Battling Mulch Mountain at the Chicken Coop Door

I suspect anyone who has a chicken coop with a human-sized door has encountered the problem of door-blockage. Chickens adore kicking and scratching in the straw and dirt and debris of the coop floor, and tend to make little mountains and valleys from their scratching efforts.

Mulch Mountain

The mountain chickens create is always immediately in front of the coop door. This is a rule. Chickens are master earth movers and deliberately concentrate all their kicking efforts to create a giant litter pile in the one area that will make it most difficult for you, the silly human, to access the coop.

Relatedly, chickens will only ever scratch mulch out of beds on onto grass. They will never scratch in the opposite direction. I believe it has something to do with their union labor-sharing contract with voles, but I’m hazy on the details.

Mulch mountain might be fun for the hens, but it is a pain in the ass for the chicken keeper who only wants to change some water and top up some feed without breaking an ankle or re-building the coop door to get that thing closed again.

Our saving grace is that our coop was built with an out-swing door.

If you are currently building a walk-in coop like we have, or will be building one in the future, build an out-swing door. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. If you contend with an in-swing door your ability to push through mulch mountain is severely limited.

In fact, I would encourage owners of chicken coops with in-swing doors to look at how difficult it might be to swap the direction of the hinges.

Deep-Litter Build-Up Blocker For the Door

Once your door opens out, there is a solution for Mulch Mountain. On the (retrospectively obvious) advice of friend and fellow blogger Apron Stringz, I solved the problem of deep-litter build-up at the door of the coop with the very sophisticated solution of A Piece of Plywood.

Yup, all it took was a scrap of plywood to create a very tall lip on the inside of the door. This lip keeps most of Mulch Mountain inside the coop where it belongs, and means that we don’t have to clean the door jamb every time we need to shut the hens in the coop.

Instructions: get a scrap of plywood about 12 to 18-inches tall and as wide as your door. Wedge plywood scrap against the inside of your door. Secure in place with rocks, logs, or screws, as you see fit. Spend less time moving bedding back into coop.

It took the chickens about 5 minutes to figure out the up-and-over motion to hop the plywood. Now it doesn’t slow them down at all.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the dinosaur nature of chickens terrifies me more and more every day. Can’t you just see pack-hunting velociraptors when you look at that photo?

Miscellaneous Coop Questions & Answers

If it seems like I’ve been chatting chickens a lot lately, it’s because I’ve been inundated with questions about my chickens and the coop recently.

I think a lot of new chicken keepers are concluding, as I did, that the form and function of the Garden Coop or a similar coop design looks good but they need some additional info before they commit. So, in the interest of getting these answers public, a quick Coop Q&A:

Q: Do you give tours?

A: Not at this time. Please understand that it’s not that I think you specifically are a creepy weirdo (and there are quite a few you’s who have asked this question), it’s just that there are creepy weirdos on the internet and I have kids….thanks for understanding.

Q: How’s the smell?

A: Pretty much non-existant, but feel free to ask again in late August. Actually, I didn’t notice a particularly strong smell last summer either. I really do think the key to keep the poop from smelling and attracting flies is to dry it and cover it. I am very pleased so far with how the hybrid system we’re using accomplishes both of these things.

Q: Anything You’d Do Differently?

A: Plan for and plumb a nipple waterer-type system right from the get-go (like this one). Open chicken waterers get dirty, and I have yet to see a backyard waterer that isn’t some degree of fetid. This isn’t because I, or other chicken keepers, don’t change out the water…it’s because any open water inside a coop becomes contaminated with soil, bedding and poop almost immediately. A nipple-type waterer is our next planned modification to the coop.

I would also be much more considerate of the ranging needs of the chicken and set up paddock-type garden divisions at the time I built the coop. For more information on chicken paddocking and other ways to keep your chickens from destroying your vegetable garden, check out Free-Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom (you can see my review of here, but the giveaway for this book is closed).

Q: What is your favorite book on chicken-keeping?

A: Storey’s Guide to Chicken Keeping is the only dedicated chicken care book we have and, so far, the only one we’ve needed. I would also recommend Backyard Chickens for a source of on-line information and opinion about all things chicken.

Q: How much did your coop cost?

A: Too damn much, but worth every penny. We hired a contractor-friend to build the coop. He did the job for us for $2000. We estimate that materials would have been over $1000. You can read details of our non-DIY anguish over the cost here.

Q: Does rain come in through the mesh walls of your coop?

A: No, despite living in Rain City, we have had no issue with water in the coop. I suppose a drop here and there might blow in when it’s windy, but even though the winter the litter stays dry. There are two reasons why I believe we haven’t had a problem with water. First, the overhang on the roof of the coop is 16″ past the mesh walls, which provides a lot of coverage. Second, the coop is sited directly North of our greenhouse and is in it’s lee. The vast majority of our wind and rain comes in from the South, so the greenhouse protects the coop from the brunt of the weather.

Q: Can I see photos of your coop and detailed photos of how you built your coop?

A:  You will find many pictures of the coop here and can browse all coop posts here. Sorry, I haven’t done a post about the construction of the coop and probably will not. We purchased detailed plans that we then modified from The Garden Coop.

Q: How deep is your litter in the run portion of the coop?

A: As deep as it needs to be. It builds up as I pile more straw on as is needed to cover up poop, and eventually it gets quite deep – at least 12 or 16 inches, more if it’s “fluffy.” After I fully muck out the coop (I’ve only done this once in the year + we’ve had the coop) and incorporate the compost around the garden or build up a new bed with it, I toss a full bale of straw in the coop and let the chickens distribute it as they will. No need for me to spread it around when they are born to scatter straw everywhere.

Q: Chickens need dark nesting boxes but the coop area where the nesting boxes are located has a mesh roof. Isn’t this too light for the chickens? Do they lay in the nesting boxes?

A: We haven’t had a problem. The nesting boxes themselves have a steep roof shading the interior. Our chickens seem to know that they should lay their eggs in the boxes and we’ve only had a few rogue eggs in other spots. Relatedly, do not let your toddler throw a white golf ball into the run. It confuses the girls and they start laying their eggs on the ground next to the golf ball.

Q: Anything you’re particularly glad you did with your coop?

A: The pneumatic hood struts our builder pulled off a – and I’m not kidding, here – Cadillac from the junk shop work fantastically to keep the clean-out hatch up and out of the way. It is so easy for me to open the up-swinging clean out door with one hand (baby on hip or he’d eat the chicken poop, naturally) and rake out some chicken poop when the clean-out hatch stays up by itself and doesn’t require two-handed fastening to a roof-hook or something.

Also, the plans as we purchased them called for the wire mesh hardware cloth roof to be stapled in place to the joists directly. Instead of doing a lot of overhead stapling, we instead built simple, tight-fitting roof frames, stapled the hardware cloth to the frames and screwed the frames to the joists. Much easier. And I say “we” on this because this modification was actually my idea and I stapled all the cloth to the frames after our builder threw them together for us. What can I say, it’s hard for me not to DIY just a little.

If you were one of my readers with coop questions, I hope this has helped answer them. Got any more? Leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer. In the meantime, what would you do differently for your coop?

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Comments

  1. dr. dave says:

    I find it easier to locate dandelions when they are flowering. Last week or so they all quit blooming for some strange reason. I use straight white vinegar to kill them and wonder if I can increase its acidity by evaporating some of its water.

  2. Tanaya Ropp says:

    There may be a good reason not to so this, but I’m not aware off it, we put the grass clippings from mowing the lawn in the run. I really only buy straw when he are no longer mowing the lawn. The chickens love the little bugs in there, we are very careful with what we put on the lawn.

    • As long as the lawn isn’t really wet, I can’t imagine why clippings would be an issue. My chickens eat the lawn when we let them range and I’m sure they’d enjoy chomping on clippings. I guess the only potential issue would be a compost-generating one….your greens to browns ration with green lawn clippings and high nitrogen fertilizer chicken poop is going to make a really hot burning pile, right?

  3. I am already happy about the out swinging door to my coop. Although, I didnt realize what a ‘feature’ it would be until the Ladies moved in. Lucky for us it just worked out that way.

    I’m totally digging my garden shed to Chicken House conversion… so far. Now if I can just determine whether or not 2 of my girls are Roosters.

    Erica, if you’ve got a sec I’d love your opinion. http://dogsordollars.com/2012/05/16/chickens-week-eight/

    I think I’m in denial

    Also thanks for all the miscellaneous info! I’d thought about the nipple waterers too, but opted for Solar Light instead. Water I can change, but I want those girls laying through the winter.

  4. We built a Garden Coop and have the dreaded in-swinging door and that is absolutely the one thing we would change about the coop if we were to build it again. (Makes me wonder why the plans call for it that way.) Sometimes I can only open it a couple of inches, just enough to get my arm and a small spade in there to move the mountain. I’d ask my husband to change it, but it was such a pain in the butt to install squarely in the first place, I think he’d kill me if I requested a reversal. :) Maybe we’ll have to out-source this one!

  5. I haven’t read the chicken garden book yet but it looks interesting. If you are interested in poultry, especially chickens, for meat and eggs, perhaps hatching your own or breeding your own birds, then I heartily recommend Harvey Ussery’s book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. ( http://www.themodernhomestead.us/) He has great ideas, especially about cutting feed bills while also giving your birds the best diet possible. My little 4×5′ moble coop has swing out doors, mostly just because there is no room inside for the doors to swing in.

  6. Arrianne says:

    I would love to change the coop so we could get the eggs from the outside of the coop and shovel out all the litter without having to guard the door. Otherwise I’m really happy with it.

    I put in a nipple waterer for the chickens and I’ve NEVER regretted that. SO much easier and cleaner. We hung a large bucket from a chain inside the coop and put the nipples directly into the bottom of the bucket. Then there is a pipe that runs from the lid of the bucket to the outside of the cage. So whenever I need to refill the water, I just stick the hose into the upturned end of the pipe.

    • I do have a question. We rent so doing any modifying of the water line can’t be done. Can the nipple watering system be down using a hose?

      • Absolutely! Basically, you can build a nipple waterer with a 5 gallon bucket. The bucket (with lid) acts like the reservoir. You still have to fill up the water, but it stays clean and lasts longer. I think Arrianne (above) was describing a system where she has run a length of pcv or poly tubing from the bucket to outside of the coop, so she doesn’t even have to go inside the coop to refill the waterer. But she would still have to fill it up (from the hose) occasionally.

  7. Great read! We are still in the ‘ chick’ stage so we haven’t had a trial run with the coop. I hope our system of having a modified rabbit hutch ( one of the best curb alerts yet! ) on 4 legs inside a never used dog run will work. The run has an out swinging door, has a roof and such. My main concern is that the roof really doesn’t have much of an over hang. We will be putting the ‘ hutch’ in the south end with it facing in, for better weather protection. I put walls on it and will hang plywood in the run it’s self if needed. Our girls will be free range during the day, so I’m hoping that will help with the water situation. Somehow, the hanging system I’ve come up with for our darling Dino’s has improved the water quality ten fold. Not bad for it being with them as they ‘stalk and kill’ there dust prey in a giant water trough! :)

  8. Rocked my world! I just took off some extra panels on the lower part of the coop and plopped it in front of the door and no more mess. Why, oh why, is right in front of the door where they do the most earth moving?! Due to the nature of our set up, they would sling the ‘mountain of mulch’ out of the coop…making it impossible to open/shut both the coop door and the gate to that area of the garden. Grr.
    This fixed it all =)

  9. I’m pretty happy with our coop set up: http://www.erin-gallagher.blogspot.com/2010/09/coop-tour.html

    But my FAVORITE thing – after locking up the chickens every night and letting them out every morning for a year and a half – is our automatic door. It’s set to a timer and I always know my girls will be locked up safe and let out bright and early. I do have to change the time every few weeks as the length of day changes, but I’ve never had an issue with it. The next step is to get it on a battery back up for power outages. It cost around $90, here are the instructions we used: http://www.buildeazy.com/photo-chicken-coop-beatarticle.html
    Worth every penny!

  10. We have a Garden Coop with an inward swinging door, but we haven’t had an issue with it getting blocked. Perhaps because the sill is a couple inches up above outside ground level, and over time the girls have managed to dig the inside ground level a bit lower. I don’t think we keep our litter as deep as you, either. I usually change the straw a few times a year, plus in the summer I dump our grass clippings and pulled dandelions in there.

    I added a semi-permanent outdoor-grade power strip and timer, of the sort that gets used for those elaborate holiday yard decorations. In the dark, cold months, I can just run an extension cord out and make a simple, weatherproof hookup if I want extra light/heat for the birds.

    I agree that provisioning for a nipple watering system would have been a good idea. I may retrofit one over the summer, and I’ll probably borrow Arrianne’s idea and make sure there’s an easy way to refill it from outside the coop. (I’d also like a more easily refillable feeder than the one I have. Hmm, maybe I have two summer coop projects!)

  11. Hiya; got here via Crunchy Chicken. I’m with you on the earthmoving propensities of chickens and their probable collaboration with voles; but; I have an in-swing door to the big coop; the permanent poultry house.

    There are just a couple reasons why some folks might want to consider the inswing. For me, in Minnesota, the potential for snow drifts to seriously block access is real. It doesn’t happen that often; and yes, it can be shoveled out of the way- but; in the middle of a real blizzard, it can be exhausting to have to shovel 3 feet- or 5; of storm compacted drift- out of the way enough to actually get a door open; on top of the work of fighting your way to the coop in the first place. It’s REALLY nice to just be absolutely able to open the door in- kick some snow inside which the chickens absolutely love to eat, and not worry about it.

    The other reason- I’ve always got a few birds with escape on their minds.; and an outswing door makes it just a bit easier for them to fool an unwary helper person, who may not be as wise and vigilant as I am. Poof- a half an hour (at least) gone, chasing a chicken that shouldn’t be out; or, under the worst case scenario- a dead chicken who escapes and thinks it would be fun to sleep up in the trees all night- with the Great Horned Owls.

    We DO have the door arranged so it’s an immediate step down to get in; so the chickens have to move a LOT of stuff to really block the door. We usually manage to shovel it back before any real problem arises.

    • Hi Greenpa. Love your blog, I’m a subscriber and I’m just tickled you’ve found your way over to my neck of the virtual woods. Thanks.

      You make an excellent point. Giant city-crippling blizzards in this part of the country are 2 inches of slush. We call anything over 2-and-a-half inches of snow Snowmageddon and cancel school for a week. If one lived someplace with snow build-up like you’ve described an in-swing door would make a lot more sense.

      Thanks for throwing your expertise into the mix.

      (PS: I’ll just send along the bill for the glass of bourbon I drink after I read any of your Fukushima assessment posts, shall I? ;) )

  12. What’s the deal with the tire? Was it used as a dusting box?

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