In this series of posts called "The Dirt", we highlight some of our favorite homesteading…
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.
- Kitchen/garden scraps
- Hay/wood shavings (coop bedding)
- Infrastructure (coop, watering containers, feeders, fencing, etc…)
- 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
- 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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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!)
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?