How expensive are chickens to raise?
October 21, 2009 11:22 AM   Subscribe

What can I expect (mostly financially) from raising hens as pets?

A Facebook friend has me really excited about the idea of raising a couple of hens in my backyard. I like the idea of fresh eggs and pest control, and I figure the kids will get a kick out of them.

On the plus side, they seem like pretty low-maintenance animals, and my city's laws are strict but doable (inexpensive permit required, must have your coop no less than 75 feet from neighbor dwellings, inspection required by the city, no roosters). My only concern now is cost -- how much on average does it cost to feed and care for an average hen? We're doing fairly well but are saving very aggressively and live pretty close to the bone, and of course I don't want to totally screw up our budget. Any other non-financial gotchas I should be aware of would also be appreciated.

Also, what varieties do you recommend? I'd like good eggs, but just as important is an even temperament, with bonus points for looking awesome. We're in central Arkansas, if that matters.
posted by middleclasstool to Pets & Animals (65 answers total) 127 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You can buy a 25 lb sack of chicken feed for about $7. This is cheap enough that it might become a cliche.

You can often feed a chicken on kitchen and table scraps. Disturbingly, there are few things that chickens like to eat as much as chicken.

Your main costs will be the initial coop or pen. If you do not protect your chicken investment, the rats, possums, 'coons, or other varmints will kill them and eat them.

Based on my own chicken expenses, I have joked about the first year egg production as costing $1 per egg.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 11:37 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Chickens might be the easiest animal I've ever kept (and I've had many, many). Feed is cheap, so get the good stuff (organic and not full of molasses, which they'll like and which is perfectly OK, but their poop from it is AWFUL). Grit and oyster shell, too.

I started with 9 hens and am down to 7 now. These prices are based on 9.
Cheap, non-organic, crap feed, 50 lbs for a month: $12
Gold-plated organic locally ground feed, 50 lbs for a month: $30

50 lbs of chicken scratch, which I use as bait when I call them in for the evening, a cup a day: $9, will last 2-3 months at least.

Grit/oyster shell: cheep cheep.

I have three types of chickens: Ameraucanas (the blue egg-layers), Rhode Island Reds, and black sex-links. The Ameraucanas are skittish, the Reds are assertive, and the black sex-links are cuddly.

Having eggs ALL THE TIME is pretty awesome. I'm never without a protein source for dinner. And our chickens roam all day long and eat all kinds of bugs and things, and the eggs are the tastiest I've ever had.

I love my chickens. Good luck!
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:45 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wahahaha! I bought four baby chicks last March, and have carefully tracked my expenses. Currently I am running at a cost of $4.41 per egg.

I built my own chicken tractor. (Three, actually, as the first two turned out to be lousy. I is not a carpenter.) Approximately $600 went to construction materials, which are more expensive than you would think. To keep costs down, stalk your local building materials store's "cull bin," where they sell scratch and dent boards at a steep discount.

Counting construction materials, feed, and other incidentals, I have dropped $855.80 on the chickens since I bought them in March. They began laying in mid-August, and have laid 194 eggs so far.

Of course the thing about chickens it that your marginal costs of production are low. Mine have access to turf (which they eat) and scraps, which helps keep their food costs down. I buy Layena which is $12/bag, plus shavings for their coop, and have the occasional expense like a new waterer or a 50 pound sack of grit.

My total costs over the last 4 months (i.e. after construction was completed) have been $146.95, or $9.18 per chicken per month.

(Please note these costs do not include the $208 in medical bills from the wrist that I broke while shifting the chicken tractor in May.)

I love my chickens, they're a thousand times more entertaining than I ever would have thought, and the eggs are delicious. But make no mistake, these will be pets first and providers of breakfast second. If all you want is cheap eggs, buy them from the store. Seriously.

Further reading:

Raising Chickens For Dummies

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens

Chickens In Your Backyard


Backyard Chickens chock full of information, chicken coop and tractor ideas, and a truly awesome forum - both to post questions, and to find answers to past questions.

Henderson's Chicken Breeds Chart
posted by ErikaB at 11:58 AM on October 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I think we spent $200 on startup materials for the coop, feeders and a fenced in run, although you could certainly do it for a lot cheaper.

The chicks are pretty inexpensive as well, although if you want to get a variety of chicks, you may have to mail order them. They're shipped overnight, so that will set you back about $40.

Feed, as mentioned above, is really inexpensive. I guess they don't call it chickenfeed for nothing. We also give our chickens vegetable peelings, stale bread, leftovers, weeds. They eat pretty much anything they can fit in their mouths.

We've got an Easter egger (Ameraucana mutt), a Barred Rock, a Silver Lace Wyandotte and some sort of red chicken from Tractor Supply. We had a red sex link, but she was so loud and aggressive we traded up for the Tractor Supply chicken.

