The Chicken Palace

BEFORE:

Insert Coop/Run/Garden Here

AFTER:

When the baby chicks showed up I had only a rough idea of how I’d build their future home. I’m a novice builder and this would be the largest project I’d ever tackled – by far! I had spent over a year studying all things chicken-keeping and pouring over probably a few dozen coop designs. It was obvious that most of the coop designs one stumbles across are done by people with far more free time, money, and experience than I had (and a vast minority are slapdash, which was not acceptable).

Having survived one Maine winter, I knew the gamut of bad weather that our chickens would need to be protected from. Thankfully I found several designs by people who are lazy like me, and went to great pains to make sure they made all the chores as easy as possible. Yet no two of them did anything the same way. It became clear that the only way to get exactly what we needed was to design the entire thing myself and build it from the ground up. This is how it happened.

It’s a long tale, so here are the shortcuts to jump to any section:

INTRODUCTION

We knew these were not going to be production animals because we know ourselves too well. We name everything. From kitchen utensils, to trees, to vehicles, to wild animals, to overwintering ladybugs in the house fer cryin’ out loud. You know how adorable chicks are? We knew we would be completely smitten, which meant we had to do the opposite of what everyone else seems to do around here; we had to design and build a biosecure coop and run to thwart all the predators in the area. It seems most everyone else just slaps something together, then advises “Get twice as many as you need. You’re going to lose a lot of them.” A laissez faire approach like that would never do for our babies. We needed a chicken Fort Knox!

Thus began the project, which has no official name, ironically. I often just called it “The Chicken Palace.”

The inner sanctum was to be the coop. Even though it was supposed to be in a secure environment it needed to be designed to thwart predators if they managed to get into the run. The run needed to have a predator-proof fence and a solid roof to keep the run as dry as possible. Attached to the run would be a “chicken garden” as opposed to the veggie garden. To this day I’m still not sure if the chicken garden is for us or for the chickens. But it’s there. It increases their play space, forage options, and provides reasonable (but not comprehensive) protection from predators and pests.

The newly-trenched irrigation line for the veggie garden would pass right under the chicken garden, so I decided to branch off it to provide running water at the coop. And as long as there was a trench I figured I might as well drop an underground feeder cable into it to give the coop electricity as well. It was a gee-whiz addition at the time, but ended up being invaluable as a means of running a waterer deicer in the dead winter (at its coldest we had to change out our 3 gallon waterer every 30 minutes before we got the deicer).

It took five weeks of construction to get the coop to the point where the girls could sleep in it. At that point they lived in a mobile play pen during the day for another five weeks while we finished the run to the point where they could live in that. After that it took another week to finished the garden and button everything up to the “basically complete” stage. Work continued on it in the form of small daily projects, on and off, for the following three and a half months.

Currently it is still not 100% complete. But it is very close and only has three modifications that I’d like to call essential. In reality only one is essential and I have until next December to finish it: one vent for the “noreaster” ventilation configuration.  The other two are really just nice-to-have: an automatic chicken door and a “peeps hole” so we spy on the roosts without needing to open the human door.
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THE COOP

Finished Coop Front

Finished Front Vent, Nest Boxes, and Cabinet

Front & Side Vents

 

 

 

 

Side Done

Rear Doors & Vent

 

 

 

 

Features:

