The ABCs of Raising Urban Chickens

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Backyard chicken owners (in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or the handful of other metro cities that allow them) know the joy that these birds provide. Who needs TV when you can watch a few chickens wander around pecking your hostas? Fresh eggs, loads of manure for garden fertilizer, and teaching kids where food comes from are all slam-dunk chicken perks.

There has been much ink spilled on this urban craze, but knowing where to begin can be daunting for aspiring poultry owners. First instinct is Fleet Farm, which has the basics of feed, grit, and feeders / waterers. But a vast array of supplies and ideas do exist in the Twin Cities, making the process practically painless.

A good place to start is Saturday’s Twin Cities Parade of Chicken Coop Tour. Organizer Albert Bourgeois, a local chicken educator and operator of the website The Chicken Enthusiast, has signed up over 25 metro residents who will let you peek inside their backyard farms, many of which are in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Before getting birds, Bourgeois said, those considering chickens must do their homework.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

“Get to know what your city ordinances are,” he said. “Then study coop design. Check out some websites that talk about chicken breeds, because a couple different sites have a guide on how to pick a good chicken, like MyPetChicken.com. Survey the yard, figure out where you want the coop that will minimize neighbor annoyance and all that. You don’t want to put it outside your neighbor’s window. You have to understand that this is a commitment like getting a dog — it can live the same number of years.”

Audrey Matson, owner of St. Paul urban farming mecca EggPlant, agreed on first steps. She cautioned the housing would be, by far, the biggest up-front expense.

“Think about where you’re going to keep them, because they do need to be outside, and you’re going to need some space,” she said. “If you’re going to have them free-ranging in your yard, you’re going to need some fence. That’s the big thing. You do need to make an investment in their housing. That ends up being the biggest cost.”

So you’ve done all that, the coop has been built (or bought), and you’re committed to taking care of crazy birds for the next 12-14 years. Now you need chickens and supplies.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

EggPlant stocks chicks from around May to June, which is prime hatching season. But if you’re dying to get your birds yet this year, take a drive to Anoka Ramsey Farm & Garden. The center has chicks (and ducks) pretty much year-round, although they do take a small break from ordering in December and January. But the beauty of Anoka Ramsey is that you can get older, more developed birds, too, so people squeamish about newborn chicks making it through the Minnesota winter could still start a fall flock. Or, for those worried about losing a chick or just the impatient, the more mature birds can be a good place to start.

Speaking of winter, chickens are remarkably resilient to the cold. Having a shelter away from the wind is vital, but as long as the chickens have somewhere to nest and a good source of water and food, they should be fine with little more than a light bulb and something to keep their water from freezing. Matson said she used a red heat bulb, like one that might go in a lizard aquarium, set on a timer to come on at 2am and stay on for a few hours.

Next are the basics: a chick feeder and waterer, and food. As they get older, you need a full-size feeder and waterer, and regular layer feed. Chick starter feed is available and recommended for chicks 8 weeks and younger, but as Bourgeois said, “they can live off their regular chicken chow their whole lives. They have a pretty boring diet.” As they age, feeding hens kitchen scraps is another option in addition to regular feed, as is cracked corn, and some form of grit, either commercial grit, sand, oyster shells, or even crushed eggshells, is vital. All of those supplies are available at EggPlant, Anoka Ramsey, Southside Farm Store in South Minneapolis, Houle’s Farm, Garden & Pet in Stillwater, and Fleet Farm.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

And, there’s always the good ol’ Internet. The myriad of chicken websites can be overwhelming; both Bourgeois and Matson recommended MyPetChicken.com, and other resources mentioned were Stromberg’s of Pine River and McMurray Hatchery.

So, if you’re thinking chickens, visit a few sites on the coop tour and see if the chicken bug bites. If so, rest easy knowing the Twin Cities has plenty of help and resources easily available. Just be sure you know what you’re getting into.

“There’s a lot of people who get chickens because their kid brings them home from school,” Bourgeois said. “It’s a commitment, and you either have to be committed to seeing them out their entire lives or be able to process them to make soup out of them.”

EggPlant
1771 Selby Ave
St. Paul, MN 55104
651.645.0818

Anoka Ramsey Farm & Garden
7435 US 10
Anoka, MN 55303-6039
763.421.0223

Southside Farm Store
1534 East 38th St
Minneapolis, MN 55407-2878
612.721.2761

Houle’s Farm Garden & Pet
10010 60th St N
Stillwater, MN 55082
651.777.7229

Mills Fleet Farm (four metro locations)
8400 Lakeland Ave N
Brooklyn Park, MN 55445
763.424.9668

10250 Lexington Ave NE
Blaine, MN 55014
763.785.4647

5635 Hadley Ave N
Oakdale, MN 55128
651.779.7725

17070 Kenrick Ave
Lakeville, MN 55044
952.435.3832

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About the Author

Jason Walker

Jason Walker was born and raised in Kansas, where he grew up loving his grandmother’s homemade noodles and weekly fried fish. A summer internship in Milwaukee turned Jason and his wife, Leita, into die-hard fans of the Northwoods culture, and they moved to Minneapolis in 2006. Immediately the quality of food and drink in the Twin Cities was impressive – that even the most unassuming bar usually had a decent menu – and Jason knew he was home. Now living in the Fulton neighborhood with two kids, Jason grows tomatoes, cans voraciously, and badgers his neighbors with conversations about restaurants.

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7 Comments

  1. Hey Jason,

    Thanks for the article how to. Readers may be interested in the video I made in the Spring on my early chicken raising: http://bit.ly/a33bml – I hope to do a follow up as they are now laying happily.

    Cheers
    Daniel

  2. Urbanimal in Uptown on Lake and Lyndale also have feed and scratch!!

  3. Sorry urbanimal is at Lyndale and Franklin..wow you can tell it is friday..

  4. finefeatheredfriend 09/10/2010 Reply

    With more and more communities allowing for backyard chicken raising and more and more families seeking alternatives for sustainable living, I think conversations such as this will also grow across America.

    Whether backyard or farm yard, poultry health is easy enough to assure.

    There is a good website created by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA which sums up how to keep poultry healthy:
    http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/

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