With a cluck, cluck here, and a cluck, cluck there…
Raising backyard chickens is on a steady rise with no signs of slowing, and I completely understand why! In my opinion, raising hens is one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways we can plug back into our food system.
I got my first chickens almost 20 years ago, and I’ve been lucky enough to raise chickens (roosters too) in a few different situations; a farm in Sweden, a home with a few acres of woods surrounding it, and now in my fenced in suburban backyard. Each situation has given me and the chickens unique freedoms and challenges.
Chickens require only a few minutes of care a day, but it is DAILY care, and they’ll be more like pets the more you hang out with them. There will be a LOT of poop, and some amazing eggs. The continual chicken antics are an added bonus.
There are so many obvious benefits to raising hens
*Convert Table scraps into eggs
*Break the disease and pest cycle in gardens/fruit trees
*Till your garden space for you
*Add to compost piles and work them for you
*Fertilize plants once manure is aged
The other intangibles include teaching your children, and/or yourself some basics about where our food comes from, feeling like you can make a difference in the food chain, and companionship. Our hens make our whole yard more enjoyable, and we all spend more time outside because of them. And yes, even on those dark, sub-zero winter mornings, I’m always glad I got outside for a few minutes.
Think you’re ready to pull on your muck boots and join me in the coop? I can’t wait to welcome you to our flock, but first there are a few things to consider.
Are Chickens Allowed?
The first thing to do is find out what is allowed in your city. You’ll find this buried somewhere within the city code, like White Bear Lake. Some places have you license each hen, some license the coop, and many don’t have specific language in them about hens yet. But that is changing as more and more people are adding hens to their urban homesteading routine. Here’s a ChickenLaws PDF listing of how the Twin Cities metro cities line up with allowing backyard chickens, compiled and shared by Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply (THANKS GUYS!).
If you find your city doesn’t allow it, contact them to find out if anyone else has asked about it. Chances are they have. With minimal digging, a little internet stalking, and maybe a call to Bob at EggPlant, things can start moving quickly. I initiated the backyard chicken keeping code changes in White Bear Lake a few years ago, and it was a great learning experience, and darn empowering to watch government work for the people!
The Chicken Coop
You’ll need a solid coop to keep out the nasty Winter elements and any predators. Chickens need at least 4 square feet per bird inside a coop, plus a fenced in run area, and most also have much more open space to run in outside. My husband, the designer + builder of our coop, researched a few online designs before melding them into one. The pull out drawer makes cleaning the coop SO much easier than our last design. It is designed to be moveable (if you’re Paul Bunyan) like the chicken tractor models, but ours has stayed in place. The run goes underneath the coop, and the girls love this space in the winter. We tack frost cloth on the north side of the run in winter to keep the wind down and catch the sun for them.
Feeding the Birds
Most people who want to raise hens want to do so in part to give the chickens a good life, and running around scratching happily for bugs and seeds is what makes a good life for a hen. In the winter when they can’t scratch around you’ll need to help them out a little. I keep a supply of scratch grains and freeze dried meal worms handy. I’ve also added random ‘bird feeder’ types of amusements to their run just for fun.
There are many different kinds of feed, both organic and conventional. In my years of raising chickens I’ve used every kind out there, chickens seem to prefer feed that looks like real grains but will eat the pellets too.
You’ll have more hay and poop than you imagined, so you’ll have to have a plan on what you’ll do with it all before you get them. It makes for great compost! Cleaning the coop can be a lot easier, especially in the winter if you install a “poop plate” under their roosting bar. Ours is made of thin stainless steel and slides in ans out of a frame. This allows me to remove the majority of the poop and even when its below zero for weeks on end (Hey there, January and February) I can bend it enough so the poop pops right off! This saves on hay too.
Chickens have an astounding number of ways to get sick. Luckily, I had many years of zero health issues…until this winter when one of my girls got Vent Gleet (EWWW). I learned a lot fast, and was able to treat her without going to a vet, but it was great to know that TeleVet was there (thanks again to EggPlant for that info!) But, yes, I had to bring a full grown chicken into my home, wash dried and frozen poop off her butt, then blow dry her so she didn’t catch cold. Yes, we’re now bonded for life.
Here’s another piece of wise advice from Bob Lies of EggPlant, “know before you get your chicks home if you are the kind of person who will spend $200 on a vet bill for a $5 chick.”
The Chicken or the Egg
There are well over 70 breeds of chickens that you could bring home from different hatcheries around the country. Many local suppliers get their hens from the same hatchery in Iowa, Hoover’s Hatchery.
Most northern chicken keepers will opt for a ‘dual purpose’ hen, meaning they are good for both egg production and meat. Another thing to consider is their overall size, as a bigger bird can handle colder weather. The store EggPlant Urban Farm Supply is the most small flock/backyard friendly I’ve found so far, as the let you purchase a single chick of any of their 10 varieties. Most other ‘farm stores’ require minimums of 2 to 5 hens of each variety. I’ve purchased chicks closer to my neck of the woods, from Hugo Feed Mill (their Chick List) and Houle’s Feed and have been happy with the chickens’ health from both shops.
Another thing to keep in mind, different breeds lay different colored eggs. There are chicken breeders who breed for specific egg colors.
I’m just happy with the beautiful The blues of our Ameracanas and browns of our Black Australorps.