Following on erikab's recommendations, which are excellent, is a great resource for information and descriptions of various chickens. They're also really cool about answering all the dumb questions we asked before we ordered our chicks.
posted by electroboy at 12:07 PM on October 21, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I want to stress that I'm not looking at this as a profit-making venture, I just don't want costs to be too high to be worth it for us right now. I want these hens for eggs, but I also want them as pets.

$600 for a chicken tractor? Dang. Suddenly $500 for an Eglu doesn't sound so bad to me.

$9.18 per chicken per month.

Cheep cheep.

Do they need regular vet visits for shots or the like, or just let them do their thing until they get sick?
posted by middleclasstool at 12:10 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: Ugh -- was just clicking back to this tab to copy my comment in case I lost it accidentally ... and closed the tab instead of focusing on it. Oh well, here we go again.

It depends on what you want to feed. We feed certified organic grains, the price of which fluctuates, sometimes significantly. Right now our layer feed is $14-ish for a 44-lb bag. Last summer it was $28. That sucked. I don't know how much non-organic, or even less-fancy organic, would cost. But, we chicken-sat for some hens once who ate non-organic processed crumble, and they pooped STINKY. Way stinkier than our hens.
You can lower feed costs by letting the chickens forage for bugs and grass, but that may not be possible with your city's laws. You can also save money by feeding them kitchen scraps. Sometimes you can get leftover expired produce for free from the grocery store. If you have friends who compost, ask them to save it for the hens instead. Etc. Some folks come up with a diet exclusively of produce/meat, but that's too much work for me at this point. Farmgirl Susan describes how she does it in the comments on this post.
Here's another page on saving money on feed.

Chicks need different kinds of feeders and waterers than grown hens, so there's that expense, but you might be able to find it used on Craigslist, or if you buy new, sell yours on CL if you don't plan to raise more chicks in the future. You'll also need heat lamps and a place to brood them if you get them as chicks (which you should, they are so cute and you can socialize them). For brooding we have used a Rubbermaid tub and then upgraded to a plastic dog crate with the two halves laid next to each other and ziptied to make one long narrow run. That was enough room for 4 chicks until they got feathered out enough to go outside. So you might be able to brood them in things you have around the house already, or you might have to get something new, but it doesn't have to be fancy.
You'll need wood shavings for the brooder, and either wood shavings or straw, whichever is cheaper, for the floor of the coop.

You'll want to start at least one compost pile if you don't have one already. You might want more than one depending on how often you muck the coop. Chicken manure + bedding makes fantastic compost. You might be able to get folks on Craigslist or similar to come take it away, if you don't garden. Might even be able to sell it for a little bit of money.
Notes on composting chicken manure.
You might also like the deep litter method, where you don't muck the coop, but instead let it compost in place, for several weeks or up to a year. We do ours that way over the winter as it is very damp here so 1) the coop gets soggy fast and 2) mucking in the pouring rain sucks. We spread lime (the mineral, not the fruit) to keep the smell down, and just lay fresh straw really regularly. Costs more in bedding but less in labor.

Things other than feed that chickens need to put in their mouths: oyster shell or other source of calcium (if you make cheese or know anyone who does, you can feed the hens the leftover whey). If they don't get to forage in the dirt on their own, you'll need to provide grit for their crops. Having chicken scratch is handy as you can train them VERY easily to come when you shake the bottle/jar of scratch. Also you might want to have diatomaceous earth on hand to put on their skin in case you get a mites problem. All of these things come pretty cheaply.

We decided with our first flock of hens that we were drawing the line at paying for vet bills. We'll buy antibiotic and deworming juice for their water, and whatnot, but won't pay for a vet. Many folks will pay for a vet. Either way is fine, but making the decision up front will let you at least know what you're in for. Also if you decide not to, you should be prepared to put a hen down if she gets sick or injured.
Here's a page on basic poultry first aid. You might want to have some stuff around like Rooster Booster, which is a dark-colored herbal/medicinal paste that you put on any injuries to keep the hens from picking at each others' wounds. If blood is visible, it'll get picked at and made worse. This stuff covers it up.

Re: breeds: Our first flock, last spring, was 1 Dominique, 1 Silver-laced Wyandotte, 2 Rhode Island Reds and 2 Black Australorps. Then this year we got 4 more Wyandottes and 3 Ameraucanas. We since lost 2 of the original flock and 1 Ameraucana. I really like having a mixed flock, aesthetically and for personality and egg differences. The Wyandottes are sassy (and so pretty!). The Ameraucanas are shy (though we didn't really socialize them and also they are the youngest in the coop). The Reds are curious and the Australorps are bossy. The Dominique was a loner. Last year, with 6, we got 5-6 eggs a day in summer and 2-4 in winter. This year with 10 layers we have 4-7 eggs a day, but the first flock is getting close to molting so I'm not sure what we should expect from them at this point.
Here is a fantastic breed chart including personality, preferred weather, and laying characteristics.
This is a simpler list that links to more info about each breed. They also have a breed recommendation calculator.

