Chickens 101: Setting up the Hen House & Run

When your chicks are fully feathered and weaned off the heating lamp, it's time to finish preparing their run and house. (Click here to learn about buying and caring for chicks.) Notice I say "finish;" I really recommend you have a hen house and run ready to go before you buy chicks. This is because it can be expensive and/or time consuming to set up a chicken home, and you don't want to leave your nearly grown chicks in a crowded brooder longer than necessary.

Where to Get the Hen House

There are three ways to obtain a house suitable for chickens:

1. Buy one, either used or new
2. Build one from scratch
3. Modify an existing structure (like a shed)

#1 is the easiest, but buying a new hen house can be costly, especially if you'll have more than two birds. It is generally less costly to scour Craigslist for either new hen houses built by a handyman (I've seen some really beautiful ones for about $400 to $500 - half what they'd cost from a different source) or a used one. I ended up purchasing our hen house and run via Craigslist. It's only a year old, needed little modification, and cost $150. I wouldn't expect to pay less than that for a hen house in good condition.

If you're handy, you can build a hen house from scratch. However, if you purchase all the materials new, the house will likely be as expensive as buying a ready made one. If you have sources for used, free or cheap lumber, then you may save money making your own hen house. Do a Google search or look on eBay and you'll find a wide variety of hen house plans.

If you have an old shed, playhouse, or other structure - or you know where you can get one cheap or free - this may be a real money saver. Just remember chickens have certain requirements (more on that in a moment) and accordingly you'll have to build around and in the structure.
Hen House Requirements

* A minimum of 2 square feet per bird. Most chicken owners say 4 to 6 feet is far better - and it's true that crowded hens tend to peck at each other and may be less healthy overall. However, do remember the hen house is primarily for sleeping, so huge amounts of space aren't required. (Bantams chickens need a little less space because of their smaller size.)

* Access doors. The hens need a ramp leading out of the hen house; at night, the ramp should securely fold up to keep the hens safe from predators. You'll also need a way to access and clean the inside of the house and it's best to have small access doors to the hen's nesting boxes. All doors should fasten securely, to keep smart predators like racoons away.

* A clean, dry floor. Typically this means a floor of wood or concrete. Ideally, wood floors should stand above the soil, on legs.

* Ventilation. Air flow is really important and will keep the coop dry, breathable, and (in the hot months) cool. This is usually accomplished by having small windows near the top of the house, covered with screening.

* Nesting boxes. Since you won't want to go searching for eggs each morning, you'll need nesting boxes for your hens. The birds actually enjoy sharing nesting boxes, so one for every two or three birds is fine. Line the boxes with non-skid shelf paper to help prevent egg breakage, if you like, then put a nice pile of fresh straw on top.

* Roost. A simple 2 in. wide pole across the top of the hen house will do the trick. You can also give chickens something to roost on outside, if you like, but don't neglect to give them a roosting place indoors. Also, if you need more than one roost because of flock size, don't place one above the other (chickens will poop on each other) and keep them at least 12 inches apart.

* Heating. In most climates, chickens don't need additional heat. However, if you live in an area that gets sub-zero temperatures, you'll need some heat source to prevent frost bite. In addition, if you have immature chickens outside, molting birds, or birds with feather loss, extra heat is necessary. Just set up an inexpensive heating lamp (found at farm supply and pet stores) in the hen house. You;ll need an appropriately sized extension cord to plug the light into the closest available outlet.

* Lighting. You do not need to give chickens light in the dim winter; however, they may produce few, if any, eggs if you don't. An ordinary light bulb set near the hen house door will perk the girls right up and start them laying again.

* Waterers. Although you could use dog dishes for watering chickens, you'll find them difficult to maintain. The birds will roost on the edges and generally get the dishes filthy. It's better to buy chicken waterers, which are available in many price ranges. The cheapest are simple plastic contraptions selling for under $10. A hanging waterer - placed at the chicken's head level - is ideal, since the chickens are less likely to get it dirty. You may also need to purchase more than one waterer, depending upon how big your flock is; you don't want the chickens fighting because they can't get to the waterer. If you live in a very cold climate, you'll need a heated waterer in the winter, to prevent the water from freezing.

* Feeders. Again, it's a good idea to buy an actual chicken feeder. You can either raise it up to their head level by setting it on bricks, or you can buy a hanging version. (Hanging hog feeders work, too.) Again, make sure you have enough feeders for the flock, and keep all feeders in the hen house where the food will stay dry.

* Bedding. The floor of the hen house needs some sort of absorbent material on it to keep odors down and make clean up easier. Pine and cedar shavings are not a good choice, since they can irritate chicken lungs and cause infection. In addition, cocoa-based products are highly toxic to chickens. Straw then, is the popular choice. You could potentially also use shredded newspaper, dry leaves, and dried grass clippings.

* Grit. Chances are, the soil in your yard (or under the chicken run) has pebbles in it. But it's still a good idea to give the chickens some grit. Chickens need small pebbles in their body to help them digest food. You can either buy grit at a farm store, or simply make sure there are small pebbles where the chickens can get to them.

Free Range or Run?

If you have lots of space, let your chickens free range. This simply means they can go wherever they like on your property, feedings on weeds, bugs, and so on. However, if you have a garden (ornamental or edible), the chickens will destroy it. For most urban dwellers, then, a chicken run is a must. The run should have no floor (so the chickens can scratch around in the dirt), but should have sides and a roof made of screening or fencing wire. At least 4 square feet per bird is recommended for a run.

The run doesn't have to attach to the hen house if it can fit very snugly to it, not allowing predators in or chickens out. However, the chickens must be able to get into it easily, and there should be an access door for you, too.

In addition to the run, consider letting the chickens out to free range once in a while, under your supervision. Fencing around your gardens will keep chickens out - or make a movable chicken yard with wire fencing and stakes. The chickens will get the benefit of exploring new territory (and all the bugs, weeds, and soil that go with it) and the area will get a light application of beneficial fertilizer.

Chicken Arks or Tractors

Chicken tractors (sometimes called arks) are popular right now. These combine hen house and run can be rolled around the yard to give the chickens new feeding grounds. By all means feel free to use one, but if the tractor has a solid roof, I would still use movable fencing once in a while so the chickens can feel the sun on their backs.

Ideally, the hen house and run should be not too hot and not too cold. This means it shouldn't be in full shade all day, nor should it be in full sun. If a fence or tree shades the spot for part of the hottest part of the day, that's an ideal location.


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