Best Laid Plans: 12 Tips on Running a Chicken Coop

Thinking about owning a flock? Don’t wing it. Heed this advice.

As the urban-homesteading movement puts down ever-deeper roots within Indy’s city limits, the genteel farmers of SoBro, Irvington, and the like have naturally turned to livestock—specifically backyard chickens. You might have noticed. The annual Tour de Coops bicycle ride, organized by local advocacy group Nap Town Chickens, attracts hundreds of poultry voyeurs on a self-guided outing. An escaped rooster—a fine-looking heritage breed—took up residence in the fountains of Monument Circle over the winter. The Pet Supplies Plus in Broad Ripple now carries chicken feed. And who hasn’t been asked in the past year to start saving egg cartons? The trend has caught on, but contrary to the hype, this is no five-minutes-a-day hobby; it takes some pluck. Expect to invest at least $400 in the most basic coop (and around $1,000 for something more durable/fashionable). Beyond that, there are bags of feed to buy and scatter, nesting beds to winterize, sick chickens to nurse, and lots of poop to sweep. Here, we count out a dozen tips for raising a flock, crack open a list of chicken-friendly resources, get perspective from a longtime egg producer, and introduce some urban farmers and their fine-feathered friends. Now, that’s something to crow about.


Indianapolis has no laws against raising roosters and hens. But other locales, like Lafayette and Noblesville, are not so chicken-friendly. And even if a municipality gives backyard chickens the thumbs-up, neighborhood covenants might deem them verboten. Certain blocks in the Fall Creek Place neighborhood, for example, call foul on backyard fowl.


When selecting a flock, three qualities matter most—egg production, winter hardiness, and temperament (yes, chickens have personalities). Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, and Leghorns are good egg-layers that can withstand Indiana’s cold winter. If you simply want a few feathered companions, go with some mop-headed Silkies—a small, docile breed with downy feathers and a penchant for cuddling.


Coops come in all shapes and sizes—from scrap-wood shanties to Neiman Marcus’s $100,000 Beau Coop, complete with a chandelier. You can download blueprints or buy kits from online companies such as Amish furniture-maker The interior should encompass 2-to-3 square feet per bird and have both a roosting bar (where the chickens sleep) and nesting boxes with straw (where the hens lay their eggs). Chickens also need a bit of room to stretch their legs—a chicken run. Plan for at least 4 square feet of outdoor space per bird.


Beyond the bare essentials, a coop can be tricked out with heated water bowls and 24-hour lighting to increase egg production (because hens only lay when it’s light out). A bedding of inexpensive pine shavings absorbs moisture and odor, sweeps up easily, and makes great garden compost.


One of the biggest mistakes first-time chicken farmers make is starting out with too many chickens. You’ll want a manageable flock of 10 or less initially, and some owners believe that having one rooster among the hens serves as a form of crowd control. The male keeps the females in line and helps protect the group from predators.


Chicks are used to being sat on. To simulate this, days-old babies must be kept in a 95-degree environment, under heat lamps—with the temperature lowered five degrees every week for six weeks. Often, chicken-owners build small plywood brooders, or brooding boxes, for this purpose. The boxes are equipped with a heater on a chain so that the heater can be moved farther up the chain as the weeks pass.


To produce an egg, a chicken needs 5 ounces of feed per day. With the increase in popularity of backyard chickens, feed can be found at places like Habig Garden Shop. (See “Hen City” here.) But like feathered garbage disposals, chickens will eat nearly anything—especially kitchen scraps.


Though chickens are on the lower end of the maintenance scale, they do require upkeep. In the warmer months, clean out the coop at least once a week. In the winter months, it’s better not to change the bedding at all. Given a little time, their droppings will begin to compost, creating heat.


Incessant peckers, chickens will turn leaf piles into excellent compost. When left in a garden, they will go down the rows digging for worms, turning up the soil in the process.


“I’ve been raising for about four years now,” says Andrew Brake, who heads up Nap Town Chickens, “and I’ve lost them to hawks, possums—even rats. It’s typical for a chicken farmer to lose a hen every once in a while to predators. That’s just part of it.” Covering the coop in wire fencing helps protect the livestock from birds of prey, and the barrier should be dug into the ground to keep animals from burrowing under the fence.


Eggs should be collected daily and can be rinsed under running water. Special egg-washers are available, but unnecessary. Some fresh-egg enthusiasts prefer to keep their spoils on the kitchen counter, but the FDA recommends storing eggs—even those from backyard hens—in the refrigerator. To avoid salmonella, cook eggs thoroughly.


As can be expected from a species for which the term “pecking order” was coined, chickens make for interesting viewing. It’s not unusual for them to chase each other around the backyard and battle a bit. Trust us: This is better than television.


Photos by Tony Valainis; illustrations by Chris Pyle.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue.