Friday, February 15, 2013

The Economics Of Keeping Chickens

Why We Decided To Let Them Go...

It seemed like a step backwards at first- we've come this far toward sustainability; we haven't bought eggs (or chicken meat!) in years; we've got a coop with a window and a skylight, and a light on a timer; we've got a safe and relatively dry chicken run; we recently added a waterer that hardly needs any maintenance; we enjoy and value the fresh eggs; and keeping chickens is really very easy once the coop and run was all set up. So, why was Nik suggesting that we ditch the chickens? It was hard for me to grasp at first, but I've come around, and here's why:

backyard chickens
A flock of pullets, relaxing in their new chicken run before beginning a life of egg laying.

We don't really make a habit of spending money on hobbies that don't pay for themselves one way or another. Ideally, chickens will produce more value in eggs (and/or meat) than they cost in feed and other inputs. It helps if you are getting enough to sell a few dozen each month, which we did here and there during our hens' younger years. These days, though, our hens are all three and four years old, and we only get an egg or two every day from our six hens. Yes, these eggs are of a great high quality and freshness that you can't buy in stores, but they are few and far between. Most people don't keep hens around this long, because there is no way their output matches the cost in feed at this "advanced" age.

But feeding them isn't the only cost: Whether you do it after two years or after four years, you have to replace your hens if you want to keep collecting eggs. There are different ways to do this, and they pretty much all require a large upfront expense- people rarely give away hens in the prime of life (1 to 2 years old). If you order day-old chicks you pay $3 to $8 per chick, plus additional if you want them vaccinated, plus another lump sum for shipping costs. Or you can buy from a local farmer, and probably pay a higher per chick fee but save the shipping costs. The selection will be more limited from a local farmer, but your money will stay in the community and support a family farm.

brooding fresh chicks
Day old chicks need starter feed, sand, water, a heat lamp, and a home big enough to keep them cozy for the 5 weeks it takes to grow their feathers.

We spent over $60 ordering our first batch of 8 chicks several years ago. Of course that does not include the initial costs of building the coop and run, and the chick starter feed which is more expensive than layer feed. We are very DIY and try not to buy a lot of gadgets that we can make ourselves, so we built the coop from salvaged wood and made our own feeders and waterers, but eventually found it very worth another $35 for a real metal waterer, because of all the time saved washing out and refilling spilled and stepped in containers.

We got the day-old chicks in April, and finally one hen started to lay in late November, for just a short time before winter set in. We didn't get any regular egg production until the next February, after nearly 10 months of coddling our dear flock. Those were exciting days, and we really loved collecting the multi-colored eggs once they started coming!  

easter egger fresh eggs

After the first year, though, keeping chickens became more about production and less about their general cuteness- the novelty had worn off, and they became more practical farm animals, and less novelty pets. We had a couple of years of moderately good egg laying - minus the winters, when we get hardly enough natural light in the Pacific Northwest to bother getting out of bed, much less laying an egg. We finally added a coop light to encourage egg production, so that we wouldn't be spending winters feeding non-productive hens.

We were so sure, early on, that our chickens would pay for themselves in the end, with all the eggs we wouldn't have to buy, and with all the extras that we could sell. While we always had plenty of willing buyers, it was rare that we had enough extra to sell more than a dozen or two in a month, even during the summer when we had a total of 13 chickens. Yes, three of those were immature roosters that friends had given us for the stew pot, but the rest were laying hens.

backyard chickens
Babies, during their novelty days

We should have had a bustling egg business, but really all the hens were past their prime egg laying years. Really, there is only a small window between pullet (a young chicken before she starts to lay) and old maid (when most people cull their hens to make room for younger layers).  

For us, sustainable means not having to buy replacements all the time. By this definition, city chickens are definitely not sustainable. If we could keep a rooster, and let the hens raise their own fertilized eggs into a new batch of chicks every year, then we could keep up the egg production without buying more birds all the time. But, having to buy a new batch of chicks every two years, and then coddle them for ten months before they really get into production makes no sense. Some breeds lay as early as five or six months old, but of course we bought the heirloom breeds that mature more slowly and are more sensitive to the loss of light during the winter months.

raising chicks
Our two year old, with our day-old chick.
I will say that raising chicks, and keeping hens, was a really special experience.  It was fun for our kids to be able to handle the tiny wee chicks, and they've loved helping to take care of the hens and collect eggs over the years. It was a great experiment, and we found it just didn't work out for us in the end.

