If there is one thing almost universal to all homesteaders, it is the keeping of a flock of laying hens. Most of the time chickens are the first – sometimes the only – livestock on the farm. What says ‘homesteading’ more eloquently than a basket of newly-gathered eggs, still warm from the nest? It’s almost iconic of the whole idea of Grow-Your-Own and Do-It-Yourself. So how can it be that the question is so hotly debated: Can you really save money by raising chickens for eggs rather than buying them?
Can You Save Money Raising Chickens for Eggs?
Is it cheaper in the long run to raise your own chickens for eggs as opposed to buying eggs at the grocery store?
Opinions about the economics of raising chickens are anything but unanimous, with many folks vehement on either side. How can there be so much disagreement on such a simple subject?
When you take it apart, though, all the controversy is easy enough to account for: We’re not really talking about one issue, but a whole lot of them.
Factors that Affect the Cost of Keeping Chickens
All flocks are not created equal.
First, chicken flocks come in all shapes, sizes, and types: large flock or small; big birds, leghorns, or banties; penned, free range, or tractored, to name just a few variations. And the intentions folks have for their flocks are just as diverse. To make any sense out of the question, it’s necessary first to define terms.
For simplicity, let’s consider two basic intentions for a homestead flock: There is the small flock intended to produce eggs merely for family use; then there is the larger flock, intended to generate a surplus of eggs, some for the house, some to sell with the idea of generating income to offset the cost of buying and maintaining the birds.
Then there are all kinds of ways of housing, maintaining and feeding a flock of laying hens. You can build a shed or chicken tractor of scrap lumber and salvaged chicken wire and roofing metal that costs you nothing, or you can buy materials at the lumber yard for building a Gallic Taj Mahal– or you can come up with something in between. Chickens can be penned full-time, part-time, or not at all, or inched across the horizon in a sliding chicken tractor.
Finally, what they eat and how they are fed can vary all the way from scavenging their own livings, to certified organic/soy-and-corn-free/vegetarian commercial feeds that cost several dollars a pound. Feed is the single biggest expense for virtually every laying flock. Come to think of it, it’s no wonder opinions on the economy of egg-raising vary so widely.
Feeding Different Types of Chicken Flocks
Let’s take a look at a couple of different chicken flock feeding scenarios… feeding a small-scale backyard flock that provides eggs for one family and feeding a larger-scale chicken flock that provides eggs and profit.
Small Scale Flock Feeding
In the first instance, let’s consider the Small Flock Family (SFF) These folks want just want eggs for the table, and they don’t want to spend any more than they absolutely have to to get them.
They save all the kitchen scraps from the household, overlooking nothing of food value, including table leavings, the last of the milk in the toddler’s cereal bowl, the scrapings of burned rice from the bottom of a pot, mysteries from the back of the refrigerator, and all the peels, cores, rinds, etc., including meat scraps, that city folks put down the garbage grinder.
Of course, as homesteaders they also keep a garden, so during the gardening season they have lots of waste vegs and all the plant parts not generally consumed by humans, and they offer these to the poultry as well. They keep only as many backyard chickens as they think their scraps will feed: maybe two per person in the household.
Large Scale Flock Feeding
In the second instance, there is the Large Flock Family (LFF) who keep, say, 4 times as many birds as the Small Flock Family, and in addition to feeding them household scrap and garden wastes like the SFF, they keep a hopper feeder full of commercial feed to make up the bulk of their flock’s diet. These are the folks who will be selling extra eggs to the folks at work and church.
For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume that no one is buying gold-plated birds, but standard chickens that, when they get past laying, will make carcasses worth eating. The value of the meat is equal to the money the family has in the bird, so we’ll discount the cost of the chickens themselves. We’re homesteaders, after all: we don’t waste, and we’re not afraid of butchery.
Compare the Cost of Feeding Each Flock
So where are we? Well, the eggs from the smaller flock, however many there are, will be, for all intents and purposes, free. Household scraps, even in a non-gardening household, will probably support 1 – 2 birds for each person in the family. The more scraps, the more chickens; the more nutritious the family diet, the more eggs produced.
Assuming equal amounts and values of household scraps in each family, the eggs of the LFF will cost the price of feed for 3/4 of the birds in the flock. Depending on what kind of feed the family buys, this can mean eggs might cost from $1.50 – $2.00 per dozen or as high as several times that much. Selling surplus eggs will offset, probably even recoup, the cost of feed; it’s very possible that the LFF will make some money, at least some of the time.
Over the course of a year, egg production will vary considerably, naturally, as a factor of day length, weather, and the age/state of the birds, among other things. When the rate of lay is low, the SFF probably will run short of eggs before the LFF does; some of the time both families may go without.
Which flock is more cost-efficient?
So who is ahead of the game?
Well, it depends! If the LFF succeeds in selling all its extra eggs at a premium price, they’ll certainly make a profit, but generally the higher the price you can get for the eggs, the more expensive the feed required (people who pay premium prices expect organic eggs from chickens fed organic feed). Still, they’re making money. On the other hand, the SFF gets free eggs no matter how chicken feed prices and egg prices vary.
Then there’s the matter of labor. Both families have to take out the kitchen scraps (a task any good composting homesteader would do anyway); both families have to haul the garden wastes to wherever the chickens are. So far they are equal. But other tasks – supplying water, shopping for and providing supplemental feed, cleaning up after the birds, collecting, cleaning, and storing (not to mention advertising and marketing) eggs – will either be bigger jobs for the LFF, or theirs exclusively. For most jobs, the LFF will be working four times as hard as the SFF.
