Sometime last year, before I put up my chicken coop in Njiru, Nairobi, I had an interesting conversation with Wangeci, a successful dairy and poultry farmer in Nyeri County.
One of the things we discussed was how to design innovative farm structures. You see, previously, when I thought of farm structures, my focus was only on the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ specifications, but this widely travelled young lady changed my mind, completely.
By hardware, I refer to construction materials like stone, wood, timber, cement and iron sheets which protect the animals from the extremities of rain, wind, sunshine, predators and help keep diseases at bay. When I talk about ‘software’, I refer to technical specifications required to provide a comfortable environment.
After we had downed a sumptuous lunch of roast goat, ugali, kachumbari and mukimo, all obtained from her farm, she asked me: “So, what would you consider before putting up a chicken coop?”
An ideal poultry house
To me, this was a no-brainer. “Of course, an ideal poultry house should provide the birds with a comfortable environment and protect them from the extremities of rain, wind, sunshine, predators and keep diseases at bay,” I said.
In addition, I pointed out that one should consider the space. “The ideal stocking density is two square foot per bird. This means a coop measuring 20ft long, 20ft wide and 8ft height is adequate to house 500 chickens,” I said.
She paused for a while as if she hadn’t heard what I said. In the mystic world of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, we would be breaking a kola nut to cover these silent moments and to bless the ancestors. “I am more interested in innovative farm structures and farm environments,” she retorted.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I am talking about functional but interesting spaces for livestock. When I travel around this country, all I see are rectangular structures patched all over the farm with no theme. Farming should be interesting, relaxing and inspiring, and that starts with how you design the farm environment. In fact, if you have young children, it should teach them stewardship,” she said.
I was dumbfounded. This conversation made me change my course. In addition to technical specifications, I decided to use my wild imagination to design a chicken coop that would make a difference. Initially, I had planned to use iron sheets to cover the walls and roof.
Another alternative, if I got approval for a permanent structure from Nairobi City County, was to use stones for the wall in the typical Nairobi concrete jungle style that Wangari Maathai abhorred.
One idea that came to my mind, and which I implemented, was a double storey coop with the floor raised two feet above the ground and a staircase leading to the upper floor. The wall was to be made of wire mesh and a net to ensure there was enough air flow.
The wire mesh was to enable the birds to watch around and make the coop freer. In the tropics, an open-sided coop with an East-West orientation allows natural ventilation and minimises the amount of sunlight entering the house directly.
Another idea that came to my mind, which I also adopted, was a run outside the coop enclosed with a chain-link to allow poultry to free-range outside and get fresh air and sunshine.
I learnt that small birds require eight to 10 square feet of outdoor space each, while larger birds require as much as 20 to 25 square feet.
I have designed food stores and dog houses in between the coops. I realised that if you keep chick, growers and layers mash in one store, sometimes the workers mix them up.
I have also provided for nesting boxes right inside the poultry house. I was not done until I included a landscaping plan that included planting Zimbabwe grass around the coop and adding a few trees like Thika Palm.
Ideal housing for poultry urban farmers
When I spoke to my vet Omari, he suggested I consider one entry and one exit area with a gate and provide for footbaths for disinfecting the feet. I am currently working on these.
I haven’t tried this, but to avoid using wood shavings, the floor could be made of strong wire mesh. This would ensure all droppings fall directly to the ground. By placing (plastic) trays underneath at a slant, it would be very easy for you to collect the droppings and take them to the farm, thus, saving time, and reducing chances of respiratory infections attacking the birds.
If you are an urban chicken keeper who is eyeing about five to 10 birds in your backyard, try portable chicken coops that look like a play house for children.
I have learnt that sometimes picking a picture from the Internet doesn’t work because it’s not clear how a particular section is joined, or if it would work with local materials.
We tend to build with wood which is generally very heavy, and some structures might require tweaking. Without clear guidance, you can embark on an expensive structure that will ultimately not work.
Despite these improvements, I have realised up to this day that I will never be done with chicken coops. For now, I am scouting around for innovative and unique farm structures.