For more on this story, read part two in this series- Hens and the Garden; A Tragedy.

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51 comments

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Anonymous
February 15, 2013 at 9:41 AM

I agree. Keeping them all depends on your reasons for wanting to raise your own. We cull and repurchase every 2 years and our organic feed costs are about $500/year. Were we to buy organic eggs, we'd spend about the same. If we count our labor, we're behind the curve.

But like I said, it's all about why you decide to go this direction. For me, I'd probably pay even more for my eggs just for the 100% certainty they're being treated well.

Also, with a little more diligence, we could cut our feed cost in half by feeding them more food scrap material.

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February 15, 2013 at 10:05 AM

So sory you decided to give up your birds :-( We all have to make decisions that are best for our family. I also live in the PNW. My girls (3 now that we lost 2 early on to genetic weakness) only lay everyother day in this winter if we are lucky. Planning to hatch nieghbors fertile eggs under our broody-prone wyandotte this spring and see what happens as the girls are approaching 2 years old. We are lucky here in the PNW that we have tons of local sources for fresh, organic foods if we choose or are unable to produce it ourselves.

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February 15, 2013 at 10:10 AM

Aw, sorry to hear it didn't work out for you! If you do every decide to do it again, I highly recommend getting some birds bred for egg-laying instead of the heritage breeds. Our gold sex link (part RIR) started laying at 4 months and has layed jumbo eggs, 7 days a week, since then and all through the winter. She will obviously stop laying sooner than our other girls, but for cost efficiency she really can't be beat! And, she is the smallest of our 7 chickens and really friendly.

The only two heritage breed chickens we have are our black langshans and they only started laying recently at 10 months. Sooooo different from our sex link or some of our others that are more in between. There is no way they will pay for themselves, but we've grown fond of them so we'll keep them around for now :-)

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February 15, 2013 at 11:15 AM

We keep Wyandottes that lay right through the year. They are duel purpose meat and egg laying birds and we keep a Wyandotte rooster who rarely crows but that keeps the eggs fertile and when a hen goes broody we get more chicks. This gives us a mix of hens and roosters that we then cull (the roosters) for meat. We also use the nitrogen rich roost bedding to create free fertiliser for our garden and mulch for our plants...a win/win situation for us. Why don't you keep rabbits for meat? A much quieter and easier option and they also produce rich bedding material for the garden. They also produce a HUGE litter of babies that can be culled at the appropriate time for meat. It's an idea :)

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February 15, 2013 at 12:04 PM

That's a very interesting perspective and one that should be known before people make the leap of chicken ownership. I think I'll continue to source out the best eggs I can find. Keeping chickens is always something I'd thought I'd like to do but can't living right downtown.

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February 15, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Yes, I loved knowing exactly where my eggs came from!

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February 15, 2013 at 2:01 PM

That will be fun! We tried incubating a bunch of eggs back when we kept a few not-quite-crowing roosters with our hens, but none of them turned out to be fertile. That would be such a cool experience!

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February 15, 2013 at 2:03 PM

Wow, Kristin, that is a serious layer! Yeah, when Nik & I were thinking about what breeds to get this time (before deciding to let go of them) we knew we would want only the strongest layers. But yes, chickens are fun to have just because they are cool animals!

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February 15, 2013 at 2:06 PM

We DO keep rabbits! One more reason why we didn't need the chickens- the rabbits give us great fertilizer and eat our kitchen scraps. If only they could lay eggs... ;)
It sounds like you have an IDEAL chicken situation! Do you live in an urban area with the rooster? They're not allowed around here, but some neighbors still have them here or there, and I imagine you could get away with a quite one as long as the neighbors didn't complain.

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February 15, 2013 at 2:08 PM

Thank you Carol! I read a ton of books on backyard chickens before starting out, and really didn't come across anything negative about chicken ownership. Hopefully this will provide a balanced perspective... Although I really did enjoy keeping hens, and they are so great in many ways. It's just not an effective use of our limited yardspace, time, and money!

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February 15, 2013 at 2:25 PM

There are lots of negatives! We'll be downsizing soon as the flock that I wanted to pay for themselves isn't happening here either. I'll never get rid of them completely as I like watching them but a smaller flock of layers will be the next step for me, I think Good luck with your choice.

