Building a Portable Chicken Coop
Reading Time: 12 minutes
A “chicken tractor,” or portable chicken coop, could be as simple as a truck cap on wheels to a more elaborate one.
I have wanted chickens for a long time, not only for the eggs and meat, but to help control the bugs that get into the gardens (not to mention, the fertilizer they produce). I decided to get around 25 hens, which will give me plenty of eggs for family and friends, and I will be able to take the extra to the local farmer’s market and sell them there ($4 a dozen here).
When grown, a chicken needs at least 4 square feet each. (This is for large breed birds, not the bantams that need at least 2 square feet each). My 25 chickens will need a 100-square-foot coop. You can go smaller than this if you have them free range (which I will be doing), but in winter, they will be in the coop all the time, so I wanted to make sure I did not crowd them. I also have a lot of predators in the neighborhood—coyotes, fox, raccoons and neighbor dogs—so while they will free range, I will have an electrical fence around them to protect them. Because chickens will eat and scratch all the greenery into dirt quickly, I wanted the ability to move the coop to new areas as needed. This is called a “chicken tractor,” or portable chicken coop, which could be as simple as a truck cap on wheels to a more elaborate one that I will be building.
I started to look for old camping trailers on Craigslist and in the local neighborhood, as not only are these on a trailer frame, but they are already waterproof. I found a few that were the right size, but they were asking a lot more than I wanted to spend for the chicken coop. I then ran across something called a “people mover,” and when I called about it, I was told that this was an old hay wagon that had been converted into moving people around to go on hay rides on the farm. The outside dimensions were 8-feet wide and 14-feet long (112 square feet), which was perfect for the amount of chickens I wanted. After a little wheeling and dealing with the farmer, he agreed to sell and deliver the wagon to my place for $300.
I started looking and probing the wood and most of the wood on top was good (not rotted) because it was green treated, but a lot of the floor was crumbling. So I spent the day prying off all the good wood (and pulling the nails) and making two piles, one of good wood and one of a nice big burn pile. I bought this for the frame, and the wood I can reuse is a bonus. Yes, I probably could have left the old wood on the wagon and it would have been okay for a few years. I didn’t want to have to redo it when it finally failed.
By the end of the day, I got down to the metal wood and the nice solid oak beams that held everything up (4-inches by 8-inches) and decided that was enough for the day. The metal looked really good. The person who owned this wagon before had put up a few more 2-by-8 boards for extra strength. I decided to keep them as is because the wood was solid.
If you want to have eggs in winter, you have to give the hens plenty of light, either through windows or lights inside the coop. I contacted the local restore (Habitat for Humanity), where I got two 4-foot-wide patio doors for $10. (No frames, just the doors). When I told him what I was doing, he said he have a few windows he was going to toss out; these were 2-feet by 4-feet, and someone had made these out of plexi-glass and built a frame around them.
You will also have to consider the nesting boxes; this is where the chickens are supposed to lay the eggs (they sometimes decided to lay the eggs elsewhere) for a standard hen the nesting box should be 12-inches wide, 12-inches deep and 12-inches tall. The government says that one nesting box per 10 to 12 birds is enough, but most chicken owners say you should have one box per three or four hens.
I work as a machine designer, modeling up individual parts on the computer in 3D, so after taking a lot of measurements of the wagon, I modeled the wagon, which not only gives me a good visual when I build, but the program will give me a bill of materials so I knew what I had to buy to finish it.
As I was building the coop, I decided not to go with the peaked roof of the coop—I will explain why later.
I had to make a decision here: what kind of wood do I want to use, green treated or non-treated wood? The green-treated will last longer, but I don’t want my birds pecking the wood and ingesting those chemicals into the eggs and meat I get from the birds. I decided to compromise and decided that anything inside the coop will be untreated, but the frame on the wagon will be treated. Yes, it is possible they will peck at the wood from below, but I think it is less likely they will do this when they are outside the coop. Since the wood on the wagon frame was 8-inches tall, I bought 2-by-4 wood and put up the perimeter of the coop; I had a lot of extra 4-by-4s laying around from when I built my greenhouse, so I used these to help support the floor.
Most of the wood that was still good from the old people mover was 1-inch thick; this became the base that the coop was built on. I had a lot of old milk crates that I was seriously considering on using for the nesting boxes, as they are the right size. I went a different way, but I still think it would be a good idea.
I am only going to use one of the 4-foot patio doors for the coop, I will save the other for a different project. It was time to frame the first wall. This was where the patio door was turned sideways and used as a window. Because of the weight of the door, the studs were spaced at 16 inches on center, as compared to 24 inches on center that I used everywhere else. As far as the height goes, I am 6-feet, 3-inches tall, and I want to be able to stand inside the coop, so I am making the walls 7-feet tall. From the ground to the bottom of the coop is 30 inches. The coop makes my SUV look small, but it pulls it around the yard without a problem.
After putting up the first wall, the two sidewalls were built and tipped into place. These are 24 inches on center.
I decided not to go around the back with a full-length wall. I wanted a place that the chickens could go up the ramp and them turn into the coop, plus I wanted a “landing spot” for me, somewhere I could back up and unload the truck with supplies (food, bedding, etc.). This area is at a perfect height so I could just slide it off the truck on the coop with less picking up the bags and flinging them on or carrying them all the time. Plus, I think it will give the coop a little style and character.
Once the walls were nailed into place, it was time to square the walls and decide on the roof of the coop. The easiest way to check how square the walls are is to use the 3-4-5 rule; to do this, you will start at the corner and measure out 3 feet (horizontal or vertical) and place a mark; then from that corner measure out 4 feet (either horizontal or vertical, the opposite of what the 3 foot mark is) and place a mark; and then measure between the two marks so it will be 5 feet when the wall is square. I usually use a 6 foot, 8 foot and 10 foot instead of the 3-4-5 but it is the same process.
If your wall is not square (as mine was not), you will nail a board at the upper corner of the wall, and with some help, measure between the marks. You will pull or push the wall to get the 5-foot mark (or 10 foot in my case), and then have that person nail the angled brace to the other studs, which will keep it square until you can get the plywood in place. You will do this for all the walls.
When I first designed the coop, I was going to have a peaked roof, so I would be making trusses now, but I found someone with old metal roofing that was good and the right length for the coop (it was 16 feet, but I was able to cut it down to 14 feet). I am able to catch any rain and keep it in a rain barrel and water the chickens with the rainwater. I used 2-by-8 boards for the roof. It was placed level on the front and raised 6 inches in the back (2-by-6 boards); yes it is shallow, but snow will slide off the metal roof very easy, so I am not worried about the weight of it.
Once the wall and the wood was on for the roof, it was time to put in the windows; the ones on the side and back I was able to do by myself, but I enlisted my son to help me carry and install the patio door-window. When I framed it in, I left a •-inch gap both in length and width to make it easier to install, the open areas will be filled in.
Once the windows are done, I measured and marked the plywood (I used 5/8 plywood for extra strength) and before I cut the areas for the windows I re-measured to make sure I had it right. I am glad I did this; I would have bad pieces otherwise. There are two shelves in front, and while I am not sure what I will be using them for, they made a nice place to sit and take a break.
Most stores that sell paint have an area where the paint was not what the customer had wanted, this is call “miss-mixed paint” and they are a lot cheaper than other paint. At one store a gallon of miss-mixed paint is sold for $5 each, and a 5-gallon bucket is sold for $15 each. A lot of times I buy a few colors of paint like this and mix the paint myself. But this time I found a 5-gallon bucket of grey exterior paint for $15, so I knew then what color my coop will be (ha!).
For the roof of the coop I used the same 5/8-inch plywood that was used on the walls. On top of that I used 5-foot-wide synthetic underlayment, I had from a previous project where I had put metal roofing on my house. On top of this I screwed the metal roofing into place, making the coop water tight.
Because I live in Wisconsin, the winters can get cold. I knew I would have to insulate the coop to keep the chickens alive and happy (and producing eggs). I found a roofing contractor that had torn off an old rubber roof and kept the insulation under it for himself (2 inches glued to a 1-inch board for a total of 3 inches or an R factor of 15). It had set in his garage for over a year and his wife wanted it gone, so for $25, I got enough insulation for the whole coop, plus I have enough for a future project I have in mind for next year.
Because chickens will peck anything, I had to cover up the insulation on the coop. The local box-store sells a 4-foot by 8-foot plastic sheets (1/8-inch thick). Not only will the white plastic help the coop reflect light for my girls, it also means I can use a pressure washer when it is time to clean the coop. When I nailed the walls in place, I put it over the flooring I installed, so there is little chance water will get behind the wall.
