The coop

If you are unsure you will keep chickens in the long term, you could get a cheap coop to start with. Otherwise buy or make something that will last many years, e.g. [1]. A coop with 1.4 metre sides (2 sqm of floor) is big enough for 5-6 chickens (0.33 sqm per bird) [2] (regulations allow hens to be kept at much higher densities—0.06 sqm per bird—but this commercial-type density is hardly recommended for your backyard chooks). A perch (90 × 35 stud) is placed about 1.0 metre from the floor and about 0.7 metre from the back. Without a stair-board it should be lower at about 0.7 metres. During part of the day I let the chickens roam in the backyard. However, chickens are destructive to a garden so if this is a problem you need to confine them to an outdoor run [3]. This should have at least the same floor space as the coop and be fully enclosed to prevent entry of wood pigeons, nasty magpies and other birds. It is helpful to overlay the run with a thick layer (10 cm) of red gum wood chips, although it won't be long before the hens dig it all up. This area does not need cleaning because the rain washes poop into the soil. Otherwise the hose can be used. After about a year the wood chips can be replaced. Design the coop so that the food, water and nest boxes don't take up valuable internal space and can't be soiled. The hens generally lay in the same nest box, therefore having one larger nest box, rather than two or more smaller ones, allows for communal laying and a shorter queue.

Floor litter

Pine shavings can be used for a substrate, but a much better although more costly product is Mini-Hemp (Ozhemp) (or similar) which is considerably more absorbent. It is preferable to have a wood floor, e.g. Structaflor, because a dirt floor provides a route for vermin and can get damp. To start the litter, add at least 5 cm of hemp to the floor (about half a 40 L bag in my case). Then as required mix the hemp and incoming poop together with a 3-pronged cultivator. When the hemp and poop are in approximately equal amounts, which takes several weeks, you can start again from scratch, or just add new hemp to maintain the approximate 1:1 ratio. Most days give the whole thing a quick turn using the cultivator. The poop dries out quickly and crumbles while the hemp act as a substrate. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to see any fresh poop on the litter because of the speed of incorporation. This system is virtually no work except for the quick daily turn with the cultivator, and no smell. The whole thing is dry and one homogenous layer, with no insects or mould. Cladding the first 20 cm or more of the coop from the floor with plywood will help contain the litter as it builds in depth. Depending on how deep you can go, the depth can be lowered by taking some out at any time. After one year it should all be removed and restarted. This system is sometimes called ‘deep-litter’.

Replacing hens

To optimize the supply of eggs it’s best to replace the hens after two seasons of laying, when they are about two years old. For social harmony replace them all at the same time. Bringing in new point-of-lay hens while you have older stock can be done but is best avoided if possible. The older hens will bully the younger ones on introduction, and this can be severe. If your older hens are particularly aggressive it can take a month or more for things to settle down. Don't introduce a single hen because it will be the focus of all the aggression—bring in at least two so they can share the brunt.

The Melbourne Scorchers

Temperatures above 33°C are tough on hens [4]. One reason my coop is tall and open at the front is because it doesn’t allow too much heat build-up. There is shade cloth fixed to part of the front to shield the sun. This has the added benefit of blocking night-light from the neighbours. However on days hotter than 35°C even this coop can get too hot. On such days it might be good to let the hens outside so they can find some breeze and shade under a shrub. Ensure there is cool water (tap temperature) and food in the immediate vicinity. Provide the water in a large bowl to help it stay cool, and replace if it warms up. Immersing a frozen cool pack in the water will keep it cool for longer.

Going away?

If you set up the coop with a high capacity feeder and drinker on a permanent basis, then when you go away merely top them up and all’s well. You can get a Drinker Drum Kit from Bellsouth. There are various configurations but the 20 L tank is ideal and nipples are useful because they stay clean. Alternatively there is the BEC 75 drinker also from Bellsouth—it must be hung to work. Even if there is enough food and water to last the duration, ensure a neighbour or friend checks the coop on a regular basis to make sure all is in order.


There are several ways euthanasia is performed, including (1) cervical dislocation or neck-breaking [5,6]. This is performed entirely manually, or with the Humane Poultry Killer (Morrigan Farm, Australia)—a device mounted to a post, (2) captive-bolt [6], e.g. with the Stunning Apparatus for small animals (Friedrich Dick, Germany)—dubbed the Ballista, in conjunction with a killing cone, and (3) exposure to an oxygen-deprived (anoxic) environment using argon or nitrogen [6,7]. If inexperienced in euthanasia it is wise to seek assistance and training from an expert [8].

1. Building the poultry penthouse, Bolla G & Rees B (2007), NSW Department of Primary Industries.
2. Housing and space requirements, Schultheis B (2011), University of Missouri Extension.
3. The power of chook, Very Edible Gardens.
4. Understanding heat stress in layers (2016), Hy-Line Technical Library.
5. Euthanasia for backyard birds, Petrik M (2017), mikethechickenvet.
6. Practical guidelines for on-farm euthanasia of poultry (2016), Poultry Industry Council, Canada.
7. Gas killing of chickens and turkeys (2005), Humane Slaughter Association, UK.
8. Who should humanely kill my backyard chickens when needed? (2020), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Australia.