How to Make a Backyard Coop and Keep Chickens

Ever thought about keeping chickens? Here's advice from a local expert on how to get started



Dean Plender built a coop for his chickens at his home in Raymond. Photo by Emily Heidt

If you live in New Hampshire, chances are you know someone who has chickens wandering around their property. You might even be lucky enough to receive fresh eggs from time to time.

Some people may see them as a smelly nuisance, but the benefits of keeping your own chickens go beyond the eggs that they provide. Chickens take care of bugs and ticks, till your soil, get rid of weeds, supply you with excellent fertilizer and give you a lesson in self-sustainability.

If you’ve hatched an idea to get chickens of your own (or we just convinced you), but don’t know where to start, Raymond resident and chicken-keeper Dean Plender has some advice for beginners. After moving to his grandparents’ chicken farm at 6 years old, he quickly learned the benefits that come with raising chickens. These days, he has a coop and five chickens of his own. We asked him about a few tips on how to start raising chickens in your own backyard. His first suggestion is crucial — check with your town to see if chickens are even allowed in residential areas.

Housing


Photo by Emily Heidt

Laying hens should have at least 3 or 4 square feet of space per bird, and at least 10 square feet of an outside run area. You can buy a coop at your local Tractor Supply Company or, better yet from Coops for a Cause located in Center Harbor. Purchases of their custom-built coops help support select nonprofits, including The Water Project, Illuminate Lives and more.

If you possess carpentry skills, you could get creative and build it yourself. Plender built his own 8-by-6-foot coop, and even allowed room for a small food storage space. No matter what, make sure it’s done well. “It’s important for there to be no cracks for drafts, but good ventilation,” he says. “Chickens can get pneumonia from moisture, so high ceilings and windows are crucial — even in our cold winter months.”

Equipment

You can use dry straw or hay for bedding, but Plender recommends using fresh sawdust. “I use wood shavings from my shop because it cuts down on cleanup,” he says. “It’s basically like composting. I will go in every couple of weeks and add a fresh layer, which keeps the smell down, it stays dry and it’s even clean once spring comes around.” Another bedding tip? Add a rubber membrane on the floor and up the wall a foot to prevent rot under the sawdust.
Chickens don’t like being on the ground and have a natural instinct to roost. Perches allow them to get up high to sleep. You can use a flat roost, like a two-by-four piece of wood, or a ladder sitting at a slant, which is how Plender set up his coop. You will need one foot of space per bird for roosting.

Food and Water

Chickens need access to water at all times. Plender recommends using a water heater during the colder months to avoid finding a block of ice come morning.

Chickens also need high-quality poultry feed and a feeder. Plender uses laying pellets that are soy-free and high in calcium, which helps with egg production during the winter. If you decide to free-range or pen-range your flock, you will need to supplement their diet. He uses little feed in the summer, as his chickens get most of their nutrition when they’re out eating bugs and grubs from the ground. A good way to see if your chickens are getting enough supplementation is by checking the quality of your eggs. If the shells are too thin, the chickens aren’t getting enough calcium. To add calcium, he adds crushed oyster shells to their feed.

Free-ranging (and even penned-ranging) is the best option for healthy eggs, but comes with the risk of predators. If that’s a risk that you are willing to take, you’ll be rewarded with the healthiest eggs, happiest chickens and a reduced food bill. “You have to let them roam free as much as you can and let them do their natural thing,” he says. “It’s worth it when you are rewarded with a dark orange, slightly runny yolk.”

Laying Eggs


If you’ve never had truly fresh eggs, you don’t know what you’re missing. Photo by Emily Heidt

Your flock will need nesting boxes for egg laying. They enjoy dark areas and prefer their nest off the ground. Plender uses old milk crates on a non-sunny side of the coop. If you notice that they’re having problems nesting or laying eggs, you can use “dummy” eggs. “I started them out young by training them with wooden eggs in their nesting boxes,” he says. “That way, they know where to go, and if they see that another chicken has laid there, they will be more inclined to as well.”  

Make sure that you keep your boxes full of bedding as empty floors result in broken, dirty eggs. Most hens lay in the morning, so try and collect them twice a day.

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