  • Predators: the coop must be secure against reasonable predator threats if the run perimeter were breached.
    • All windows/vents have 1/4″ hardware cloth secured from the inside.
    • All doors/access points to the inside are secured with two independent latches spaced as far apart as practical, and employ two different latching mechanisms (one of which is a carabiner).
  • Walk-In: Top plate and rafter heights are 5-6 ft high allowing a person to walk in for cleaning and emergency purposes.
  • Built on stilts:
    • Provides extra shade and shelter for chickens in harsh weather.
    • Aids in inspecting for rodent activity/diminished potential nesting sites.
    • Allows for limited storage under the coop.
  • Feeder:
    • Hanging to minimize scattering of feed on the coop floor and to prevent pooping into food.
    • Vertical hopper (3 ft section of 2″ PVC) holds enough feed to require only infrequent filling.
    • Suspended from inside a built-in storage cabinet to prevent perching/pooping.
  • Waterer:
    • Hanging to minimize spilling of water on the coop floor and toprevent pooping into water.
    • Three Horizontal nipples will provide water for many birds and resist freezing.
    • Three-gallon capacity requires only infrequent filling/cleaning and resists freezing
    • Lidded to prevent moisture build-up from evaporation
  • External-Access Feeder/Waterer and Feed Storage:
    • The back of the coop has a door that opens into the built-in feed storage cabinet. Feed is stored in an airtight 3 gallon food grade bucket. Cabinet also holds items needed to fill the feeder hopper. All this allows for feeding without needing to enter the coop.
    • The cabinet also stores extra grit and crushed oyster shell.
    • Below the cabinet door is another door that opens into the coop allowing for the waterer to be changed out without having to enter the coop.
  • Free-Choice Grit and Crushed Oyster Shell Trays:
    • Sized and Mounted to prevent perching, tipping or spilling of contents. Also prevent shavings from being flung into trays.
    • Trays are mounted on a one-piece mount held by French cleats so they may be easily lifted out as a unit and refilled.
  • Roosting Bars:
    • Flat roosting bars to help prevent frostbite on toes.
    • Removable roosting bars for easy cleaning.
    • Removable platform aids in roosting bar mounting/dismounting.
    • Bars located halfway between upper and lower vents to eliminate drafts and keep birds below any moist air collecting in the coop.
  • Nest Boxes:
    • External access doors for easy egg collection
    • Internal chicken ladder to ease access/egress (and combat boredom on days they’re stuck in the coop due to bad weather).
    • Flat-topped to increase “floor” space (the summer sunrise shines in right there and they love to bask in it and preen first thing in the morning). They do poop on it, but not much and it takes all of a few seconds to spot clean as long as a nice pile of shavings are present.
    • Removable dividers and curtains allows for a diversity of nest box configurations/choices for them, which they do appreciate!
  • Build-In Storage Cabinets:
    • External access doors with vents.
    • Cabinets house the coop cleaning tools/supplies.
    • The cabinets are framed as a single unit with the nest boxes (cabinets are below the nest boxes) for ease-of-construction.
    • The cabinets house the coop’s “utilities.”
  • Electricity  provides lighting (which is switched from the outside), courtesy outlet for power tools, power for waterer deicer, and future automatic chicken door.
  • Water available via hose bib on the side of coop (must be blown out for winter).
  • Unheated coop: no risk of fire, no energy consumed, no infrastructure required, and no remediation required in the case of power outage.
  • Three “poop doors” can be opened to allow the shavings to simply be pushed out the doors and collected in a bin or wheel barrow located below the openings.
  • The floor is coated with vinyl “office chair” mat to aid in cleaning.
  • The coop has a modular construction and can be deconstructed into its component parts, if needed (foundation/floor, four walls, roof).
  • Apart from five 4’x8′ sheets of plywood (used as wall and roof sheathing) and the coop hardware, the entire coop was constructed from reclaimed materials.
  • Coop is painted/stained to increase usable life.
  • Coop features metal roof installed over ice & water shield.
  • Shed roof design is simple to construct and ventilates very efficiently.
  • Ventilation:
    • All vents feature 1/4″ hardware cloth secured from the inside.
    • All vents have shutters to allow for myriad ventilation configuration compatible with any weather condition.
    • Ventilation is arranged such that in any weather condition there is always both upper ventilation exhaust (especially over the roosting area) and lower ventilation intake on the leeward side(s) of the coop.
    • Vents build into storage cabinet are arranged such that the cabinet acts as a baffle to eliminate direct wind into the coop.
  • FUTURE: Hopefully done in 2018.
    • Automatic Chicken Door: Arduino-based “portcullis” style door (except not perforated) with solenoid security latch.
    • “Peeps Hole:” A hardware cloth-screened window in the human door we can quickly and easily open to spy on the roosts. It will need to be at eye-level when a person operates the light switch in the storage cabinet. This will let us observe the roosts without needing to open the human door.