The End of the Road
No one wants to think about this when they’re buying cute fluffy baby chicks, but chickens do not live forever. They’re most productive in egg laying until about 3 years of age (depending on breed) and then taper off. You’ll have to decide how long you’ll keep a non-laying hen in a small flock. You could slaughter and use as a soup chicken, although this is a hard step for many because of how chickens become pets even when you think they’ll be treated like ‘livestock’. We’ve eaten our chickens in the past, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it this time around, now that our boys have come to love them. We will likely find a farmer friend to take them after they stop laying consistently, because in White Bear Lake the limit is 4 hens, and I need at least that many laying to keep our family in eggs.
Chickens are Social!
If you’re still questioning how big a deal backyard hens are, just take a look at the plethora of online community spaces for all us ‘Crazy Chicken People’. There are some useful, standard online resources like BackyardChickens.com, to university extension programs, to the slough of Instagram feeds dedicated to hens, like @henopause, @thedirtmag, @roundrockfarm; and be sure to check out #fluffybuttfriday… all of which I love.
I’ll Be At Egg|Plant
When it comes to taking care of another living animal, its nice to talk to another living person. And for that, there’s nobody better than the peeps at Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply. They find homes for over 1,000 baby chicks each Spring, with Americanas and Gold Stars as their most popular breeds. You pre-order your chicks a few weeks in advance and now is the time to get planning!
Walking into Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply is like taking a step sideways in time. The shop itself looks like it was pulled out of the 1940’s but all the items inside along with the staff’s knowledge is 100% modern. The store is the product of a country girl marrying a city boy and some inspired compromising. After completing her horticultural degree, Audrey wanted to provide a place where she could help her neighbors grow great food right where they were. Her and husband Bob (the chicken class instructor extraordinaire) put their passions into practice and 8 years later have created a hub of urban homestead nirvana.
They sell chicks and everything you’d need to raise them into happy healthy egg laying machines. From basics like bedding and feed, necessities for treating sick chickens (chickens are always finding new ways to get sick) to specialty treats, these guys have you covered! They celebrate the chicken keeping community each Fall with a “Coop Tour” of backyard set ups all across the Twin Cities. This year’s tour is set for September 15th, not that I’m planning ahead or anything 😉
Egg|Plant also has supplies for seed starting, gardening, (including organic pest control and fertilizers) canning, fermenting, cheese making, bee keeping, books on all these homesteading skills and carry a supply of edible and pollinator friendly plants each spring and summer. Leslie, the store manager was a wealth of knowledge and has this way of getting you even more excited for your own projects! All these happenings are housed within this cozy, whimsical space in the hipster*ville between Merriam Park and Tangletown, right off I-94.
Even the classes offered at Egg|Plant are fun and funky. I sat in on a class last Saturday and felt like I had found my people 😊 Even a chicken raising veteran like myself learned a few fascinating things about pecking order, and how each chicken has one eye that’s far sighted and one that’s near sighted, so they can see what they’re scratching on the ground while watching for predators in the sky. Just like Bob said during the class, “Chickens are VERY good at being chickens.”
A few really good tips from the class were:
*Build your coop for the largest number of birds YOU would want. So if the city allows for 8 hens, but you want to start with only 4, maybe build for 8 hens (they require 4 square feet per bird) in case you decide to increase later. Chicken coops are going to be the most expensive part of getting started with chickens so you don’t want to build twice!
*Electricity. Since many of us live “up North” you’ll want to plan on how to heat the water and coop, provide a light source during the cold winter months.
Predators are a big concern for some people who oppose backyard hens. Accidents do happen, and it’s part of the food cycle I’ve been able to teach my kids about too. Also, there’s this idea that rodents will be drawn to the chicken run and feed. But, as long as you keep your feed in a closed bucket or shed, and clean your coop so you have healthy chicks, you shouldn’t have a problem.
One of my friends, Deanna, listed these reasons for raising backyard hens: “You can’t beat the flavor of the eggs, involving our girls in the hands-on process of growing their own food, helping to create responsible food consumers, plus the fact that we’ve reduced our weekly trash and have awesome compost, it’s just such a win-win-win.” I think she really hit all the major reasons so many people are finding it not just worthwhile, but rewarding to raise backyard hens.
PSA: Chickens Lay Eggs without a Rooster.
You only need a rooster if you want more chickens.
Another basic REAL reason to keep hens is because you think animals should be treated humanely. Over the years, we’ve become more and more separated form our food; growing, processing and cooking it. The image of the two comparative chicken breeds looks like progress to some and like a horror story to others. I see a horrific manipulation of one of God’s creatures. Now, I know my 4 hens and there few eggs aren’t going to change the world- BUT… if enough of us make these small shifts, we really can make an impact.
The U.S. Government thought it was important enough that each person have backyard chickens that they created these flyers back in the day.
I think raising backyard chickens just makes sense, and makes for some great stories and great omelettes too.
But don’t just take my word for it, Bob from Egg|Plant says that chickens “Are a fun and fascinating creatures, they make great pets, and they provide eggs! Keeping chickens makes you an active participant in your own food production. And they are beautiful, too“. Words from an expert who helps hundreds of families around the metro raise chickens each year. Three cheers for Bob and Audrey doing what they love.
I highly recommend hanging out online, talking with someone who raises hens, or visiting EggPlant or your local farm supply store before buying those cute fluffy chicks. But, like always- I also say give it a try, WE can do this!
Besides, who wouldn’t want a chicken to hang out with at your next bonfire 😉
Here’s to Diggin In,