In our empty-nest years, my husband, Steve, has been eager to do all the things he’s ever wanted to do. I call them his reveries—states of dreamy meditation or fanciful musings; fantastic, visionary or impractical ideas. He’s a dreamer and always has a new idea to dive into. But follow-through? Not so much. Steve’s favorite pastimes are playing (hunting and fishing), watching the grass grow (sitting) and napping (in his recliner, in front of the TV). So whenever he wants to start a new project, I have to think about how it can be done easily, so I don’t get stuck “helping.” First, it was beekeeping. I informed Steve that if he took this on, it was his project and that I wasn’t interested. But soon I was out there keeping bees with him! This dream of his morphed into a bee products business.
Once we both retired, chickens were the next reverie on Steve’s brain. But my brain said, “Chickens have to be fed and watered every day, which means no camping trips or traveling. Steve, getting up every morning at the crack of dawn to let chickens out? No way! What about building the coop, feeding and watering every day, changing out their bedding, and on and on? I know I’m going to get stuck ‘helping’ with this!”
Before I agreed to Steve’s “Chicken Reverie,” I talked to other people raising chickens and researched every tool and shortcut I could find to make sure this project would be easy for someone who likes to play and sit and nap. Just days after I finally agreed to keeping chickens, the word was out about “Chick Week” at the local farm feed store. If we wanted chicks that spring they had to be ordered, 25 at a time, right away. And, they would arrive in two weeks! The scramble began.
When the chicks arrived, we had no coop built and no place to put them. They ended up in a big cardboard box in my living room with a heat lamp clamped to the door handle of my china hutch—not exactly how I had envisioned this project to go. The rush was on to figure out this chicken farming thing before the chicks were a month old. Otherwise, they’d be “flying the coop,” out of the cardboard box and all over my house.
What we developed is what I call our “Lazy Chicken Farming” method.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it didn’t require work. My goal was to get most of the work done at the onset of the project, when excitement is high, so that there wasn’t a lot of work to do daily. That’s what we struggle to deal with. Here’s how we did things to lessen the daily time and work of raising chickens for fresh eggs.
1. Put Everything Under One Roof
The coop was one area where Steve didn’t want to skimp, but we did some things to make setting up and maintaining it easier and more convenient. We decided on a stationary coop, instead of the tractor type that we would have to move every few days. Lazy step No. 1.
Steve built the coop with an 8-by-16-foot floor, making cutting plywood for it unnecessary. It sits 16 inches off the ground, on stilts, to keep predators from digging under the coop and getting to the chickens. He sunk 4×4 posts in holes with concrete to stabilize the coop. There was no concrete mixing—he just dug the hole, leveled the post, poured dry concrete mix in the hole, filled with water and let it harden. We put in a used window with a screen to add light and ventilation. Nest boxes were made from an old shelving unit with dividers added. You can find other ideas online for all kinds of cheap DIY nest boxes made from things like buckets and old boxes. Roosts were made with 2x4s.
We walled off about one-fourth of the coop and added a door to make a storage area for feed, bedding, tools, etc. We also used this space in the following years, to house chicks and pullets in a big box before they were ready to merge with the existing flock. This proved to be a much better option than in my living room!
We added a shed roof, with a gutter at the low edge funneled to a barrel to catch rain water.
Finally, we wired both sides of the coop with electricity for lights, heat and timers. It seemed like a lot of work up front, but ultimately, it has been very convenient and time-saving to have light, electricity and everything we need under one roof.
The coop turned out pretty huge by chicken coop standards so we nicknamed it “Uncle Mike’s Condo.” Steve’s brother, Mike, spent a lot of time sleeping on the couch at our house while helping build the coop. The joke was, once it was done, Mike would have his own place to sleep out there in the coop with his 20 girlfriends!
