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Backyard Chicken Coop Basics

By Judith A. Stock
7/18/2013 10:31:23 AM

"My rooster was my best bud and followed me wherever I went as a child," Erin Moshier, of Martinsburg, W.Va says of growing up on a family farm in Maryland. "He'd wait at the end of the driveway for the school bus." Now that she has her own family, she wanted to share the experience of keeping chickens.

The Moshier family is not alone. Many families across the country are seeking a closer connection with nature while being more self-sufficient and lowering some grocery bills. One option many of these families are turning to is a chicken coop-built in their own backyards.

The Benefits

A perfect balance between pet and farm animal, chickens provide much more than just companionship. Here are some other benefits to raising chickens:

- Natural nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the garden

- Pest control eating bugs and insects

- Fresh eggs without the harmful effects of antibiotics in their chicken feed

- Teaches children responsibility

- Chickens are great pets

The advantages aren't always tangible. "My chickens are pets," says Moshier. "I just enjoy watching them raise their chicks and contentedly peck and scratch. It's a calming feeling" she says for both her husband and her.

Not surprisingly, Moshier also likes the way keeping chickens teaches her children how food arrives on their plates and how to be compassionate to other living things. "My son is so concerned if we get home late from an errand, he wants to make sure all the chickens are 'tucked in' for the night."

Dave Zook, president of Horizon Structures, a manufacturer of chicken coops in Atglen, Pa., agrees. "It teaches my kids to be responsible," he says of his four children who clean the coop and gather eggs daily.

The chickens benefit too when raised by families instead of factory farms. "Even free-range chickens aren't kept in what we call a good environment for chickens to be happy," says Rob Ludlow, co-author with Kimberly Willis of Raising Chickens for Dummies and owner of Backyardchickens.com in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

Erin's son give his pet chicken, Bubba, a hug.

Laws, Regulations and Neighbors

Before buying chickens, make sure you check with your city, town or municipality in regard to ordinances about keeping chickens in your backyard.

"One of the first things you need to know is the size of the structure you want on your property," says Ludlow. The general guideline is three square feet per bird inside and five to six square feet outside for them to roam." That will determine how many chickens you can comfortably own."

You will need to know the size of the structure when you call your town's city hall to ask about any ordinances. "For some cities, the coop must be set back a certain number of feet from the property line and a certain amount of space from neighbors," Ludlow explains. "Rural areas have fewer regulations while suburban areas have stricter rules."

Don't want the bureaucratic hassle of city hall? Jump online, as most city codes are now on the Internet.

Be Alert to Predators

Predators can climb over, fly over, or dig under wire fences and chicken coops. Raccoons are generally the most common and frustrating predator, but wild and domesticated dogs also will attack a chicken coop, as will hawks, owls, coyotes and possums.

"You need to build your structure to protect the chickens against the predators in your area," says Ludlow. "Most people think chicken wire is strong enough to keep predators out but it is only really good at keeping chickens inside," says Ludlow. "We recommend welded wire that is stronger and similar to fencing material."

How Many Chickens Do you Need?

Everyone knows that dogs are social beings, but chickens are even more sociable, particularly comfortable as part of a flock.

"In some states it's illegal to buy less than three chickens at any one time," counsels Ludlow. "In general, we recommend that you get at least two chickens to keep each other company." Keep in mind that most cities will allow up to five or six chickens.

If your goal is a lifetime supply of omelets, it all depends on the breed of chicken, its age, and the time of year. Chickens lay more eggs in the spring than in the winter. If you have a chicken that's the right age, the right breed and it's the right time of year, on average, expect to get six eggs a week from one chicken.

Coop Placement

The next step is deciding whether you will build the structure from scratch, purchase a kit or buy the structure from a manufacturer. The choice will depend on your level of do-it-yourself aptitude and finances.

"We have six models that we offer off the shelf," Zook says. His company also offers custom coops and conversion packages to turn your shed into a cluck-house.

The most popular coop they sell is the 4x6 model that fits seven chickens comfortably. All coops come with outside access nest boxes that allow for easy access to eggs without going inside the den. A typical family of six will never need to peruse the dairy aisles of your favorite supermarket for eggs again.

For those new to chicken keeping, Zook says, "If you live in the suburbs, have a quarter acre with neighbors on both sides, the 3x6 mini-coop would be good." This coop can be wheeled around the yard, which will allow your chickens to free-range in your yard with access to fresh grass and bugs but still offers protection from predators.

Typical chicken coop features include glass board flooring similar to shower stall material for easy cleaning, asphalt shingles or corrugated metal roof, nest boxes where the chickens lay their eggs, and roosts to allow the hens to sleep several feet off the ground. Add food, water, and bedding material such as pine shavings or straw to absorb chicken droppings and you are in business.

Erin Moshier and her husband live on a third of an acre just outside town with neighbors on both sides. "I drew the design incorporating ventilation, perches, a run with access to the outdoors and nesting boxes, and my husband pitched in to build the coop." They used old barn wood for the structure and reclaimed corrugated metal for the roof. The bonus: most of the materials were recycled.

You might think building your own chicken coop would take a long time but Erin says, "My husband worked on the coop a few hours in the evening here and there for about two weeks, but he does have some carpentry experience."

Interest in raising chickens and building coops continues to multiply at a rapid pace. Ludlow, the owner of Backyardchickens.com www.backyardchickens.com says his forum has 35,000 members and approximately 100 chicken enthusiasts join the ranks daily. Newcomers are also flocking to backyard poultry groups that meet across the country.

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