If you build a chicken house with the design to make birds comfortable, and for you to manage and care for the birds, both of you will be happy. If you just “make do” with some old shed shelter, or let them run loose in the barn you will regret it.
How many chickens do you want to raise and for what purpose? This becomes a complex question since the more you get into chickens, more opportunities present themselves for breeding, brooding, egg production, meat production, and sheer enjoyment. All of these basic 5 require planning and some investment.
Large chickens will probably be ordered in a box of 25 or more. This requires brooding the birds in the chicken house with special attention to predators, warmth, food and water. Sunlight is critical for growth, so the dark garage is not a good place. Baby chicks are messy-dusty and poopy. Your kitchen is out. They need space to run about and exercise. A separate incubation and brooder house is ideal. This concept will arise in time with your ever-increasing knowledge of chickens and the possibility of raising and selling birds in the community. We will address this at a later date, as this has become a lost art. For our beginning we will consider that we will brood chicks in the chicken house wherein they will grow and remain in the same room with access to outside foraging.
Chickens have a reproductive (egg) life that goes something like this: You start your chicks in May, and in six weeks they are young “poults”, just starting to separate the roosters from the hens which to your eye is in the rapid feathering of the males, even distinguished in the first week of life. Your first eggs, pullet small size, will start to be erratically laid by August, then as the hens develop more there will be a rush of larger eggs until the Fall solstice.
The onset of diminishing sunlight shuts off the egg switch in the chickens’ head. They shed feathers and put their energy into heavy-duty feathering for the winter cold. Of course you can hang a lamp inside the chicken house, also called a coop, to stimulate the egg laying but in doing so you harm the health of the chicken.
The next year, with the onset of the spring solstice and 15 hours of light a day, eggs magically appear in the nest or dark box. The eggs will be full size and be continually laid till the next fall solstice.
Chickens as an average will continue to produce eggs in numbers until their third year which will show a slight decrease toward the end of the season (if you keep records) then measurably decline in the fourth and fifth year. The marked shift in egg production to where the chickens just continues to eat, get fat and are non productive signals that you need to put the bird in the freezer. These are “old chickens”.
At this point it is your concern that egg production fluctuates; this is normal. A quick tip is that you will have more eggs than you can eat, so scramble them, place them in plastic bags and store in the freezer for the non-egg months. In olden days of course you could “lard eggs” or use isinglass soup, which in both cases merely shut off the air-bacterial demise of the egg-but not forever. Scramble and freeze them.
When you have an excess of eggs you will start to think of giving them away and of course going into the egg retail enterprise. The problem with running an egg business is that the chickens are not year round producers, even with the 24 hour lamp to stimulate production, as the birds natural cycle is upset, stress sets in, you have unhealthy birds, lowered production, and more feed costs; if they are awake-they eat.
Also consider you have to have wear and tear on you and your vehicle for your daily egg deliveries. Lastly consider how many eggs does the restaurant or bakery want on a daily or erratic schedule. One Chinese restaurant I knew wanted 60 dozen a week. I needed several hundred birds to make that goal. That entailed bigger housing and bigger everything; then too one has to consider a major production of waste removal. Where do you dump tons of chicken manure and of course there are tractors and trucks, extra help, taxes, feed costs. So at this point let us get back to the home chicken flock for the family needs.
The chicken house that I built the second time around from the early 1940’s model that was still standing when I bought this farm would be an improved model. I chose to make a 200-bird house. This was a 20’X10’ building divided into three rooms. Each side was a separate coop of 8’X10’ and a center entrance of 4’X10’. I also envisioned that the chicken house could be turned into a small cabin in later years, or a tennis house if later occupants of the farm wanted to pave over my organic vegetable garden to make a tennis court. Maybe Wal*Mart™ would want to build a super center here. The bottom line is that you build and do for yourself; it is your life and your lifestyle. What others will do in years to come you cannot even begin to imagine.
So I constructed a sturdy, basic pole building with treated 4”x4” poles, oak saw mill flooring, pine walls, covered with tar paper and tarred. Then I battened the walls. It looks good. Somewhere along the line I took scrap siding and started to cover the walls.
