As an Amazon affiliate, I may earn a small commission when you make purchases through these links. For more information, read full disclosure here.
Is it easy to keep chickens on the homestead?
(Or in a backyard!)
It’s almost spring, and even with so many great reasons to add chickens to your homestead (like this list here), before you bring them home, you may be wondering, “is it easy to keep chickens?”
Well, truthfully, it depends.
In this post, I’ll walk you through the basic necessities of keeping chickens. What do they need to thrive? What are the non-negotiable features of a chicken coop? What are some basic tenets of keeping chickens happy and healthy? Wondering what chores and egg production look like month to month? That’s all laid out in this post.
Making Chicken Keeping Easy.
1. The Coop.
The most important aspect of chicken keeping, without question, is their coop.
With a good, strong coop, chores are a breeze, predators are a non-issue, and your hens will healthy and happy in any weather.
On the other hand, an inadequate or poorly built coop will make everything harder, as well as leaving your birds at the mercy of predators and exposed to the elements.
What does it take to make a good coop?
Your coop should be sturdy- strong enough to withstand wind, snow, and attempted break-ins by any local predators. This means that your framing, siding, and roofing should be a strong material. You know- not tarps, rotten pallets, or cardboard- think long-term. Remember that building something right the first time saves you on the time and expense of repairs later on.
Our coop has 2×4’s for the frame, with wooden siding, and a corrugated metal roof. She’s withstood an onslaught- rain, snow, strong winds, intense sun exposure, and all manner of predators- including black bears. Our coop has been sturdy and reliable since the start, so any changes or improvements we’ve made have been pretty minimal. I can’t recommend that enough.
Besides being sturdy, you want to make sure that your coop is going to protect your birds from the elements.
This means we want to shield them from the wind, snow, and rain. We want them to have a place to find shade in the summer too. But we don’t want things so air tight that they suffer from respiratory issues- there’s a fine line between too drafty and not ventilated enough.
Which reminds me, insulation is optional. If you’re not in a particularly cold climate, or raising a particularly delicate breed, you probably don’t need insulation. Keeping your chickens dry and out of the wind will do more for them in the winter than a layer of insulation will.
In that same vein, a heat lamp in the coop is probably not your friend. It will keep their water thawed, true. But it can also be a recipe for a coop fire. Heat lamps can also keep your birds from acclimating to the cold- in the event of a power outage or a burnt out bulb, your chickens may be headed for disaster.
Okay, so sturdy building materials, built to withstand mother nature, and no heat lamps. But how big should this thing be? And what -should- be inside the coop?
To figure out how big of a chicken coop you’ll need, start by deciding how many chickens you want to keep. (Then double it, because chickens have a funny way of multiplying. Chicken Math.) For each chicken, estimate 1-4 sq ft of floor space in the coop.
That’s a wide range because, well it depends. If your chickens will have access to run space 24/7, you can opt for less square footage overall. If you’re primarily raising a smaller breed or a larger breed, that should guide your decision too. Finally, if your feeders and waterers will be outside of the coop, your birds can make do with less space. (Because the coop will only need to have space for nest boxes and perches)
Our coop has a built in run so that the birds can be outside 24/7. This also means that their feeders and waterers are outside. It also gives the ducks a place to sleep without being under threat from predators. If we leave town for a few days, it will also mean that the chickens can comfortable be left unattended. I’d highly recommend incorporating a run directly into your coop’s design.
Now, about perches. They are a nonnegotiable to me. Chickens instinctively love to perch. It’s where they sit to preen, and where they sleep- theoretically free from the predators below. We use 2×4’s as perches in our coop because they’re sturdy and easy to come by. But thick branches and other dimensions of lumber can serve as fine perches too.
The last component of your coop may be one of the most important: nest boxes. Build them too large and you’ll have hens crowding on top of each other to lay in the same box. Too small, and the hens will simply lay somewhere else (like the floor of the coop). Ours are about 1 cubic foot- small enough that only one hen can fit in at a time, but big enough that even our brawnier hens have enough room.
You should plan to have about 1 box for every 4-6 hens.
Another important consideration to your coop design are the doors. How will your chickens enter and exit your coop? How will you? One thing that has made chicken keeping much easier, especially when we travel, is an automatic coop door.
After trying a few different designs, we came upon the Omlet chicken coop door and it has been awesome! If you can splurge on an automatic door (or you’ll be traveling regularly) I highly recommend checking these high-tech doors out. (You can find that link here)
With sturdy materials, a thoughtful design, nest boxes, perches, and care given towards predators, you can build a long-lasting coop that will serve you and your chickens well for years to come.