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Chicken Capacity:

  • We wanted six birds so design was intended for nine birds (a 50% overage).
  • Floor Space: I had a 4’x8′ sheet of reclaimed OSB that would make the perfect floor. For chickens with regular access to the outdoors recommendations for coop floor space range from 2 to 5 sq ft per bird. Nine chickens would yield a reasonable 3.5 sq ft per bird. We only have five birds and will not likely get any more so we currently have over 6 sq ft per bird.
  • Roosting Capacity: Recommendations are from 8-12 inches per bird. We have two bars running across the width of the coop. This is not 100% usable (interference with the feed cabinet) but is probably 75% usable. Therefore 72 inches of roosting space can accommodate 6-9 birds.
  • Nest Boxes: Recommendation are usually about 2-3 birds per nest box. I built four boxes (11 inches wide, 12 inches tall and deep) because it fit the overall coop design, which would be sufficient for 8-12 birds, likely exceeding the coop’s floor-space capacity for birds.
  • Ventilation: Recommendations are usually 1 sq ft per bird.  This recommendation is extremely general and does not take into account vent placement/efficiency. My hands were tied somewhat as the exact ventilation had to be figured out after the coop was assembled. All I had before that were rough numbers.
    • Currently there are 8 vents on the coop, three lower, five upper. In the normal configuration there is over 0.9 sq ft per bird with our five birds. Adding a sixth bird reduces this number to 0.75 sq ft. However, given the efficient venting design I would guess it would be adequate for six birds. We are not planning on adding any birds and if we did I would re-evaluate the ventilation situation.
    • The most restrictive ventilation condition is when we have to ride through a noreaster. That currently is only 0.6 sq ft per bird. I will add a vent in summer 2018 that will raise that number to between 0.9 and 1.0 sq ft per bird.

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Maintenance:

Apart from replenishing the consumables and cleaning the waterers periodically there really isn’t much maintenance to be done on the coop apart from managing the poop. We use kiln dried pine shavings. Yes, the chickens eat them. *eyeroll*  We have opted to spot clean every day. This chore only takes 5-10 minutes once a day. All it takes is a kitty litter scoop and a perforated plastic bucket that live in the storage cabinet. It’s actually a lot of fun much of the time when the girls decide to have a “coop party” and “help” whoever is doing the cleaning. They do get underfoot, but most of the time it’s cute and endearing. Not as fun in a blizzard, but still plenty manageable and far easier than doing larger cleanings less frequently.

We will do one deep clean in Spring 2018. One roosting bar was too close to the wall and the poops would bounce off the wall on the way down, leaving urea streaks on the wall. I’ve moved the roost. If this does not fix the problem, I will just ad the same vinyl sheet to the wall  that is on the floor under the shavings. This will allow a simple wipe down to clean the coop. My goal is to make it such that a deep clean is almost never needed.

About five days worth of spot cleanings fits in the bucket that lives in the coop storage cabinet. When it’s full (or when we feel like it) we just dump it in our compost bin.

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Construction:

Everything in the coop apart from five sheets of plywood sheathing for the walls and roof was made from reclaimed lumber. It was mostly 2×6 dimensional lumber with a small percentage of 2×3 dimensional lumber. That was a great source of near-constant frustration. Trying be efficient (read lazy), rather than doing two rips per 2×6 to get exactly a 2.5 inch width, I just ripped each board once (giving a width of 2 and 11/16 inches). This mismatch caused so many problems that I would have saved a tremendous amount of time if I had just bothered to rip each 2×6 twice at the outset. Obviously this isn’t a problem if you aren’t mixing ripped 2x6s with dimensional 2x3s.