2. Easy Coop Cleanup
Steve decided to use the deep-litter method using wood shavings—lazy step No. 2. Rather than cleaning out the bedding every week or so, new bedding is just added over the top of the old. The bedding partially composts as it piles up, and as long as it is kept dry with a fresh layer every now and then, ammonia doesn’t build up. It gets cleaned out once a year, and can be added to the compost pile or garden beds. We put a trap door in the floor of the coop, so we could just shovel the old bedding through the hole onto a tarp under the coop, and drag it over to the garden. A perfect system for lazy chicken farmers!
3. Avoid The Need For Wing Clipping
We built a run around the coop with T posts and 4-foot welded wire fencing, but this was not tall enough. The girls could flap their way over it and escape. We added 2 feet of chicken wire above it, and this still wasn’t enough. We ended up covering the whole run and chicken yard with green plastic snow fence and chicken wire, attaching it to the top of the fence and fastening it under the fascia board on the roof of the coop. This kept them in, eliminated the need to clip wings every few months, and kept predators, like hawks, out.
4. Rounding Up Chickens: Wait Until They Roost
We were able to add our 20 Golden Comet pullets to the coop at 4 weeks old, and then continued to work on the additional lazy farmer tools. We had to teach the pullets to go up and down the ramp to the coop door, as they just couldn’t figure it out. They also didn’t understand, at first, that they were to go in the coop at night to go to sleep. We spent the first week chasing them around the chicken yard each evening, trying to catch them, or shooing them out from under the coop with a broom, grabbing them and shoving them quickly into the coop before shutting the door. We were worn out after these chasing games and I’m sure we looked ridiculous.
Then one night, we forgot about the chickens until it was dark, and we discovered something: Once chickens have roosted and are sleeping, they are just about comatose. We went out that night in the dark, and found them roosting outside on the gate, the window ledge, the ladder and in the tree next to the coop. We scooped them up three to four at a time, tucked a couple under each arm and tossed them in the coop—and they never flinched.
For several more days, until they learned to go back into the coop in on their own, we waited until they were asleep to grab them and put them to bed.
5. Multiple Day Feeding System
Knowing that we wanted to be able to go away for a few days at a time, we made a feeding bucket that holds about three days worth of food. From ideas we found online, we made an auto feeder using a 5-gallon plastic bucket, a plastic plant-pot saucer and four bolts.
To make it, we drilled 2-inch-diameter holes every 2 to 3 inches around the side of the bucket, just above the bottom. Smaller holes for bolts were drilled through both the bottom of the bucket and saucer, and the two pieces were bolted together.
We hung the bucket from the rafters at chest height for the chickens and filled the bucket with feed. The feed comes out of the large holes into the saucer as the chickens eat.
6. Automatic Watering System
Not wanting to have to carry water out and refill a water bowl every day—or even every few days—we fashioned a rain-barrel system to collect water, and added parts to make it an auto-fill, little-work-required contraption.
First, we built a sturdy platform so the water in the barrel could gravity feed to the coop. We attached a flexible downspout pipe to the end of the gutter on the coop roof and angled this across the end of the coop wall to the black plastic drum rain barrel. We anchored the downspout to the south wall with screws and wire. This orientation would help to capture as much winter sun as possible to keep the water from freezing inside the black drum. We cut a hole in the top of the barrel and glued a piece of screen over it to keep out debris. The end of downspout pipe fit over this hole. At the bottom of the drum, we installed a brass spigot by drilling a hole and using waterproof caulk.
Next, we fashioned a self-watering system from the rain barrel to the coop. We attached a long, washing-machine hot-water hose to the spigot on the barrel. Then we drilled a hole through the coop wall and fed the hose through it. Inside the coop, we attached the hose to an automatic pet watering bowl—a stainless-steel bowl with a float. Once the spigot is opened and the float is adjusted, the bowl gravity-fills with water to a set level, keeping the waterer from ever having to be manually filled.
Of course, the chickens don’t just drink from the water bowl. They stand in it, kick bedding into, poop in it and spill it. We put a plastic lid from a large storage tub, lip up, under the whole contraption to catch the spilled water and protect the floor. And when the water gets disgustingly dirty, we grab a bucket out of the storage area, dump out the dirty water and the bowl refills.