2. The Run.
As far as I’m concerned, the bigger the run, the better. But predator-proofing vast areas can be expensive or downright impossible.
As I mentioned above, our coop has a smaller, totally predator-proof run that they have access to 24/7. It extends from below the coop (which is on legs and is elevated about 3′ off the ground) to an area around 2 sides of the coop- totaling 100 square feet of covered, predator proof space. This inner run is framed with 2×4’s and 4×4’s. The fencing is 2×4 welded wire, with a smaller gauge wire layered over top.
It’s also important to note that the entire run has a layer of fencing extending into the ground and buried under the surface- lest any skunks or foxes think they can dig in. This mini-run is where we have our chicken’s main water trough and feeder. It is totally covered and keeps out the rain and weather- mostly.
Extending from the mini run is a much larger run that we added last summer. It’s approximately 20 X 35′, fenced in with T-Posts, pressure treated fence posts, and 6′ welded wire fencing. We didn’t bury any wire along the perimeter, nor did we cover this run. The chickens will only have access to this space during daylight hours- when most of our predators aren’t around.
I know that run space will look different for everyone. Our design probably won’t work exactly for you. But there are a few things to consider when planning your chicken run:
Will they be able to get out of the rain/snow?
Will they be able to get out of the wind?
Do they have a source of shade in the summer time?
Is there space to dust bathe?
How will you keep predators from getting in? (OR, will you lock the chickens up at night?)
If you are limited on space for a permanent run, consider free-ranging your hens. Before we cleared out a few trees, we couldn’t put in the secondary run, and instead free-ranged our birds 7 days a week. I think free-ranging is still a prime way to keep chickens, as long as you can be home to lock them up every night.
3. Feeding & Watering.
Good feeders and waterers are an underappreciated aspect of chicken keeping.
An easy to clean, easy to fill waterer will make your chores that much easier and faster. (And thus, it’s going to be much less likely that you procrastinate at them)
In our mini-run, our chickens have a 35 gallon black plastic trough. It’s been retrofitted with a large drain in the bottom, and a PVC pipe that leads out the side of the run. When it’s time to give the chickens fresh water, we open up a PVC shut off and let the old water drain out the PVC pipe- away from the coop. Shut the shut off, fill up the trough, and the chickens will be set.
In the larger run, we also have a pair of galvanized troughs. These are mostly for summer use, when the temperatures can reach over 100*F and the ducks need a way to cool off.
A good feeder is one that keeps the feed clean and dry. A feeder with some capacity is also a huge help- you won’t need to lug around a bag of feed every day.
Our chicken feeder is also located in their mini-run, not in the coop. It’s a large plywood box, about 2 feet x 2 feet x 2 1/2 feet tall, with a sloped bottom on the inside. You pour feed into the top, and it flows down towards holes big enough for a chicken to stick its head in in the front. The best part of this feeder is the capacity though. We can put 3 bags (150lbs) of feed in the hopper at once- which means we aren’t feeding every day- and can leave the chickens unattended if we leave town.
I’m not saying you have to build a feeder like this for your birds, but you should consider what hiring a farm sitter will look like- or just how often you want to move around bulky feed sacks.
This is going to vary so much depending on the design of your coop and the size of your flock. But before you cut one piece of lumber or dig one post hole, consider how you’ll be cleaning out the coop, run, and nest boxes.
Depending on the size of your future flock, you could be using a shovel and a 5 gallon bucket to clean out your coop. Or a front loader. Decide what makes the most sense, and then design your doors/gates/latches/paths to make cleaning as easy possible. Our nest boxes, for example, can be cleaned out without having to go into the coop. This means they’re getting fresh nesting material about twice a week, rather than waiting for the quarterly coop cleaning.
In this same vein, think about how you’ll access the nest boxes and decide ahead of time if you really want to have to go in the coop to collect eggs. I’ve found that have exterior nest access makes things MUCH simpler.
Is It Easy to Keep Chickens?
After reading this post, I’m sure you can see why the answer is “it depends.”
If you’re thoughtful and plan your coop well- before beginning construction- then you’ll find, as I have, that it IS easy to keep chickens. With a sturdy coop, good feeders and waterers, and a simple plan for coop cleaning, having a backyard flock can be a breeze.
Thanks for reading and good luck on your new chicken venture!