Building a chicken coop (Coop Knox)

I grew up keeping poultry.  Mum took us kids to a local market every spring and each of us got to pick out a chick or duckling to raise.  We had a duck coop and a chicken coop, but no run; the birds free-ranged during the day.  It was the kids’ job to shut the coops up each night.  That was important, because in Australia, where I grew up, foxes were ever-present.  When – because kids are kids – we forgot, we woke the next morning to devastation.  Beyond that, I never gave a lot of thought to the birds – they were just “there”.

As a young adult, while house-hunting, we looked at a house that had a fabulous chicken coop in the backyard.  We bought that house because of the coop.  As part of the contract, the sellers agreed to leave some hens, so we had eggs as soon as we moved in.  I thoroughly appreciated being able to collect the fresh eggs, and between those and the vegie garden I started the day we moved in, I was able to feed my toddlers some pretty wholesome meals.

Then I moved to the US, to a city where I never saw any poultry and assumed there were rules prohibiting them.  It wasn’t until 2009 that I learned that they are legal.  I lost no time obtaining 8 straight run (unsexed) chicks from a local breeder, and a free A-Frame coop from a woman on “Freecycle”.  Of the chicks, 4 were male, and since the city ordinances prohibit roos, we were quickly down to four.  Not for long.  “Chicken Math” took over, and before I knew it I had 12 hens – the maximum I was allowed – and STILL there were more breeds I wanted.

So what does any sane person do in this situation?  Keep in mind this person has already bought one house primarily because of the coop in the backyard……you got it!  We bought a house on 10-acres, out in the country, where there are no restrictions on poultry.  (Having a wonderful HWA is a pre-requisite – I don’t know many men who would be so supportive of a wife who buys properties just to keep chickens.)

The property we purchased already contained a concrete slab (once the floor of a dog run) that seemed to be the most appropriate place to build a coop.  The slab measured 15’9″ x 10’8″.  I decided to stick with even numbers and build a 10×14 coop.  The front 10×10 to be coop proper, with the back 10×4 area to store feed, medicine, chick feeders/waterers, etc.

I started by building the walls one by one on the slab.  When all four walls were built, I spent a long, hot, dirty day drilling 34 holes in the concrete with a hammer drill and anchoring the walls using zinc-coated 5-1/2″ long concrete wedge anchors through the 2×4 treated lumber footer.  (Note: the anchors weren’t easy to find — I had to order them from eBay.)  

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As you can see from the picture, I did not yet frame in doors and windows, figuring it would be easier to build walls with studs 16″ on center, and then cut out openings for windows and doors.  If you have better visualization and carpentry skills than me, it would probably save time to build the walls with those elements in place, but I know my limitations. <smile>

HWA was too busy at work to be able to dedicate time to a coop build, so a friend, Rob, offered to come and help me.  I couldn’t have done it without him – some of the pieces are so long/heavy/unwieldy that there would be no way for one person to handle them alone.  The next step was to design and build the roof trusses.  We built one to make sure it was the angle we wanted, and once we were satisfied with it, used it as a template to build the remaining trusses.  Then I stood on a ladder and Rob passed one end up to me, then climbed up his ladder, and pulled his end up.  Triangulating and securing them took some time but we were pleased with the end result.  A few nights after installing them we had a storm with 70mph winds and the trusses stayed right in place.  At this point you can also see where we had cut out and framed the windows and doors.

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Now the fun part: sheeting.  I loved this part, because each sheet that goes up looks like huge progress yet only takes minutes.  I purchased a framing nailer which was a huge time saver, allowing me to nail each sheet of OSB up in 5-10 minutes.  In no time the coop went from framed out, to looking like a real building.

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Once all the sheets of OSB were up, we installed the doors.  There is a door at each end, as well as an internal door in the wall dividing the coop from the feed room.  I was fortunate that the doors were given to me by a neighbor who was doing some renovating.  They were internal doors at her house but two of them are external here.  Hey – its “just a chicken coop”!

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Having purchased an additional sheet of OSB we were able to add the triangle-thingies at the end of the coop.

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The windows we covered with hardware cloth on the inside using fender washers.

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Several sheets of metal roofing were donated to me and although metal wouldn’t have been my first choice…..free is free.  The first thing was to lay some furring sheets horizontally across the roof trusses, so we would have good anchor points for the sheets of metal.

