How to create the ultimate backyard environment for your chickens
I say this time and time again in my workshops and courses, but reducing flock stress and excellent husbandry are the best ways to keep your hens healthy and happy.
Like all animals, chickens have basic needs that need to be met in order to be healthy and live a stress-free and happy life. Get these fundamentals right, and you'll be on your way to chicken success!
Modern backyard chickens haven't lost their foraging instincts. They love nothing more than to scratch and peck and hunt for bugs, or socialise together while dust bathing (more on this later).
A safe, functional, predator proof chicken house is another essential for a your flock.
So let's take a look at the must-haves for your chickens and how you can create the ultimate environment for them.
The chicken coop or chicken house
A backyard chicken coop is a safe house or shelter where the chickens can lay their eggs in nesting boxes and perch at night. It doesn’t have to be massive (see below for recommended space), as they prefer to be outdoors during the day.
The chicken run
A chicken run is a fenced-in play yard around or attached to your chicken coop. Some people may call this a 'straw yard'. Unless you are keeping your chickens in a large aviary or a chicken tractor, they are going to need a safe area to roam, scratch and dustbathe during the day. This area should be predator proof, you don't want your hens harmed or frightened by other animals.
Chickens need access from the run to their backyard coop to lay eggs and seek shelter from wind and rain. They also need shade from extreme summer sun.
If you allow your chickens to free-range during the day, a run may not be necessary. But I still recommend you build one as it allows for circumstances such as if you're going away on holiday and someone is caring for your birds, or there's an outbreak of a disease in your area (which happened in Australia in 2020 and more recently the UK has had 'flock downs') and your birds can’t free-range.
A covered area of the chicken run is also the perfect location for your hens' feeder or automatic chicken feeder. Typically kept in the run rather than inside the coop, it must be sheltered from the weather and protected from wild birds.
How much space do chickens need?
In the chicken coop
If you have a separate run or straw yard for outdoor daytime activity, your hens will only need 0.5 m² per bird, as they’ll only use the coop for perching overnight and egg-laying.
The amount of space a hen house should allow each hen is 1 to 3 m² of usable floor space during the day, depending on the size of your hens. Bantams need less space, while large breeds need more.
In the chicken run or backyard
Chickens love space to spread out and eat, scratch and dust bath. Chickens will have fewer illnesses and behavioural problems when they have more space.
How much yard for chickens do you need? 1m² per bird - minimum. If you allow 3m² per bird, you will have fewer health and behavioural issues.
Ideally, allow them to free-range outside the run during the day or the afternoon.
Chicken house must-haves
What do backyard chickens need? Your chicken house should have the following features:
Cross-ventilation is critical for your backyard chickens’ health in summer and winter, but you also want to protect them from cold winds.
Ideally, position your chicken coop to face north if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere (south for my Northern Hemisphere friends) or east to greet the early morning sun. This keeps the chicken coop dry and avoids the harsh west sun in the afternoon.
Be predator proof (especially fox-proof) and ideally rodent proof
You will find higher populations of foxes in urban than in the rural areas. Foxes are also amazing at climbing and digging.
Also, make sure your chicken housing can prevent rats, mice and sparrows from entering.
Your ladies need adequate coverage from the rain, snow, wind, and summer sun. Make sure it is free of condensation and mould.
Make sure there is enough floor, perch, and nesting box space per bird. See above.
Chickens will naturally return to their perches at dusk each day. Perches raised off the ground are essential. Wooden ladders, timber, or thick tree branches are perfect. Allow a minimum of 25cm of perching space per standard hen size.
Silkies are one breed of chicken that prefers a height of 30cm from the ground. However, most other birds don’t mind higher perches. If you have more than one perch, you can make them different heights or keep them the same height.
Nesting boxes must be lower than the perch, or else chickens will perch in the nesting boxes, and they will soon fill with droppings!
Ideally, the nesting boxes and the nests should be on opposite sides of the chicken house so you can easily clean around the perching area without disturbing the nesting boxes.