I frequently called it the “Lego Coop” because each wall, the roof and the foundation are all separate modules. This is very handy if you think you might need to disassemble it and move it, which I did need to do. [My friend Rob who helped me auger and set the run posts has a crazy schedule and needed to get the posts set before I had the coop ready.]

But building something “Lego” style makes it very hard to make everything square and plumb since you can’t brace and adjust wall framing to perfection before sheathing. Also using reclaimed lumber exacerbates this problem as it frequently has twists and crowns/bows. This can be exacerbated even further by ripping the reclaimed lumber; removing the residual stress can make a twisty, bowed board even worse. You can save a lot of money this way, but you might end up needing to spend a LOT of time working around these issues.  I’ve estimated that fiddling with reclaimed lumber issues cost me about 180 hours of labor on the coop build.

Coop Foundation and Walls Framed

Walls sheathed courtesy of my 1957 worm drive Skilsaw, Bertha.

 

 

 

 

The cabinets were framed in a similarly “Lego” manner so they could be quickly installed once the coop was assembled in its final position in the run (notice the run posts already set in the second photo below).

Coop Walls and Cabinets Framed

Lego Coop Assembled for the First Time

 

 

 

 

The shed roof design creates pennant-shaped vent naturally when a rake wall is sheathed with a rectangular sheet. Happily, diagonally cutting across another, properly-sized rectangular sheet will yield a pair of perfectly sized vent covers. However bending and fitting 1/4 inch hardware cloth to fit the vents nicely is not the most straightforward task. It took a significant part of one work day to make and install the four pennant(ish) shaped cloth pieces.

Pennant Vent and Cover

Pennant Vent Hardware Cloth Screen Example

 

 

 

 

To aid in clean out (to say nothing of protecting the OSB floor from damaging moisture, we installed vinyl “runner” carpet protector type material on the floor. I also made three different two-foot by two-foot “poop doors” to push shavings out of the coop into a wheel barrow or clean-out bins that could be positioned below each door. Lastly the roosting bars (flat to prevent frostbite) needed to be removable. I had to rip little “ramps” to transition from the floor level to over the wall plates – I didn’t want to cut the sill plates on the “Lego” walls.

Poop Doors, Ramps, and Vinyl Floor

Removable Roosting Bars (from ripped 2×6)

 

 

 

In our very cold winter, however, the vinyl contracted and the combination of that and the “ramp” on the poop door that functions as the chicken door (until I can get the automatic door built) resulted in a VERY slippery surface that the girls stumbled over and slipped off of any time they tried to enter or leave the coop. For that one door I unstapled and cut the vinyl to allow it to lay flat when contracted and I removed the ramp to give the chickens good purchase as they entered/exited the coop. I have yet to do the deep clean to see how this modification impacts getting shavings out of the coop.

In order to aid the mounting and dismounting of the roosting bars I also built a removable platform. It can be pulled out to increase floor space when the girls are in the coop because of bad weather. Obviously it is removed to aid in cleaning.

Platform Attachments – Hi, Holly!

Platform

 

 

 

 

Platform Installed

Once the coop was assembled inside the run area I was able to install the cabinet framing, then sheath the cabinets. The framing was designed to fit in between stud “bays” in the wall framing. On the front wall the framing housed a pair of storage cabinets and two large nest box areas that were turned into four nest boxes by installing one divider in each.

The storage cabinets were the main lower ventilation, the cabinets themselves providing a baffle system to prevent wind from blowing across the coop floor. These vents can be seen at the bottom of the first picture below.

Divided nest boxes above, cabinet venting below.

Nest Box Top – Perfect for soaking up the sun and preening in the summer morning!

 

 

 

 

Common wisdom said the top of the nest boxes should be sloped so they don’t hang on top of it and poop there. Additionally the nest box floors are supposed to be sloped to to make them just uncomfortable enough to discourage birds from hanging out in them and pooping in there, too. Time constraints (and lack of skill) led me to abandon both approaches before they could even be seriously considered. And I am so glad things worked out that way! In general they don’t hang out in the nest boxes anyway. But the flat nest box tops add to the “floor space” of the coop, add a three dimensional element to hanging out in it; this is very much appreciated by the girls. In blizzards they have a little more room and a more interesting environment. In the summer the sunrise shines right on top of the nest box and the preen and sun themselves after waking up. It takes literally seconds to spot clean the cabinet top during the daily spot cleaning of the coop. We already have to spread shavings on the floor and in the nest boxes. It takes essentially no extra time to throw some on top of the nest boxes.

