By Joy E. Cressler – Finding ways to cut costs on the farm by making or designating items for poultry farming can boost the family budget—or at least not tap it for new items. As more people turn to raising chickens for eggs or meat, most of them want to save money in keeping with their desire for self-sustaining living. One option is to upcycle materials from around the farm into chicken nesting boxes.
Purpose of Chicken Nesting Boxes
The basic purpose of chicken nesting boxes is to encourage hens to lay their eggs in a clean cubicle in relative peace and privacy. A properly built nest assures that eggs are kept in a good environment for collection or hatching. Chickens are not particular about where they lay their eggs; however, a suitable nest box in which to lay eggs can make things flow more smoothly around the farm. No one wants to hunt for eggs, except perhaps at Easter!
Nest box construction can be pretty basic or more elaborate, depending on your creativity, available materials, and finances. The best materials from which to make chicken nests are those that are easy to clean and sterilize. For example, metal and plastic can be sanitized, bleached and scrubbed. In addition, these materials don’t absorb chicken feces or the product you use to clean them. Conversely, wooden boxes are convenient and easy to fabricate, but a little more tricky to clean.
How Many Hens per Nesting Box?
Most chicken experts recommend an average of one nesting space per five birds. Others say no more than one nest per 3-4 birds, which is more in keeping with the Five Freedoms guidance that promotes proper animal welfare. On the other end of the scale, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs advises a ratio of one nesting box to seven hens. Overall, the minimum standards suggest not over-burdening chicken nesting boxes.
Chicken nesting boxes can be lined with wood shavings, sawdust or even shredded paper. You can also use grass clippings as long as your lawn wasn’t chemically treated. Many commercial supply houses, farm and feed stores offer rubber mats that fit in the bottom of chicken nesting boxes. They cost about $5 each but are likely to last a long time and are easy to clean.
Many experts discourage poultry enthusiasts from using hay, as it can become moldy and detrimental to the chicken’s health. But any nest liner can fall into that category. Straw and hay can be used if nests are cleaned often, about every 4-6 weeks.
One word of interest: Chickens often rotate, even from day to day. A fairly thick nest lining seems to please the hens more than sparsely furnished nests.
How to Keep Other Hens & Predators Out
Nests should be designed or placed within the chicken house so they can be accessed easily for egg gathering and periodic cleaning. Poultry experts advise chicken keepers not to let chickens lay eggs outside on the ground. There is a thin coating on eggs when they are laid that helps protect the egg against bacteria, should the hen decide it’s time to sit on them to hatch. This thin layer is detectable by predators and eggs laid on the ground will not be safe.
Inside the chicken house, other hens will be less interested in soiling nests if the nests are placed in the darkest parts of the building away from the flock activity outside. A piece of burlap over the front of the nest is also an effective barrier. Discourage your chickens from doing anything but laying eggs in their chicken nests by shooing them out when you notice they’re loitering.
Look around your property, you may be surprised by what you have laying about that would make an ideal and inexpensive nesting box. Nests need not be expensive and can often be provided for free or at minimal cost. Providing a nest doesn’t have to involve carpentry skills or even the time to build nests from scratch.
Following are a few suggestions for providing chicken nests. This list is certainly not comprehensive, but should get the thoughts flowing:
1. Covered or uncovered cat litter boxes
2. An open-topped ceramic cask or vat pushed on its side
3. Whiskey and wine barrels or 55-gallon drums cut in half and stood on edge
4. 5-gallon buckets obtained from restaurants or other sources
5. Shallow plastic trash cans, sufficiently large enough for comfort
6. Plastic milk and soda crates
7. Wooden crates of suitable sizes (may be difficult to clean)
8. An inexpensive plastic salad bowl from a dollar store with one side cut out.
9. Pet carriers (can often be picked up at flea markets and yard sales)
10. Anything else where chickens can gain easy access, be safe and clean.
Chickens are most comfortable with a nest size that easily accommodates and generally conforms to their own body size. The dimensions of a chicken nest don’t have to be exact, but a good rule of thumb is that it’s better for a nest to be too large than too small.
General guidelines for making a homemade nest box:
- Should be about a foot deep, wide and tall for standard breeds and 10″ high by 12″ wide and 10″ deep for bantams. Larger standard breeds like New Hampshires and Jersey Black Giants need nests that are 12″ wide by 14″ high by 12″ deep.
- Have an opening about a foot high in front for hens to enter.
- Have a wooden lip about 4 inches high across the bottom front to keep litter in place.
- Have a steep-pitched roof, as much as a 45-degree angle, so chickens don’t sit on top and soil the nest during the night
- Can be made of many types of scrap or new lumber and plywood. Go to construction sites or lumber yard and ask for materials they are throwing away.
- Can have a piece of burlap over the front entrance to protect hens and give them privacy and darkness, especially if they go broody.
- Should be secured about 3-4 feet off the ground to discourage predators from gaining access to the nest.
Some chicken owners choose to provide ladders to the nests, but predators will also use this and render the nests unsafe. Instead, let hens fly up to nearby roosts and amble into their nests on perches you install in front of nest entrances.
3 Easy Steps to Build Chicken Nesting Boxes
1) Obtain a balsa wood basket or similar type to modify. A half-bushel basket works well for a standard-sized chicken nest.
2) Cut three six-inch pieces of wire. Mark and drill a 4-inch-high piece of wood to go across the front entrance to retain straw. Make sure the wood is long enough to cover the front of the basket along the bottom. Also drill corresponding holes in the basket. Secure with the pieces of wire, making sure to tuck the ends of wire carefully beneath to protect chickens from getting cut.
3) Fill with straw and place in obscure place in henhouse where hens are invited to lay their eggs in privacy and security.
Originally published in 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.