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Next, we installed the first sheet on the roof as the foundation for the rest of them to line up on.

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We decided to alternate sides, doing one sheet at a time left and right.  That allowed us to get up on ladders from the inside of the coop and screw the sheets in the middle.  There was a LOT of getting up and down from ladders.  The coop is 12′ at the peak, and I had to get up on a high rung of the ladder in order to lean over the top part of the roof to affix screws.

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I found some sheets of metal siding in our pole barn left by the previous owner.  Our summers get very hot so metal wasn’t my first choice, but I decided to try it since it can always be replaced if necessary.  With OSB under it, lots of ventilation and a hedge-row on the west providing afternoon shade, I hoped the coop would stay cool enough. We had a heat wave after moving the birds in, with temps of up to 112, but the coop was never hotter inside than out.  

Here is a photo with the siding completed.  To trim the edges, I used $7 strips of galvanized flashing.  I don’t love the silver but it was better than paying $35 apiece for the metal corner pieces that are typically used.  If I really get motivated one day I might strip them with vinegar and paint them white.  For now they are doing their job even if they don’t look great.

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And the last outside step was to add a ridge cap.  I had one of the metal siding corner pieces in the barn, but instead of using it as a corner piece, I used it as the top ridge cap.  Since it was 10′ long and I needed 14′, I slid a 4′ piece of galvanized flashing under each end.  What I love about the ridge cap is not how it looks but how it performs.  Because the corner piece has 4″ sides, it sits up from the top of the roof, allowing hot air to vent along its entire length.  The flashing underneath extends 2′ under on each end, to prevent rain entering via this point.  We had a torrential rain 2 days after it was installed and the coop stayed dry.

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With 8-foot walls, metal roof and sides, a concrete floor, and heavy-gauge hardware cloth over the windows, it is an extremely secure coop.  A tornado or a grizzly could probably get in, but this coop — HWA named it “Coop Knox” — will protect against the largest of hail storms, foxes, coyotes, dogs,  and raccoons.

Lessons learned:
1) Reuse & repurpose to save a bunch of money; poultry don’t read Architecture Today or Better Homes and Gardens.
2) Drilling holes in concrete with a hammer drill is just one rung above cleaning septic tanks.
3) Friends are great to have.

Snake!

HWA and I were out late one night a few months ago, and on returning, I went to make sure that all the birds had made it into the coop before the door closed.  They’re pretty good about going in, so I was surprised to see most of the flock outside instead.  Opening the people door, I discovered the reason why.

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My coop is 10×10, and this guy stretched most of the way along one wall, and had turned the corner with some more along the next wall.  BIG BLACK RAT SNAKE!  Given time to think, I might have leapt backwards, but a 3-week-old chick was standing 2″ from the snake’s mouth, and, thinking it was going to strike any moment, protective mother hen mode kicked in and I grabbed the snake by the tail and dragged it out of there.  After stopping at the house to show off my prize to HWA and snap some pictures to show my friends, I carried/dragged it across the street to let it go in the large pasture there, hoping it would not find its way back.

Returning to the coop, I discovered that the chick had probably been safe.  Prior to the snake’s visit, I had about 8 broody hens sitting on clutches in various areas of the coop.  While doing a head count, I found that although I hadn’t lost any birds, I HAD lost many of the eggs that were under broody hens. I also discovered a sure-fire method of breaking broodies.  It turns out, a hen who has had her eggs stolen by a 12′ long black rat snake will permanently cease brooding.  Effective immediately.  Who knew?

The chickens and turkeys that had been on the 3′ roosts apparently felt safe.  (They weren’t.  A few weeks prior to this we saw what we presume was the same snake, 12′ high in the rafters of our barn.)  They recovered quickly.  The ducks — who spend their nights on the floor — were another matter.  Apparently traumatized, they were terrified of the coop for a week afterward.  You’ve heard the expression “like herding cats”?  Well, that expression should be “like herding ducks”!  For nights after, I was at the coop for an hour or more, trying to convince 20 ducks to go into the coop.  They’d dutifully file towards the door, then at some unseen signal, break and scatter left and right.  Most of the time muscovies waddle lackadaisically around, giving the impression that they are slow and lazy.  It turns out, they can move lightning fast when they want to.  If you’d been nearby, you might have heard my pathetically whiny entreaties to them, “Please just go IN!”

