red chickens in a pasture | cost of raising chickens

Whether the goal is eggs or meat, folks starting out their country journey seem to go straight for chickens.  Managed well, chickens can fit right into the farm ecosystem, providing nutrient cleanup, pest control, and light tillage almost anywhere those services are needed – along with some eggs and drumsticks. But when these benefits are tied to a regular and none-too-small feed bill, there’s room for improvement.  How can we control the cost of raising chickens with low-input farming principles?

5 Ways to Reduce the Cost of Raising Chickens

The economics of raising chickens on the homestead can vary from on flock to the next. Let’s talk about how you can increase the efficiency of your flock while bringing down the cost.

#1 Keep Flock Numbers Proportionate to Your Needs

The first step to keeping your poultry bills down is proportion. Chickens are an area where homesteaders, typically frugal folks, really seem to forget themselves and go overboard.  Maybe because the birds are, individually, so small, we think it doesn’t really matter how many we have.

Keep Only the Chickens You Can Feed

Keeping our flock numbers in proportion to the farm means having only as many birds as the farm can feed.  Most homesteads or even urban households throw away enough food – table scraps, leftovers, and food prep wastes – to feed at least one, and maybe two, chickens per household member.  The kitchen waste from a family of six could generally feed a dozen laying hens with little or no supplemental feed.  So one way to bring down the price of keeping chickens is to keep only a small flock.

Keep the Chickens You Need to Feed Your Family

Looked at another way: You might decide that the right number of chickens for your farm is determined by how many eggs the farmers will eat.  By this metric, a dozen hens laying at 75% (three eggs every four days, per bird, or nine eggs per day) can probably keep a family of six in eggs most of the year, unless they are really dedicated egg-eaters.  

It’s noteworthy that the number of chickens you could raise on scraps is a good match for the number of eggs an average family might want to eat.

Small flock fo chickens

Is your flock already out-sized?  Putting some of your extra birds in the pot turns them from a liability into an asset.  The color and condition of a chicken’s legs, wattles, pelvic bones, and vents are reliable indicators of its ability to lay eggs.  It isn’t difficult to learn the signs that tell you whether a hen is laying or not. You can use this knowledge to cull your flock for non-layers, getting these unproductive birds off the gravy train.  

#2 Put the Chickens to Work

Too often the poultry keeper becomes not only a chef but housemaid and janitor to his flock.  Instead of providing a luxurious stationary hen house, a sort of chicken hotel complete with bathroom and room service, why not put your flock where their behavior and manure serve a purpose? 

Forget the hen house and pen your poultry in orchard or fallow garden spaces.  Or put your chickens over beds planted to green manures or cover crops and let them harvest what they want. Then you can shred and till the rest. The manure will end up where it belongs without any extra work from you.

#3 Grow Your Own Chicken Feed

The majority of the cost of raising chickens lies in the cost of feed.

Supposing you decide to keep more chickens than you can feed with just household scraps, you still don’t have to spend a lot on feed.  There are lots of easy, nutritious chicken feeds you can grow on the homestead, and they don’t require a whole lot of work.

Roots and squashes are crops that make good supplemental chicken feed:  things like turnips, beets, pumpkins, and winter squash.  Our personal favorites are mangel-wurzels (fodder beets) and tromboncino (a heritage zuchetta squash).  These crops fulfill the requirements of any crop to be grown for animal feed:  a heavy producer that is easy to grow, stores passively, and can be fed out without processing (cooking, shredding, etc.).  

Chickens eating homegrown food | cost of raising chickens

Mangels are an energy food that can be fed whole – just drop one in the chicken run and let the birds peck it to pieces.  We split the fat end of a tromboncino so birds can access the fat- and protein-rich seeds easily. When the seeds are gone, they’ll eat the starchy, energy-rich flesh.  

Other crops that make suitable components in our chickens’ diet include black oil and giant striped sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and buckwheat.  

#4 Feed a Balanced Diet

While chickens will eat almost any crop you grow, there is one dietary component that will probably still come up short: protein.  That’s because chickens are omnivores, requiring a certain amount of high-quality animal protein for natural health and egg, meat, and feather production.  Not to worry, though; with a little work your homestead can produce just what is needed.

The traditional homestead protein source turns out to be available on a daily basis:  Milk.  Yes, just plain milk, goat, cow, sheep, or whatever.  Chickens will drink liquid milk or whey eagerly and eat any clabbered or solid milk product.  A quart of milk is an adequate daily protein supplement to keep a dozen large-bodied layers (breeds like Barred Rocks, RIR’s, and Wyandottes) or two dozen leghorns in lay.  

Butchering offal, the inedible (by humans) or less choice organs from your home butchering projects, makes a perfect protein supplement for your poultry.  When we slaughter any animal (except chickens – we don’t encourage cannibalism), we grind or roughly chop unwanted organ meats and freeze them in small batches for addition to the poultry ration.  Beef, pork, lamb, goat, fish – almost any kind of butchering offal will delight your chickens.  

Roadkill, either fresh or maggot-ridden, is also a good offering in the hen yard.

#5 Good Poultry Flock Management

Of course, no farm animal is going to be more efficient than our management practices.  No matter how many eggs your chickens lay, if you fail to collect, cook and eat them, the work and feed you have devoted to your chickens will be wasted.  There’s no sense in raising eggs to feed the local rats and snakes.

Encourage Laying in Nest Boxes

Encourage your birds to lay in their nesting boxes, and collect eggs regularly.  You can discourage outlaying by keeping your chickens in the henhouse or poultry yard until late morning. Most hens do their laying before noon.  Or use chicken tractors for laying hens; that way, their nesting box is always handy.  Keeping nesting boxes dark and close to the ground can make them more attractive to birds that might be inclined to go find their own nesting space.  

Chicken laying in a nest box

Prevent Loss to Predators

Chickens that are taken by predators represent at least three lost benefits to the farm:  eggs, tillage/scavenging, and (in the end) a chicken dinner.  Protect your birds by giving pens, hen houses, and tractors a periodic once-over in search of weak spots where wild or domestic predators could get in.  

For aerial predators, consider keeping darker-pigmented birds like RIR’s, Speckled Sussex, or Brown Leghorns whose plumage will be less noticeable against a background of mixed pasture.  

Get wise to breed descriptions in hatchery catalogs, where ‘enthusiastic forager’ might better be expressed as ‘suicidally adventurous’.

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Reevaluate and Reduce the Cost of Raising Chickens on Your Homestead

Sometimes we just need to see our farm from a new angle.  If your homestead chickens don’t seem to be paying you back, don’t give up!  Your worst case-scenario features an unexpected chicken dinner, and what’s so bad about that? 

Maybe it’s time to give the poultry, and your poultry-keeping practices, an efficiency overhaul. With just a few adjustments, you could reduce the cost of raising chickens and make your homestead much more productive.

Beth Dougherty