The inside roost and pit was composed of Locust planks in a 4’X8’ area, dropping down to the soil level 4’ deep. There was an outside raised up door so that the waste could be easily shoveled out into a wheelbarrow. Chickens evacuate their waste mostly at night and the inside roost concept where you have to clean roost boards off is outdated. Unless you have an enclosed pit or protected area from the droppings you will have them scratching in their poop all the daylong.
I have to interject that many dairy farmers would buy chicken waste and mix in their silage for the cows to eat. This practice boosts nitrogen and milk production that reduces feed costs. When I first viewed this I gave up retail milk purchases and went back to raising my goats for milk. Since the big broiler houses have diminished in this area I suspect this practice has but all disappeared. However, imported milk-who knows?
By having two coops under the metal roof, each having a turbine wind generated heat ventilators for summertime; I could and did on occasion raise 100 birds in each room. Of course once I overcame my mania for chickens I brought the number down to an average of 25 to 35 birds to each coop. So in the first coop I could start the chicks, let them grow and in the second coop then start the next batch of chicks the following year or the 2nd year. This ensured a rotation of production and did not leave me without birds as just a single coop would.
The roost is very important. Birds will fall down at night into the pit. You need to set up a sliding screen of 2”X4” poultry wire roughly 4’X7’ half way down in the pit, deep enough to pull the bird up out of the pit, but most important is to eliminate the “psycho chickens” we will be discussing later in this series-briefly they get under the roosting birds and pick their vents at night. By either raising up the roost poles on a 45(o) angle or deepening the pull out screen you can avoid this serious problem. By the way, on the subject of roost poles, Sassafras 2 inch poles are best as the oil eliminates lice that hide in the cracks of the wood and come out at night to feast on the birds’ legs. You can of course have pine 2”X4” rotational poles and the poles you remove can be floated in kerosene to kill the lice. A better method I think is to use a blowtorch propane bottle and just scorch the poles every 3 to 4 weeks. You have to pick up and examine the chickens and look for signs of redness, bleeding and picking by the birds on their legs and tail feathers. They pick up lice and nits while foraging in the field. I would treat the birds with Aloe Vera gel (from Wal*Mart ™ has the best price).
I would prefer to make the roosting pit in the rear (north side) of the coop, and place the eggs nests on the south side but I was limited in access so I reversed the procedure. It did not appear to make a wit of difference to the chickens as long as they could view the front (south side) large open (for ventilation) window area and see the sun come up. They start foraging when the red light shows, not waiting for full morning sunshine and that implies it is best you get up and milk your goats in the dark. The left over milk is used to mix in the chicken feed as a mash. Now that the sun is up brightly you can get to your rabbits, wash up and come in for breakfast before tackling the garden. Your honeybees will not want you till high noon. That is the time you can sit down for a spell, watch and prevent swarming, and maybe do some thinking.
The entrance way in the small 4’X8’ area was half filled with a large grain-mouse proof- feed box, a couple of shelves, the electrical fuse box, and a door with windows in it for light. I did run a water line into this area for filling the water bells, but in time found that it was just as easy to fill the four water 5-gallon water bells outside from a water hydrant. (See water hydrant project in the archives.).
This is the basic building. It is unheated for this climate but in the real cold I have an electric red brooder bulb over the roost area to keep the birds warm. Chickens with rose combs do better in cold weather as the comb will not freeze and slough off tissue. Also the large front window must have some sort of closure or install sliding glass windows to keep out the winter’s cold. It is enjoyable stepping into the coop, the chicken hormonal fragrance and happy sounds are inviting. You will make two trips a day to the chicken house, early morning for feeding and opening the access chicken door to the wired in pens and again at night to feed them a bit more for night time and close up the access chicken door. More on this as we progress.
Chickens are noisy so on the farm setting locate the chicken house at least 100 yards from the human house. Face it due south for morning sunshine. Have water access and electricity.
COPYRIGHT: 2009, Back2theLand.com, Mark Steel