How to design a home for compost-fed chickens and relaxed chicken care.

I want to write two posts on designing a run and coop (home) for chickens fed on compost. This one is about the design requirements. We ended up building our own chicken run and coop, in part because it was fun and because it was cheaper, but also because if you are feeding chickens on compost, the ready-made coops and runs available from the farm store or online won’t work. By building the coop and run ourselves we were able to add additional features: super relaxed chicken care; chickens empowered to get up when they want; setup for better winter-egg laying.

Here are four goals we ended up meeting:

  1. Feed the chickens 100% on scraps and waste in a backyard-suburban context;
  2. Super-relaxed chicken care that includes NO getting up early to let them out of the coop and NO cleaning smelly coops;
  3. Lots of eggs the entire year – including December, January, and February;
  4. Building the coop was inexpensive, used only simple tools, and minimal skill.

Make the chicken home large enough so you can easily manage the large compost and deep litter piles for zero-grain feeding.

The trick with feeding chickens on kitchen scraps is to put in way more scrap, leaf, and green material than they can eat (see post) and create a big compost pile which also provides the chickens with worms and grubs feeding on the decomposing foods, and warmth in the winter.  You need space for a compost piles that is a couple of cubic yards.   Moreover, every now and again, you, the chicken owner, will want to turn get in and work the piles with your pitchfork: you might turn the piles to create more heat in winter, or expose yummy worms for your ladies in the summer. Twice a year – in Fall and in Spring, you will “clean” the coop by taking out fantastic half-cured compost for finishing. There will be multiple wheelbarrows of this good stuff, so you want to have an enclosure that will comfortably fit you, giant with a pitchfork.

We built an enclosure that is 7 feet tall in the middle and 8 feet wide with a door large enough to comfortably enter it. Ah yes, and another reason to have a large enclosure that you can stand up in is so that you can socialize with your chickens and they can perch on you!

Enclose your chicken home to protect chickens whether they are out and about or sleeping on their roosts.

The conventional backyard chicken set-up typically includes a run and a coop.  The run is the area where the chickens can roam around during the day (at least 8-10 square feet per chicken), while the typical coop is an enclosed area safe from the elements and predators, where the chickens sleep at night (2-3 square feet per chicken).  To protect the chickens from night-time predation, the chicken owner has to close up the chicken coop after the chickens have gone to roost, and in the morning, has to let them out. I do not want to have to get up early every morning to let out chickens!

So for the relaxed chicken care, I was looking for a coop set up where you don’t need to let the chickens out in the morning and close them back in at night.  Besides, it is chicken empowerment to let them decide on their own when they go in and out.  Our solution was presented to me by a 14-year old boy at the BFFC chicken mini series): he and his dad built a large run that is enclosed with the coop inside it so the chickens are always protected and can come and go into their coop as they like.

We have a similar setup. The entire coop and run is an enclosed hoop house with hardware cloth all along the bottom. Two-thirds of the hoop house is open-air with hardware cloth up the sides to 4 feet, with chicken wire around the higher areas; and one-third is closed to the elements by plywood and a metal roof. In this protected area, which is always accessible from the open run, we put the roosts and the nest boxes.

Find a way to keep the chickens warm and protected from wind and snow in their run in the winter.

Although chickens are very cold-hardy, they require 50% more energy when the temperatures drop. This means extra food, and it means they have fewer calories left to turn into eggs. A couple of design elements kept them warm in the colder months: the compost; putting some reflective insulation around the roosting pole area; covering the hoop-house with greenhouse plastic.

During the leaf-fall period, we put out word in the neighborhood that we would take leaves. Soon, a number of neighbors approached us and asked if they could leave their leaf bags on our driveway. In no time, we had more than 70 bags, which we brought to the back. After the Fall compost clean-out in October, we put half the leaves about 3 feet deep into the run and the coop. The chickens had a good time with it!

As the months got colder, the pile heated up, exuding a nice temperature balance. A Cornell article I found said that a ton of compost can produce 1000 BTU of heat per hour.  We have at least two or three tons of compost in the chicken house, which might have put out 5-7 MBTU from December to February (compare: an efficient people-house around here uses about 30 MBTU for winter heating).

The other winter accommodation was turning the hoop house into a greenhouse. Many people in colder climates move their chickens to a plastic-covered hoop house in the winter. We thought this was a great idea, but, to make life easy for ourselves, we built the entire structure as a year-round hoop house from the get go. In the three warmer seasons, when chickens like the ambient temperatures (except when it gets too hot and they need shade), the hoop house was uncovered. In late November, all we needed to do was get out some greenhouse plastic and drape it over the two-thirds of the chicken home that was open. Our chickens were cozy even when the wind howled and the snow blew all around. Below is a photo of our chicken home after a snow storm – inside, the chickens are dry and happily scratching around in the compost! At the end of March, we took the plastic off and stored it in the basement.

We found that with this setup, our food requirements remained more or less the same, which was handy since we did not need to find extra neighbors for compost, and we kept getting eggs: Winnie and Pooh (the True Greens) dropped production just 10% in February; Kanga and Roo (the Australorps) were producing at 50% December-February (although this might have been due to worms).

Simplify the build with standard materials, simple nest boxes, and simple roosting poles.

Most chicken residences have a separate coop-house, with doors and windows – very complicated to build. Often, you will also see nest-boxes built as an addition outside the coop so you can collect eggs without going inside, another complicated addition.

We kept things really simple. First, to make the overall chicken house, we used 16′ cattle panels which we bent into hoops. The hoops fit into a simple wooden frame on the ground made with standard sized 2”x6″ lumber. The ends of the hoop house were made from scraps of plywood (this was the most fiddly part of the build because we cut the plywood to fit the hoops’ curves, and built a door). As mentioned earlier, we covered one-third of this hoop-house with standard metal roofing – we partially partitioned this covered area on the inside of the chicken residence, but left it open enough for a human to easily enter. In this enclosed area, we just mounted a scrap stick for a roost. The egg boxes consist of a simple shelf mounted on the hoop house end, two rough cut boards mounted in an A-frame. Our daughter Josephine added curtains for egg-laying privacy and as a cosy design element (in the photo below you can just make out Winnie getting ready to lay in the nest box).

All of these design requirements were met with a cattle panel chicken hoop house of which there are many, many designs online. 

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