Monday, April 27, 2009

Going Mobile With A Backyard Flock

I've had a few requests for pictures of my chicken coop and pen. It's a post I've been meaning to get around to writing for some time now. While I don't want to intimidate any would-be backyard poultry keepers, the physical system of my mobile coop and pen are somewhat complex, so this will be a lengthy post with lots of pictures. Don't let that put you off. There's no orthodoxy to chicken housing.

Before we get to the pictures and explanation, I should say that the inspiration for keeping my laying hens in a rotational grazing system comes ultimately from Joel Salatin and his wonderful system of rotating cattle, poultry and pigs around his grass-based farm in Virginia. Zoning in my area doesn't allow for free ranging poultry, and I didn't want to destroy any part of my lawn through nitrogen toxicity (chicken manure is loaded with nitrogen) from a fixed chicken run, so rotational grazing it was. It was hearing Harvey Ussery speak at the 2008 PASA conference that really lit a fire under me to make backyard poultry happen. Ussery's presentation was incredibly motivating, and the resources on his homesteading website gave me plenty of ideas for how to design a coop for my needs. I was most taken by the "Cody" design that appears at the bottom of this page on Ussery's site. That coop formed the basis of my own design.

You'll see pictures of my flock set up during renovation, priming, and painting, both before and after the hens returned from winter camp. I hope this doesn't confuse any of you as to what you're seeing. So, without further ado - pictures and the discussion of the features.

Here's the coop and the pen, "docked" together. The coop is on the left and the pen on the right. When the chickens go into the coop on their own each night, I can close them up inside it to protect them from predators. Then in the morning I can separate the coop and pen with the girls still locked up inside the coop, retrieve the feeder and waterer from the pen to be refilled, move the pen to a new location, replace the feeder and waterer in the pen, snug the coop up to the pen in its new spot, and let the girls out of the coop to enjoy their breakfast. I designed the pen carefully so that the girls would always have access to sunlight, breezes, and shelter from rain or wind when appropriate.

To move the coop, I stand between the lifting bars, and lift them to shoulder height. I can walk forward or backward, and turn as necessary. The wheels at the far end of the coop allow for good maneuverability.

Here's a picture of the coop and pen from slightly above. You can see the extra piece of wood lying on the top right section of the pen. This is actually a door that I can use to close the girls in the pen when I need to pull the coop away from the pen for cleaning. When I'm not using it as a hanging door, I place it on top of the pen for extra shade on hot days. Chickens don't like overly warm weather.

This picture shows the pen interior with the door to the coop closed. The door has a long eye hook with an attached cord that I can use to raise and lower the door. There's also a latch for nighttime security from predators. The hanging door mentioned above would hang just outside of that framed opening.

Here's the pen interior with the chicken door held open by tension on the cord (about which, more below). The waterer and feeder hang to either side of the chicken door. Notice, if you can, the round wooden grip hanging from the waterer cord. That's attached there to make hauling the water easier on my hands.

I built the roof of the coop with a few issues in mind. Firstly it needed to be predator proof. Secondly it needed to protect the girls from rain. Thirdly it should allow for maximum daylight because exposure to light encourages the hens to lay eggs. They lay much less frequently when the days are short. Fourthly, I wanted to prevent the coop from getting too warm as the girls would be roosting in the roof space each night. And of course, I didn't want to spend much money. As you can see, a simple stick frame covered by hardware cloth netting and a translucent piece of plastic cut from a used drop cloth will do the trick. I had to replace the plastic sheeting this year, and I imagine this will be a yearly maintenance chore.

I left the gable ends of the roof completely open to maximize ventilation, but with a little extra overhang on top to help keep rain out. It still lets in a little rain, but the worst of it sheds off. When the overnight temperatures are very low, I cover the entire roof with a sheet to protect the hens from too much wind. The sheet probably raises the overall temperature of the coop by a few degrees as well.

I think the girls enjoy having a view when they're on their roosting bar.

This picture of the coop interior was taken during winter renovations. Both doors are off, and the hardware cloth flooring has not been put in yet. Also the roof of the nesting box has been removed.

Renovations are mostly done here. We're looking from the back of the coop, through the open "egg hatch" at the floor of the coop and on into the pen. You can see the hardware cloth flooring to allow manure to pass right through onto the grass. Less manure inside the coop keeps everything cleaner day to day and makes the weekly cleanout easier on me. Adjacent to the egg hatch is the removable, hinged roof of the nesting box. The space underneath gets a layer of hay when the hens are in residence. The hens roost above this area every night, but the roof prevents manure from falling into the nest. It also makes the nest area dark when the egg hatch is closed. Hens like to lay in a dark area with a sense of shelter.