On the back wall is a built-in feed storage cabinet, accessed from outside the coop. We wanted all routine maintenance apart from cleaning the coop to be able to be done without having to enter the coop. Inside the feed cabinet is a 3 gallon, air-tight bucket of feed, tools for dispensing feed, spare grit and spare crushed oyster shell. There is also a mounting collar that holds the 3 inch PVC hopper-style feeder. A three gallon waterer hangs from the bottom side of the storage cabinet. There is a poop door immediately below the feed cabinet that allow the waterer to easily be swapped out.

Feeder and Waterer

Inside the Feed Cabinet: Hopper feeder cap and mounting collar on right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oyster Shell and Grit Free Choice Station Installed

Free Choice Trays Removed

 

 

 

 

 

The feeder is height-adjustable; two mounting screws can be backed out, the pipe slid up or down, and the screws driven back in to secure the hopper. It features a ferret “corner” litter pan as a feed dish. This allows many birds to feed, yet limits the amount of feed exposed to ambient conditions. The feeder height and dish shape prevent virtually all feed spillage and its thin lip and prevents attempted perching, which usually results in tipped feeders and/or pooping in food.

The waterer featuring three horizontal nipples works for many birds simultaneously. The nipples prevent essentially all water leakage. There is no risk of tipping, spilling, or perching and fouling the water. Also the closed lid ensures not extra humidity during weather conditions where frostbite is a risk. In those conditions the horizontal nipples and large water volume also resist freezing. I have subsequently installed an extension cord to allow a heated waterer to function in very cold conditions (not yet pictured).

There also is a free-choice grit and crushed oyster shell station just to the left of the feeder. Two small trays at chicken-head height are attached to a single 2×3 length that mounts in between the studs via French cleats (thank you for teaching me about them, Marcel!). The trays are small enough to prevent perching and spillage. Yet they are easily lifted out as a unit to be refilled, when necessary.

Because we were constrained by time (chicks grow up FAST!) we had complete the coop to the point where the girls could sleep in it at night instead of in the brooder in our living room. That meant big blanks of sheathing and no cabinets built when they moved in. From that point on they lived in their playpen during the day and all coop build work had to be started and finished – in a biosecure state!- each day between when they got up and when they went to bed. Cutting the storage cabinet doors, nest box doors, and ventilation were the biggest challenges.

While this can be a very good approach, when on a compressed schedule. having the right tool is essential; and I didn’t have it. The right tool in my mind is an oscillating multi-tool. A lightweight circular saw is a distant second. My jigsaw would not work because it would attempt to cut through most of each stud I needed to cut past; a Sawzall would have done the same. While Bertha (my 1957 worm drive Skilsaw) is a fantastic circular saw, she must weigh about 20 pounds. Not nearly nimble enough to do the cuts I needed. At the time I found… I hesitate to call it a good idea… but I found a cheap solution: the Kwiktool C7 Bad Blade. A 4.5 inch, 24-tooth carbide circular blade that fits on, you guessed it, and angle grinder:

Kwicktool C7 Bad Blade: For when you need to commit a messy suicide in a hurry.

I have an entire video I shot on why the Bad Blade should have been called “Bad Idea.” Spinning  24 carbide tipped blades at 11,000 RPM inches from your body… no no no… Yet I did it. People have been killed by this thing (not a joke) and I’m not at all surprised. It can go from “all’s well” to “kickback from Hell” in the blink of an eye. It’s temperamental beyond description. You have to maintain a death grip to prevent accidents, but under no circumstances should it EVER be forced. And then to use it in very tight quarters on a ladder? Well, at least I came away unscathed. I wish I could say the same for the coop! Actually the damage was really no big deal – nothing silicone caulk and stain couldn’t patch up. But damn that thing is crazy. I got a feel for it, but it would take a lot of practice to master. I think I spent $15 on it, so at least it’s cheap.