Eventually they got over their fear and life went back to “normal”.  And the snake?  We haven’t seen him since.  Which is fine by me and the birds.

Bumble-foot

Birds get injured.  My poultry has largely been wonderfully healthy, but soon after moving them to their new coop, I noticed several of the hens had “bumble-foot”.  Bumble-foot is a staph infection that has entered the foot through any cut or wound  — commonly, a thorn stuck in the foot allows the infection to enter.  In the case of my birds, I was initially stumped since we have no thorns here, but after doing a little research I realized the problem: the roosts were too high.  Knowing that birds like to roost as high as they can get, I had built a ladder style roost, with roosts at 2′, 4′ and 6′ levels.  Naturally, they all wanted to be on the 6′ roost so there was much bickering at night.  The real problem though, was that in the morning, instead of stepping down, they would jump — there not being room to truly “fly” — down from the 6′ roost, and the impact of the repeated landings was the likely cause of the bumble-foot.

I reworked the roosts immediately and haven’t had any new cases since.

The typical presentation is a black disk on the bottom of the foot.

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As innocuous as this looks, it is the “scab” that hides a much larger infection growing up into the foot.  In birds, pus is not liquid as it is in humans, but solid matter that continues to grow as the infection spreads.  Surgery is the recommended treatment.  Unfortunately, few vets have poultry experience and, being livestock rather than pets, most chickens have to make do with home remedies.  In the case of bumble-foot, this means performing “surgery” without the benefit of anesthesia.  Needless to say, I was less than enthusiastic about this prospect, but it had to be done.

Some of the hens had the black disk but no swelling or limp, and were eating, drinking and laying eggs, so I decided to take a “wait and see” approach with them.  I thought it possible (though unlikely) the hen might resolve the issue on her own and didn’t want to put a bird through the trauma of surgery unnecessarily.  However the foot of one had started to swell and she had a pronounced limp.  This I had to deal with, so one spring afternoon I gathered my supplies and prepared for surgery.

I started by dissolving epsom salts in hot water in the kitchen sink and then lowered the hen in.  Fortunately she is a calm bird who found the hot water soothing and pleasant – she made no move to escape and instead stood there murmuring conversationally to me while she soaked for about 20 minutes.

Step two was to wrap the hen in a towel, partly to immobilize her, and partly I felt that covering her eyes was more likely to keep her calm.  With SAB holding her still, I took an Exacto knife, dipped it in alcohol to sterilize it, then used it to cut around the perimeter of the black scab.  Some infection came out with it, and I then dug to remove as much additional infection as I could find.  When I couldn’t find any more, I packed the hole with triple antibiotic, wrapped the foot in vet wrap, and returned her to the coop.

Every other day I changed the dressing, each time hoping to see a reduction in the swelling.  No such luck.  The foot remained as swollen as ever, weeks after the surgery.  At this point it was clear I had not removed all of the infection but I decided since she seemed happy and was still laying eggs regularly (a sign of health in a chicken), I wouldn’t put her through any more.

For months she hobbled around on that swollen foot, yet when I carried out kitchen scraps, she was the first to run to me and always got her fair share.

One day I noticed as she ran to me, that the limp was gone.  Completely.  She was running normally for the first time in a long time.  I examined her and discovered the reason: the infection had migrated to the top of her foot; with no pain on the sole, she no longer needed to limp.  This seemed like an improvement and yet….the wound was now very obvious on the top of her foot and I decided to make one last attempt at removing the infection.  So, once again, I carried her to the kitchen and set her in the sink for an epsom salts bath. Once again, she seemed to enjoy this:

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I was able to peel back the scab with a finger nail and easily see the rest of the infection underneath.  Removing it was about like removing a splinter – it came out relatively easily, leaving another big hole in her foot.  It was an impressive size:

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Once again, I packed the hole with triple antibiotic, dressed it, then carried her outside the back door and set her on the grass.  Her head bobbed to peck at something and she was off – foraging as though nothing unusual had happened to her that afternoon.  The “surgery” without anesthesia did not seem to be traumatic to her at all!

