Building a “Raken” Colony

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My major project the last month or so has been getting new housing for the chickens and rabbits. Since they share the same space I’m using Polyface’s neologism “Raken”. Technically it wasn’t new for the chickens, but they got a greatly expanded pen, even if they now have to share it with some furry interlopers. What you see in the picture is an approximately 10×30 foot fenced pen, including a wire roof and floor, extended off of our garage under the dense shade canopy of an almost 70 year old Norway maple.

"Snuggle piles" are frequent even on hot days.
“Snuggle piles” are frequent even on hot days.

I knew relatively early on after receiving our free meat mutt rabbits that I wanted to raise them colony style versus in individual cages as they’ve been up to this point. (Our buck is also still caged but I plan to build him a roomier “rabbit tractor” soon.) I like seeing them interact with each other and it saves on management time. As far as rabbit health goes, there are pros and cons for both colony and cages, which is beyond the scope of this article – and my direct experience.

The worst part of the process was setting the fence posts. My subsoil is heavy clay that quickly gives way to very rocky builder’s rubble. The posts closest to the maple trunk had very thick roots to cut through. I dug the first few posts without even knowing that a digging bar existed, just slamming the clamshell-style post-hole digger down over and over. Back-breaking work, perhaps the mostly physically demanding task I’ve ever tried.

If you’re a novice like I was, I highly recommend a San Angelo type digging bar, which is a 16 pound piece of steel with a snub point on one end and a chisel point on the other. It works really well for chipping out small rocks, loosening hardpan, and chopping roots. Then you use the post-digger like a shovel to scoop it out. Repeatedly lifting and slamming a 16 pound piece of steel isn’t exactly easy, but it’s an improvement. A friend also suggested waiting until after a rain or periodically soaking the hole with a 5 gallon bucket of water and then coming back 20 minutes later to dig.

Once the posts were set and level I began putting up the wall fencing. This was a mistake. I leveled the inside floor but I should have really dug out at least a half-spade depth of the entire floor to make it easier to bury floor wire. Burying floor wire is a MUST for keeping rabbits, unless you have an absurdly large yard. (I have seen people keeping rabbits in 50×50 fenced yards where they never try digging out.) I did it haphazardly at the very end when I just wanted it to be done. Within the first three days I caught rabbits within six inches of digging out twice. So take the time to do it right.

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Six inches to freedom!

For the wall fencing I used 72″ tall 2×4″ galvanized welded wire. For additional predator protection but mainly to keep future baby rabbits in, I added 24″ tall hardware cloth to the bottom. I need to tighten this up a little when we start breeding, as there are a few gaps where the two layers of fence aren’t snug. I should have put the hardware cloth up inside of the fence and may still do it that way depending on how hard it is to fix the gaps.

I briefly considered a solid or partially solid roof but rejected it for several reasons. One, I figured it would draw more attention from code enforcement authorities. Readers coming from either my other blog or my forum journal know I’ve had a lot of code enforcement issues so I try to avoid that potential conflict. Additionally, the way rain drains off of the garage would have made joining a solid roof to it problematic at best. And even with moderate snowfall here in southeast Wisconsin, I would need heavier duty joists to support the snowload we see.

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To support the roof I ran 2×4″ joists between the fascia of the garage and the wall posts. The garage end of the joist was supported with joist hanger brackets. The post end was held in place with a bar clamp once level until I screwed them together. The joists also serve to considerably improve structural rigidity until the soil around the posts settles further. I laid one strip of the 72″ fencing and completed the roof with a roll of 48″ fence I also used for the floor wire (easier to manhandle a smaller roll since I made the mistake of doing the floor last, instead of first). I secured the gaps between the overlapping roof fencing with C-clips.

Because I wanted the roof higher than 72″ (I’m that tall) I planned on using a 1×8″ header board to give me 6-7″ of extra height between the roof and the wall fencing. Mounting these boards solo was a little tricky but I was able to do it pretty fast using bar clamps as extra ‘hands’.

The north-facing wall.
The north-facing wall.
The west-facing wall, a different perspective from the picture at the beginning of the post.
The west-facing wall, a different perspective from the picture at the beginning of the post.

The posts didn’t end up in a perfectly straight line so the wall has some wiggle to it, but I’m still pleased with how the structure turned out. I’m slowly getting better at building things, though it’s probably clear just how far I have to go.

East-facing wall.
East-facing wall.
A creative attempt at patching a gap in the fencing.
A creative attempt at patching a gap in the fencing.
I'm really pleased at how well this door turned out. Much closer to square and plumb than I've ever gotten before.
I’m really pleased at how well this door turned out. Much closer to square and plumb than I’ve ever gotten before.
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A shot of the coop, which is opposite the door. I’ve since moved the lamp fixture in there to hang from the ceiling corner behind it. I’m running a light on a timer so that hopefully our hens lay beginning in December even with the short, cold days.
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Looking from the door into the rest of the colony
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A closer view of the crude shelters I’ve given the rabbits for the weather. In the winter I’ll probably add some more wind protection and possibly add some additional small shelters (like a Rubbermaid tote with a hole cut in it).
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An escape hole plugged with materials on hand.
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The south-facing wall.
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