Another note ... if you can have ducks, we love our Khaki Campbell ducks. They lay an egg a day, every day, year-round. They do make more mess, and are loud when juveniles, but quiet as adults. But they are total champs when it comes to laying. And they loooove slugs, if that's an issue in your climate.

Oh, and, last but not least, if you have surplus eggs you might be able to sell them to friends and coworkers.

I love backyard poultry.

On preview: We built 6x12 chicken tractors out of 2x4s, PVC pipe, and chicken wire, plus plywood on one end, a lot of zipties, and a tarp, for about $150. If stationary, it would not be secure against any predator who could dig. If you are building a coop instead of a tractor, you'll want to line the floor with chicken wire to keep diggers out (though rats get in anyway, boo). Our house came with a coop so I'm not sure how much that would cost, but googling around would be informational I'm sure.
posted by librarina at 12:22 PM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We just finished building our coop, which, admittedly, is pretty nice, but is not huge (5 x 10). It cost about $850 but is built to last and is a pleasing addition to the back yard. We have only average construction skills. If an Eglu really costs $500, I think it would be well, well worth it to build your own real coop for the same money or slightly more. That's just crazy. We actually had a lot of fun building ours, and the chickens will be much happier than they would be in a tiny thing like that.

The chicks were bought from a local show breeder and cost $5 each. Their organic feed is $30 for a 50 lb bag. Before I found the organic feed, I bought the Purina for $17 a bag. Then there's the feeder, waterer, bedding, and soon there will be the waterer heater. It all adds up. By my rough calculations, I should break even in about 2-1/2 years.
posted by HotToddy at 12:23 PM on October 21, 2009

Well, it's $600 for three chicken tractors, for one thing. (Sigh.) The final version is 4x4x6, with an enclosed coop inside. I posted a tour here.

Those Eglus look small, and don't seem very predator-proof! Lots of predators out here, including the neighbor's dogs, one of whom trashed the first chicken tractor on its launch day.

I just came back to update the numbers, since I realized I hadn't updated my tally in a few days. It's 204 eggs, for a cost per egg of $4.14. Woo!
posted by ErikaB at 12:25 PM on October 21, 2009

In case you missed it, this is a very entertaining NYer story about the new popularity of raising chickens.
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:42 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: As many have mentioned, feed is cheap. Breeds: I love my Silkies (looks and personality)! They're like the poodles of the chicken world. I can pick them up and tote them around and they could care less. They lay smaller eggs, but are consistent. I also love my Giant Blue Cochin.

A useful site is Backyard Chickens. Hope this helps.
posted by bolognius maximus at 1:23 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: Ditto on everything said above. After construction, you won't notice a blip in your budget with 2-3 chickens, especially if you allow them to roam (i.e., subsist partly by foraging). I spent less than $300 on my coop. The coop itself is made from plywood and 2x4s, while the run is made from 1x4s and 1/2" chicken wire. If I had it to do over, I'd use 1/4" hardware cloth instead of the 1/2" chicken wire, which isn't small enough to keep the rats out.

When choosing breeds, think about weather. I had a buff orpington who did great in our mild winters, but really didn't like temperatures above 95. They're a very sweet, docile breed and are on the large side. Every RIR or RIR cross I've ever known has been, as fiercecupcake said, 'assertive.' That's not a bad thing -- someone's going to come out on top. But they're full of personality, for sure. They're very reliable layers and, in my experience, couldn't care less about the weather.

Non-financial concerns = predators. When you build your coop, bury hardware cloth 8" down and 8" out from the base of the coop and run. This will keep raccoons/coyotes/whatever from digging under.

To librarina: the first flock is getting close to molting so I'm not sure what we should expect from them at this point.

They'll stop laying when they molt, and they'll look so pitiful that you'll worry about the neighbors calling animal control. They stop laying so that all that energy can go into making feathers, not eggs. I feed mine a supplemental high-protein diet when they molt (tofu, boiled eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt) -- which they loooove, and which seems to get them through it faster.

Also to middleclasstool -- egg production goes way down in the winter. (Again, that's energy conservation.) Just so you know.

If you have the option (and I don't know why you wouldn't), get chicks that are very, very young. First pair were 3 days old when I got them. They lived in a TV box, with heat lamp, in my office for their first 6 weeks. They loved to be handled and cuddled and would sit on my lap on the couch. This translated into adult hens who would follow me around the yard. My second pair were older when I got them, and aren't nearly as interactive.

If you're going to do it, might as well REALLY make pets of them and get them as infants.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:31 PM on October 21, 2009

Ugh -- was just clicking back to this tab to copy my comment in case I lost it accidentally ... and closed the tab instead of focusing on it. Oh well, here we go again.