The nesting box roof is hinged to allow easy removal when cleaning. It rests on struts attached at either side to the walls. So I just lift it up, fold it flat, and pull it through the egg hatch. The two sides of my nesting box roof happen to be of unequal lengths because I used what plywood we had found in dumpsters. So long as the roof is about the right height and can be easily removed for cleaning, you could build it anyway that seems best given your materials.


Here's a food hatch that I added to the pen this year. This was something I wished all of last year that we'd put in before the hens arrived. Being able to toss food scraps, greenery, and various treats into the pen easily is well worth a little extra effort. It also gives me better visual access to covered end of the pen whenever I want it.

Here's the cord that lets me raise and lower the chicken door. Two screws attach to one lifting bar of the coop so that I can wind the cord around them and keep the door in a raised position.

This is the bottom of the coop. On the right you can see the hardware cloth floor, which lets much of the manure pass right through and onto the grass. On the left are small "skids." These are just scrap pieces of plastic lumber that serve to keep the wood off a wet lawn. Otherwise the wood would soon rot. We also put deck sealer all over the bottom of the coop to preserve it. The other end of the coop doesn't need skids because it has wheels.

We started out with wheels that were far too wimpy for the weight of the coop. If you pursue a design anything like mine, I recommend you start out with serious wheels with a metal hub. They're not that expensive, maybe $15 for a pair. Cheap wheels will cause a lot of frustration and additional repairs with a mobile coop.

We put in these support bars on two corners of the pen to bear some of the weight of the waterer and feeder. The nail on the outside corner of the pen takes the rest. We probably only needed extra support for the waterer, but it helps not to have anything resting directly on the hardware cloth roof, which would otherwise eventually cave in.

Not counting the wheels, the coop is 4' (1.2 m) high from floor to the base of the roof. The roof is 12" (30 cm) from base to apex. The floor footprint is 4' x 2' (1.2 m x .6 m). There is one roosting bar running lengthwise and one smaller bar running side to side, mostly to keep the walls from bowing outwards. The peak of the nesting box is about 16" (41 cm) off the floor of the coop, though it doesn't need to be quite that high. The nesting box occupies slightly less than half the floor space of the coop, about 20" x 24" (51 cm x 60 cm). Most of the rest of the floor of the coop is taken up by hardware cloth mesh.

The pen is 6' (1.8 m) wide by 5' (1.5 m) long, and 3.5' (1.1 m) high, giving a total area of 30 square feet (2.8 square meters) and volume of 105 cubic feet (3 cubic meters). This may not seem generous for three or four chickens, but since they are on fresh grass every day, it is quite adequate. For what it's worth, the average laying hen in a US industrial battery facility gets 59 to 67 square inches of space for her personal use, depending on which report you believe. That's about half the area of letter-sized piece of paper. In that space the hen cannot stand erect, preen herself, turn around, or open her wings. Needless to say, the battery hen has no access to sunlight, fresh air, greenery, nor the ability to express her natural range of behaviors. My hens currently have 10 square feet of grassy space each, not counting the coop. Last year, with four hens, they each had 7.5 square feet.

What I would do differently
If I had to build both the coop and the pen all over again from scratch, I would build with 2x2's instead of 2x4's. The coop and pen are both heavier than they need to be. We could have built it plenty strong with smaller dimension lumber, and that would make it significantly easier to move. (Then again, we more commonly find 2x4's in dumpsters than we do 2x2's. Using free materials was a priority when we built this, and likely would be again.) I would also make both coop and pen shorter. Not knowing how high either pen or coop needed to be, I erred on the generous side. I think the coop could easily lose 8 inches or even more, and the pen could be shorter by that much as well. Less height would again make the morning moving routine easier.

The first year we built both the chicken door and the egg hatch with the hinges on the bottoms. This was a mistake, because a lot of hay and debris fell into the jambs and made it very difficult to close the doors. This year I switched them around so the hinges are on top. Best of all would probably be doors that simply raise and lower like a guillotine, but are easy to secure in place for predator deterrence. I might design for that if I had to do it over.

Okay, then. I think that about covers my chook equipment. Questions about anything I did or didn't cover? Ask away in the comments.

Related posts:
Putting the Livestock to Work
In Further Praise of Domestic Poultry
Meat Rabbits On Pasture
Poultry Schooner in Action 


Cheap Like Me said...

Great information. We are still in the thinking stages re: chickens, but your setup looks doable for the average home.

Green Bean said...