Later that year I shelled out $110 for a top-of-the-line Rockwell Sonicrafter (I call it Rocky). It was SO worth it. I needed it probably a dozen times before I actually bought it. Not that I have it I LOVE it. Using it puts a big smile on my face, whereas using the Bad Blade makes me want to crap my pants. I wish I had had Rocky  for the coop. Oh well. Job’s done and I’m wiser now.

So with much trepidation I set out to cut open the coop I had so painstakingly built:

Markings for nest box doors above, cabinet doors below.

Eviscerated Front

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each cutout became the door and all edges were painted. The cabinet doors had yet another cutout for vent covers. Trim was made for every door/vent so that there could be a good seal in spite of the material lost in the kerf.

Nest Box and Cabinet Doors – Day 1

Upper Vents – Day 1

Cabinet Vents – Day 2

 

 

 

On the second day we had finished all the work on the doors/vents (except some miscellaneous hardware) as seen in the pictures at the beginning of the “The Coop” section above. Once ventilation and doors were taken care of the coop was more-than-ready for full time occupancy. So I shifted my efforts to finishing the run in order to get away from using a barely-secure play pen (which required frequent, laborious moving) as soon as possible.

Over time features like electricity, water, a coop light, heated waterer, internal nest box ladders, roost bar platform, grit and oyster shell stations were all added. Time permitting I’ll add pictures of those things, too. There are still three additions needing to be done (automatic chicken door, upper vent for noreaster conditions, “Peeps hole”) and I hope to update this page with those items as well.

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THE RUN

Features:

  • Predators/Pests:
    • 1/4″ Hardware cloth will keep out even mice.
    • A “skirt” of hardware cloth extending out over the ground for two feet from the run walls prevents diggers from getting in.
    • A skirt is far easier to install AND replace that the often recommended two-foot burial of the same material.
    • The hardware cloth is “sandwiched” under the roofing to form a complete barrier.
    • Hardware cloth “sweeps” seal gaps between the posts and gate to prevent rodent entry.
  • Construction:
    • Simple post-and-beam construction of rot-resistant cedar trees.
    • Simple shed roof design
  • Roofing:
    • Corrugated Galvalume metal roof is inexpensive, has 40 year warranty, sheds snow easily.
    • Three corrugated polycarbonate panels allow sunlight to penetrate the roof, lighting the run.
    • Required the purchase of new 2×4 dimensional lumber to act as  strapping to mount the roof panels to the rafters.
  • Gate is secured with quick link-equipped barrel bolt.
  • Gate location and coop placement allows for a wheel barrow to enter the run. Barely 🙂

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Sizing

We have every chicken predator around here that you can think of (except possum). When I was reroofing the house a bald eagle flew right by me not 20 feet off the ground. People nearby have flocks destroyed by mink, foxes, coyotes, and fishers. Additionally rodents can carry diseases and make a general mess of things. So the only way to make our chicken run “Fort Knox” was to fence it in and have a roof over it. But what fence could keep out a mouse? I decided on 1/4″ hardware cloth. Obviously it’s not strong enough to be unscathed by a determined ne’er do well, but done right it would not be worth a predator’s (or mouse’s) effort to try to breach it. There is no feed in the run at night and the chickens are in the coop. During the day a predator would be seen by us or we would hear the alarm call. If a mouse got into the run during the day while the chickens and feed are out… that mouse would be trapped in a run with five crazy chickens. Bad idea, mouse.

So how big of a run? I wanted it to be as big as it needed to be and no bigger to save on material costs. For good or ill, here was my reasoning. The coop is four feet wide. If we were to allow for three feet between the coop wall and the run fence, then the run must be 10 feet wide. One specification down.