Might be painful to hear at this point, but you can re-open recently closed tabs in Firefox (and likely other browsers too). In Firefox, it's in the History menu, or by hitting Ctrl+Shift+T.

posted by Earl the Polliwog at 1:55 PM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

or right clicking on the tab bar and choosing Undo Close Tab, sometimes text is saved, sometimes not. Ctrl A Ctrl C before leaving the text tab!
posted by titanium_geek at 2:25 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just echoing the sentiment that you absolutely need a solid enclosure, don't skimp on this. Our first batch of hens were gruesomely slaughtered by raccoons (we're talking chicken parts all over the place, looked like a scene out of Brain Dead). They removed bricks surrounding the bottom of the run, dug under, and undid the latch on the coop itself. Not kidding. We lock it now with a padlock.

Also, I recommend getting pullets that you know to be female. I've found the error rate on sexed chicks to be unacceptably high, which is another waste of money if you can't have/don't want a rooster.
posted by cj_ at 3:02 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: Others have covered the cost aspects pretty extensively above, so I figured I'd address the "pet" aspects. We have a Gold Laced Wyandotte, a Barred Plymouth Rock , a Buff Orpington and a Rhode Island Red. They're all reasonably friendly and pretty good layers, but the Buff Orpington is by far the most pet-like. That's her on my shoulder in my profile pic-- and she just flew up there of her own accord because she's all friendly-like. She loves to be picked up, petted, etc. It's like having a particularly dumb puppy who also makes snacks for you.

Additionally, I'll second those who suggested they you get them as day-old chicks and raise them indoors under a heat lamp for a couple of months. They kick up a lot of dust, admittedly, but if they grow up being constantly held and handled, they'll be much more "pet-like." Seriously-- ours just follow me around the yard whenever we let them out of their coop.

One final thing-- if you live in an area with raccoons, I'd advise against using chicken wire in the coop. I know a couple of people who've lost chickens due to raccoons tearing through chicken wire. Use hardware cloth. It fucking sucks to work with, but no predator short of a bear is getting through it.
posted by dersins at 3:05 PM on October 21, 2009 [10 favorites]

. I've found the error rate on sexed chicks to be unacceptably high, which is another waste of money if you can't have/don't want a rooster.

We got 6 sexed chicks assuming one of them would die in infancy and one would probably turn out to be a rooster. We were right. But the money wasn't wasted (each chick was like three bucks). RIP Fluffy Toes, hello dinner.
posted by dersins at 3:10 PM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Caution, dersins's second link not for the squeamish.
posted by HotToddy at 3:20 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I should have specified that the "Fluffy Toes" link, while non-bloody, is in fact a photo of the recently removed head of Fluffy Toes.
posted by dersins at 3:22 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: Or, if you want sexed chicks but you don't want any risk, buy a sex link breed. Typically what you find at the feed store is either red sex link or black sex link. They go by a number of names - Red Star, Black Star, Cinnamon Queen - my local feed store carried them under the eloquent and evocative name, "Black and Gold Sex Link."

These are chicks with sexual dimorphism such that the females and males are different colors at hatching. Removes any ambiguity from the results.

And they make pretty good pets - I have a Rhode Island Red, two Buff Orpingtons, and one BAGSL. The BAGSL (Dolly) is in the middle of the pack as far as both temperament and egg laying. Not as great as the orps (Martha and Ethel), but not as "difficult" as the Rhodie (Harriet).

Be aware that if you decide to skip the drama of raising chicks and buy fully-grown hens, they will probably be hens at the end of their peak laying days. By 3-4 years egg production begins to taper off, which is when the production level chicken rancher will sell them. Not such a bargain, and the older hens can carry a variety of diseases.

Plus, baby chicks are cute, why wouldn't you want to get you some of this?
posted by ErikaB at 3:26 PM on October 21, 2009

Plus, baby chicks are cute, why wouldn't you want to get you some of this?

Or this!

(n.b. no baby chicks were harmed in the taking of that picture)
posted by dersins at 3:30 PM on October 21, 2009

...And in addition to being cute to look at, their little peeps are freakin' adorable.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:09 PM on October 21, 2009

Wow I love this place sometimes. Can I piggyback here to ask if anyone has experience with dogs and chickens cohabitating? Our dogs' fenced yard would make a great chicken run, I think, but I'm sure there might be major problems I'm not foreseeing. But we have raccoons around here, and I was thinking dog presence might be somewhat protective.
posted by Mngo at 4:17 PM on October 21, 2009

mingo, our malamute has immediately killed every chicken that made it over the (quite tall) fence into her yard. After 3 lost chickens, we stopped letting them free-range and built a run. I think this depends a lot on the dog and how much socialization they've had with chickens, so your mileage may vary. Malamutes are known to be not good around birds. I've heard of them living peacefully together, so it's possible.