Barb.

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February 15, 2013 at 2:41 PM

Thanks Barb! Good luck with your changes as well.

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February 15, 2013 at 2:47 PM

I think you are absolutely right about the cost perspective to keeping hens especially in a semi urban area. We now have a rooster in our flock of sexlink, RI reds and Wyandotts. 9 hens and 1 rooster. I think the rooster contributes to the girls being more productive and we plan on letting one or two go broody next year to get chicks. I am able to sell about 3 doz a week at very low price to friends to make back feed costs so we just about break even at this point so I am reasonably happy but cost is certainly a factor if sustainability is the main objective.

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February 15, 2013 at 3:30 PM

Thank you for the honest economic report. More people trying chickens means more people making this decision - and hearing a supportive voice can be helpful in mulling through that choice. I think I keep chickens as much to watch them as for the economic value - so I factor in the unmeasurable of them being satisfying pets. If I had a cat I probably wouldn't feel the need for them as much, but alas, allergies.

To be brutally honest, the time a dog broke into our yard and killed all the hens, it was just at the age where I was pondering whether to cull them or let them retire, and I felt a small gratitude that the dog had made the decision for me. That was the first time I realized how many decisions a farmer needs to make, and how far I had to go.

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February 15, 2013 at 3:38 PM

Thank you Sarah. You're right about the value in just having them around, and it is immeasurable. We definitely hope to be in a place where it makes sense to keep chickens again.

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February 15, 2013 at 3:42 PM

Interesting that the rooster helps with hen productivity! That's good to know. We will definitely have a rooster when we ever have chickens again. I know it's hard when selling eggs to friends, but you shouldn't feel bad about asking a reasonable price for your eggs, which surely surpass storebought eggs in quality and freshness. It's kind of you to ask a very low price, but not unreasonable to increase the price to match the higher quality "naturally nested" storebought eggs.

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February 15, 2013 at 5:24 PM

That is a very interesting perspective, and I appreciate your "doing the math" so to speak and sharing it.

I have had chickens for 7 years now, so I'm kind of in the same spot. I have 2 old girls that lay maybe once a week each, 1 3 yr old who lays several times a week, and 3 young'uns that lay regularly -- so it meets our family's needs, but not enough to sell. And over that 7 years the price of feed has doubled! On the other hand, the price of organic free range eggs here is exorbitant, so I think I break even when all is said and done. But your post has given me something to think about.

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February 15, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Wow, yes, it can be worth it for the best eggs you can get.

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February 16, 2013 at 12:14 AM

We've gone for Dorkings, a heritage breed but they're not economical to keep for meat. I just worked it out with a friend not an hour ago that for culling at 25 weeks (before reaching maturity) it will cost in food a minimum of $25 plus the cost of the chicken. At 28 weeks we have 1 crowing rooster (we will keep him until he becomes a nuisance) and then he's for the dinner table. It's too pricey for food although for eggs I can't yet say as they're still not yet laying. :( We will get Cornish X for meat next year and reassess for eggs. I do want to keep heritage birds though but between the 3 pekin bantams (previous pets who are the only laying birds and on major strike at the moment 1 egg a fortnight if that), 4 silkies, purchased for incubating purposes next year, 3 muscovy ducks (although 1 may well be a drake) and 19 dorkings we SHOULD be getting enough eggs. It's prohibitive on price in the codding stage and I just hope they continue to lay over winter (they're supposed to) as otherwise they might well all end up in the freezer. :( Next time I'm looking at Australorps (the egg laying ones not the meat ones) as they are both good for eating and eggs and a much faster growing breed yet still heritage.
We feed them almost all our scraps and let them free range which ekes out their food a lot too. It helps the hip pocket a lot.

