ILLUSTRATION: DAVID STILES
Having a few laying hens in the backyard has almost become the icon of today’s self-sufficiency movement. Birds kept in a portable chicken coop on pasture provide delicious, inexpensive eggs, and eggs from birds that get plenty of grass, bugs and seeds to eat are better for you than store-bought eggs (read the results of our egg nutrition testing in The Good Egg). Hens are great converters of kitchen waste into valuable manure for the garden, and every chicken owner we know takes a lot of pleasure in just watching the chickens noodle around in the yard.
But free-range birds are often taken by foxes, bobcats, hawks, dogs or other predators, so unless you have guardian dogs that can keep predators away, your best option is probably a portable chicken coop that gives the chickens access to fresh grass and dirt every day while also keeping them protected.
Over the years, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has offered several DIY chicken coop plans, particularly designs for portable chicken coops. It has been a challenge. The perfect coop should be lightweight and easy to build — even for a child or an older person — yet it must be sturdy enough to keep predators away from the birds, and it shouldn’t cost too much money.
One early version, designed in 2003 by MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributing editor Steve Maxwell and Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long, was a wooden A-frame affair with wheels on one end to help make it easy for one person to move. Created after Maxwell and Long conferred with poultry experts, the coop is a gorgeous piece of work (read more about it in MOTHER’s Mini-Coop) meant to last for years. However, the coop requires a fair amount of carpentry skills to build, and the cost of the materials and the required tools are beyond some folks’ budgets.
In 2007, Long presented another coop idea in Portable Chicken Mini-Coop Plan. “I set out to create a coop design that would be low-cost, easy to build, light enough to move easily and scaled to fit well even in small backyards,” Long wrote. “It’s intended for three or four hens, costs only about $100 in materials and can be assembled in a few hours from standard welded wire fencing.” This portable chicken coop plan includes an inexpensive plastic doghouse, slightly modified, to shelter the chickens. This super-lightweight, low-cost option works fine if you can place it inside a fenced yard or garden. Unfortunately, the run’s unframed wire mesh walls are not strong enough to prevent large dogs from smashing them down and killing the chickens, as Long sadly learned.
Undaunted, Long next designed an ultra-sturdy coop, MOTHER’s Mighty Chicken-Mobile, in 2011’s Build an Affordable, Portable and Predator-Proof Chicken Coop. It’s sized to fit on a raised garden bed so the chickens can till up the soil with their scratching. This portable coop with a welded iron frame is solid and predator-proof indeed, and it will last forever, but Long reports the steel frame makes it too heavy for some people to move easily (and you’d have to find a welder to build it for you if you don’t have that skill).