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A new home. A clean slate. A blank canvas. That’s what millions of Americans experienced during the mass migration of the last year when urban areas drained into suburban or rural locations.
The reasons for the migration were complex, but many expressed a desire to get a bit closer to their food sources. Often that translates into a flock of chickens in the backyard.
We also were part of this migration, but in our case, we were empty nesters leaving a self-sufficient homestead to downsize to a smaller property. Our new home has no existing infrastructure except a barn. This means we’re facing the task of how best to optimize our property, including the placement of a chicken coop and chicken yard.
We’ve raised chickens for decades, but this is the first time we’ll have a chance to build infrastructure from the ground up and avoid repeating past mistakes. Our goal is to maximize what chickens can do for us above and beyond eggs. We’re interested in the holistic integration of chickens into the rest of our plans for the property, including incorporating permaculture components with chickens as part of a closed-circle setup. Specifically, we want the birds to do the heavy lifting when breaking down compost (garden waste and cow manure).
In an ideal situation, the cow barn, chicken coop, and garden would all be clustered in cozy proximity so the components of each could flow seamlessly from one to another. The cows and garden would produce waste, which we would add to a compost pile, which the chickens would then turn over and break down in their quest for biota, and we could then heap the compost on the garden, et cetera.
Nice dream, eh? The problem is, our property doesn’t lend itself to any of those visions. Instead, we are situated on a long thin triangle of land approximately one acre in size (the rest is pasture). This means the chicken coop, garden, and barn will have to be widely separated, and we’ll be trucking garden and barn waste from two separate directions to dump in the compost pile. Complicating this, we have a dog who would love nothing more than to be let loose so he could kill an entire flock single-handedly. Such is life.
Endless other people starting in a new place with a blank slate find themselves faced with similar challenges. No matter how fancy or comprehensive your dream is, each location has its strengths and weaknesses, and you have no choice but to work within those parameters.
While this task may seem daunting, a blank slate is a good thing. You’ll have the luxury of planning where you want things to go rather than dealing with a previous owner’s setup. It means you can take advantage of your property’s strengths and weaknesses and plan out the best possible situation for what you have on hand.
At this stage, the most powerful weapon in your arsenal is a paper and pencil. Draw, sketch, discard, mull it over, draw, and make a final decision. Never underestimate the power of paper and pencil and what they can accomplish.
On the assumption you’ll need both a coop and a fenced yard, here are some factors to consider when planning for chickens:
• Predators. No location is devoid of predators. These can include hawks, weasels, raccoons, coyotes, and, yes, dogs. Your fencing must be tight, and your coop must be predator-proof.
• Room. It’s best to give your ladies as big a yard as possible. A chicken’s “job” is to scratch to find food, which is why she’ll happily tear up a lawn looking for edibles. Give her what she needs. I’m fond of compost piles as one-stop shopping for worms, grubs, and other biota.
• Temperature. In colder climates, heating (or at least insulating) a coop is critical. For warmer climates, ventilation is important.
• Cleaning. The trend these days is to make coops darling and chic, but how easy is it to clean them? When planning a coop, think in terms of keeping it reasonably hygienic.
• Babies. Depending on how many chickens you have, you may be adding chicks to the flock once in a while. If a hen hatches her chicks, she usually does a suitable job of protecting them from harassment by other flock members. Still, if you’re introducing purchased chicks, you’ll need a transition pen so everyone can adapt before letting them mingle. A pen-within-a-pen isolation cage is ideal. You can also use this separate facility to isolate sick or injured birds.
• Coop size. Touching back on the trendy chi-chi coops currently on the market, keep in mind many aren’t suitable for more than a few birds. In 30 years of keeping chickens, I’ve found it’s better to opt for larger rather than smaller quarters since you never know when you’ll acquire a few extra ladies through one means or another.
In our case, faced with a clean slate, what are we planning for our new property?
Since we’re dealing with such an odd and narrow sliver of land, our chicken coop will share a fence with the dog’s yard, so that fence will have to be tight and strong. Of necessity, the chicken yard will be long and narrow. At one end will be a secondary fenced yard for a large compost pile. We’re planning this compost space to be at least 15 feet square, with gates at both ends. One gate will give chickens access to the compost since nothing makes the birds happier than a heap of organic refuse; the other gate will be for tractor access when we need to turn or rotate the compost.
We’ll be building the coop from scratch. It will be approximately 12×12 feet and well insulated (we live in a northern climate). The main quarters will be 9×12 feet, and the remaining 3×12 space will be divided into an isolation cage (for chicks or injured birds) and a storage area. All doors will be wide enough for easy wheelbarrow access for ease of cleaning.
How about you? Faced with an undeveloped area for chickens, how can you best incorporate what you need for your ladies? Survey your property. Assess its strengths. Assess its weaknesses (including predators). No place is perfect, so you have to work with what you have.
Only after deploying your most powerful weapon (paper and pencil) should you start hammering in T-posts, stringing stout wire, and building a shelter.
There’s an old saying: Pre-planning prevents poor performance. Planning for chickens is no different.
Originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.