In May of 2009, I made the grave mistake of showing my husband an article about backyard chickening in Portland. I had either forgotten or had not yet realized how tenacious Rob is when he decides on a New Hobby, and for the next three days, in every single conversation (including email exchanges, IM exchanges and pillow talk), he included some mention of raising chickens. I about lost my mind, and I did lose my temper, and I vetoed the idea of backyard chickens, and the whole thing became a fiasco.
Fast forward two years, and all is worked out. We reached a Grand Compromise: No birds in the house, and we start with just three. Now, everyone’s happy, including our three Ladies: Gertie, Winnie and Dot.
Full names: Gertrude the Red Mix (she’s a chicken-mutt), Winnifred the Barred Rock and Dorothy the Rhode Island Red. They coo and cluck and scratch and eat our bugs and dandelions and lay us eggs.
And now we’re planning to add another three Ladies to our little flock, so it seemed like a good time to evaluate our investment. Is it worthwhile to raise a few chickens for their eggs? (Entertainment value/small-talk fodder is just a bonus.)
The store-bought eggs contain…eggs. With white shells, but that really doesn’t matter: shell color is a function of chicken breed, and has no effect on the egg inside.
Our ladies produce eggs (duh) in different shades of brown. We raise them following the advice of Raising Chickens for Dummies, by Kimberly Willis, with Rob Ludlow.
To raise chickens, you need several important things:
- Chickens – our Ladies were raised from day-old chicks to pullets (young chickens, old enough to live outside but not old enough to start laying yet – teenagers, basically) by a family that runs an organic farm. When the Ladies were still Little Ladies, they came home to live with us.
- Shelter – in the interest of saving time, we bought a commercially produced coop-and-run combo, called the Eglu Go. It has worked exceptionally well for us thus far. However, we’ll be building our own coop-and-run soon in order to accommodate the three new additions. (You can bet that’ll be a DIY or Buy post!)
- Food – the Ladies eat a commercial feed, in addition to the bugs that wander into their run and plenty of our table scraps: apple cores, strawberry hulls, cucumber seeds, green bean ends, wilted lettuce, old peaches, etc.
- Water – they drink water.
- Attention – ladies like attention. This holds true even when the ladies in question are chickens. Each morning, Rob collects the eggs, tops off their feed, freshens their water, gives them scraps or corn. Then he cleans and stores the eggs. Once every week or two, he cleans out their coop, gives them a bit of mulch in their run and adds straw to their nest area. We both talk to them in the morning… because ladies like attention.
- Winter protection – we protect them as best we can. First, we only take in hardy breeds that deal well with winter. Then, we protect the north side of their run with bags of mulch, to stop the wind and keep some of the snow out. We also run a small heated wire through the coop, to keep it a little warmer in there, and put a submersible heater into their water container, to keep it liquid. Last but not least, we close them up every night, to help the coop retain their body heat.
Time and Cost Comparison
Regular store eggs last year reached a high of $1.35 per dozen Grade AA Large eggs. That’s just slightly less than $0.11 per egg. You can of course spend much more than that, but for the most basic, traditional eggs, that’s what you might have paid. They take no time to find and choose – although, you do have to check them to make sure they aren’t cracked.
For our eggs: I estimate that we’ve gotten about 520 eggs – grade unknown – from the Ladies since their first egg last July, which is 43.3 dozen eggs. (Rob was, for a long time, tracking their egg production, but kind of stopped. So it’s an estimate, but based on their historical production rates.)
We paid the farm $8 per chicken to raise them for us. We’ve spent about $120 on food and corn/oyster shell. We paid $520 for the coop and delivery (yeah, expensive, but also, very, very easy to assemble and keep clean.) The heating wire for the coop in winter cost $17, and the water heater was $10. Total investment: $691.
However, we do sell the eggs to a few friends/family for $1 per half-dozen (this is hobby, not business), which means the Ladies have also made $16 in egg sales for us.
That all works out to (an estimated) $1.30 per egg, or $15.60 per dozen. Yeesh.
Rob spends about 5-8 minutes every morning taking care of the Ladies, and another 15 minutes every week or two cleaning out their coop and adding mulch to their run.
This is where DIY chickens starts to look a little better. Store-bought eggs come from chickens that live pretty sad lives. The cheapest eggs come from chickens that live in small, sometimes stacked, indoor cages. Cage-free means the chickens don’t live in cages, but it doesn’t mean they have much space – they’re still crowded into barns. Organic means the hens are fed feed that’s been grown without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but it doesn’t mean they’re antibiotic free or that their living conditions are superb.
I’m going to brag a little: Our Ladies have lots of space, lots of access to the weather (for better or worse) and while they aren’t organic, they have a varied diet of grains, fruits, veggies and protein. Frankly, they eat better than many people. We can guarantee that they’re antibiotic free. I can’t promise that they’re happy, because can chickens even be happy? But their needs are met and their lives are pretty stress-free.
To test the eggs, we traded a few of ours for some store-bought ones from a friend, and fried ‘em up for breakfast. Rob and I both tasted one from our Ladies, and one from the store.
We agreed that the Ladies’ eggs had a somewhat creamier flavor and buttery-ier texture. I’d say that we’re biased (because we are) but three of our “customers” have independently confirmed that our eggs taste better than the store-bought eggs. Yay. They really are delish.
5.5 – Caring for chickens isn’t hard, but it is a time commitment. And a daily, in-the-morning time commitment… and I’m not a morning person. Eggs should be collected daily, and if it’s cold in the winter, the Ladies need to be closed up at night and let out in the morning. People are willing to chicken-sit if you bribe them with eggs but it’s still a bit of a PITA. Also, we made the mistake of putting the Ladies’ coop right by the house, so we’re often woken up at 6 a.m. by Ladies trumpeting their egg-laying success. Don’t ever let anyone tell you all hens are quiet. Winnie proves that they’re not.
DIY or Buy?
This is a Buy. For the time, money and effort involved in raising chickens, you’d be better served by finding a local farm (maybe a CSA? A local backyard chickener?) that provides good living conditions for its Ladies and sells the eggs. You’ll may end up paying $4-ish for a dozen, but for 43 dozen at that price, you’d still only pay $172. You’ll spend less than backyard chicken raising, will still have tasty eggs, and will know that the Ladies who made them live decent lives. And you’ll get more sleep.
We, however, will continue to have backyard chickens, because Rob adores them and we weren’t in it to save money. So, here’s the real question: What do we name our next three Ladies?