Keeping the coop clean is essential to providing a healthy environment for the chickens and the method you use for litter requires some thought, not only to relieve your chores but also for the comfort and well-being of your birds.
Each roosting bar should be staggered at about 18 inches apart, so any droppings go to the litter and not onto other chickens that are roosting. Some chicken breeds want that roosting bar as close to the ceiling as possible that allows head room, while smaller breeds will only need a roosting bar that is about 12-18 inches off the floor. For large breeds, such as Brahma and Jersey Giant, you need to allow no less than 18 inches per bird on the roosting bar. And 2 feet of head room at the top bar.
If you have harsh winters and your birds are kept locked in the coop, you must figure floor space, and allow them no less than 2 square feet each. More space is better to avoid over crowding, which leads to pecking and other behavioral issues.
The chicken run is more critical than the coop space. You need to allow no less than 4 square feet per bird, so they have room to move around. An example would be, a 10 X 24 foot chicken run. If you have 24 chickens, this allows 10 square feet per bird, which is enough room to give them wing spread space and room to move around without crowding.
If you are able to free-range, the chicken run does not need to be more than 4 square feet per bird, as long as they are free-ranged daily and allowed space to roam.
A 4 X 6 coop will accomodate 8 full-size chickens, with room to move around. That is 24 Square feet, this allows 3 square feet per chicken which is ample if they are only in the coop to roost and not cooped up. Those chickens will require 8 feet of roosting space at minimum.
Notice the direction of the sun and wind when planning coop placement. Observe both winter and summer conditions. Position the coop, so that the back side faces the prevailing winds to help prevent drafts during the winter months. Also position so that the run area is shaded during the heat of the day in summer. If you are limited where you can position the coop and run, be sure to provide wind breaks and shaded areas so the chickens are protected from the weather as needed.
Allow one nesting box per three chickens. Those nesting boxes should be 12-14 inches square. This size will accomodate small or large breeds. The nesting boxes need to be situated where they are away from direct light and draft. Chickens do like a bit of privacy and they do like to feel safe. We do not recommend fixed nesting boxes. We have found that there are times the chickens may tire of the location or there are disturbances in the fixed location, so by moving those nesting boxes around and changing to a different nesting material, they will investigate out of curiosity and will lay an egg in that new location. About once a year we do move our nesting boxes to encourage laying. I suppose the change not only creates curiosity, but breaks up a bit of boredom and routine. If your nesting boxes are situated by a door or window, there are too many distractions, so the chickens may resist laying in that area.
Nesting boxes can be a simple bucket, turned on its side, a woven basket, a fruit crate or a plastic tote. Nesting material can be straw, shredded wood chips, dried grass or other organic materials, but do avoid cedar because it creates a dust that affects the respiratory system of chickens.
The litter area below the perches, should be wide enough that the droppings fall into the litter material. Litter material can be any organic material. The deep litter method is popular and is built much like a compost pile, where it is layered, providing some ventilation to release the ammonia gasses. It is up to you how often you clean the litter out of the coops. The beauty of the deep litter method is that you do not have to clean it as often, as long as you layer it so that is able to heat up and compost. That heating compost is especially valuable in winter, so using a deep litter method through winter and another method through summer is ideal. That litter is gold to garden soil, so when you do clean, be sure to add that to your garden beds. Conifer boughs can be used for this method of litter control, to aerate the litter and freshen the coop. This is a good way to recycle your Christmas tree. Cut the limbs from the trunk and use those to layer with your other organic materials which helps keep the coop fresh smelling and helps to keep the litter aerated.
We use AG lime or Hydrated lime beneath the litter, to control odors and to control parasites as well as flies. The AG lime will not harm your garden soil or plants, and in fact in many highly acidic soils it's a benefit. For alkaline soils it will not alter the pH. AG lime has been used in farming for generations, it's a soil sweetener that is worked into the soil prior to planting, it's used for odor control for livestock litter.
Chickens in particular are sensative to ammonia build up, so using the lime beneath the litter helps release the gasses gradually, rather than all at once. The aeration of that litter is important even if you are using lime, because it allows a ventilation of those gasses. Hydrated lime is available in garden stores and is relatively inexpensive to use if sprinkled onto the litter. The Hydrated lime additional benefit is to prevent parasites and fly infestations in the coop.
There are other methods for dealing with litter. One of course is to clean the litter out at least weekly and compost it. Then add more bedding material to the coop. Another is to use absorbant materials such as Diatomaceous Earth or Sand. DE will absorb 10 times that of sand or any other material. Some claim that DE deters parasites and will use that in the dusting areas for the chickens, but it's greatest value is in absorbing moisture to keep the coop area dry. DE can be found in most garden stores, but it can be expensive. DE is dusty. If the chickens scratch in it, or bathe in it they will create dust, which may also inadvertently cause respiratory issues. It is advised when using DE that you wear a mask to prevent inhilation of that dust. It only makes sense if you must take precautions to use it, that it is also harmful if inhaled by animals including your chickens.
Sand can absorb moisture, but beneath that sand you can see that moisture, so it is only the top layer of sand that is actually dry. In addition unless sand is in the open sunlight, is cold in the winter months. If you're in a cold winter area, think about what the best material is to use that serves double duty to help warm the coop and absorb moisture, reduce odors and can be composted or easily disposed. Sand does not meet all the criteria.
Always plan for expansion, even if you currently only plan for a few chickens, that can and often does change after raising chickens for awhile. You never want to overcrowd the chickens, this leads to low egg production, illness, difficulty in keeping the environment clean and in-house disputes.
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