If you’ve been thinking about getting a few hens during quarantine, you might want to think again.
For one thing, you may not be able to find any. There’s been a bit of a run on baby chicks. Cackle Hatchery, a Missouri-based hatchery, reports business has doubled this year over last, and wait times for chicks are several weeks long.
But even if you can get your hands on a few birds, it’s worth thinking about why, exactly, you’re thinking of raising hens.
“If you go into [keeping hens] thinking you are going to save money, you won’t. You cannot produce eggs cheaper the industry can,” said Jacqueline Jacob, Ph.D., the poultry extension project manager at the University of Kentucky.
Jacob said that this is partly because commercial chicken farms use specially developed breeds, which produce more eggs than traditional, heritage-breed hens.
It’s also due to the economics of scale. A giant poultry house can buy feed by the ton — or by the thousands of tons. Sometimes the poultry company owns the farms that grow the feed. That means what they pay per pound for feed is much cheaper than what you’ll pay when buying it by the 50-pound bag at the feed store.
There are, however, other reasons to keep a backyard flock. For one thing, it offers a teeny bit of food security, which feels like a comfort in an era of bare supermarket shelves. It also allows those concerned about animal welfare a path out of the factory farming system. Plus, chickens are funny, curious creatures that provide a surprising amount of amusement.
Finally, chickens eat bugs. One paper found chickens ate an average of 81 ticks a day when out with tick-infested cattle (and the biggest tick gobbler ate more than 300 bloodsuckers). That has to be worth something — even if the actual dollar amount is hard to quantify.
Before impulse buying chicks, though, think carefully about all the costs associated with chicken keeping. And be honest with yourself: Are you really entering this hobby to save money — or because you want a new pet?
Here’s what you need to know before you buy — and how to avoid costly mistakes if you decide chickens are just what your backyard needs.
Chicks Are Cheap! (It’s a Trap!)
Your local farm store may offer chicks for as little as $2 apiece. That’s practically free!
Here’s the thing: The cheapest chicks are “straight runs,” meaning they’re male and female chicks mixed together. That means only half the birds you buy are going to lay eggs. The other half will become roosters, and if you live in the suburbs, you’ll have to find some way to, ahem, dispatch them. If you buy just female chicks — called pullets — expect to pay at least a dollar more per chick, and much more if they’re rare breeds.
It’s not just the chicks you need, though. You’re going to need special equipment to raise those babies. Unless you plan to sit on them like a mother hen, expect to buy a heat source, like a heat lamp ($25 for the lamp and bulb).
Heat lamps, however, are a fire hazard. A much safer option is a brooder plate — but that will set you back $50 or more. Then there’s the bedding, the feed and water containers, and the special chick feed.
Finally, you should plan for losses. Baby chicks are fragile. Sometimes it feels like they die if you look at them the wrong way. With every chick you lose, your eggs become a little more expensive.
These Tiny Velociraptors Are Hungry
Hens won’t start laying for about 20 weeks — but, of course, you have to feed them as they’re growing. According to a University of Kentucky publication on raising pullets, it will take about 17 pounds of feed to get a chick to egg-laying age.
Chicken feed isn’t that expensive. It will cost you about $6 for 17 pounds of feed if you’re buying the cheapest stuff at the feed store. If you plan to use organic feed, however, be prepared for nearly double that cost.
Once your gals start laying, Jacob says you can count on them eating about a quarter of a pound of feed each day. At most local farm stores, a 50-pound bag of mid-range (not the cheapest but not the fanciest) feed costs about $16.50. That works out to about 8.2 cents a day to feed each bird.
But before you get too excited about that, know that hens don’t lay an egg every day. The ovulation-to-egg process takes about 26 hours, and it doesn’t begin until 30 minutes after a hen has laid her last egg.
With proper nutrition, you should get 4-5 eggs a week from a hen. To get a dozen a week, you’ll need three birds. If it costs $1.12 to feed a hen for a week, you’re essentially paying $3.36 for a dozen eggs. While that’s cheaper than the pasture-raised eggs at Whole Foods, it’s more expensive than the bargain-basement offerings at Walmart.
Finally, laying is dependent on hens getting enough sunlight. Depending on where you live, your backyard birds may stop producing over the winter. Commercial egg farmers usually hang lights in their coops, but this adds another cost, plus an ongoing electric bill.
Still: Chickens eat all winter long, whether they’re laying or not.
Welcome to Henopause
Hens are most productive in their first two years. After that, egg production tapers, sometimes drastically. Heritage breeds (which generally eat more feed) will continue to lay, but at a slower rate, into their third and fourth years, and sometimes beyond.
Many hybrids meant just for egg production give up the ghost and never produce another egg after their second year, which means you need to invest in new chicks — and figure out what to do with your freeloaders. They truly will be freeloaders too, because according to Jacob, hens continue to eat about the same amount of feed, even when they’re not producing eggs.
For maximum return on investment, you should send your hens that stop laying to “crockpot camp.” Of course, that’s easier said than done when your birds have become beloved backyard pets.
Still want backyard birds? Here’s how to not make any costly mistakes.
- Check your neighborhood regulations, then check them again. You can’t return 6-week-old chicks to the feed store.
- Reuse whatever you can to build your coop. Housing is a huge startup cost. If you can reuse or repurpose an old shed or even a children’s playhouse, your total cost per egg will be much lower.
- Predator-proof your setup. Unfortunately, everything likes the taste of chicken. Losing your entire flock is costly — and heartbreaking. Make sure your coop and outdoor areas are secure from hawks, weasels, raccoons, dogs, and, well, pretty much everything omnivorous.
- Read up on chicken health. Hens are fragile and can get a range of diseases and ailments. The more you know about potential health problems, the faster you can spot them and hopefully fix them. Also, you’ll need to decide whether it makes sense to take your chicken to the vet, should she need treatment. For most farmers, it’s simply more cost-effective to cull a sick bird. When a hen becomes a pet, though, sometimes the math in that equation changes.
- Wash your hands after handling your birds and refrain from kissing them, Jacob warns. She expects to see an uptick in salmonella cases as backyard hens surge across the country. An unexpected ER bill would quickly make your eggs the most expensive eggs of all time.
A.C. Shilton is a contributor to Codetic.