Also, about the sexing thing.. my completely anecdotal experience was pretty negative, but this could be chalked up to the having a less than skilled breeder. Raising them from chicks is pretty cool, just be sure to have a backup plan for the likely rooster. If you have kids and are raising them as pets (i.e. giving them names, etc), making a snack out of them might not be an option. Some suppliers will take the rooster back for no charge.
posted by cj_ at 4:34 PM on October 21, 2009

Response by poster: WANT
posted by middleclasstool at 4:51 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh yeah, dersins mentioned the dust, which I forgot to say. We were brooding our first batch inside and we hit a point a few weeks in where we were suddenly fighting all the time about how it was so dusty and why aren't you keeping it cleaner in here, you did a crappy job dusting, etc. -- but it was the chicks. I don't know if it's them or the feed or the shavings or what, but they create a LOT of dust.

We have gotten all of ours as sexed chicks, and have had no problem yet with 13 chicks purchased. Also 7 ducklings were sexed correctly. But it's a chance you take. All those babies came from Privett Hatchery in New Mexico. Their website is not very informational, but that's who our feed store orders from. I think they do individual orders, though there may be a minimum. I've heard some feed stores will take them back if they are roosters?

Also, the heat lamp(s) that you'll need for the chicks can be reused in the coop in the wintertime to keep their water from freezing, if you are in a climate where things just barely freeze. We had about a week of 20° last winter -- extremely unusual for the Pacific Northwest -- and the red heat lamp bulb pointed at the side of the metal 3-gallon waterer kept it just warm enough not to freeze. If you have real winter, with snow and stuff, you'll need something heavier-duty.

I did un-close the tab but the comment was not there. I think it told me something nice about how my comment was lost. I even hit back a couple of times but I didn't get anything. I had hit preview already; maybe it's different if you're on preview vs if you're on the regular question page?

On preview again -- we raised ours in various rooms of the house, often on the floor (with chicken wire over the top of the container). The dogs -- two border-collie-ish mutts, one maybe also German Shepherd, the other maybe pitbull, cattle dog, ?? -- were curious but seemed to identify the chicks as baby-critters-for-protecting, not nomming. We theorize that because they accepted them as babies, by the time they were adult chickens, the dogs were so used to them that it didn't trip any "prey!!!!" alarms for them. YMMV though, especially with non-herding dogs. Labs, for example, or other hunting dogs might be another story.
posted by librarina at 4:56 PM on October 21, 2009

One detail I forgot to mention about our dog vs. chicken issues that might be relevant: They lived peacefully separated by the fence for a long time. Chickens can get some air when properly motivated, but normally wouldn't bother. What changed is we introduced a new batch that were considerably younger. Chickens have a pretty messed up social hierarchy, and tend to run off or even kill newcomers. We knew this, but figured with a lot of property to free-range on and separate enclosures at night, they would just avoid each other. Not so. The younger ones insisted on being part of the clique and the older ones chased them around, eventually driving them over the fence to get away. Instant doggie-snack. The point here, though, is that under normal circumstances, a fence is good enough.

I would look into your specific breed's temperament; it is generally known how they react to other small animals and how much success you'll have socializing them, and how much you can trust that it'll hold. Unlike librarina, our chicks were not raised around the dog.
posted by cj_ at 5:31 PM on October 21, 2009

Seconding hardware mesh rather than chicken wire for the coop. Also, have some kind of latch on the door that can't be opened without opposable thumbs! Raccoons are clever, persistent, and surprisingly dextrous. We used bolt snaps that fit snugly through the hasps.

Concerning "petitude", my Wyandottes were disappointingly unfriendly even though I handled them a lot when they were tiny chicks living in a cardboard box in the bathtub. They were still amusing to watch, even though they didn't want to be touched. Sigh ... what kinda lousy pet doesn't want to be petted? I've heard that bantams are more personable, but they can fly, which might be a problem for you. (The heavy breeds have a brief stage where their wings are strong yet they're still light enough to get airborne, but they outgrow that pretty quickly.)
posted by Quietgal at 5:33 PM on October 21, 2009

And let me just say that rivals AskMe for helpfulness and instantaneity of answers. Those people are hard core. Like, if you locked yourself in your chicken coop, they would totally talk you through it.
posted by HotToddy at 5:55 PM on October 21, 2009 [15 favorites]

Look at this cutie wootie chicken. You aren't buying her eggs. You're buying her love, her nutrious poop, and her mad mad insect-eating skillz.
posted by likesuchasand at 6:30 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: Is it OK for me to offer a "Metafilter member discount" here? I hope so, cause I'm doing it. I sell organic and non-organic chicken feed and scratch at my pet stores. I'll gladly sell to members for a discount if you contact me through MeMail.
posted by vito90 at 6:33 PM on October 21, 2009 [9 favorites]

Shit, probably should have mentioned I'm in Seattle (just north actually in Shoreline, but also stores in Bothell and Mountlake Terrace).
posted by vito90 at 6:34 PM on October 21, 2009

Wow, Vito, that's awesome! I might take you up on that offer the next time I head south. Thanks!

