How To Create the Ultimate Backyard Environment For Your Chickens
Chooks love to have a bit of extra room to stretch their legs and flap their wings. They need space to forage until their little hearts are content and kick up a storm in a good ol’ dust bath.
Plus, keeping your chickens in the backyard safe and protected is essential to a stress-free life. Here’s what you need to keep all breeds of chickens happy and healthy in your backyard.
The Chicken Coop
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 massive, as they prefer to be outdoors during the day.
The Chicken Run
The chicken run is a fenced-in play yard around your chicken house. 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. In addition, your girls need to be confident they will not be harmed or frightened by other animals.
Chickens need access to their backyard coop from the run to lay eggs and seek shelter from wind, rain, and extreme summer sun. If you allow your chickens to free-range during the day, a run may not be necessary, but it’s still a good idea if you are going away and your birds can’t free-range.
It also means they will have access to the chook feeder at all times. 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
How many backyard chickens in the coop? If you have a separate run, the indoor space you’ll need per bird is 0.4m², as they’ll only use the coop for perching overnight and egg-laying.
In the Chicken Run or Backyard
How much yard for chickens do you need? 1m² per bird - minimum. 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 direct wind.
Ideally, position your coop to face north (if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) to greet the early morning sun. This keeps the chicken coop dry and avoids the harsh west sun.
Be Fox-Proof and Rodent Proof
You will find higher populations of foxes in towns than in the bush, and they can climb and dig. 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.
All chicken breeds prefer somewhere dark and private to lay their eggs.
Get 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.
If you want to know what to buy for backyard chickens, I highly recommend the brand SKA.
Choice of Bedding Material
Chickens like to be on soil or bedding that is dry and brittle. 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 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 3-6 months.
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 and because it feels good and reduces stress across the flock.
When free-ranging, they will find a spot. 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 or diatomaceous earth 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. 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.
How do you stop chickens from flying away? Build your fence to a minimum height of 1.8m.
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 eggspert 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 me a line and send me your photos to 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.
Become an expert in Backyard Chickens 101 and check here for the latest tips and trends all about chooks.
Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.