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February 16, 2013 at 7:42 AM

I've always loved the idea of chickens free ranging for most of their food. Bugs and greens are so good for them. I go through phases of letting them out of their run every day, but my garden always suffers tremendously! My next article is on chickens in the garden, which I'll try to publish this morning. Next time we have chickens we'll really look into the best laying breeds! We do raise rabbits for meat, so if we eat a chicken it's only because she's well past laying age, or he started crowing- the coop is just behind our bedroom window, so the noise bothers me before it bothers the neighbors ;)

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February 16, 2013 at 10:19 PM

We made a similar decision around raising meat chickens, but we absolutely love our laying hens. Two years ago we raised cornish cross and I was horrified by the fact that the birds had so many foot and heart problems and decided to try a heritage breed. The heritage breed were better foragers but we don't have the space really for them to get enough to eat and they grew slowly and started crowing before they were ready to process. So based with the choice of eating unethical (for me) cornish cross or super expensive heritage birds we decided the right thing to do in our situation is to eat stop eating chicken and look into rabbits and coturnix quail. If we could keep a rooster and hatch out eggs each year and not worry about roosters with the neighbors it would be worth it. But with our laying hens, we get enough eggs for our family (except in the winter, but I don't mind letting my girls have a break and I just use the couple eggs that years pullets are laying during that time), the first three are reaching stew pot time and I feel like the $15 we will spend to replace them each year, feed costs, and yard foraging space is more than worth knowing they were treated well, fed a corn and soy free diet, were not raised using government subsidy money, and we get the joy of having the chickens around as pets as well. For me to buy eggs that are fed a corn and soy free diet I can break even in costs raising them myself .

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February 18, 2013 at 6:28 AM

I have not found them to be expensive at all. Considering that organic free range chicken eggs go for around $5 a dozen, we actually make money, just selling to family and co workers.
One way to save money is to allow the hen to set and hatch her own chicks. She'll take care of them, so no need for a heatlamp. Just a little bag of chick starter and you have a new flock of chicks each spring. Sometimes we have mutliple flocks. We then can sell them at a local flea market in order to keep our flock within a reasonable number. Right now we have 24 and will hatch a few flocks this Spring, selling a few and keeping a few and will probably end up with around 36 or so by fall.

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February 18, 2013 at 6:33 AM

That would be lovely. Some day we'll maybe live in a place where we can have a rooster and then we'll be able to let the hens hatch their own chicks.

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February 19, 2013 at 5:50 AM

I have thought about this frequently with the price of feed just going up and up. Even in the summer when they free range, they need a certain amount of feed. And having a rooster isn't necessarily the fix all if you can't get any of them to go broody. Plus my kids are afraid of him. I can definitely see your point of view here.

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February 19, 2013 at 6:59 AM

We love our hens! Selling our eggs to friends ad family more than cover the grain and our own eggs, so we are happy! Please consider sharing your post with us at Eco-Kids Tuesday! http://likemamalikedaughter.blogspot.com/2013/02/melt-my-heart-eco-kids-tuesday.html

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February 19, 2013 at 9:27 PM

Interesting information! I still want hens, but you have giving me more insight into the whole thing. Maybe it is best that we can't have them right now (city won't allow). lol!!! Thanks!

Lynn

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February 19, 2013 at 9:49 PM

They are wonderful! We'll definitely have them again when the conditions are more favorable ;)
I hope your city laws change soon!

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February 20, 2013 at 8:54 AM

This was great! Very practical, good pros and cons on both sides. They are kind cute at first,... the novelty certainly wears off! Thanks for linking at Healthy 2day Wednesday!

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Anonymous
February 22, 2013 at 5:25 AM

I agree that chickens seem to be the hardest to get to a cost effective point. But hete are some things we learned over the years. First off you have to buy the right bird. There are a lot of birds who will lay almost every day and still be good for meat. Then you must get a rooster. That way you can incubate eggs to hatch new birds. Hatch new birds at the right time so that they will mature before old birds stop laying at their prime. Cull older chickens for meat while near the end of their prime. If timed right you will have younger ones laying well. This also helps with meat as the older the chicken is the tougher the meat. This way there is no cost for new chicks. Also if you have a broody hen dont cull her and let her raise some incubated babies. To forgo some feed cost without having chickens running around pooping all over your porch and digging up mulch, (yes, speaking from experience) build a chicken tractor or two and move around the yard. This also helps with insects wich is always cool. And always have a light in inter so production doesnt slow. We all have to make decisions as to what works for our homestead and congratulate youon keeping track of cost, ect. and making the changes you need to.

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February 22, 2013 at 6:15 AM

Yes, we really will have chickens again when we live somewhere that allows roosters, and someplace where the yard is big enough for a chicken tractor to work. I wish we could do those here!