One piece of advice I frequently received was: “Build your coop twice as big as you think it needs to be.” I didn’t. So I thought: what if we went insane and collected a huge number of birds necessitating be building a second coop more or less identical to the current coop and married the two together? The coop is eight feet long, so two would be 16 feet long. If we allowed two feet between the coop wall and the run fence that would be 20 feet long. Then I learned that corrugated metal roofing is intended to cover a three foot width, so I upped it to 21. Done! The run would be 10’x21′. Recommendations are 5 sq ft per bird in the run minimum. By that metric this is room for 42 birds. Frankly that seems crazy to me. But it’s more than enough room for double the chickens we would actually want to keep.

In retrospect it’s very tight in the run. I think giving yourself four feet of clearance between the coop walls is much more reasonable than three. Two feet is just ridiculous. And I am NOT building any coop extension.

So now that I knew how big the run needed to be, how to construct it? I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible and had already committed myself to the hardware cloth (not cheap!). When I purchased building materials for the raised beds and reroofing job, in my naivety I was shocked  at how expensive they were. If I were to try to build the run out of conventional lumber it would have been hugely expensive (and it was already looking to be quite an expensive project even done as on-the-cheap as I was comfortable with). Additionally I refuse to use pressure treated wood, so what could I use as an affordable foundation that wouldn’t rot? An additional challenge was that around here the frost line is reputed to be about five feet down.

I recalled a conversation I had with my arborist friend, Rob, about building a barn for sheltering all his equipment that currently sits out in the elements. He said he would just build a pole barn. When I pressed him for details he said he would  just build it in a post-and-beam fashion and simply lag things together. And the material? “Trees!” he said. And why not? That’s his business already. Just lop the branches off. When I asked how he would deal with the taper his reply said it all: “So they’ll taper. It’s a barn.”

This is just a chicken run. It didn’t have to be pretty, just functional. So I decided to build it out of cedar trees as cedar is supposed to be rot resistant. Theoretically it’s the hardwood that’s rot resistant so done properly the trees should be milled to remove the bark and sapwood. As the day of the chick’s arrival neared I knew time was not on my side. Additionally I could not afford to have the logs milled, nor did I have the skill to do it myself with a chainsaw. Again this is just a chicken run. It just needs to hold up fencing, a snow-loaded roof and to not collapse or loose the roof in gale force winds. So I decided to just direct-bury the posts and call it good. Time will tell how (un)wise this decision is. But to date the run has encountered some horrible weather and I am very pleased with its performance,l which I can only characterize as “unfazed.”

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Maintenance:

The challenge in the run is the ground. Five chickens will reduce 200 sq ft of ground to a poopy patch of dirt in just a few weeks. The covered roof obviously helps, but rain and snow still can blow in through the fence. Also any water running downhill from the higher land to the east can run into the coop. How to combat the muddy mess that the run always wants to be in?

We do not have an answer YET. In the fall we collected a lot of leaves. This was very effective but it requires a tremendous amount of leaves. We probably collected 10 cubic yards of leaves and this was only enough until the snow really began to fly. We dipped into our supply of garden mulch straw to help manage dry run conditions. We have now used about two bales of straw to keep the run dry. The spring thaw will soon begin and I’m guessing we’ll use one more bail before things dry out. 10 yards of leaves and three bails of straw… there must be a better solution!

There is only one answer I can see: about six inches of wood chips, then supplementing a little each year as the chips break down. The problem with this approach is there have been cases where fresh wood chips in a warm, humid environment incubated aspergillus which can cause lethal aspergillosis. So the safest way to apply wood chips is to age them. This means managing wood chip piles, which is a hassle.

I’m going to attempt to create piles on a June-to-June cycle. Anything delivered after early June goes into the “new” pile. The “old” pile will cook in the summer, then age over fall and winter and finally be ready to be placed in the chicken run in the following spring. This will be a long-term project and leaves and straw will have to continue to be applied until sufficient wood chips can be added to the run.

