Always wanted to raise chickens but didn't know how to get started? We've covered the basics for you; now, there's nothing standing between you and fresh, humanely sourced eggs.
—INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Jennifer Misewicz & Tim Faith
Cock-a-doodle-do! Rise and shine, neighbors (love ya!). We just got a chicken coop.
I’ll be the first person to tell you I never would have thought we’d be raising a flock of chickens in the city of Chicago. Actually, I protested it every time my partner, Tim, brought it up. The counterarguments promised an abundance of eggs. That, and Tim’s persistence and excitement, eventually won me over. A quick check of the Chicago municipality code to make sure it was legal to raise hens and a rooster within city limits also helped ease my mind. (Spoiler alert: It is.) The chickens were coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Might as well embrace it!
As you'll see, Tim's couldn't resist enthusiastically piping in with his opinions as I wrote up these notes on our journey.
— Jennifer Misewicz
Tim and I rent an apartment in the Pilsen neighborhood, where we had formed a friendship with our neighbor over our shared interest in urban gardening and damn good beer. Wes tends to a garden on his open lot next to our place. He, too, was gung ho for a flock of chickens, so he located a used coop from a friend. We help his family with the upkeep of their garden in exchange for veggies. We’re lucky to have the space that e do next door.
Tim Faith: I mean, we’ve got a whole “Chicago-size” lot—25 by 125 feet—that’s pretty great.
But you don’t need that large of an outdoor area if you want to raise your own flock in the city. Next up: what type of chickens to get? We have Japanese Bantam chickens, a breed known for being gentle and extremely suitable for small yards where space is limited.
Tim: We actually got our chickens from George Novak, Goose Island’s Maintenance Technician. We had been talking to George for a long time about attempting to raise chickens in the city. Once we showed we were committed by acquiring a coop, he GAVE us the flock. See, George lives on his farm in Indiana, where he raises horses and chickens. He has been our primary resource for this whole urban chicken thing. We met him one Sunday afternoon at the East dock of the brewery, and he literally gave us a box of chickens and a bale of hay.
The Japanese Bantams are about one-half to two-thirds the size of regular chickens. Despite their petite size, they have the same “needs” (read: a safe and sturdy home to roost, nest, scratch, and peck to their heart’s content) as standard-size chickens, just on a fun-size scale. If you want eggs, you’ll need hens, of course; you don’t need a rooster unless you want to raise chicks (the eggs will be infertile). We went with two hens and a rooster.
Roosters aren’t necessary for egg production. However, they might encourage hens to yield more eggs. Similarly, a rooster acts as an alarm system for the rest of the flock, alerting them when a predator is near. He will also hunt and forage for the hens, and notify them when he finds something nutritious. (Come eat!)
Although we approached this experience with a healthy dose of skepticism, all of our initial worries were for naught. Too loud for our neighbors? The noise level of the rooster registers at 90 decibels, the same as a barking dog. While there are noises in the city much louder than our rooster (Conveniently, his name is Pilsen), it’s imperative to have continuous dialogue with your surrounding neighbors to address any concerns. (Or you can just appease them with beer.) And as for that other worry...that the chickens will smell bad? Simple solution: Get over it already and clean the coop regularly.
The experience of raising chickens has been humbling and rewarding. Each chicken has a unique personality; we consider them our pets with the added bonus of eggs. Once you invest in a good coop and choose your ideal breed of chickens, it’s surprisingly easy to care for your flock. It may just take a push from your loved one to get you started.
And with that in mind...for the last time, NO Tim, we are NOT getting a goat!
CITY CHICKENS 101
A chicken coop provides a dry shelter for nesting. The run is an attached, fenced-in area that allows your chickens to get exercise and sunlight. Bantams require roughly two square feet of space in the coop and four square feet in the run per bird, but each breed’s needs are different. Be sure to check your hens’ requirements before committing to a coop and run. Plan on spending anywhere from $50 to $600 on a coop, depending on whether you’re buyin secondhand, new, or rolling up your sleeves for a DIY project.
Really, you can convert anything into a coop. We were considering children’s playhouses, doghouses, poolside storage sheds, box pallets from our brewery neighbors at the recycling center on Fulton Street, even leftover barrels from our barrel warehouse. A good browse of online sites, like Craigslist, can also lead to some coop creativity.
City life brings predators in the form of raccoons, opossums, hawks, and even cats, so you’ll want to make sure your coop is reinforced with galvanized wire mesh and proper locks. Don’t overlook the floor of your chicken run, as some predators resort to digging to gain access to the inside. We combated the issue of resourceful predators by placing layers of chicken wire on the floor of the run and covering it with sand. Of course, you’ll want to check the coop regularly for weak spots and address them promptly if they appear.
You need a pretty good layer of sand. Periodically, we’ll have a rat burrow under the coop.The trick is to put a couple scraps of steel wool in the burrow that the rat makes and fill it back in with sand. Rats hate gnawing on the stuff.
Feeding is another aspect to consider before settling on a breed. Bantams eat less food than standard-size chickens, so you can save up some coop budget money there. All chickens need access to fresh water daily, and their diet should mainly consist of hen pellets to provide the proper proportion of protein and minerals. These you can buy at farm-supply stores (as well as baby chicks and any other supplies), which are conveniently popping up closer to city limits with the rise of urban agriculture.
If you have a garden, you can give your flock fresh vegetables or fruit, as we do from time to time. Even if you don’t already, recycle your food scraps as a treat for your chickens. Most grains (rice, wheat, oats), fruits, and vegetables (raw or cooked) are fair game; some meat and/or bread in moderation is okay occasionally. Beer mash, also known as the “spent” grain from the brewing process, is an excellent nutrient-rich food source for chickens.
So here’s the kicker: It turns out that the brewery is a great resource for all things chickens! First we mix spent (and also out-of-date) grain with the chickens’ regular feed. Then we take the leftover food that goes to waste after a Goose Island event (and after it has been picked at by us brewers) and feed it to the chickens. These things really eat anything. Finally, paper shavings from the shredder make awesome bedding! It’s fluffy, dry, and insulating. Or you can buy chicken bedding at a feed store or online.
Providing your chickens with the right nutrition and enough space will undoubtedly lead to happy hens, and the end game: Happy hens lay eggs! Our Japanese Bantams lay a fair amount of eggs in the spring and summer, but will go broody during the colder months. (And for the most part, they stop laying once there is less than twelve hours of daylight.)
From our three hens, we are usually gifted four to six eggs a week, but they are much smaller than the standard-size eggs you find at the grocery store. You can mix and match breeds to vary the size and quantity of eggs (check which breeds get along to keep your crew happy). Our first breed isn’t known for egg production, so we’ll be adding two Rhode Island Reds to our flock, giving us around ten or more eggs each week.
George thought the Japanese Bantams would be good “trial” chickens for us (likely to see if we were serious). And he was right. I probably would have ordered a larger breed and would likely have encountered complications with overcrowding had we six large hens in our small coop.
No room for a coop? Grab a carton of eggs from the grocery store (or sure, the farmers market) and try our Beer-Cured Ajitsuke Eggs recipe.