicken-size, or for collecting eggs are secure with a latch, and also a clip on the latch. Raccoons are surprisingly adept with their hands and can open several different types of latches and basic carabiners too. So we always use this type of clip on each latch:
And we hook the clip to the wall with a chain so it doesn’t get lost when we are going in and out.
We are also careful to be sure all the doors are tight inside their frames. If a bear can easily get it’s claws behind a door they can make quick work of prying it right off.
We have found that with the bears in our area, ultimately nothing can really keep a bear that is set on getting in from getting in, short of a steel or concrete building with no seams. However, in our experience, they are opportunistic, so every little thing we do to make it harder for them is a deterrent because they would rather not put in all the effort, especially if an easy-to-open dumpster is just a few properties away. The people in the area that we know that had bears break into coops had flimsy coops with doors that didn’t close tight, or that just had thin siding on the exterior of 2×4 framing that the bear was able to yank right off at the seam. So we do all we can, and hope it is enough.
All of our pens are covered with a roof. Several years ago we had a pen that was just covered with chicken wire on a wood frame and it worked fine for security from climbing and flying predators, but the chicken pen would become a slimy, slippery mess whenever it rained or snowed. So we switched over to always doing a full roof over the pen and are very happy with that decision. That way, no matter if it is raining or snowing, the chickens can be in their pen and it stays clean and dry.
All of our pens have secure chicken-wire walls and the seams of the wire are overlapped a few inches and sandwiched between the framing and a wood trim piece which is screwed on. We also run the wire down off the walls onto the ground outside the pen and it goes for about a foot out. We bury that wire a couple of inches under the dirt. This prevents things from digging in. When possible (rocky terrain sometimes prevents it) we also line the floor of the pens with chicken wire, overlapped 4 inches or so where the pieces meet each other, and buried several inches under the ground. All of this wire is secured to the framing of the pen with staples, and sandwiched with wood trim and screws when needed.
This might seem like overkill, but we are doing our best to take no chances of predators making a meal of our chickens. We still might have a predator tragedy, but we do everything we can to prevent it. The riskiest time for them is when they are free-ranging, but we have done what we can to protect them during that time as well.
I guess our birds don’t technically “free-range” because they are inside of a fenced area. But the area is just under half an acre and they are able to scratch and peck and move around in a free-ranging way. It is the barnyard, and they share it with the other animals. They are excellent at turning the compost pile in there for us, and for preventing excess insects, pests, and parasites from taking over the barnyard and the other livestock.
To provide as much security in the barnyard as possible we have a fence that is 5-feet tall with 2×3 inch welded wire attached to it. It also has chicken wire along the bottom couple feet of it that extends out from the fence on the ground for a foot. It is buried a couple of inches under the dirt. This situation keeps out coyotes and other non-climbing predators because they can’t dig in. That leaves climbing, jumping, and aerial predators. The way we take care of them is with our farm dog, Tundra. He is an excellent protector of all of our livestock, including the chickens. When a predator comes into the area he chases all the chickens and sheep into their housing and then stands barking until the predator leaves. If they choose to attempt to enter the barnyard he will attack. He has treed a bear, and chased off bobcats, foxes, and raccoons. But most of the time, because he puts the livestock inside, the predators just move right along with his warning barks and there isn’t a need for a fight. He is such an asset to our farm.
Bedding and Cleaning
We deep-bed our chicken coops with pine shavings. They are usually about 1-2 feet deep. As they get tramped down and the composting begins underneath we will stir them up, removing any areas that are extremely wet, and then we will add a new layer of shavings on top. We do this every couple of months, unless we begin to smell ammonia before then. At the slightest hint of ammonia smell we do the stir, remove very wet stuff, and add a layer routine. About once or twice a year we do a full clean-out of all the bedding in the main coops, let it dry through the day while the chickens are closed out, and then fully re-bed it with clean shavings. Everything we clean out goes onto the compost pile in the barnyard. The smaller growing-out pens and broody hen areas get full clean-outs more often than twice a year.
We rake the covered pens a couple of times a year as well. They don’t have any bedding in them, just the dirt that is naturally on the ground here. Because our climate is so dry, and the pens have roofs on them, they stay clean and manageable with that small amount of maintenance.
We have never needed to provide our chickens with built dust baths. The dirt around here is dry and loose enough that they are happy to dust bathe in their pens or in the barnyard while free-ranging. We have occasionally sprinkled a dust bath mix with diatomaceous earth in it in their favorite dust bathing areas to help with parasites.
Winter Housing Management
We do use heat lamps in our coops. We generally turn them on for the adult birds when the temperatures are going to drop below 15F, warmer for younger birds. We do this with some trepidation, as we almost had a barn fire once when a heat lamp wasn’t secured enough and a hen tried to get up on top of it and it fell down. But when we don’t use them we have really struggled with frostbite. We are breeding the birds to have small combs to help with this, but it seems like a lot to ask of any bird to live without some heat source when it doesn’t get above 5F for days in a row and the nights are going down to -30F. So to make our heat lamps as safe as possible they are hung from a chain from the ceiling now, and in a couple of coops we have an installed light fixture which we screw the heat bulb into. That keeps birds from being able to knock them down. We use blue or red bulbs.
We also hot mash the chickens when it is cold out (more information about that coming in the feeding post), and make sure the bedding in the coops is good and deep for warmth.
I think that covers the basics about our chicken housing at Willow Creek Farm. In the next post of our Managing Chickens series we will share with you photos and information about each of our different chicken coops and chicken housing areas including our two main coops, our two growing-out pens in the barn, the Mama Hen pen in the barn, and the broody hen/hospital coop.