Chickens

Homestead-onomics: Laying Hens

One of the goals of our homestead is for it to be financially sustainable; specifically, that it will overall generate more value than it consumes.  In this series of posts called “Homestead-onomics”, we’ll review how each of our methods/systems stacks up against this goal.

The first system that we’ll evaluate is one of our most productive…the laying hens.  To perform this analysis, we’ll start by looking at an input/process/outlet analysis to understand the scope of the system that we are evaluating.  This will help to define what factors we will look at when considering costs and benefits.

Inputs:

  • Chickens
  • Feed
  • Water
  • Kitchen/garden scraps
  • Hay/wood shavings (coop bedding)
  • Infrastructure (coop, watering containers, feeders, fencing, etc…)

Processes

  • We feed/water chickens on daily/weekly basis (seasonally dependent)
  • Chickens eat and drink
  • Chickens “scratch”, disturbing soil and eating bugs
  • Chickens poop, creating a nitrogen rich manure
  • Chickens lay eggs
  • We gather eggs (daily)
  • We change chicken bedding, using spent material for compost
  • When chickens no longer produce eggs, they are harvested

Outputs

  •  Eggs (average 0.6-0.8 eggs/bird/day for a reasonably productive breed depending on time of year)
  • Tilled soil with insect pest control in areas where chickens forage
  • High quality compost for gardens
  • A few good batches of chicken soup in late fall
  • Lots of social capital with family, friends, and neighbors that enjoy fresh eggs

With this understanding of the general scope for the system, there are a few variables that should be considered as you design your system, as follows:

  1. Type of birds: This will affect your upfront costs with regards to availability and price of the breed you are looking for, as well as the monthly return based on the feed consumption rate and productivity of the hens.  For the purposes of this analysis, I used the birds that we chose for our first flock; Rhode Island Reds from Moyer’s Chicks in Quakertown, PA.  Our hens from Moyer’s have been very healthy, and lay at a pretty consistent 5-6 eggs/week for most of the year (including the winter when they have a heat lamp on in the coop, which was meant for comfort but has the bonus of keeping productivity up).
  2. Age of birds: Whether you hatch from eggs, raise from chicks, or buy laying-ready pullets (~13 week old birds) will affect the upfront cost, the equipment that you need, and how long it will take to reach full productivity (usually between 18-24 weeks of age).  We used pullets for our flock, which I strongly recommend for the beginner, since you don’t need to worry about the cost and complexity of hatching egg or raising chicks.  These were ~$7/pullet at the time that we bought them.
  3. Number of birds:  This will affect your upfront costs and speed of return.  Generally, having a flock that corresponds to the reasonable maximum capacity of your coop will garner the fastest return on investment, more quickly defraying one of the larger upfront costs that you will have.  Check your local zoning codes though, as some municipalities have limits on the amount of animals that you can have on your property.
  4. Coop and run: The upfront costs can vary greatly here, with a purchased coop ranging from $300-$500 or more.  You can cut these costs greatly by building the coop yourself (~$100), or if you are really frugal like we were, building it with reclaimed materials (nearly free).  Also the size and style of your run can also vary anywhere from $30-40 for a standard post and netting to $500+ for decorative fencing.
  5. Feeders/waterers:  There are a lot of options out there, but I kept this analysis to a basic feeder ($20) and waterer ($20) both of which are readily available at places like Tractor Supply.
  6. Feed quality: Again, the costs can vary greatly here from fully organic, GMO free feed ($30 for a 50 lb bag) to the run of the mill layer mash from the local feed store ($10-$15 for a 50 lb bag).  Generally, this can affect how much you could expect to get for your eggs.  I have seen fully organic fed, free ranged eggs as high as $6.50/dozen, with more standard “farm natural” eggs for around $4-5/dozen.  We use the organic, non-GMO feed, which costs a bit more and isn’t the optimum financially, but was important for the quality of food that we wanted to feed our family.

With these factors in mind, we can complete a quick economic analysis by looking at the upfront expenses, the monthly/ongoing expenses, and the monthly benefit/return.  Below is an example for our system.

Upfront costs:

  • Coop and run: ~$100 using mostly reclaimed materials from my uncle’s old deck and free supplies from our neighbors
  • Chickens: 12 Rhode Island Red pullets at $7 each, $84
  • Feeders and waterers: $20, donated mostly from neighbors who had extras
  • Total: $204 in first month

Ongoing monthly expenses:

  • Organic GMO-free feed: 80 lbs/month, $30
  • Hay or pine shavings to replace bedding: $5
  • Water: mostly free, save for small electric charge for running the well pump
  • ~10 minutes a day to feed/water chickens, gather eggs
  • ~1 hour a week to clean eggs
  • 30 minutes a month to clean coop, process compost
  • Total: $35/month

Monthly benefit:

  • Eggs: 9 eggs/day, 22.5 dozen per month (peak laying), $6/dozen (30% productivity in 1st month, %50 productivity in 2nd month, 80% productivity in winter months)
  • Total: $115/month (1st year average)

Annual benefit (not quantified)

  • Tilled soil in the garden after harvesting fall crops
  • A few yards of high quality compost per year, blending kitchen scraps, bedding, rabbit manure, and fall leaf drop
  • 4 “graduated” laying hens for use in chicken stew/chicken stock
  • Better relationships with our community (amazing what a few eggs can do!)

 

Our first two eggs...so exciting!!!

Our first two eggs…so exciting!!!

From this simple financial analysis, I concluded that our average monthly benefit of the chickens from their egg-laying yield alone is $80/month ($115/month for eggs minus $35/month for feed/hay).  The return-on-investment (time that it takes to repay the initial expenses) is about 3-4 months ($204 expense / $80 month profit), taking into account reduced productivity in the first couple months of having the pullets as they continue to mature (usually reach full productivity at 18-24 weeks of age).

