In April of 2008 we added four laying hens to our wannabe homestead. It might well have been the event that changed us from wannabe homesteaders to budding homesteaders. To prepare for our new arrivals, I designed and my husband and I built a mobile pen and a mobile coop, capable of docking together. Both pen and coop were designed with the aim of making them easy for me to move each and every day by myself. This allowed our hens a fresh patch of our untreated lawn every day. It also meant that no part of our property was stripped of vegetation, overloaded with chicken manure, or hard packed into barrenness.
We tweaked our pen and coop in several ways while we had the girls last year. We added better wheels to allow for easier moving. I'm a little taller than the average woman, with only average strength for a woman. Sometimes after heavy rains moving the pen and coop took a lot of effort. After observing the pen and coop in use for the better part of a year we had other ideas for modifications that had to wait until the girls were gone. (We'd planned to slaughter them, but they ended up going to another farm with better housing for the coldest winter months.)
I thought I would use the opportunity to talk about the design of our coop and pen, and to highlight what worked well and what we have improved upon. Our design began by closely imitating this ingenious mobile coop and pen system used for a very small backyard flock. The coop was built with 2x4's and plywood, some of it pulled out of dumpsters. The footprint is 2' by 4' and about 4' tall from floor to the base of the roof. This is really taller than it needs to be, but I wouldn't go any smaller on the footprint. The 4-foot roosting bar that runs the length of the coop is long enough to hold our four fully grown hens comfortably. They seem to like to snug up together when it's chilly outside.
Keep in mind that this tiny coop with its single nesting box housed just four hens. Four two-year-old hens kept us in more than enough eggs for a family of two adults. We were able to barter some eggs, and to freeze some for the winter months. But if you want a larger backyard flock, you will likely need a larger coop as well.
Our coop has two wheels at one end, and wheelbarrow type handles at shoulder height on the other end. Inside are a couple of roosting bars and below them a little roofed nesting box. The nesting box roof is hinged and rests on struts along the side walls. It protects the nest box and the eggs from droppings and gives the girls a sense of seclusion to encourage egg-laying in that location. The hinge of the nesting box roof allows me to take it off its supports inside the coop, fold it flat, and pull it outside for cleaning.
One thing I would do differently if I were building this coop over from scratch is use 2x2's instead of 2x4's. We had free 2x4's from the dumpsters, but they make the coop quite a bit heavier than it truly needs to be. I wouldn't mind a lighter coop on many mornings. I also wouldn't build the coop quite so tall. I really didn't know what was needed for the girls before I got them, so I erred on the side of generosity. I think we could easily have shortened the coop by 8" and perhaps even by 12". Again, that would make for a lighter coop.
This spring we sealed the inside of the coop, including the roosting bars, side walls, and the nesting box lid with deck sealer. This will make the wood less absorbent and easier to clean. I also replaced most of the floor beyond the nesting box with hardware cloth. I came across this idea in Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest book, when he talks about the design of his "Duckingham Palace" - his duck coop. The hardware cloth floor will allow some of the chicken poop to fall through directly onto the earth, and make the weekly cleanings go faster. But it also makes walking over chicken manure on a daily basis unavoidable.
The other modification I made was to reverse the hinges on the door that the hens use to go from coop to pen and back. Last year it was a drawbridge-type door, hinged at the top, that they walked up and down to enter and exit. But it also became another surface that they pooped on; another surface that I had to clean. And because the hinge was on the bottom of the door, it was often difficult to close because hay and other debris got stuck in that area. This was true for the access door to the nesting box as well. So we changed the door so that both of them are hinged on top. This makes it just a little more tricky to get to the eggs. I now have to open the door farther to see if there's a hen on the nest. Before I could just crack the door, peek in and leave her to it if she was occupied. There's also a little more risk that a hen in the nesting box could hop out when I open the door, but so far I'm managing.
As you can see, the roof of the coop is simply hardware cloth covered by plastic sheeting. The hardware cloth provides security from predators, and the sheeting keeps the girls mostly dry when it rains. I say mostly dry because we don't cover the gable ends of the roof with plastic. That means they have lots of good air flow, and a nice view when they're perched on their roosting bar. This ventilation is important for the girls in the summer months when it's hot out; the open gables allows them to catch cooling night breezes, and prevents the top of the coop from getting stuffy and hot during the day. The plastic sheeting also lets in almost 100% of the available daylight, which encourages egg production. Even if I'm late for my morning chores, the girls have plenty of light as soon as the sun rises. When the weather got cold last fall, I covered the whole roof overnight with a heavy sheet to protect the girls from the worst of the chill and any wind that might have come through the gable ends. They were never sick, so I guess this system sufficed for them.
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