Pickin' Up Chicks
How to keep chickens safe, warm, and healthy.
Pickin Up Chicks
It's April and for the past several weeks, we've had 10 chicks under a heat lamp in our barn brooder growing and acclimating gradually to their new world. A typical heat lamp, by the way, takes about 10 amps of continual juice to run 24/7. Chicks need to be kept warm. They need to start at about 90 degrees from birth and the heat should gradually be dropped to around 70 degrees (or outdoor spring temps) before they can be transitioned to the coop. A standard heat lamp bulb can't be adjusted, so the lamp is just raised or lowered and the chicks self-regulate by moving toward or away from it.
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On a sunny day, 10 amps is no problem but since the heat lamp runs all night (while there is no solar power being generated), it creates a continual drain on a solar system. We've mitigated the drain by using a rheostat which allows us to adjust the heat lamp temp to about 8 amps, and eventually less, as the chicks mature. John also just added 3 more solar panels, which I'll talk about in another post.
Building Coop du Ville
Typically, when we build something, John and I will take turns passing a drawing back and forth with edits until we have all the issues sorted. We've worked this way for years from creating built-in wall units to entire rooms. Being new to chickens, I researched coop designs and functionality while John focused on raw materials and structure, then we put our heads together.
Location was the first decision. Chickens produce a lot of dust, that's why most coops are built separate from other structures. Also, depending on your weather, you want to consider protection from snow, sun or wind when choosing a location.
We chose to attach the coop to our existing utility shed where the main generator is housed. Here, the coop will be sheltered from the snow load (we get about 4' of snow). On the south side of the shed, it's protected from the cold north winds. It gets really hot here in summer (sometimes over 105F) so the location also provides good shade. Lastly, we'll have easy access to electricity if we need to provide heat in winter. The shed also allows us nearby storage for the chickens' bedding, food and cleaning supplies.
Building on to an existing structure is sometimes more difficult than starting from scratch, especially if certain existing walls are not true but it's a chicken coop... We had to keep repeating this mantra throughout the build: It's a chicken coop, it's a chicken coop...
Being frugal (and since this is a chicken coop), we decided to repurpose an old sheep shed that was on our property. John tore it down and was able to reuse a lot of the plywood and 2x4's.
A coop should provide about 3' of space per chicken inside with a run that provides 8'-10' per chicken. We have 10 chicks and the coop interior is about 40 sq. ft so that's more than enough space.
Regarding flooring, concrete is best but... it's a chicken coop, so - we built the foundation off the ground, level with the existing shed. The floor is plywood. You can have a dirt floor, too, but since we have coyotes and other determined diggers, we went a different route. We installed 1/4" hardware cloth between the shed and coop to prevent critters crawling in from underneath the shed or around the coop. Fingers crossed that all this is enough!
We don't have a lot of in-process images because the winds were about 15 to 20mph and cold throughout the entire construction. It's April, but you can still see plenty of snow in the background to give you an idea of the temps here.
Other Design Factors
Chickens should have more ventilation than you'd think, despite cold climates. They create a lot of dust, ammonia fumes and also humidity from their breathing. The drier you can keep the air, the less chance of frostbite. Also, an oxygen rich environment helps keep chickens (and all living things) healthy. When placed thoughtfully, high windows provide ventilation in cold weather without producing cold drafts across the roosts. Low windows provide for breezy ventilation and heat dissipation in summer.
Since it gets really hot (99F+) and really cold here (-20F), we created two windows for airflow (east and west). The back window is high with an adjustable opening and the front window has shutters. Both are covered with hardware cloth to prevent intruders. We also installed two vents for air flow for colder weather, when the windows are closed. The vents are opposite each other, high in the back wall and low in the front man-door.
The shutters and doors are just plywood, but we painted them to look fancy. I know, I know: it's just a chicken coop....
We also used 1/4" hardware cloth around the ground perimeter of the coop to keep predators out. The walls and ceiling are insulated with 1" Styrofoam sheets and, to make cleaning easier, we covered the plywood floor with faux wood linoleum.
**Update Jan 2023: The chickens pecked the Styrofoam insulation sheets to bits so we re-insulated with R3 fiberglass rolls enclosed by asphalt-coated fiberboard sheathing in the fall. It’s inexpensive and they don’t peck at it. Temps have fallen to -20F so far this winter and all of our chickens are doing fine. **
Our coop has 3 nesting boxes which are accessible from the outside through a door flap. The official recommendation is one nesting box per four chickens. A friend of ours has 12 chickens who all like to lay their eggs in the same box - chickens do what chickens do.
It's a good idea to put a small lip (2" high) on the inside bottom edge of your boxes to keep their bedding in. Also, having a sloped roof on the nesting boxes prevents the chickens from roosting (and pooping) on their egg boxes.
Chickens need about 8-10" of space each to roost. When it's cold, they like to huddle together for warmth. Have a few roosting sticks that are staggered for variety and wide enough for their toes not to hang over. 2x4's or wide branches work well but don't use metal or pipe since those are slippery. Also, don't put the roosts over their food, since they create a lot of droppings while they sleep.
Their feeder/water will go in later, when the chicks are ready to move in. We're hoping to move them into their Coop du Ville in a couple weeks!
And, I know, it's just a chicken coop, but I had to make my chicks a mosaic rooster window above their nesting boxes... for inspiration. By the way, the door under the window is an access hatch to the nesting boxes so we can gather eggs from outside coop.
Our goal in choosing breeds was to have chickens that are hardy and can handle our harsh climate, are medium layers, and have quiet/calm demeanors. After doing a lot of research, we chose Olive Eggers, Buckeyes, Coco Marans and Rhode Island Reds. They're all dual purpose (layers or fryers) and I'm estimating at least a dozen eggs per week, at least until winter. There are ways, I've read, to light the coop during winter to extend their laying season but I think I'll skip that. I'm guessing God probably has a reason for letting them rest during winter and, besides, there are ways to preserve enough fresh eggs to last the winter easily.
**Update Jan 2023: We’re still getting 1-3 eggs per day, despite it being full-on winter. We only use a heat-lamp when the temp dips below zero degrees F.**
Here's one method:
Egg Preservation: Waterglass Method
First of all, use fresh eggs and don't wash them. Just brush the dirt off, but don't disturb the bloom. The natural bloom on the shell protects against bacteria and keeps the lime from being absorbed into the shell.
Use a food safe plastic bucket or glass jar. Add enough water the fill the container and add 1oz of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) per 1 quart of water.
Place your eggs in the water, close the lid and keep in a cool, dry place. I've read to place the eggs pointed-side down, but good luck with that... they don't exactly stay in place! Also, the lime will settle to the bottom of your container, but that's natural. The water is still "limed".
The eggs will stay fresh for 1-2 years. Yes, years. Unlike canned foods, you can reach in and take what you need and just put the top back on. They'll stay fresh. Be sure to wash the eggs before using them to get rid of the lime residue and try to use from the bottom.
With both the chickens and the eggs, our ultimate goal is to add another level to our growing self-sufficiency but caring for animals is rewarding in and of itself. Watching the chicks grow and become more familiar with us is a lot of fun.
Chickens basically need just a few simple things: shelter and protection from harsh weather and predators, a place to nest (lay eggs), a place to roost (simple as a stick), and food and water. Additionally, many breeds are great foragers, meaning they can find most of their own food - Buckeyes are even known to kill mice! You don't need an entire farm to keep chickens as they don't take up much room and they're fairly low maintenance.