Chicken Fort Knox

When we left Massachusetts, we gave away all of our remaining chickens.  I think by the time we left, we were down to a dozen or so, and were happily able to find a few folks to take them off our hands. We still had a good number of consistent layers in that bunch, and it wasn't hard to place them. 

Since we moved to Maine, we've been chicken free. Which is one less thing to worry about, on the one hand. And lord knows, we've certainly had more than a couple of things going on to keep up occupied and out of trouble. But the Critter's been bugging me for a while about sorting out the gap. Because those little feathered producers are her source of income.  We've never given the kids an allowance. So sorting out some kind of revenue stream has been at the top of her list for a while. 

I knew this summer that I didn't want to use the old chicken house that came with the property. It was run down, and the run needed some major upkeep. I had my eye on a bigger space. One of the less used buildings on the property. The old pump house. 

When it came time to construct the new coop, I wanted to incorporate the lessons from the past few years.  A few key goals: 

  • It has to be easy to clean. 
  • Predator-proofing is high on my list - secure fencing. Netted run. 
  • The run has to be big enough to accommodate a couple dozen birds. I'm not into letting them range everywhere, because I'm not into trying to find them. 
  • I hate stooping over in the run. So big is the key. 

The pump house is great in almost every way for this. It's big and roomy. (12'x12'). Well lit with several windows. Has electricity run to it already. Has a concrete knee wall (hard for predators to beat). And is pretty reasonably sited on the property (important in a snowy winter).  Plus, it's right across from the greenhouse door - so I can shoo the chickens in there during the winter if I choose, a trick I've heard from old timers up here. 

The site I chose for the run is the opposite side of the pump house from the house - and it's on a bit of a slope. Remember when I said I didn't want to have to stoop over in the run? That meant that the uphill side of the run is almost 8' high. By the time you get down hill, the posts are just about 10' out of the ground. Which means that the 4"x4" posts I had to order were HUGE. But the soil was mostly easy to dig out 2' post holes for. 

The total run space about 24' x 30' (and a little change), with the pump house occupying one interior corner (plans above). Plenty big enough for chickens to enjoy, I think. It's about 50% larger of a run than we had in Massachusetts . 

 I changed the approach to the fencing this time as well. For the bottom 30"-48" or so (it varied depending on the slope, I used a 1" mesh coated wire of a heavier gauge, buried in a 4-6" trench. (I tried for 6" consistently, but had to adjust occasionally for rocks or roots). 

For the top, I used a coated hex mesh (traditional chicken wire). It's not quite as heavy a gauge of wire, but plenty good for the purpose, and a bit cheaper and easier to maneuver than having continued the heavy gauge wire. 

I included plenty of roosts in the run - there were a few lilac stumps and the cross bracing of the posts to make it easy. And in the corners, I used a few of the larger rocks that I had dug up in the digging phase to brace and provide further predator discouragement. 

One other lesson I learned from the first coop I built was how to deal with compost. We tend to bring all the kitchen compost out to the chickens to give them some variety. (Except for anything we cook with chicken in it. Because that seems wrong). 

The problem is, the kids (who do the actual schlepping to and fro, of course) tend to dump it right inside the run's entrance. Meaning that I end up stepping into a pile of slippery whatever when I go into the run. 

Et voila: I created a compost door in the corner opposite from the chicken run main door. This keeps the compost in a neat corner well away from where I go in and out. 


We had plenty of knotted netting material left to cover the run - most of the chickens I've lost over the years have been to hawks. Like 2:1 for any other cause. Keeping the chickens in the run (and the predators OUT - there was one horribly bloody afternoon when a young red tailed hawk actually followed the chickens into the old coop through the little chicken door and commenced to slaughtering. It was a very messy day) is about the best thing I can do to help. 

This netting is frightfully expensive, but comes in large lots. I had set it aside for the movers to bring up to Maine for us. Fortunately, we had some competent supervision to get it unrolled and up on the roof. 

On the inside, there were a few things I was keen to address this time around. After a few years of working in and on the old coop, I had some ideas of how to improve. Mostly around how to keep the thing clean more easily. (Even though this is the Critter's business, and she does do all of the daily watering/feeding/egg-collecting, I still seem to end up doing the majority of the coop cleanup. I'm not sure that happened. I have a sneaking suspicion it may indicate which one of us is more naturally inclined to 'management', and which one to 'grunt poop cleaner upper'). 

The inside is bright and sunny - and there's an electric overhead light as well, which I can set on a timer (important during the long winters. Chickens want more than 12 hours of light in a day to lay at peak productivity). 

I gave myself plenty of room for food and other tool storage inside the coop. And I lined the bottom of the interior partition with a knee wall to keep the shavings from spilling out quite so badly. 

You can see the handy hole for the cord of the water warmer. Again - necessary to provision for the cold winters up here. Chickens deal remarkably well with the cold - the settlers managed quite well for a long time before the convenience of heat lamps came along, after all -  but they do need a constant supply of fresh water. 

The nesting boxes are easy, but even here, I managed to incorporate an improvement or two over my previous attempts. One: sloped roof. I know.. that sounds obvious. But while I gave the hens plenty of roosting space, I don't want to encourage them to roost on top of the nesting boxes. It gets messy pretty quickly. 

Two, the roosting bar in front of the nesting boxes (a simple 2"x4" runner) is offset slightly from the front of the nesting boxes. 


It's not a wide enough gap for an egg to fall through - not even a bantam egg. But it IS wide enough to easily push out the shavings from the nesting box and let them fall onto the ground. Which will make cleaning up the nesting boxes easy enough for even my daughter to take on. 

Delegation! I'm learning! 

You can still see the old pump house components on the side of the wall - this building's original purpose on the farm is still very evident. 

I'll keep that closed and out of the way. 

The concrete knee wall did mean accommodating the hatch a bit - but nothing the chickens won't easily learn to navigate. (I've seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall train his chickens to a much higher ladder)

The last major mistake-inspired-innovation was a simple way to lift and shift the roosting bars when it came time to clean. I had made the error of permanently attaching the roosting ladder to the wall in the last coop (with a simple pair of screws. But then I had to go get my drill every time it came time to clean to remove it). 

Trust me - this is the single biggest area of manure compilation, as the chickens will poop frequently while roosting. So addressing this from the beginning was high on my list. 

I used a simple pair of eye & hook latches to make it secure, but easy to lift out and hang whenever cleaning time comes around. 

That's pretty much it. The chicks have arrived - just a few to get us started (it's hard to source healthy chicks this time of year), but George has already made it known to them exactly whose herd they belong to.  

dog chicks.jpg

They're a little small yet to move in, but soon enough. 

Let's hope they enjoy their new home.