On the other hand, if the two families are using the chickens’ scratching and scavenging as an asset in their gardens – an excellent idea – the LFF has a lot more of this good thing. If the work of their chickens reduces weeding, pest control, and fertilization needs in their garden, then maybe their daily chicken chores are offset by diminished garden work.
Either way, we have folks who are raising eggs of known quality for $0 per dozen (because their feed costs nothing) to not very much a dozen or even for a profit (if they sell their surplus eggs). They are in control of their birds’ diets, so they know that they have healthy eggs.
And since both flocks are receiving all of the food wastes from the household, plus garden surplus, at least some of their egg production is independent of market availability of feed. Sounds like a win-win-win.
So where’s the controversy? Why are there voices arguing that home-raised eggs are less economical than commercial ones?
Hindrances to Saving Money Raising Chickens for Eggs
Since spending more for premium-quality chicken feed lets you charge more for the eggs you sell, you might think there would be a concensus that raising chickens for egg-laying purposes had good economic sense to it. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a feed-price-to-egg-price ratio.
What makes a flock UN-economical? There are a lot of answers. Here are a few:
Too many birds.
If you raise more eggs than you have a market for, you can’t use them to generate a profit. Paying for feed to grow eggs and then feeding the eggs to the pigs gives the piggies a nice boost of protein, yes, but at a really high price. You’d be better off feeding the chicken feed to the piggies direct.
Again, too many birds.
If feeding chickens uses up time you intended to devote to your law practice, your 15 minutes of chores may be costing you $250/day, conservatively. Of course, if feeding chickens is so relaxing it substitutes for therapy, that daily 15 minutes might be saving you $250/day.
The wrong birds.
There are breeds and breeders that produce a reliable laying hen, and breeds (and breeders) that do not. Buy Polish cockletops to wow your neighbors if you like, but if you want to feel satisfied you are getting your money’s worth, don’t forget to count the thrill of impressing the locals as part of the profit in your flock; save money buying chicks from an unknown source, but remember that not all chicks are created equal, and bargain chicks may have bargain problems.
Too little care.
If your hen house is raided by a fox, raccoon, possum, ferret, or what have you because you didn’t shut the door at night, each hen you lose can represent some hundreds of eggs forgone, plus a chicken dinner, not to mention the work that hen might have done over a lifetime in the garden or pasture. Raising chickens isn’t terribly expensive, but feeding chickens to wildlife is.
Again, too little care.
Chickens, like any other livestock, need regular care for health and productivity. If you are neglectful or careless in your husbandry you can’t expect your animals to perform better than you do. Birds who are fed erratically will lay even more erratically. And eggs you don’t bother to collect don’t do you a bit of good, not to mention attracting rats and snakes.
Back to too many birds
Failing to cull unproductive chickens is probably the most common way homesteaders increase the cost of producing eggs. There are signs, easily learned, that let you determine with reasonable accuracy which of your birds are laying and which are not. Putting those birds in the pot counts as profit to the homestead; feeding them for no eggs counts as a deficit.
Too much work
Chores are chores because they have to be done over and over again. Chores that link a small daily job to a direct benefit (feed chickens/collect eggs) are swiftly over and usually satisfying. Multiply the size of that job, however, and now the daily obligation may not be worth the money you hope to make. In other words, raising eggs for a few dollars in profit may grow irksome after a while.
Yes, there are lots of ways you can make poultry keeping impractical, but common sense will point out most of your mistakes.
Increase Profitability of a Backyard Chicken Flock
For the really ambitious chicken keeper, there are many ways to increase the productivity, hence profitability, of a home-laying flock. When we use chickens in moveable pens to till, manure, and de-bug garden beds and compost bins, we get more services for the same set of chores and inputs.
When we allow a small flock to free range behind our pastured animals, we get pest control and nutrient spread even while our birds scavenge some of their calories. We can even grow some easy, highly productive chicken-food-crops so we can keep more chickens without spending more money on food: root crops like mangel-wurzels, and cucurbits like the super-squash tromboncino (see previous HOA blog posts on these crops).
Check out the book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery, for more chicken food crops; and there are still others we hope to share with you in future posts.
You Can Save Money Raising Chickens for Eggs
Well, a homestead family can produce eggs from food and garden scraps, if it keeps the numbers small. With two chickens per household member, a family can keep itself in eggs much or all of the year, at no expense.
On the other hand, as long as feed is available for the purpose (the trucking industry is still running, for example), a larger flock can be managed so as to keep expenses small; you might even make money some of the time, if you don’t count your chore time at too high a cash value. In this case, it will be important to keep good accounts, though, so you know when the ratio of feed price to egg price reaches an unacceptably high number and it’s time to butcher some birds.
And the auxiliary benefits of poultry – tillage, scavenging services, manuring – are of value on any homestead, rightly applied.
So what’s there to argue about? When ARE store-bought eggs cheaper than home-grown? It’s up to you; it turns out expensive eggs are usually the fault of management, not biology.
Shawn and Beth Dougherty have been farming together since the 1980s, for the last twenty years in eastern Ohio, where they manage 27 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’, as well as a monastery farm of 100 acres. They write and travel on farming, dairying, farm-raised animal foods, and off-grid captured water systems. Shawn & Beth are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.