Like Cheap, we're thinking of getting chickens. Thinking, thinking, thinking. One of the biggest bumps in our road is a coop. Yours looks pretty doable. I'll show my hubbie. Thank you for sharing.

debra said...

i like your design. it appears good and sturdy. i need something dog proof. i let the girls out in the ayrd the other day while the dogs were away. first thing they did was fly up on to the roof and refuse to come down. so much for my bright ideas.

Cowgirl in the City said...

Very cool! I wish chickens didn't violate our zoning laws so I could try to raise chickens. Oh well. thanks for sharing the pictures!

azampeg said...

I have seen guillotine chicken coop doors made from recycled speed limit and road signs. The sheet metal is fairly easily bent to make the guide rails to hold the slat in place. I believe they cut four inch wide "rails", hammered to 90 degree, screwed into the outside wall, the hammered over a bit to keep the slat in place. The slat had a similar bend along the top edge to act as a handle. A simple bolt throw was used to hold the slat up by the handle bend. They left the Speed Limit 15 facing out so the chicks slowed down upon ingress.

Kate said...

Cheap, and Green, I'm glad to give you some food for thought. I hope you both will soon enjoy the pleasures of backyard poultry.

Debra, though I don't have dogs, I think this set up would protect our girls from dogs. My first concern would certainly be for the garden rather than the chickens if a stray dog made its way into our yard.

Cowgirl, I'm sorry to hear your zoning laws prohibit chickens. Two things: you may be able to work to change that if you become an agitator; all politics are local, after all. And I'll pass on what one local farmer told me. It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission when it comes to what you can do with your own property.

azampeg, that sounds very cool and also very amusing. Thanks for sharing.


Pricilla said...

My husband is going to build a chicken tractor for our chicks. They arrived on MOnday so I will show him your post. It looks great.

lizzylanefarm said...

What a lovely coop. I mean it, I really like it. I showed it to my husband and he thinks he could make me something like this. I like that it rolls around where every you want it. I like how secure it looks. VERY important around her with all the coyotes we have.

Thanks for putting such detail into the post with great pictures too.


Kate said...

Pricilla, good luck with a mobile routine for your chicks. I hope they're doing well.

Lizzylanefarm, thanks! I'm glad you like the design, and I hope something similar will work well for you. I definitely designed it with security in mind. We have lots of predators too.

timfromohio said...

I discovered this blog through Rob's blog (OneStraw). Great information. Did you consider an "ark" style coop/run at all? I found some pics online and built a frame for one - plan to finish over the winter and get a small flock going next Spring. Just wondering if there were any reasons you didn't go with such a design.

Kate said...

tim, I know I saw the "ark" style coops before we built our setup. I don't think there was any major objection to that style. I just wanted to give the girls as much space as was feasible, and to do that it seemed easiest to have a separate coop and pen, so that they could be moved independently. I think whatever works is fine. Good luck with your flock, and I hope you'll consider posting details of your system, whether it works perfectly for you or not. Others can profit from your experimentation and refinements.

Ghost said...

Brilliant! This is exactly the sort of mobile coop design I've been looking for-- most of the one-piece designs look either too heavy for me to move by myself, or I'd have to build them too flimsy to make them light enough. Bookmarking...

Kate said...

Ghost, thanks. I hope you'll soon have your own flock in secure housing. Please consider posting about what works for you and what doesn't. It's good to share this stuff!

Brad K. said...


I like the thought of eight inches less height - but I think I may try your design, but raise the laying part of the floor eight inches. Maybe use a sled-type runner for the "feet".

I am getting older, and less nimble as well. The added height for the laying cubby makes sense, I think. I will probably make the rest of the floor slant down to the chicken door. And maybe a single roof for the laying area, also slanting toward the coop floor.
My struggle is to combine chickens and garden weeds in such a fashion that I keep the chickens, and reduce the weeds. Your coop looks like something I can adapt to load from the chicken house, and use to manage the garden with a chicken tractor or coop. This year I have just 1 bantam hen, 3 bantam roosters, and 2 layers. I hate to risk any of them!

Kate said...

Hi Brad, I hear you with the getting older thing. I like the idea of raising the nesting box too. It makes a good deal of sense, and frees up a little more floor space. One other thing I've been working with but haven't yet posted about is to put a piece of linoleum down on the floor of the coop, without attaching it, preferably fitted so that the edges of the linoleum curve upwards to meet the side of the coop. This makes it simple to pull out the piece, clean off all the chicken shit, and replace it. Not much other mess stays in the coop, except what is on the nesting box roof. If you go with sled style feet, be sure your apparatus is as light as possible. Lawns produce significant drag. Good luck!