Animal Housing: Coop and barn designs, appearance, utility, ease of use, maintenance cost, required upkeep, environmental impact, ventilation, lighting, storage, distance from house, location relative to wind and sun exposure, water access, water collection, electricity, safety
The standard recommendation for a backyard coop is 1 square foot of ventilation per chicken. I have also seen calls for 1 square foot of ventilation per every ten feet of coop square footage. Because I keep 4 square feet or more per chicken, the former recommendation requires more ventilation. I know that I can always close down vents and windows if needed, but I can’t always cut new. Therefore, I’ll err on the side of maximum ventilation.You’ll often see recommendations for “ventilation but not drafts” in chicken and animal housing. How is this accomplished? As we discussed in Fresh Air for Winter, you can achieve ventilation by eliminating cross breezes.
Choose one side of your coop to be your main ventilation, all the way through your rainiest, coldest weather. Generally, this is the south side. Try to extend your roof further on this side so that it blocks more of the high summer sun while allowing the lower winter sun to shine into the coop through the windows and vents. It will also block rain and snow from easily entering the coop.
Then, make sure that the ventilation or windows on all other sides of the coop are able to be closed and sealed. During your fair weather, you can have cross breezes which will move air through the coop but have only a positive impact on chickens’ health. During foul weather, you can close down all but the south side vents, eliminating any chance for a cross breeze or draft. Humid, hot air will rise and move to areas of lesser heat and moisture concentration – towards the outside air through the vent.While much of your southern wall may consist of vents and windows which can be opened, make sure there is a high vent for the topmost air to exit the coop. Place roosts on the opposite, northern wall away from any moving air. If you have a small coop, do your best to create this set-up and be sure to keep all vents well above the roost. Be careful of drafts from access and pop doors.
However you decide to position your housing, you do not want the prevailing winds to smack directly into the broadside of your coop or barn. Investigate the prevailing winds on your property. Try to have the wind hit the side of your coop on an angle. Alternately, you could build a round coop as in my plan which will allow wind to move around it.If you have a strong, cold breeze from the north, consider planting a windbreak or taking advantage of mature trees already growing on your property. You may want to use evergreen trees as a windbreak to the north and deciduous trees to the south to block hot summer sun but allow sunlight to penetrate in winter.
So, we’ll be well-ventilated with perennial southern vents. We’ll close down other vents and seal around doors when the weather is too cold for our birds. We’ll slow the wind with windbreaks, mitigate its force by having it strike at an angle, and use an extended southern roof to keep out the weather. The roof will also block our highest summer sun as will our deciduous tree plantings. Got it.
What else should we consider as we place this building on our property? If you plan to run electricity or plumbing to the coop, the expense will require that it is close to the house or existing structures with these amenities. I’d like to have my system “off-grid” as much as possible. I’d like it to be self-sustaining and not add to my expenses any more than needed. So, what shall I do for light and water in the coop?I will definitely include many windows in my coop, especially along the southern side. I also want to give them the earliest sunrise possible, so I will have windows from the east shining directly onto the roosts. In my current coops, I have solar-powered LED shed lights, but they only lasted about a year before they stopped working for some reason. If I could figure out how to fix them, they would still be a great option because they are self-contained and cool to the touch.
A great way to gather both light and heat would be to build a greenhouse onto the southern side of the coop. If you vented the coop above the greenhouse roof, you could still expel hot, moist air. In the summer, the greenhouse might gather a bit too much heat, but it might still be workable with good, removable insulation between the coop and greenhouse such as a thick panel covering a wire mesh window. For ideas, check out Solviva’s designs. (I am in no way affiliated, just looking for inspiration.) Another cool way of using the sun for some extra heating is to create a solar heater with stacks of black, painted soda cans following these directions. (You can find these ideas and more on my Homestead Vision and Action Pinterest board.)Have you ever seen these cool plastic water bottles used as 50-watt skylights? I do love the light, but I wish it didn’t rely on plastic. I would rather have things in my 40-year coop that will last, well, at least 40 years, but this might be a great option for many. Another great plastic option for increased light is the corrugated polycarbonate clear roofing. It functions just like a corrugated metal roofing panel. It is very strong and withstands heat and cold very well. (Read more pros and cons of corrugated poly here.) I can’t seem to find a clear answer about how long these panels last, but they do seem to be quite durable. I really might go with these if I can afford them, simply for the light-value. Green roofs are also gorgeous, but I doubt I could keep them alive under three feet of snow.
Whichever roofing I decide upon, I will have a single, angled roof surface with a gutter collecting water for a rain collection system. I am envisioning something like this, a stack of water barrels on their sides in a (very strong!) frame so that I can collect a few hundred gallons in a small area. The problem is, it is going to FREEZE often at 3,800 feet! Water makes an excellent thermal mass, holding its temperature quite steadily, so should I have the tower of rain barrels actually inside the coop? Would the air mass and body heat inside the coop keep it unfrozen and it in turn keep the air temperatures more steady, or would it freeze and actually make the air inside the coop colder? What do you think?I definitely want to carry as little water as possible. That said, I also know that I will sometimes have to. I have carried water to my coops for years now, and it’s not so bad, especially when it doesn’t freeze inside the coop during the day. I usually use a 5-gallon bucket with a poultry nipple on the bottom. I keep about 1-2 gallons of water in it and carry it inside at night. It’s great for toning my arms (I try to remember to switch arms each time I carry it) and it does pretty well inside the enclosed coop.
When the temps are below freezing during the day, sometimes I have to carry out hot water to thaw it, which I don’t love. I still don’t want to use electricity or fire in the coop, even in the winter, so I have been wondering if there is a good way to use the heat from decomposing manure to keep my waterer unfrozen. I’ve seen horse manure used to heat hotboxes and brooders, but I’ll have chicken manure, not horse. Ideas?Of course, using lightbulbs in the coop can cause a fire as can other electrical devices such as heaters. Other safety considerations would be keeping paths dry and clear, making sure that glass is not used where it can fall or break, and that windows and doors function correctly. For me, safety also makes me think of storage. I don’t want to have to be in strange positions or reaching over my head for heavy items. As much as I would like to use every possible square inch for chicken space, I need to have safe, accessible storage especially for heavy stuff like feed.
Speaking of feed, can you say “bears”? I actually love black bears (and am thankful that we don’t have grizzlies!) but they can definitely pull off a door to get to chickens or chicken feed. Since one of West Virginia’s top 5 largest black bears was actually killed on our property by the previous owner, I know that large black bears, along with coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and even mountain lions may want to stop by for a snack.A key to safety will be cleaning up any food that is laying around and locking up the coop tightly at night. Strong hinges, thick walls, strong wire over the windows, and a good, deep foundation will be the best protection I can offer my birds against the ancient, rightful predators which live on our mountain. We’ll fire warning shots when needed, but we may lose some chickens. We will have to decide what level of loss is acceptable to us. For my dream homestead, we will need to find a balance between safety and acceptance of ours and our chickens’ place in the natural order – where we are stewards of our flock as well as the land and its biodiversity. We will hunt on our homestead and we will eat meat, but we will not seek to eradicate predators. We love the wild as it is.
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Leopold (1949) in A Sand County Almanac as quoted in Adams (2006)