7. Winter-Proof Watering
We didn’t want to be out in the coop in the winter, constantly dealing with frozen water or temperatures too cold for the chickens, so we came up with some ideas to make winter chicken farming easier.
To prevent their water from freezing, we wrapped the rain barrel and hose with electric heat tape and plugged it in during below-freezing weather. We also wrapped the rain barrel and hose with fiberglass insulation, and then wrapped both barrel and pipe it in black shrink wrap. The rain barrel has never frozen up in winter with this arrangement.
Water Dish Heating Tray
We did have to add a third heat source in winter, for the water bowl. Again, using a design idea found on the internet, we used a wired light socket with an inline on/off switch, a metal oil drain pan and a piece of sheet metal to make a heating tray. A hole is drilled through the side of the oil pan for the light socket, the light bulb is screwed in on the inside of the pan, and the sheet metal is attached to the rim of the oil pan with sheet metal screws, creating a bottom. The metal auto-fill pet bowl sits on top, and when the weather is really cold, we turn on the light bulb inside the oil pan creating heat. This keeps the water in the bowl from freezing.
8. My Favorite: The Automatic Door
The pièce de résistance—the one thing I knew we had to have because my husband would never get up every morning to let the chickens out—was an automatic door. We had heard about these from another chicken keeper and knew it was for us. Our first solution was a pricey, pre-made door opener worked by winding and unwinding a string attached to a thin wooden door, which was set on a timer, for opening and closing. The door opener worked well for a time, but wore out way too soon for the price we paid—we went through two of them in two years. Not wanting to fork out the expense again, I looked for a different DIY design.
We built our own door opener using a cheap motorized car antenna, two old computer power supplies, some electrical wires and connectors, and a timer. We’ve just added this recently, so hopefully, it will be sturdier and longer lasting than the other pre-made designs. It definitely was cheaper!
9. Predator Protection
We thought we had our coop and yard pretty secure, especially with the chicken wire over the top to keep the chickens in and the hawks out, but during our second spring, we discovered that raccoons could somehow get in the run, work their paws under the door, lift it and get into the coop. We lost a few chickens before we figured this out.
To keep the raccoons at bay, we added a lip on the outside of the door opening using a thin piece of plywood about 3 inches high. This prevented the critters from getting their little paws under the door and pull it up.
We also found we had to set the timer on the door to close sooner in the evening, especially during the early summer, when young raccoons were foraging. The raccoons would get in the coop at dusk, before the door closed.
And even though we had lined the chicken run with railroad ties along the bottom of the fence, we had to go around and fasten the fence to the ties, to keep the raccoons out of the chicken run. Raccoons are smart, pesky critters and were quite well-fed around our house for a while.
10. Keeping The Chicken Yard Attractive
One problem with a stationary coop is that the chickens eventually eat up all the grass, resulting in a muddy mess. This year, we’re adding a piece of fence between the corner of the coop and one side of the run. This will close off half the chicken yard, which after three years of chickens is a wreck. The chickens will be confined to half of the chicken yard, while we plant a special blend of grasses and chickweed—or “chick crack,” as we call it—in the other half. It’s one of their favorite treats to forage on. Once the new growth is established, we can move the piece of fence to the other side of their door, and they can forage in the new grass while we plant the other half.
One Daily Chore
With all our Lazy Chicken Farming shortcuts, the only daily task we have is to collect yummy eggs and cook some for a meal. Trust me, fresh eggs have a whole different taste than the ones you buy in the grocery store, and we have no trouble selling our extra eggs to friends and family. We also spend a lot of our spare time sitting in lawn chairs out by the coop, watching chicken antics, what we call “Country Folks TV.” But with all this extra time, Steve is dreaming again, planning his next reverie … rabbits. I’d better start finding rabbit-raising shortcuts, quickly!