The dressing stayed on until the wound was completely closed over (a few weeks) and she is today, as happy and healthy as ever.  The other bumble-footed hens?  All’s well; I never treated them and their bumbles never developed further.

Lambs to the Slaughter…

A bird – even a turkey – is manageable for one person to raise and process in one place.  Sheep are another matter.  They weigh over 100lb each and are strong, fast, and very agile.  We don’t have the equipment to end their life humanely, or to process the meat into useable portions.  So, although we have raised them since they were lambs – and attempted to provide them an environment where they are safe, happy and well-fed – we had no choice but to send them to the slaughter house for the last hours of their lives.

If you have read the story of their arrival to our small farm, you will remember that we have no truck or livestock trailer, with which to transport them.  Fortunately we came up with a plan that worked even better than the PT Cruiser.  A local sheep rancher had a couple of ewe lambs for sale, so we talked her into delivering them, picking up our now year-old wethers (castrated males), and dropping them off at the processor on her way home.

She arrived with two bawling lambs who had only been taken off their mothers a few hours before.  Meanwhile, we had to manage our still half-wild sheep into a make-shift pen, in order to load them into her trailer.  The plan was simple;  we would herd all of the sheep into the trailer, sort the wethers from the back to the front of the partitioned off trailer, then release the remaining sheep back into their pen.  That’s mostly how it worked.

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The big surprise came while sorting.  We were sold 2 ewes and 4 wethers back in May.  One of the wethers was eaten by coyotes in June.  We added a ram in July and decided to keep the 2 ewes in order to have a self-sustaining source of meat.  That left us with 3 wethers to send to the processor.  We sorted the first 2 quite easily into the front of the trailer, leaving the ram and remaining 3 lambs who could pass as identical triplets.  Not knowing which was the third wether, we had to examine the nether regions of all and discovered they were even more identical than we knew – they were all ewes!  Apparently the guy who sold them to us had miscounted, and we had never been able to get close enough before this to find out for ourselves that we had an extra ewe!

The ram leaps back out from trailer.

The ram leaps back out from trailer.

Good news indeed!  Only 2 wethers to go to the processor, less freezer space required, and — we hope — more lambs in the spring!

In the meantime, we have two new – and still very little – lambs to raise:

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Hewing, Hauling, Heaving, Having Hay

I start with an apology to the English majors out there; I know “hewing” is a lousy synonym for “cutting”, but the alliteration was irresistible.  And now we return you to the previously scheduled blog entry…..

Our first year here we had no livestock grazing our pasture so in the fall, paid a neighbor to brush hog it for us.  There had to be a better way….

And there is!  Sheep.  And goats.  But mostly sheep.  The acquisition of the sheep is another story altogether so let’s just say, this year we had sheep and a couple of goats on the pasture, and while there aren’t nearly enough of them to graze a pasture of this size, we very much enjoy looking out the window at the pastoral scene of our ruminants contentedly grazing.

Going into winter, we needed to find a way to feed them and the obvious choice is: hay.  So this year we networked until we found a guy who knew a guy who’s brother-in-law had a friend whose son was willing to come and cut our hay for us.

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Next day, his buddy with a square baler come and baled it for us.  The typical arrangement around here is that the landowner gets 1/3 of the hay and the hay cutter/baler gets the other 2/3 for his trouble.  We were thrilled with the number of bales we got from our pasture and our 1/3 should be more than enough to feed our sheep and goats over the winter.  Each of those little dark dots in the picture below is a bale — about 200 in all.

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HWA, BOF and I spent an evening driving a truck and trailer around the field gathering our third and putting it up under our pole barn.  We all felt very satisfied when the work was done and the tangible evidence of our efforts was stacked before us.  There was more gratification in these few hours of hard, sweaty, dirty work and the resulting small pile of bales than in a year of meetings and reports.

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We loved that we were able to get our pasture cut, not only at no cost to us, but leaving us the hay we need to feed our animals over the winter.  Win-win.  It’s mid-November and the sheep are still grazing but it won’t be long now before we have to start hauling those bales back out to feed to them.

Creeper Feeding Chicks

The creeper referred to in this post is nothing like these.  The word comes from creating a separate feeding area that piglets, lambs, etc can access by “creeping” under a barrier too low for larger animals to pass.

