Chicken Feed or Golden Egg?
Written onJune 01 , 2009
Chickens are the new black. Like many things once associated with poverty and largely left behind when industrial goods became impossibly cheap (whole wheat bread, hand-knit sweaters, walking to work), backyard poultry has become fashionable. People want to save money and to feel more connected to the source of their food. And if there’s one sure way to feel connected to something, it’s by having to constantly feed it and clean up its poop. Ask any parent.
One seldom-discussed aspect of the poultry trend, however, is the economics. Which costs more: chickens or eggs?
The answer depends on a lot of things, like the size and design of your coop, what kind of eggs you normally buy, and whether you have predators. So while this article can’t run the numbers for everyone, it can walk you through most of the things you’ll need to consider so you can run the numbers yourself. Initial outlays can be high, so try costing everything out for at least three years before deciding it’s too expensive.
Keep in mind that most people who keep chickens do it for the pleasure, not for financial reasons. “We keep a vegetable garden, and it’s the same kind of ethos,” said Brattleboro resident Jon Potter, whose family has five hens. “We didn’t crunch the numbers too hard; we just jumped right in.” But making sure your birds earn their keep can be important, especially in tough times. If you pay some attention to costs, your chickens can save or even earn you money.
Long-term recurring costs
First of all, consider the relative inconvenience of keeping birds, compared with a trip to the supermarket. Once you get into the routine, it will take very little time to feed and water them and to collect eggs daily. But if you live in town, you will need to make sure your birds are in the right place at the right time—returning them to the yard if they escape and making sure they’re safely locked in at night. You will also need to keep odors down, and, as Potter put it, “Cleaning the cage is a nasty job.”
Care While You’re Away
Can you ever leave home again? Some hotels accept dogs, but not even Days Inn allows chickens—not that you’d want to take them to the beach anyway. You can swap care with someone else who keeps poultry, which costs you nothing but time, or you might have to pay someone to help while you’re gone. (Maybe you can barter for eggs.)
Feed, Scratch, and Bedding
Despite the old idiom, chicken feed isn’t cheap. Its price, like that of all grain products, has doubled (or more) in the last year. Estimates differ by breed, but you should probably plan on about 85 pounds of feed per hen per year. If your hens can range free daily, they will also collect calories on their own, so you may find you use less feed than the official estimates suggest.
Potter said his family spends about $12 per month on feed and bedding, which comes out to less than $30 per bird for the whole year. Luz Elena Morey, another Brattleboro resident, whose family is keeping 21 hens and a rooster, buys hay and straw for bedding, both of which can be pricey depending on your source.
Even urban and suburban properties can host predators: hawks, raccoons, skunks, weasels, foxes and fisher cats, to name a few. If they’re a problem, you may need to put up electric fencing, which can put a significant crimp in your wallet. Once you have the fencing, your electricity bill will go up as well. You also may need lamps for warmth and light. The Potters warmed their hens during this past frigid winter with a 100-watt warming bulb, for an increase of about $15 a month over the four months the bulb was needed.
One-time and infrequent costs
Permits & Licenses
Many towns and cities around the state require no special permission for keeping poultry (see sidebar on page 24). However, virtually all municipalities require a permit for building a coop, and you should check with your local zoning office before putting up fences, as well. Permits mean fees, and they are not always nominal. If you want to sell eggs, you may need a vendors’ license as well.
Shelter & Fencing
If you have the time, talent, and materials, you can probably build a coop for a few hens for less than $100. Most people lack at least one of these things, and end up spending more. You can shell out a lot for a coop, in fact, but for a few birds you don’t have to: you can hire a local contractor or buy a pre-made coop. One company, Henspa, advertises a pre-built, three-hen structure for just above $300.
The Potters already had a barn on their property, to which they added a nesting area and a chicken run for “a couple hundred bucks.” With 22 birds, Morey needed more, and spent more. “Even though the shack was there already, we didn’t have time to work on it ourselves,” she said. Including hardware cloth, lumber, and labor, their project ended up costing close to $1,200.
Many accessories are available for your poultry, but only a few are truly necessary: a feeder, a waterer, and fencing (electric if you need it). You may also want bulbs and extension cords, a light timer (to help guarantee laying in dark months), egg baskets, or an incubator, which is used for hatching your own eggs. A homemade chicken tractor can be made for less than $50; this small, portable enclosure lets you put your chickens in the yard or garden to weed, fertilize, and control pests for a few hours at a time.
Oh yeah. You’ll also need chickens! The peeps themselves are possibly the cheapest—and definitely the cutest—thing you’re going to purchase. “I think it cost us $12 total for the chickens themselves,” Potter said. You can order heirloom breeds online, stop by your local feed store, or check with a friend who has a rooster. The Morey family is working toward a self-sustaining flock, and now has a brooding hen. “I have a hen sitting on 10 eggs,” said Morey. “I am hand-feeding her apples and feed several times a day. She is in a trance; she doesn’t move. She has the coop all to herself because she needs peace.”
Now for the good part—what you get from your chickens.
Most hens will start laying around 6 months of age, and some continue for 10 years or more. Many, but not all, will eventually lay one egg a day. Assuming your birds get sunshine and bugs and kitchen scraps and a bit of exercise, your eggs will taste better and be more nutritious than any eggs you can buy at a store.
Sure it stinks. But after it has composted sufficiently, chicken manure is the richest fertilizer you’ll never buy. If you use the manure on your vegetable garden – even if it’s nice and old – be sure to wash your veggies before you eat them. Also, make sure your neighbors can’t smell it while it ripens, or your birds might be declared a public health nuisance. Chickens are also reputed to control ticks and other bugs, including garden pests.
If you end up with male birds, problem birds, injured birds, or too many birds—or if you just want a chicken stew for Sunday dinner—you can slaughter them. If you haven’t done it before, you’ll want to get an old hand to help you, or you can hire an itinerant slaughterer—someone who comes to your house to process your animals. Some itinerant slaughterers use a mobile poultry processing unit.
Yes, you can make actual money from your chickens. Considering all the food safety scares lately, you might think selling fresh eggs would be regulated out of existence. But unless you have 3,000 chickens or more (how big is your backyard anyway?), you’re not subject to USDA regulations or inspections.
According to Henry Marckres, chief of Consumer Protection at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, there are just a few simple rules a small egg operation needs to follow in order to sell eggs at a farmers’ market, a farm stand, or to neighbors. If you sell your eggs in used cartons, cross out anything that doesn’t apply to your eggs, such as the USDA seal, freshness date, size, grade, etc. Protect quality and flavor by keeping eggs at a consistent temperature—either room temperature or refrigerated. Also provide your name and address to buyers.
“Thank God,” Marckres said. “It’s still one of the things that’s easy for people to do!” Local municipalities have their own rules about running a business out of your home, though—and it often depends on where you live in town. Make sure you check with your zoning office, especially if you’re putting a shingle out for strangers to see, rather than selling a few leftovers to friends and neighbors.
After figuring out the regular cost of feed and extra electricity, Jon Potter determined his family was recouping about $8 a month compared with the price of organic eggs. Their five hens are earning their keep, although he said clearly, “That’s not the reason we’re doing it.”
“The kids have a blast with them,” he said. “It’s fun for them. And we like that our kids have a sense of food from the backyard to the table, both with the garden and the chickens.”
A larger flock can give personal satisfaction, as well. “There is something healing about them,” Luz Morey said, adding, “if they’re well taken care of.” The Moreys are selling several dozen eggs per week, but that’s not why they’re doing it either. “The joys are priceless.”
Photo by Paula Melton