By any financial measures, it is clear that keeping chickens can add a lot of value to your homestead.  Money aside, keeping chickens is also a really enjoyable hobby, giving us healthy food on a daily basis, a reason to get outside as often as we can, an awesome way to process some of our kitchen/garden wastes, and really easy way to teach our kids about food quality, the food chain, and even a little about the “birds and the bees”.  If you are interested in homesteading, getting a small flock of laying hens is certainly an easy, enjoyable, and profitable entry-point.

Do you keep chickens?  If so, what is your favorite part of having them?  If not, what would you say is the one thing that holds you back?

 

Where we’re coming from…an overview of our homestead

We expect that a common theme on our site will be the things going on around our homestead.  Before jumping into our day-day happenings, our future plans, and what we are working on improving, we thought that it might help to give you a broader feel for our property as it is today, and what things we have already put in place here.

Goals: The three primary goals for our homestead are for it to 1) produce more than it consumes (ideally both financially and in terms of yield), 2) provide for >50% of our food needs, and 3) to achieve this in a way that is as organically and sustainably as possible.

Property:  At 1.6 acres, our property is fairly small compared with what one would normally envision when thinking about a  homestead.  The land is heavily wooded, sloping slightly to the southwest.  Most of the southern sun exposure is blocked by a large stand of hardwoods, with only a very small portion of our land cleared out/available for planting (maybe 0.3 acres?).  Geographically, we are in a USDA Zone 6a/6b, but at an elevation of nearly 900 feet, it can be closer to a zone 5 climate in some years.  The soil is mostly clay and rock, with a relatively low pH.  Overall, this land profile has presented us with numerous challenges, but it also has some unique opportunities that we will discuss in later posts.

Annual gardens: Over the last 3 years, we put in 15 raised beds.  Most are ~4′ x 8′ with walls made from fallen timbers found around the property.  And all are built with a wood core to promote moisture retention and build fungal activity in the soil.  2 beds are planted in perennials (asparagus, rhubarb), with the rest dedicated to annual plantings.  We also put in a small greenhouse (8′ x 12′) in 2013 that we plan to use for seed starting and overwintering some greens, but haven’t quite perfected its use yet so it is currently sitting idle.  In the area of gardening, we are still on a steep learning curve with only limited success in most of our crops, but we have had a few successes and continue to hone our skills every year.

111

Garden beds in bloom

Perennial plants:  One thing that we are really excited about is expanding our plantings outside of the “garden”.  This has allowed us to take advantage of the “edges” of our property with lower maintenance plants that will provide for us year after year.  These include raspberries and blackberries (mostly native and already growing here), strawberries (planted in 2012), blueberries, gooseberries, currants and goji berries (all planted in 2013).  The plants that we put in this year have not really started producing yet, but most have taken hold and seem to be showing healthy growth going into the 2014 growing season.

Small livestock: These animals are the heart of our system, effectively processing most of our kitchen scraps and garden waste into a great protein yield and free organic manure.  We have  a flock of 12 laying hens (Rhode Island Reds, 8 from 2012, 4 from 2013) that provide between 6-12 eggs a day depending on the season.  We also added 4 rabbits in 2013 (California Giant/New Zealand crosses, 2 male, 2 female) that we plan to breed this spring for a meat yield.  In the meantime, they are pumping out piles and piles of some great organic manure that are helping to fertilize our gardens and plants.

Free ranging the kids and the birds

Free ranging the birds…and the kids!

The Forest: Not actively managed on our part, but also not to be discounted, is the hardwood forest that we live in.  The forest is fairly mature (some trees estimated at 60-90 yrs old), consisting mostly of red oak, maple, cherry, sassafras and silver beech.  Harvested sustainably, these woods will provide for us over our lifetime with firewood that we use to heat the home (2-3 cord/year), leaves that we use for mulch and compost, logs that we can use to inoculate for mushroom growth, and sticks/twigs that we use for mulch and for the cores for our garden beds.  Also, with some strategic harvesting and the “help” of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we are opening up some more pockets of land/sun for us to expand our food production in the coming years.

IMG_3537

Beautiful morning in the woods

Water: Being in a semi-rural area, most houses in our neighborhood (including ours) are on well water.  This is a blessing in some ways (don’t have to worry about chemical additives in city water), but can be a curse in others.  Specifically, power outages pose some interesting problems that we have addressed with the addition of a hand-pump and a generator.  The water is quite “hard” (high in mineral content) and has some sediment coming directly from the well that requires a clarifying filter prior to use.  We also supplement our limited irrigation water needs with two 50-60 gallon rain barrels which we use for drip irrigation and greenhouse “plumbing”.

The boys showing Uncle Marc how to pump the Bison

The boys showing Uncle Marc how to pump the Bison

When we moved onto this property, we had no intentions of taking up a homesteading lifestyle.  We just enjoyed the isolation of being back in the woods and closer to nature.  After our lives brought us further down our path and we decided that homesteading is something that we wanted to do, we were convinced that this property was not right for it.  Painfully, we had resigned to needing to move if we were to do this properly.  However, after much research (including a lot of inspiring examples in the urban gardening movement) and a little bit of creativity, we have found that this place might just have what we need to produce a thriving homestead.  We now find ourselves blessed to be in a place with so many natural resources.  This was a good lesson for us, and is consistent with our philosophy of “making do with what we have”.  We hope that you are also encouraged by this…instead of pining for the perfect property that you may or may not ever obtain, take small steps forward on the property that you do have.  You might be surprised by how much you can do!