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. 


If you need a reminder how good a simple egg can be...

This last month, our good friend & neighbor released an updated version of her book:  "I have some chickens, now what the hell am I supposed to do with all these eggs?"

(I suggested that title in one conversation. Too bad it didn't make it past the editor, right Terry?.)

I sometimes refer to Terry 'the chicken whisperer'. She's run a popular website featuring her animals for years at, and offers workshops on how to raise a backyard flock safely and effectively. She's the one I turn to when I need advice on some obscure chicken happening, and is full of both practical, down to earth advice and experience. Heck, she was featured on Martha Stewart a couple of years ago with one of her hens and the children's book she published. Starring - you guessed it - one of her beautiful hens.  We've traded occasional birds when one of us has either a surplus or a stumper (Terry and I. Not Martha Stewart). And we've come to value her and her family as great friends as well as great neighbors. 

Plus: she's a terrific cook. 

The real title (& cover) of the book... 

The real title (& cover) of the book... 

This book covers all kinds of great facts about eggs: selecting, storing, and most of all: preparing them in a host of delicious ways, and it's beautifully photographed.  You should pick yourself up a copy. 

She even touches on what it's like to care for your own flock, or how to talk up a local farmer to score some fresh eggs yourself. Though she did add a warning at her recent book reading - giving an incidental shout out to us when she told the audience: "Be aware... chickens are a gateway animal. One of our neighbors started with a few birds and now has a pair of pigs to go with them."

Last night, we made a pasta carbonara with eggs from our own flock, pancetta we cured ourselves, pasta made by the Critter, and some zucchini that we picked up at Stop & Shop. (It was 15 degrees last night. It'll be a while before I can expect any vegetables that aren't shipped in from well below the Mason Dixon line). 

Terry's a cook; her recipes are approachable and delicious, and highlight the good quality ingredients she recommends. I promise: you won't be disappointed in this one. 

The Smith County fair

While I was down in Tennessee visiting, I convinced my parents that we really needed to go see the opening events happening at the Smith County fair. 

It's not every day you get to see a live mule judging, after all. 


I also spent some time looking at the entries into the chicken competition.  

Some of these birds were truly beautiful. But some of them were pretty average. My buff orpington is a little older now, but in her prime laying years, she looked as good or better than any of the entries I saw in that category. And her flock mates could have certainly been viable entries as well.


I tried to get the judge to talk to me about what he was looking for. What makes a good Barred Rock? Does he have the breed standards memorized for all the categories? He'd kind of pick the chickens up and give them a feel. He'd tuck them under his arm. He'd stand back and contemplate.  

He was far too occupied to give me any time, however.   He had a very serious job to do.


The category that got me most excited, though, was the Ham, Bacon & Jowl judging. It was drop-off day for the entries, and they were lining up as we went through in the morning. Mostly, these were country hams, salted and smoked. Different from the prosciuttos I make. But definitely gave me something to think about. 

The judging wouldn't be til later in the week. But look at that pair of huge jowls on the end of the table. 



There were other categories for homemade wine. For quilts. For jams, preserves, vegetables, flowers, photography, and more. There was a talent show, an antique tractor show, a turkey calling contest, and even a coon hunt the last evening. (I am so not making that up).  

But it wasn't all serious stuff. There'd be rides and carnival games through the week, not to mention some great looking food. 

And they don't forget about the kids in Smith County. 

I present to you: a giant roll of hay turned into a pig. 


I love you, Smith County, Tennessee.