Young humans mostly have it good.  Young birds, not so much.  They are slow, small, weak, and inexperienced feeders relative to the rest of the flock.  They are at the bottom of the pecking order.  Literally.

This summer I was concerned that small chicks (with and without their mother hens) couldn’t compete well with the older hens and pre-freezer cockerels for food.  The coop feeder is too high; a length of plastic gutter mounted at the level of an adult hen’s back, plus the bigger birds always got to the “treats” (insects, toads, frogs, etc found free-ranging and the kitchen scraps I throw to them) first.  So, I came up with a simple way to ensure the smaller birds access to food.

HWA and I originally made this little pen for SAB’s rabbit a million years ago.  Never intending it to be anything but temporary, we snapped together some 1×2’s and chicken wire one afternoon, so the rabbit would have a way to get out and eat some grass in the backyard safely.  However, over the years it has held together and been used almost constantly, either to segregate a broody hen in the coop, or to give chicks a safe place for their first outdoor excursions.

Anywho….while trying to figure how to allow chicks access to food, it hit me that this little run, raised on some bricks, would allow the chicks to slip under to eat, while preventing the adults birds from gaining the same access.  It has worked phenomenally well.  It doesn’t take chicks a heartbeat to “figure it out” and I’m certain they appreciate having access to feed without the adults crowding them out.  Unfortunately, there were no chicks eating at the time I snapped the photo here, but I thought it would give the idea anyway:

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It is hard to see that it is raised off the ground, but you can see the bricks – the run is on top of them, so 3-4″ off the ground.  Newly hatched chicks run under easily.  My current youngest chicks are at least 8 weeks old and they now have to flatten against the ground to squeeze under – but they do it!  Experimenting with it, I’ve found I can’t raise it much higher without the older birds snaking their necks under and getting at the feed, so I leave it at this level and once the chicks grow too much to even be able to belly slide under it, they just have to start eating at the big feeder instead.  By then they are old enough to hold their own so it all works out.

HWA has proposed a more permanent and purpose-built solution which would a) be mounted to the side of the coop, b) have a solid (rain-proof) slanted roof hinged for easy access, and possibly c) adjustable height barrier to entry.  That sounds great.  I’m sure he’ll have it built by the time a) we’re all dead and buried, b) the planet-destroying astroid hits, or possibly c) global warming has made our home the same shallow sea it was during the late Cretaceous Period.

Coyote Attack!

Two days after our fencing was complete, and while we were still enjoying the new thrill of watching our sheep out grazing the pasture, we all left for the evening, and returned late that night.  Next morning HWA commented that he could only see 5 lambs.  This isn’t unusual – if one gets behind the others it is difficult to pick it out from the crowd, so I wasn’t alarmed, certain that all of them must be there.  After all, one of them wouldn’t wander away from the flock.

However, after finishing my coffee, when glances out the window continued to reveal only 5, I decided to take the dogs and walk the pasture, to relieve my mind that we didn’t have an injured lamb out there somewhere.  Shortly after starting out, I noticed one of the dogs very intent on a spot in the middle of the pasture so I joined her, and the sight was not pretty.  All that was left of the missing lamb was 3 legs and a pelt picked so clean it looked as though it had been professionally cleaned.  Even the flies weren’t showing a lot of interest.

Sickened by the loss, HWA and I walked the fence to try to figure out how they – the work couldn’t be anything other than a pack of coyotes – had gained entry, and it didn’t take long to find it.  While abutting our new fence to the back of the lagoon fence, the contractors had left a gap approximately 10” wide.  Our dogs had no problem walking through it, and as they are about coyote-sized, we didn’t have to look much further.  HWA found a piece of plywood in the shop that fit the gap perfectly, wired it in, and then we held our breaths for a few weeks, hoping that had solved our problem.  If it hadn’t – or if they found a different entry point – we knew they would be back.  After all, an easy source of food doesn’t come by every day.

Fortunately, our losses ended there and, months later, we still have the remaining 5 lambs.  Mid-summer we added a ram.  The original plan had been to butcher all 6 lambs before winter but we decided it is more cost effective to keep the 2 ewes and add a ram so we can make our own lambs next year, than to buy new stock every spring.  That leaves only the 3 wethers to butcher which will be easier on our limited freezer space anyway.

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