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:
|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.
|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!
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.
|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.
|Our two year old, with our day-old chick.|
For more on this story, read part two in this series- Hens and the Garden; A Tragedy.
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The Economics Of Keeping Chickens
4/ 5Oleh Mellow