For those of us who enjoy six straight months of winter, we know the value of a good warm home. Chickens originally were jungle fowl, evolving in climates very much unlike our frigid midwestern winters. As chicken owners, it’s important to make your hens comfortable for those nippy nights. When our flock grew from 8 to 38 hens (oh chicken math!) we needed a sustainable, cost effective, and efficient way to house all our flocks from December to March. Enter, the temporary straw bale chicken coop.
Originally, we had our hens in our mobile chicken tractors, which have zero insulation. These tractors are fantastic for the summer because their construction allows for tons of airflow and shade, but in the winter we knew they would offer zero protection and warmth. The idea for straw bale chicken coops came to us mid-breakfast in late December right before we were due a couple big freezes. The benefits of a straw bale coop kept piling up as we thought about it. It took me a simple Google search to find a local farmer, who then delivered 77 bales of organic hay that weekend. Kismet! Let’s go over those benefits.
Why Straw Bales Are Great For Temporary Winter Chicken Housing
First and foremost, don’t get straw confused with hay. They are two very different materials. Straw is the stem of dried cereal plants, it is technically a by-product from threshing grain. Farmers and gardeners love it for its organic matter content. It works as animal bedding in the winter, it mulches plants, and it’s perfect when you need to add carbon to your compost pile. Hay on the other hand, is nutritious forage for feeding animals when there is no fresh pasture around. We are strictly talking straw bales here for chicken coop building
Straw bales have an incredibly high R value, which is the scale we use when considering insulation quality for our homes. We’re looking at an R value for straw at R-30 to R-35. To give you some perspective, homes insulated with foam or fiberglass have an R value of R-3 to R-4. Yup, you read that right. Straw bales are packed airtight and come in around 18” in thickness, with this in mind, their ability to keep warmth in and cold out isn’t hard to fathom.
I’ve used maybe four power tools thus far in my life, so building something with in-depth construction knowledge was out of the question. Enter, straw bales! Construction-wise, straw bales are like building with legos. If you aren’t reinforcing the frame with lumber (i.e. serious construction things I can’t do on my own) I recommend stacking bales no higher than three or four levels. Building our temporary straw bale coop from the moment we started unloading hay to the moment we moved the chickens in took us a total of four hours. That’s one afternoon of work for a winter of warm happy chickens.
Bringing external inputs onto the homestead that serve more than one purpose is important for sustainable practices. Even though the bales are originally used as a coop, when they are done there they can go on to benefit our farm in a multitude of ways. You can use the straw as mulch for your garden pathways, in vegetable beds, or flower beds. You can save the bales for bedding in your livestock stalls, chick brooders, or nesting boxes. Straw bales are fully compostable, so at the end of their use for us as chicken coops they make fabulous food for soil life. When things warm up I plan on using the bales to mulch all our corn, squash, flower beds, pathways, and throw the rest in the compost pile.
Another thing to keep in mind is you can place your temporary winter coop over a future vegetable bed. We placed our temporary winter coops where we plan to grow our corn and winter squash crop this next season. All my gardeners know that corn and squash are very heavy feeders! This placement ensures our future corn a steady supply of composted chicken manure, which is gardener gold. Throughout the winter we sprinkle sawdust, wood ash, and layer straw on the ground inside the coops. Come spring time we will have a mountain of fantastic fertilizer. This practice is called the deep litter method. Deep litter also has the added bonus of generating a little heat as things compost, which in turn keeps your hens warm when it’s 10 below. When winter is over and you’ve deconstructed your straw bale coop, you can also shovel away the composted manure and use it where you need.
The Straw Bale Chicken Coop Design
I made up a plan on SketchUp using the typical two-string straw bale dimensions of 18” wide x 16” high x 32” long. You can also draft up a plan on simple graph paper. Starting with the first level, work your way up. Instead of building three separate coops for our three flocks, we had one main coop with three “atriums,” allowing for each atrium to share a wall which saved us a bunch of money on bales. Each atrium has an open space for a nesting box that also serves as a window. Each atrium also has an opening for a door. In the foreground below you can see the coop design without the roof. The coop behind it is with the roof (a fourth layer of straw bales) in place.
Before we got started with the first level, we took stock of what direction the wind blew during the winter months. Out of the northwest comes a nasty cold biting wind, so we angled the doors away from that as much as possible. We also took advantage of solar heat and placed all the windows on the south facing side of the coop. Depending on the length and height of your coop, have a durable waterproof tarp on hand to keep snow and rain out. Before we placed the very first level down, we laid our tarp out flat on the ground so that the northwestern most corner was “tucked” under the first bales of hay on the bottom (see in the picture below). Once the coop was fully constructed, roof and all, we pulled the tarp up and over the coop and “tucked” it under the rafters on the opposite side. Once the tarp was tucked, we weighed down a few edges with bricks and cinder blocks to keep the tarp from billowing. Thus far there has been no leaking and the coops are warm and dry.
To keep waterers from freezing, we employ the heated cookie tin method. The extension cords were set down into each coop atrium before the first level of bales was placed.
For the roosting poles we stuck 1" thick long wooden dowels diagonally across the coop after placing levels 1 and 2 of the straw bales.
The roof has two 2" x 4" x 8' “rafters” that we set on top the third level of bales. Then we piled on the last level of bales that served as the roof (see pictures below). Technically the coop is four bales high, but the bale-on-bale stacking is truly only three bales high. We drove 3’ long garden stakes through the bales at the corner of each atrium and the coop overall to discourage any shifting, think like driving a long nail through a few boards to keep them in place.
Our nesting boxes are reinforced by simple wooden bunks to keep the upper bale from caving in and to give the girls a cozy spot to lay. The window frames I found on the side of the road for free, and are just propped up against the nesting box opening and kept in place by two stacked straw bales. When we need to grab eggs, we tip the top bale and window frame back and grab them, then replace the window pane and straw bale.
The doors were upcycled from a spare set of sliding closet doors that came with our fixer upper. You can create whatever style door you like for your straw bale coop, just make sure you can fit through it and it's predator proof. To make the doors I put my handy guy in charge since it required a bit more power tool finesse. He cut them each in half, sealed off the open edge with spare lumber, then created a frame that was slotted so the doors slide in and out. From there I used leftover metal hardware cloth and a staple gun to secure “wings” off the sides of the frame. I secured the wings to the bales using .080” thick wire cut into 1’ long pieces then folded them in half, think a gigantic staple inserted by hand. A quick work around for this material is to buy a bundle of landscaping flags with metal stakes, remove the plastic flag, and fold the metal stake in half. The winged addition to our doors is meant to discourage any predators from getting into the coop as well as securing the door frames to the bales. See the video below for a demonstration!
The chicken runs are fenced in over our future corn beds. We used 5' tall 2x4" galvanized fencing then secured the it to the bales by pushing long necked hook-eyes deep into the straw and finishing it off with large clips. When moving from one fenced in area to the other I simply un-clip and re-clip.
The Supplies Needed
This process is extremely customizable depending on your flock size, but I wanted to give you a rough run down of what we used and how much it all cost.
What The Chickens Think
No frost bite, just a bit of cabin fever when the snow piles up. This project was well worth it and we will definitely do it again next winter. Have you tried building with straw bales? How did it go? Comment below!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to orchard planting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live a toxin-free life and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Sustainable Dish
6. Zero Waste Home
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. In The Company of Women