Keeping chickens is often touted as a way for folks to save money whilst at the same time doing their bit to reject planet destroying industrialisation… Well maybe anyway. The second point is a rabbit hole I won’t go down here, but the first point, that keeping chickens saves you money in the long run, is definitely an appealing one, but just how true is it?
If you’re starting completely from scratch, keeping chickens for their eggs is definitely more expensive than simply buying eggs. Upfront costs such as the coop, hens and vet bills aside though, you’ll still pay $5 – $10 more per month per hen, than you would to buy their eggs for the month.
What Are The Upfront Costs?
Hens themselves vary in cost quite drastically depending on their age and place of origin. For example chicks are the cheapest option, starting from just a few dollars each for common breeds, however they obviously aren’t ready to start laying straight away and will need more specific care in the first few months of their lives than layers.
Ex battery hens are an option for getting layers on the cheap, these can be bought through a variety of channels, although making a donation for hens through a registered charity is often the best option. Often this can be as little as $5. Whilst taking on ex battery hens is a great thing to do for a hens that will have lived a miserable existence for the first year of their lives, you should keep in mind that it will take a few months for them to recover from being very nearly worked to death the point of laying again. Even once they have recovered, it’s unlikely they will ever produce eggs of the same quality as a non battery hen.
The option most close to a ‘plug and play’ solution is to approach a breeder who specialises in layers, and buy free range hens who are already laying. Naturally this is the most expensive option and a hen at this stage of development can cost upwards of $10 per hen, right up to $100 depending on the breed.
Vaccinating chickens kept in a small backyard operation is a subject of some debate. I believe the cost of the myriad of vaccines you could administer (at least half a dozen of them at $20 each) is outweighed by the relatively low risk of your hens suffering any major ailments, so long as you maintain good standards of cleanliness in the coop.
Vaccines are obviously of paramount importance for those raising hens/producing eggs on an industrial scale, but for the amateur poultry keeper, in my opinion it’s not worth it.
Before bringing your chickens home from a breeder you’ll need to have a suitable coop and hen house in place for them. Commercially available examples will probably set you back between $200 and $500 depending on how many features are included, and the overall build quality of the coop.
The other option is to build your own coop from scratch, which can be done very cheaply if you use a lot of reclaimed material. When I was growing up my father was an expert at this type of thing, and used the frame from an old fruit cage as the basis for the coop, which worked out great. And let’s not forget how useful old pallets can be for making just about anything!
Water and Food Feeders
A traditional galvanised steel water drinker is a must in my opinion. They’re sturdy, will survive the effects of the water freezing and, will ultimately last for many years. They typically cost about $50 dollars, which is a price worth paying if it ensures your hens stay adequately hydrated.
Food feeders can be less sturdy given that feed can’t freeze and expand like water does. A plastic feeder is more than adequate and costs about 5 bucks. One thing to remember though – keep the feeder suspended above ground (ie hung from a piece of string or wire), low enough that the chickens can still access it, but high enough to prevent mice and other vermin from getting to the feed. I often see feeders simply placed on the ground, which is a big no no.
These days I’ve opted to use something a little bit more clever for feeding, in the form of a ‘Feedomatic’ feeder. This uses a special pressure plate that the hen stands on to open a flap and reveal the feed inside. Rats aren’t heavy enough to open the device so the feeder is safe on the ground. These are a little more expensive at around $40, but they’re a lot easier to install than alternative options.
A source of calcium is also important for healthy egg shell development, I simply cut up a drinks bottle to make the container for my seashell – net cost $0!
Food – The Ongoing Cost
Typically a hen will consume about 1.5lb (0.8kg) of feed per week, which works out about $0.70 per week. Put another way a typical flock of 3 hens will cost about $10 to $15 to feed per month.
Keep in mind however, that if there’s an area of expense you might want to splash out more on, feed would be it.
It can be tempting to scrimp and get cheaper feed, but if you do you run the risk of causing health problems for your hens as a result of nutrient deficiency. Not only can this cause problems that might lead to increased veterinary bills, but it can also send your hens off lay and/or cause them to produce low quality or soft shelled eggs.
So, again, the moral of the story: don’t feed your hens cheap, low quality feed. Ensure in particular that the feed you choose has a decent protein and calcium content.
How Does The Cost of Keeping Hens For Eggs Compare to Buying Eggs?
The answer to this question of course depends on any number of different factors including what type of hen you buy/where you buy them from, and the quality of feed you provide.
If we try to take as much of a like for like comparison as we can by assuming that our backyard eggs are free range (as indeed they are if they have space to roam and are fed high quality feed), and knowing that it costs about $0.70 per week to feed such a hen, then we know that a dozen home grown eggs will cost us about $1.60, or approximately 16 days out a hen’s output (hens lay approximately 5 times in a 7 day period).
Now with this information in mind free range eggs from the store (in this case Target) actually cost far more than this at around $3 per dozen. So if we’re talking like for like, home grown wins as far as I’m concerned.
Where you won’t be able to compete is with non-free range or battery hen eggs. A dozen of the cheapest eggs from Target cost $0.79. The advantage of economies of scale on the part of the producers of such eggs make it impossible to compete with them on cost, but let’s face it, getting into keeping backyard hens is all about flying in the face of battery hen egg production anyway, so most of us are quite happy to pay more for our own eggs compared to the cheapest shop bought varieties.
Do The Benefits Outweigh the Additional Costs?
Whilst there is no denying that keeping chickens for eggs isn’t cheaper than buying low quality eggs, that’s about the only drawback, and even then I wouldn’t consider it as such. You can’t beat the superior quality of fresh, free range eggs, and when you’ve got them being produced in your own backyard the freshness you’ll enjoy is without parallel.
Home grown eggs tend to have a richer, more orange yolk than the shop bought variety, and they are oftentimes larger and may even come with a double yolk from time to time!
Besides the bountiful harvest hens provide, let’s not forget they also make endearing pets as well, their slightly odd behaviour can be entertaining, and they’re very docile around people, making them as a good of a companion as any other ‘outdoor’ or caged pet.
If you’re not totally sold on the idea of owning chickens, or you’d like to ‘try before you buy’ then a company called Rentacoop might be the answer. Covering a portion of the northeast United States from New York to Philadelphia, Rentacoop offer a hen rental service. A basic package includes 2 hens and everything you need to get started, including the coop and feed, starting at $250 for 4 weeks.
Whilst this is a very expensive way to keep hens (and I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing it this way long term) it’s a great way of seeing whether the discipline and routine of looking after hens is for you.