Nesting boxes should be around 30cm x 30cm x30cm.
All chicken breeds prefer somewhere dark, cool and quiet to lay their eggs.
My favourite nesting boxes are pet carriers, as they can be easily removed and cleaned. But you can creative with nesting boxes!
Scavenge for old drawers, lawnmower catchers, milk cans, and old crates. Even a timber square angled against the inside of the chicken coop or house works. They all make terrific options for nesting.
Add Nesting Box Herbs For Chickens to help repel lice, mites and insects in your chickens' nesting boxes. It also has a calming effect on your birds.
Roll-away nesting boxes
These types of nest boxes see the egg roll into a container as soon as the chickens lay. Roll-away nesting boxes are great if egg-eating is a problem. Be aware, though, that they are not set-and-forget – they can become blocked with huge eggs or mud during winter.
What's the best brand of roll-away nesting boxes for backyard chickens? I highly recommend the brand SKA.
Choice of bedding or litter material
Chickens like to be on soil or bedding that is dry and friable. If their coop or run is wet or smelly, you are going to have health problems.
When choosing bedding, find something dry with minimal dust. Good options for bedding include washed sand, wood shavings, dry wood mulch or dry leaves, and rice hulls.
Straw is traditional, but mites can house and breed within an individual stalk of straw. Straw can also become soggy, matted and smelly in winter.
Do NOT use hay or pea straw, as these are prone to going mouldy when wet.
Depth of bedding
You have two options:
Maintain a thin layer (around 10cm) of bedding and change it regularly—fortnightly or as required. This works for small inside coops.
“Deep Litter” is a term used to describe dry bedding that is so thick, it absorbs moisture and droppings. Then, as the chickens continually turn the litter, it composts—keeping bugs and other pathogens at bay.
Deep litter is the best bedding system for chook runs and large coops, but to work, it has to be deep – as in 8-10 inches (24cm). This is a critical error that most people make.
Simply layer around 24-30cm of dry, friable bedding such as chemical-free wood shavings. Wood chips and shavings soak up the rain, absorb manure, and are easy for the chickens to turn.
As your chickens flatten and squash down the bedding, simply add more to maintain depth. Deep Litter bedding should be cleaned out (great compost for the garden) and replaced every 6 months or as needed.
A word of warning! Never use chemically treated timber shavings, even if they are free!
Chooks like nothing more than fluffing and rolling about in a sandy spot.
Backyard chickens do this for natural lice and mite control. It's also a social activity, and reduces flock stress - it's like them going out for coffee!
When free-ranging, your hens will will find a spot to dust bathe. If birds can’t free-range, grab a baby bath or kiddy pool and fill it with sandy soil. Add a little sprinkle of yellow dusting sulphur every few months to help deter mites.
Fencing around your yard
Strongly reinforced wire fencing such as heavy-duty chicken wire can double as a chicken boundary fence and a growing frame for fruiting vines and trees.
But! One chicken loose in your veggie patch can destroy a crop in a short time. A basic rule is to fence either around your chickens or around your garden beds.
How do you stop chickens from flying away? Build your fence to a minimum height of 1.8 m. Even with a fence, light breeds such as Ancona, Hamburgh, and Old English Game bantams may test your fencing, in which case wing trimming is advised; see my blog about behaviour in chickens here.
Location, location, location!
Design your chicken coops to be in the centre of your garden and as user-friendly as possible. Place compost bays and bins inside or next to the chicken enclosure to make it easy to clear out deep litter and turn it into excellent compost.
You can have trees and garden plants around the chicken system, especially those with high feed needs, such as citrus trees and passionfruit vines.
Here is a 2020 video where I talk to local poultry breeder and judge Ian Nash about housing for backyard chickens.
Now you’ve got all the info you need to create the ultimate backyard environment for your chickens. I’d love to see a picture of the finished result! Drop a comment below, tag me on Instagram or Facebook, or send me an email at - email@example.com.
Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshops, online programs, phone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.
Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now!
Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.