I had no idea there were so many other chicken-owning Mefites. Like our chickens should have their own meet-up, or something.
posted by ErikaB at 7:37 PM on October 21, 2009

Yes, most awesome! Thanks Vito!

(I just fed mine grapes for the first time this afternoon and it was like a rugby scrum in there. Utter chaos and sheer hilarity! I can't wait to take Mr. HotToddy out and show him.)
posted by HotToddy at 8:32 PM on October 21, 2009

You aren't buying her eggs. You're buying her love, her nutrious poop, and her mad mad insect-eating skillz.

This is true, but be warned-- you are also buying her mad, mad seedling-eating skills and her mad, mad plant-digging-up skills, so you'll want to keep her out of your vegetable garden and other sensitive parts of your yard. We lost all the leaves (and most of the squash) on our pattypans before we learned this, and almost lost a newly planted lilac and blueberry bush because apparently when you plant stuff in soil you've amended with compost and worm castings, chickens are pretty damn sure there's something TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME down there under those roots.

I just fed mine grapes for the first time this afternoon and it was like a rugby scrum in there.

You think thats crazy, try feeding them canned tuna. Oh. Em. Gee. You have never. Ever. Ever. Seen anything like that. Sure the mercury and whatever, but it's hilarious and it's not like you're feeding them a steady diet of the stuff.
posted by dersins at 8:57 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tuna! I'm on it!
posted by HotToddy at 9:26 PM on October 21, 2009

I would so be at a chicken-owner meetup.

And yes, backing up dersins here about the garden. Don't think for a second that "pest control" means chickens are useful for keeping pests out of your garden. Chickens are organic rototillers. They will take care of the pests, but you won't have a garden either, when they are done with it.

Try feeding them boiled spaghetti, they mistake it for worms. Good times.
posted by cj_ at 1:36 AM on October 22, 2009

I think I have discovered a new hobby. :)
posted by nihraguk at 6:10 AM on October 22, 2009

Living on Key West, an island which is 2 miles by 4 miles, the number of chickens here is astounding. There are thousands! Our economy is presently very tourist-driven, but it is constantly a pleasure to see chickens as things of wonder by out visitors.

Most people think of chickens as part of the landscape. Some people hate them (Which is strange to me. I mean, why would you move here if you don't like chickens. It would be like moving here if you didn't like water. Or sun. Or the Caribbean.)

One of the big hang-ups for some people after moving happens to be roosters. They crow. Worth noting. Key West roosters don't say cock-a-doodle doo. Key West roosters say happy BIRTH DAAAY. You have to hear it. Once you do, you hear always hear them say it.

And we feed them scorpions. Except we don't actually feed them. They just eat them so there aren't that many around. Which is nice.
posted by humannaire at 6:27 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just to be different, I'll mention our Indian Runner Ducks. They have the profile of a wine bottle or bowling pin and run rather than waddle. Lots video on youtube, apparently they are used as the animals that are herded in sheep dog competitions (when they can't get sheep?). They don't fly, so you don't have to worry about clipping their wings, they lay almost as many eggs a year as chickens and males don't crow (in fact our male quacks nearly constantly, but so low and quiet that he can hardly be heard). They are omnivores like chickens, so will graze on clover, grass (and the garden), but love bugs, snails and slugs. They are very amusing to watch, and will follow you around, "talking" to you and hoping that you will turn over a rock or board for them to expose some bugs. They love vegetable scraps, I found that they go crazy over minced up zucchini, making me think that you could construct a nice ecological triangle - a compost pile of duck manure, table scraps, lawn clippings, populated with some red wiggler worms - some worms feed the ducks and the compost feeds zucchini - ducks eat zucchini,worms, garden scraps, slugs and make manure for the compost pile.
posted by 445supermag at 7:28 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Strangely our chickens go absolutely bonkers for onions. It's not recommended, as it's supposed to make their eggs taste funny, but occasionally some sneaks into the vegetable peelings and they absolutely lose their shit.
posted by electroboy at 8:03 AM on October 22, 2009

This question just solved a mystery! All summer, each time I've walked in the yard of my new house in rural New York State, I've wondered how the hell there came to be all these small, sharp, ouch-y pieces of oyster shell in the top inch or so of dirt. I'd pick one out of my instep and curse, and exclaim, again, that we're over 150 miles from the damn ocean and where did these things COME FROM?!.

Guess the previous owner must have kept chickens.

posted by minervous at 8:10 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try feeding them boiled spaghetti, they mistake it for worms.

And Udon = really FAT worms.

The grapes scared me first time I fed them to the girls. They tried swallowing them whole (and succeeded). I always cut them in half now, 'cause otherwise it's like watching a python unhinge its jaw to choke down something three times larger than its head.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:32 AM on October 22, 2009

Also weird: If you hold your chicken up to your ear, you can hear the rocks grinding around in their gizzard.
posted by electroboy at 10:23 AM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Mngo, growing up, our dogs were kept separate from the chicken yard, but our poodle mix was too small to make a difference, and our border collie just wanted to herd them. I think we'd finished with chickens by the time my mom got her westies.

