Keeping a few chickens in a backyard coop is the latest retro trend. Chicken raising is an American tradition with long roots. When our rural ancestors left farms to move into town, a migration that began in earnest with the American industrial revolution in the 1800s, they brought backyard chickens along for the ride.
Homegrown chickens helped keep many families fed in the Great Depression and, in parts of the U.S., the backyard chicken coop has endured. But until recently, chickens were a rarity in cities and suburbs.
Now, chicks are chic, and raising poultry is a hot trend in urban and suburban neighborhoods, where the birds may or may not be legal. An article at the WorldWatch Institute sums up the development:
An underground “urban chicken” movement has swept across the United States in recent years. Cities such as Boston, Mass., and Madison, Wis., are known to have had chickens residing illegally behind city fences.
But grass-roots campaigns, often inspired by the expanding movement to buy locally produced food, are leading municipalities to allow limited numbers of hens within city limits.
Not for everyone
The chicken trend isn’t for the faint-hearted. NBC News, in an article titled “Backyard Chickens Dumped at Shelters When Hipsters Can’t Cope, Critics Say,” points out that there’s more to chicken husbandry than many new poultry growers realize:
In addition to the noise, many urban farmers are surprised that chickens attract pests like rats, and predators including foxes, raccoons, hawks, and even neighborhood dogs.
When they get sick or hurt, they need care that can run into the hundreds of dollars, boosting the price of that homegrown egg far beyond even the most expensive grocery store brand.
And that’s all before you have to consider taking an ax to your darling girls and boys.
There are many reasons to raise your own chickens besides cutting the grocery bill. You help eliminate the environmental costs of energy consumption and carbon emissions required to transport food. Many backyard chickens become beloved pets.
The taste of fresh eggs puts the grocery store version to shame and, for many egg growers, that’s what counts most. Chickens also help fertilize soil (but be sure to compost chicken manure before using it on a garden).
There are other benefits as well. A University of Illinois Extension Service’s cost-benefit analysis includes:
- Free meat. “Poultry is a versatile source of high-quality protein,” the article says. It offers guidance on food safety guidelines for butchering chickens.
- Education for younger children.
- For older children, chickens make great 4-H projects and offer a chance to learn responsibility, skills and self-sufficiency.
A look at the costs
But if your aim is to cut your grocery costs, does amateur chicken growing really pencil out?
Mother Earth News writer Victoria Gazeley says she ran a $540 deficit raising 17 hens and two roosters from chicks over 15 months.
Cost of building the coop and run (materials only): $315.
Cost of feed, scratch (all certified organic), bedding, etc.: $1,400.
Income from egg sales to friends & associates: $1,175.
Homegrown eggs sell for $7 a dozen where Gazeley lives, in Gibsons, B.C.
Despite the red ink on paper, she says that, counting the roughly 77 dozen eggs her family and friends have enjoyed for free, “we’ve definitely come out ahead.” Her article includes links for downloading her free Excel chicken economics calculators.
Gazeley’s calculations also don’t reflect her labor. If you’re doing it to save a buck, “Well, let’s just say that it makes WAY more sense to buy organic eggs at $7 a dozen at the market,” she concludes.
Not a frugal tactic
Mint.com blogger Morgan Quinn writes about what she calls the “eggonomics” of chicken-growing. She, too, says chicken raising is not a frugal tactic:
There is serious doubt about whether or not urban chicken farming is a frugal venture. … The costs of maintaining backyard chickens varies, with chicken feed running anywhere from $15 to $50 a month and some coops can cost upward of $4,000 (mine was purchased on Craigslist for $200 and coops can be built with scrap wood for next to nothing).
Quinn figures her two hens produce a dozen eggs a week — about 624 eggs a year.
She says you can choose between standard chicken feed — about $25 for a bag of unspecified size — and organic feed (“so you can brag about your homegrown organic eggs”), at $40.
Organic free-range eggs sell for $5 a dozen in San Diego, where she lives. Her estimated cost to produce one dozen “organic and free-range” eggs: $5.
In this forum at BackyardChickens.com (the urban chicken farmers’ bible), chicken growers discuss the economics of their hobbies.
Tips for growing chickens in your backyard
If you’ve decided to take a run at backyard chicken farming, here are three things you should know to make your venture a success:
1. Cut feed costs.
- Let chickens graze free-range (although you’ll need to spend more for fencing … ca-ching).
- “Fermenting your chicken feed leads to better eggs, better hen health, and lower feed costs,” says blogger Garden Betty. She explains how to do it.
- Supplement feed with kitchen scraps. See BackyardChickens.com’s chart of leftovers and other goodies chickens like to eat, including mealworms, crickets, cat food and cucumbers.
2. Learn the rules where you live. You may be tempted to just move ahead and not worry about your town’s rules on backyard animal husbandry. That might work out just fine.
But raising chickens isn’t a stealth activity. The girls cluck and fuss, and the boys crow at many provocations, the rising sun being just one. You’d hate to invest in a coop, birds, feed, fencing and all the rest only to have a city inspector make you tear it all out. Or, worse, fine you.
The authors of “Raising Chickens for Dummies” explain what to know about local zoning and other laws governing backyard chickens and coops. An increasing number of cities are amending their ordinances to allow residents to raise a few hens.
3. Consider the neighbors. There’s no delicate way to say this: Chicken manure stinks. The birds can be noisy. A clean, well-kept operation with tight fences that keep chickens in and neighborhood dogs out is least likely to upset neighbors.
What’s your experience with backyard chickens? Are you able to make them pay? Post your comments below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.