Monday, May 27, 2013

Free eggs? Not exactly...

Dual purpose New Hampshire pullets

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it's time to address a misconception regarding poultry: If you raise laying hens or ducks, there is simply no such thing as "free" eggs. This is a common assumption. We regularly hear things like, "Oh, it must be so nice to have free eggs." Or, "I'm thinking of raising chickens so I can have free eggs."

I can understand why one might expect this to be true, given some of the fairly misleading information out there about raising and feeding laying birds. It is true that many breeds of chickens and ducks, particularly heritage breeds, can forage a certain percentage of their own food. However, the fact is that for optimum egg production, laying birds must have a consistently high quality of nutrition. This means that no matter how much they might graze or forage, they still need a daily ration of 16% protein layer feed.

Also, when the ground is covered in snow, there is not much for the birds to forage on. If you have snow in the winter, plan ahead and make sure you have adequate feed on hand.

One of our feed shelters

If you already have poultry (or any other livestock), you're no doubt aware of how feed prices have gone up since the summer of 2012. The Midwest drought affected the corn harvest to the point where even now, months later, feed corn (especially organic corn) is in short supply and quite expensive. Last fall our feed costs jumped by 25% all at once; the 1100-pound tote of organic layer mash we buy went from about $400 to $500 just like that. The formula changed as well, due to the shortage of organic corn and peas.

I know a few people who say they feed their hens nothing but kitchen scraps. Presumably these scraps are from something they either bought or grew in a garden; those are not "free" eggs.

We estimate that our laying birds, which are all excellent foragers, each consume an average of 1/4 pound of organic feed per day. We also provide them with crushed oyster shell, an important calcium supplement that keeps egg shells strong. When we have baby birds, we buy baby grit to add to their feed to aid digestion; older birds get plenty of grit in the course of their daily foraging.

Bedding is another expense. Keeping coops and nest boxes clean and dry is critical for the good health of the birds, so we use absorbent wood shavings and clean coops regularly.

So let's add things up: Feed, oyster shell, grit (especially if your birds aren't on pasture), bedding. Even if you don't take your time into consideration, those eggs are not only not free, they might be getting a bit expensive. And we haven't even mentioned coops, or the up-front cost of the birds themselves. If you buy day-old chicks, you will be feeding them for 5 or 6 months before they even start laying eggs.

Of course, the tradeoff is that they are super-fresh eggs that simply don't compare to mass-produced commercial eggs. Obviously, I'm in favor of raising hens and ducks for eggs. Just don't kid yourself that keeping laying chickens or ducks means a lifetime of free eggs for you and your family.


  1. Can you give a ball-park estimate to help plan the cost of keeping chickens? Roughly how much per chicken should I expect?

  2. Thanks for a great question! I hate to say "It depends..." but actually quite a few factors can influence the cost: breed of bird (large birds and meat breeds do eat more), organic/nonorganic feed, free-ranging or not, etc. My sense is that when you have a larger flock such as ours, the daily cost per bird is less than if you have, say, fewer than 10 birds.

    Assuming you already have a coop and your birds are adults (6 months of age or more), a good ball-park range might be between $.25-$.45 per bird per day.

  3. Hi Colormusing. We have 8 hens that are 1-year-olds. In the last 10 months we've spent $340 for the ONGOING expenses; Layers Feed, Pine Shavings, Apple Cinder Vinegar (a tablespoon in their water...) Oyster Shell (50-lb bag), Diatomaceous Earth (50-lb bag). This does not include the building of the coop and run. Nor equipment; waterer, feeder...

    $34 a month divided by 8 hens... $4.25... divided by 30 days... 14 cents a day. Hmmm, I wonder if I'm missing something.

    Our flock is made up of 2 Buff Orpingtons, 2 Silver-laced Wyandottes, 2 Blue Wyandottes and 2 Ameracaunas. They are all great egg layers.

    It cost about $2,500 to build a WONDERFUL coop and run that is "predator proof" (so far...) including equipment and paint. A link to a youtube video showing our COOP:

  4. Hi Willma,

    Thanks for your comments. I should have said that my daily cost estimate was a conservative one, which I think is more useful than a bare-bones estimate.

    You didn't mention the cost of buying your birds, or the cost of feeding them for the 6 months or so before they started laying eggs. I'd be interested to know, when you add all these things together, how much you think the eggs are costing. (Assume that you're not trying to factor in your time taking care of them.)

    There is also a wide range of prices when it comes to layer feed. We buy certified organic feed in bulk, and the price includes delivery to our farm. We free-range our birds during the day, so even our largest coops cost between $200-300 to build, as they are only places for them to roost at night and lay their eggs.

    This is all a good reminder that everyone's situation is different, so comparing things like the daily cost of care is often one of those apples-and-oranges things. Thanks for your input; it's always helpful for readers to have some actual numbers from someone with experience.

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  6. Interesting remarks. I will have got asserted my daily price estimation was obviously a careful 1, that we consider is more valuable when compared to a bare-bones estimate.

    Anyone didn't mention the cost of purchasing your current wild birds, or the cost of providing them with food for that Six months or so prior to these people started lounging eggs. I'd personally have an interest to know, when you increase all these issues collectively, the amount you think the particular eggs are priced at. (Feel that you're not trying to factor in your time taking care of these people.)

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  7. Great article and so totally true! My husband and I purchased property up in Okanagan. He said we should get chickens and sheep - for eggs and wool and all I see are the $$dollar signs flashing before my eyes. Then if they get sick or need some sort of medical attention. While there are great benefits, there is the financial needs that have to be taken into consideration.

    Great blog!

  8. Thanks for your feedback, Shelby! I agree that there are lots of benefits of raising chickens or other livestock to supplement your food supply, but a lot of people really don't consider ahead of time what it will cost. It's so worth spending some time checking out your local feed supply (better in some areas than others), deciding if you're going to go organic, etc. You can't anticipate everything that might come up, but you can plan on feeding them! When people tell me that they just let the birds forage all their feed, I tell them to not expect great egg-laying results, as production is definitely related to nutrition. Same sort of thing for sheep; there's a lot of work between bringing home a lamb and having wool ready to use. :)

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