Now the cats played an interesting game. They'd be by while the chickens fed, and the little birds would come down and join the feast. Every so often a cat would pounce, scattering the chickens and sometimes catching a lil' bird. Kitty would walk away with the prize and the chickens would come back to eat.
posted by lysdexic at 11:38 AM on October 22, 2009

My chickens chase neighborhood cats out of the yard, feathers ruffled and all. Squirrels, too.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:46 AM on October 22, 2009

Also remember that chickens can fly and may end up in the neighbors tree if allowed the opportunity. We clip the flight feathers off one of their wings so we can let them roam around the backyard. They can still hop about 4 feet or so, but with the one clipped wing they're too unstable to do much else.
posted by electroboy at 12:24 PM on October 22, 2009

Really nice post. I'll definitely be getting some chickens soon. I don't have anything to add. But I did want to know: How easy and inexpensive is it to raise some of your chickens as meat? How often would you expect to have a nice chicken dinner? And how much would that chicken dinner cost you?
posted by apiaryist at 1:22 PM on October 22, 2009

Response by poster: If anyone else has anecdotes or info they want to chime in, don't let me stop you, but I just wanted to say thanks for all of this help. I've done a lot of good research based on what you've given me, and I'm sold. We hope to be moving soon, so I'm hoping that by next spring I'll have a coop in my backyard.
posted by middleclasstool at 1:49 PM on October 22, 2009

We once tried to figure out, roughly, the point at which our homebrew eggs would cost the same as supermarket eggs. With three chickens, a hand-built coop, the various feeding and watering apparatus, and not counting the fairly minimal ongoing cost of feed, we figure it will be about three years.
posted by padraigin at 3:58 PM on October 22, 2009

padraigin I LOLd! Three years being almost exactly the point where (as I have heard) their egg production starts to decline. Yep, sounds about right.

apiaryist I can't say from personal experience (vegetarian). But you would most likely be raising a breed called Cornish X, which would need to be slaughtered at 14-16 weeks. They grow so massive so fast that beyond that point they have trouble standing, and are subject to sudden heart attacks.

As far as the financial side, April of Coal Creek Farm did the math on slaughter day [no slaughter pics in that post - just cleaned carcasses like you'd buy at the store]. She concluded that each chicken had cost her about $7.47 per bird. Which is really pretty good, for something as healthy, and with as relatively pleasant a lifestyle, as home-reared chickens.
posted by ErikaB at 7:14 PM on October 22, 2009

apiaryist: I don't know that we ever took dollar cost into account. Chickens were killed maybe two or three at a time. It's kind of a messy bidness going from feathered bird to dinner, so factor in a full days work of cleaning, then cleaning up.
posted by lysdexic at 10:34 AM on October 23, 2009

ErikaB, Cornish Crosses are 6-8 weeks to slaughter. They also don't scratch, forage, or act like chickens and, as a result, don't taste as good or lead as happy a life. Librarina and I, like a bunch of other farmers we know, would sooner not raise chickens than raise Cornish Crosses

I've known folks who were disappointed with the results from dual-purpose breeds like buff orpingtons. I don't plan on raising a meat bird that's not a freedom ranger. The thing to remember about meat birds is that the effort to kill and clean one isn't much less than the effort to kill and clean a dozen or two. And most breeds have a pretty clear point at which they stop converting feed to meat, in the case of our birds, it's 10-11 weeks. In the case of industrial birds, it's 7-8 weeks and they start dying after that. If you keep them longer, they just eat and you don't get a return in food. Also, the longer you keep an animal around, the more likely it is you'll end up with a pet instead of a meal.

Regarding the economics of it, we're raising 150 broilers right now. At $5/lb we're going to gross around $3500-4000. We've spent $1200 on feed so far and about a thousand on housing and fencing. Between feed, equipment rentals, and permitting, I don't think we're going to clear much in the way of profit. And that doesn't count my time. So, financially, raising chickens for meat doesn't make a lot of sense. However, raising your own meat humanely and with love is a wonderful thing. And you get a quality of meat that, with few exceptions, you simply cannot buy.

For good layers that are pretty and fun to be around, I recommend wyandottes. From what I've seen, though, the biggest variable in temperament is the amount of time you spend socializing the bird.
posted by stet at 10:47 AM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Everyone I've spoken with who has raised Cornish Crosses (sample size of about 6) has been really bummed out by the experience. This summer I visited someone who was growing out a batch, and I can see why. The birds were only a few weeks old and already were almost completely unable to walk. They were just marooned in their wood shavings. They are Frankenchickens created to maximize meat production and with zero regard to their quality of life. I had read all about this but it's quite another thing to see it with your own eyes. And then when you see healthy, happy dual-purpose birds walking and scratching and hopping around as a chicken is meant to do . . . well, the comparison is pretty depressing.
posted by HotToddy at 12:07 PM on October 23, 2009

If you let chickens roam your backyard, they will kill your grass by scratching it and will kill a lot of plants by eating leaves. They also poop a lot, so you will spend a couple of hours each week dealing with that.