Since I will have 25 chickens, I will need either six or eight nesting boxes, and the standard that most chicken owners goes by is three or four hens per box. I decided to go with six nesting boxes, because I spaced the studs of the wall appropriately and I will be able to get two nesting boxes per stud. When you are considering the boxes, place them lower then where they chickens will roost. This way it is more likely they will only be used for laying eggs and not sleeping in.
I placed the bottom of the nesting box level with the 2-by-4 bottom sole plate (stud), when I put the 5/8-inch plywood floor in. The bottom of the nesting box should be 2 1/4 inches off the floor of the coop so the bedding in the coop is not kicked into the nesting box (or at least not as easily). Between the nesting boxes, I used some •-inch plywood I had left over from an old project, which provided the privacy for the hens as well as giving the correct nest dimensions of 12-inch by 12-inch. I am using some plywood for the top of the nesting box. One board per nesting box, so I can get the eggs without having to go inside the coop; from the ground to the top of the coop is 40 inches, making it a perfect height to get the eggs.
Once the boxes were done it was time to design and build the stairs. I started the stairs 12-inches off the ground; this way I won’t have to worry about knocking them off as the coop is moved around the yard. For the bottom step, I will use two of those milk crates I was going to use a nesting box.
Both my mom and daughter like to draw and paint, so I found some chicken cartoons I liked and told them to put on what they wanted. I supplied all the paint and materials and they did the work.
I decided to hand a few baskets on either side of the nesting box. Not only do I like the look, but it will make it handy when the chicks start laying.
I found a nice door at restore to use as my way into the coop. I also built the chicken door as their way into the coop. It is 10-inches wide and 12-inches wide and slide up. The ramp is on a hinge so I can stand it up when the coop is moved.
I also used 1/2-inch black iron gas pipe as a handrail; it’s simple but strong.
The only thing left to do on the outside is to raccoon proof the nesting box. Raccoons are very smart, and with their hands they can open and get into a lot of things they shouldn’t. A good way to check to see if it is raccoon proof is to have a 4-year-old child try to open it; if they can’t, there is a good change you are safe. This is what I did. It took a few minutes for the child to get the pin out, but they were not able to open it because of how I place the locking mechanism because you have to push down on the lid to turn and remove the latch.
Now that the outside of the coop is done, it was time to finish the inside of the coop. On top of the wood, I bought the cheapest vinyl flooring I could find and nailed in in place, and when I did this, I went up the wall at least 3 inches.
It was time to build a roost for the chickens to sleep on. Chickens take their “pecking” order very seriously, and the lower you are on the pecking order the lower in the roost you will sleep. This is because the lower birds will get eaten first if a predator gets inside the coop. Chickens will sleep on their feet, so if you go with less than a 4-inch-wide board, their feet might freeze the feet in winter if it gets cold enough.
You should have 12 inches between levels and you should allow at least 8 inches of roost per bird, so with my 25 birds, I only needed a little less than 17 feet of roosting area. I decided to go the full width of the coop (8 feet) simply because I had the scrap wood and the space.
Where you put the roost is also important. Since they will poop when they sleep, you do not want the roost close to their food or water, and it should be in an area where it is easy to clean. Don’t throw out the used bedding. Put it in your compost pile and your plants will thank you.
For bedding, use wood shavings, as it is very absorbent and it is easy on the chickens, and the price per bag is good.
When you place the water and the food inside the coop, try to keep the top edge level with where their neck and chest meet. This will make it less likely they will defecate on the water and food; this means as the chickens grow, you will have to raise the levels. I like using a chain for this. I have a few on the ground because the chickens going in here will only be 3 to 4 weeks old.
The Finished Product
The chicken coop is done, and my chicks are old enough to leave the brooder and enter the coop. They will stay inside the coop for another 3 to 4 weeks. By that time, this will be “home” to them, where they will return from their adventure in the fences in yard. Because some of the nights are still getting down to the lower 50s, I will continue to use the red heat lamp until all their feathers are grown. When they were first put into the coop, they huddled together in the corner, but if you sit quietly, they started to explore and they seem to like the coop. Some of them sit on top and get the window view.