A caution about straw. The chickens will eat it, especially if it has seeds in it. Excessive straw intake can lead to an impacted and/or sour crop. Make sure your chickens always have access to grit and plenty of fresh water. Also some straw is treated with very tenacious herbicides. Be sure to verify the straw you use for bedding is free of these chemicals.

We may employ the removable frames mentioned in the Garden section below to grow some ground cover in a protected fashion inside the run.

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Construction:

[Currently Under Construction :-P]

Since we had decided on post-and-beam construction out of rot-resistant cedar trees, we needed to cut us some trees. Our friend Rob the “Troy Tree Guy” was instrumental in this project; and all of our major farming projects in 2017 for that matter. So he helped us acquire sustainably harvested local cedar from a woodlot nearby. The trees harvested were either inferior trees that met our needs or were trees of the right size growing in undesirable locations. The art of sustainable woodlot management is far, far beyond me at this point.

Raw Run, Courtesy of Susie the Tractor

Rob was kind enough to take me on two of the three trips to get the needed trees. I’m a novice at tree work and chainsaws, as I am with most things homesteading. But I’m very lucky to have skilled, knowledgeable friends that are more than patient when it comes to helping novices grow.

Apart from harvesting and delivering the trees, Rob also helped us auger and set all the posts, too. Once the twenty posts were all set Rob said it looked like “Woodhenge.”

First Post Holes Courtesy of Ferdinand the Tractor

There’s a story here…

Woodhenge & Tarped Lego Coop

 

 

Woodhenge Overlooking the Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next we needed to set the beams…

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THE CHICKEN GARDEN

We always liked the idea of a chicken garden but had no idea if it could work as an actual garden. Since we haven’t yet completed a full season with it we still don’t know. But we knew it would be extra space for the chickens, if nothing else. There’s never any harm in giving chickens more room!

Since it was more of a nice-to-have it was never intended to be biosecure like the run; we would only let them play in it when we were hope and keeping an eye on them. We could minimize materials and simplify the construction if we designed it to only deter likely predators (large, diurnal ones). Therefore we needed to keep out aerial predators, neighborhood dogs, and, as an hygienic afterthought, scurrying critters that were in the immediate vicinity (voles and shrews). It didn’t need to keep out skunks or raccoons because they are not active in the daytime when the chickens are out there. We weren’t too worried about cats because the chickens were getting big and there would be five-to-one against any foolhardy cat that got in there.

I have not seen signs of mink (which are nocturnal) and we are about a mile from the water, so we weren’t worries about them. Fishers are known to be in region, but I’ve seen no sign of them. Also they are crepuscular and tend to stick the forest, so we weren’t too worried about them. The only snakes I’ve seen on the property are garter snakes and any poor garter snake that got into the garden while the chickens were out would no doubt meet a quick end.

So we decided the garden would be just simple fence posts (again cedar), with a light duty fence and an aviary net covering. We didn’t see any reason to not have it match the length of the run (21 feet) so the only question was how wide to make it. 10 feet was a bit small and 20 feet was too big, so I settled on 14 feet as a 7-foot spacing on all fence posts made a nice perimeter.

Features:

  • Moderate biosecurity tailored to likely predator threats.
  • Aviary netting as an inexpensive barrier to aerial predators.
  • Nylon mason’s line provides support to aviary netting.
  • Fence posts provide a netting ceiling height of about 7 ft 6 in.
  • Rot-resistant cedar posts.

Planned for 2018:

  • Adding perennial shrubs for shelter, pollinator forage, food, and beauty:
    • Silverberry
    • Siberian Peashrub
    • Butterfly Bush
    • Lilac
  • Adding perennial ground cover under protective frames to build soil, prevent erosion and provide forage (clovers, fine fescues).
  • Adding annual crops under removable protective frames and fences to build soil, prevent erosion and provide forage (cereal rye, buckwheat, oats, snap peas).
  • Gravel the entrance to the garden gate and the path between the garden and run gates to reduce muddiness in wet conditions.

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