They are fun animals to keep around and do funny things like chase grapes, but more than the cost of feed was the nuisance of protecting the garden and cleaning up after them.
posted by abdulf at 9:51 PM on October 23, 2009

We OBSESSIVELY track our chicken adventure and I present to you, our Income Statement from Mar 21st on (got 4 chicks in Aug 08, started laying mid March 09):
Egg Sales:                   $170.00  (we sell to co-workers @ $4.5/doz)
Chicken Sales:               $ 25.00  (sale of unwanted roosters)
    TOTAL REVENUES           $195.25

Feed:                        $168.45
Bedding:                     $  4.32
Diatomaceous Earth:          $ 27.50
 OPERATING PROFIT (Loss)    ($  5.02)

Coop/Storage:                $100.86
Hatching Eggs:               $ 53.00
Medicine/Other:              $ 10.95

NET INCOME:                 ($169.83)
We cheated a little, got a the main coop (12x12 chain link dog run and chicken wire) for free, and the bale of hay we purchased pre-record keeping days has yet to run out. Our birds mostly free-range and eat organic feed (+kitchen scraps).

Even though we have 4 roosters yet move to their next homes, and 3 girls not yet old enough to lay, we are averaging around 0.83lbs of feed per egg, which roughs out at a cost of $ .25/egg.
posted by Lizc at 11:25 AM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot, we have had 662 eggs laid since March 21st 09. One of our Wyandottes went broody and we purchased eggs for her to hatch, which really cut down on their production. Next time it's going to be an incubator!

If we never purchase a thing for the birds again, we'd only need to sell another 453 eggs to break even!!
posted by Lizc at 11:30 AM on October 24, 2009

Oh, we also rinse and dry (baking is unnecessary) our egg shells and use in place of oyster shells.
posted by Lizc at 11:49 AM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lizc, you are my kind of people! That puts my single-column Excel spreadsheet chicken accounting to shame!

I did some math this morning and discovered that, if you set aside the cost of construction material and chick supplies, the eggs only cost .17 each. I guess that would be the "marginal cost of production." Not too shabby!

It made me feel better, even though it represents some pretty hinky bookkeeping.
posted by ErikaB at 6:26 PM on October 24, 2009

Never give your chickens avocado, it's toxic to them.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:46 PM on October 24, 2009

Not to be too negative (in fact this thread has me considering getting some layers myself) but roosters are mean. The overalls-wearing genuine farmer we bought our 5 acres from when I was a kid was by one day and showed us nice fresh 8 stitch gash in his leg he'd gotten from his rooster. We had Easter egg chickens and our rooster, despite me defensively flattening him with my gym bag on numerous occasions, used to chase me every day on my way to catch the bus to school. Until, that is, our neighbors dog from down the road decided it was her job every day to walk the eighth-mile to our house and stand there and dare the rooster to come after me. (Hi long-gone Alkasite). To this day I'm Jaws scared of roosters so even if you are a bit attached when they are young watch out - roosters turn antisocial to varying degrees and don't grow out of it and are surprisingly capable of fucking a human up.
posted by vapidave at 8:03 PM on October 25, 2009

Response by poster: That plus the noise is why most city governments don't allow roosters, so for most of us city dwellers it isn't even an option. Generally speaking in the US (from what I've read, at least), if you're not zoned for agriculture, then no roosters.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:36 PM on October 25, 2009

I've been able to almost completely eliminate Coop and tractor expenses by scavenging old pallets and Glass Shipping Cases (which are just really nice, large pallets). So far, my coop expenses are the paint, and a re-used screen door ($5). I will have to buy more hardware cloth, which i also have been scavenging from local gardeners.

To find decent scrap wood, find your local Glaziers or Furniture Wholesale Warehouse.

Also, living in the nation's largest estuary means that I can easily find Rangia/Oyster shell to grind for calcium. ( I mean, most of us would be able to find some Corbicula around, no? that way, you can harvest an invasive clam --if there is no downside to using another species.) I think sourcing diatomaceous earth will be more difficult.
posted by eustatic at 1:55 PM on October 27, 2009

We all know that roosters are loud, but what about the hens? Just how noisy are they, especially at night?
posted by crawl at 9:34 AM on November 1, 2009

At night? They're asleep, and totally silent.

Ours pretty much put themselves up at at dusk and fall asleep almost immediately. They get up with the sun and cluck a little, but not too much. A little later in the day when they're laying they get a little louder, but it's not significantly louder than ambient noise from other birds (crows, etc.).
posted by dersins at 10:22 AM on November 1, 2009

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