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February 24, 2013 at 3:07 AM

SOrry to hear your chicken ranch isn't working out. You know I live vicariously through yours and Nik's chickens. Isn't squelching my plans on having a few birds when I retire, but I will definitely consider breeds. BTW The Cadbury Bunny lays eggs...FYI

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February 26, 2013 at 9:25 AM

This was an interesting read. Although I dream of my chicken laying days, it's good to see that it might not be perfect for everyone or really very financially feasible.

I was actually thinking about it last night. If we all have chickens and we all have our own eggs, there would be no business selling them. Which is okay if you want to be entirely sustainable, but doesn't really help promote that barter/exchange of goods and services local communities really need.

Plenty to think about here. Thanks for sharing!

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February 26, 2013 at 10:18 AM

Well, not everyone has a yard, so there will always be people who have to pay/trade for eggs. I do prefer to be as self-sustainable as possible, but the fact was chickens just weren't sustainable without being able to have a rooster :( Hopefully it will work out for you someday, Rachael!

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March 4, 2013 at 8:23 PM

I really enjoyed your forthright article on the economics of keeping chickens. I think it will help people evaluate whether it makes sense for them to keep chickens.

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March 5, 2013 at 9:47 AM

This is something I've thought about quite a bit. Two of my children have an egg business. We have about 30 hens and since they take care of them they get to sell the extra and keep all but $1 of the money. That $1 goes back to buying feed. It works great in the spring and summer. Not so great in the winter. I think that if we put that entire amound aside it would pay for all of our feed all year.

My mom just bought my kids 25 chicks so we don't have to worry about replacing just yet. When we do we will either purchase them in the fall so we can let them grow during the winter when they're not laying anyways. Or get them from a local feed store at Easter when they give you 6 free chicks when you buy a 25lb bag of starter feed. We did this originally and it worked well. There's not much variety but the price was right.

Maybe you can find someone to barter your veggies for eggs...

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March 5, 2013 at 12:53 PM

I think getting chicks in the fall is a great idea. I actually tried it last fall though, and NO ONE carried them locally that time of year. Shipping would have been expensive to get them by mail, and the hatcheries weren't offering any bulk deals like they do during prime chick season, so we decided to wait a few months... but by then we'd made the decision not to replace them. I also like the idea of getting 6 free chicks with a bag of feed!
Can your kids sell the eggs for more money, and double what they put back into paying for feed? I think a lot of people don't ask enough for their local, healthy homegrown eggs. They should at least cost as much as the best "naturally nested" eggs from the store.

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March 5, 2013 at 1:43 PM

My mom ordered the chicks we have now from McMurray Hatcheries. I'm not sure but I "think" if you order 25 or more the shipping is free. Maybe you could split with someone if you ever decided to get more.

We're probably at the top of our price for eggs. They sell them for $3 a dozen, each child get a $1 and $1 goes back into feed. Everyone else that we know that sells eggs sells for $2-$2.50dz. I think that's too low. Our grocery price for "free range" eggs is $3dz. So I think we're on track.

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March 5, 2013 at 5:00 PM

Oh wow. Here, eggs at the farmer's market are easily $5, and the same with the high end ones at the grocery store. I bet we pay more for feed in this area, though! When we had enough to sell, I started out asking $3.50, and then moved up to $5.00 when I realized my eggs really held more value than anything people could get at the store- plus, they're more expensive to produce. I always had buyers, though I never had so many hens as your kids have. You definitely don't want to be selling them at a loss, though I suppose it's a good kid project!

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June 3, 2013 at 5:55 PM

I wandered over from Kathe With an E and am captivated by your blog. Some recent health issues have had me re-evaluting what I put in my body and how to get back to a more natural life style. I'm now following with GFC.

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June 4, 2013 at 6:01 AM

Great post! I agree, you really do need a rooster to make keeping chickens worth the $$. If you can raise your own plus sell excess chicks the amount of money they generate increases greatly. You might be able to get fertile eggs from a local farmer whenever ones of your hens go broody. It also depends just how broody your hens are!

Glad you had so much fun with it while it lasted though!

~L

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June 23, 2013 at 4:33 AM

I would agree that the expense is higher for what you get back. We're not allowed to have Roosters either and my 14 yo son just received 25 baby chicks that he wants to raise and then breed so he can sell the eggs on Ebay (some special breeds that do really well on Ebay). We'll see how that works out. He's using his own money to front the costs and keep track of his expenses...a little side business of his! We also have 7 regular egg layers. We are right outside the city and luckily have 1 acre of land. When I see the chickens free-ranging in our back yard, I feel like we live in the country. I LOVE it!!!

Margaret @ Live Like No One Else

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June 27, 2013 at 12:41 PM

I really needed to read this! My husband and I are considering raising chickens and while I've been really excited about it, I want to see all sides of it--good and bad.

Thanks for sharing!

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July 11, 2013 at 8:36 PM

We have only a few backyard hens. We've been letting them free range and hardly ever buying feed. Our family of 10 produces plenty of kitchen scraps to keep them scratching and occupied. So, whatever they lay, we feel, is profit, because we really haven't spent anything on them.

Not sure if a smaller family could free range their birds if they don't produce enough scraps for them to eat. Would be an interesting experiment.

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July 12, 2013 at 5:09 PM

Free ranging them, feeding them kitchen scraps and whatever they dig up in the yard, was always our plan- but you can read my "hens & the garden" article to see why that didn't work out for us. Basically, they've destroyed my garden, time and again, and I can't prevent it besides keeping the hens in their run. If we had a different yard, with a space for the hens separate from the garden, that would be ideal!

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July 23, 2013 at 2:02 PM

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful post on the Home Acre Hop. We have a small flock of chickens which we enjoy however we came to the same conclusion about keeping bees as you did about keeping chickens. We'd much rather support a local beekeeper than have the expense of bees. Haven't given up our chickens yet though! Hope to see you back at the Home Acre Hop this week! Nancy - http://homefront.prudentliving.com

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Anonymous
August 4, 2014 at 12:44 PM

Hi,
Am re-thinking our own situation. Fortunately, we have five acres, free-ranging chickens, and can keep roos. Still, I see more and more money going into chicken feed (DH not happy . . .). So I am thinking of getting more productive hybrids similar to the gold sex-link. Was thinking we could keep a leghorn roo, and some RIR hens, then cross them? Would like to be able to raise our own layer replacements, but need them to be more productive than some of the heritage breeds. Has anyone had experience with this?

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June 22, 2015 at 10:11 PM

I may need to calculate better, but based on my number I spend $20-$25 a year on each bird and get nearly 250 eggs per each. If I'm off a little, that's still under $2 a dozen for the eggs.

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November 10, 2015 at 10:54 PM

When I had chickens (and I will again), we did not go organic, but naturally raised. We will an above the ground chicken coop so that the droppings were collected in a special frame below, to which we added local dirt. After several months, we added those contents to our compost. Talk about beautiful rich compost in a few months! MEOW! The ease of care was astounding! (My own design, thank you!)

It is best to let your chickens eat naturally and roam if possible. This builds muscle, and they will find plenty to eat. It also makes your eggs taste better. We eradicated the use of any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers - but I cannot vouch for the neighbors. Given that I have 5 acres and am a good 200 ft from the neighbors, I feel good about our exposure.

Our chickens are not "fed" - they are provided with a homemade scratch in their coop during the day to entice the hens to lay in the coop. My scratch was not organic. And the chickens ate very little scratch. We started with std chicken food, and because our chickens got to eat all day in the "wild" - they were picky and threw a good deal away. We figured out what they liked, and made our own:

- Solid base of cracked corn (20#)
- 5# of sunflower seeds
- half a horse scoop of oyster shells
- 1 or so scoops of 17% game bird food

Adding that high protein game bird food makes a HUGE difference in the quality of your shells and integrity, color, and flavor of your yolks. Use it very sparingly, as the high protein can cause bone problems in chickens over time. A 20-25% ratio is good, if your birds are roaming most of the daylight hours every day.

I never tracked the economics; we sold our excess eggs for 4.00 / dz as naturally raised. I miss them so very very much. I am looking forward to raising them again! Next time, I want to have chicken tractors!

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November 13, 2015 at 5:13 AM

Sounds great! In our smaller yard, it wasn't practical to have both a a garden and lots of fruit bearing plants everywhere, and free ranging chickens, unfortunately. But we did give the chickens tons of weeds every day, and any plants that were covered in bugs! I know it would have been better for them to be on the loose, though.

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