I recently read a piece in the New York Times about the increased popularity of raising backyard chickens. Citing Americans’ desire to control both what they eat, as well as the cost of food, the article notes that raising poultry has become increasingly popular, but concludes: “Yet, even as many people see raising chickens as a hedge against hard times — and a way to get tastier eggs and meat — they often acknowledge that it is not really a way to save money on food ‘You can buy eggs in the grocery store cheaper than you can raise them,’ said David D. Frame, a poultry specialist who works with the Utah State University Extension. ‘You’re not saving money by doing it.’ He said that feed represented 75 percent of the cost of raising a bird. Commercial poultry operations that buy huge amounts of feed at wholesale have much lower costs per bird than the backyard chicken enthusiast can typically achieve.”
I beg to disagree, as least as far as eggs are concerned. (Having spent most of my childhood summers on a farm, I can assure you that raising, decapitating, gutting, boiling and plucking chickens for meat is not something to be undertaken lightly by the amateur urban or suburban gardener.) Laying hens, however, are quite quite easy to keep, and in fact, I just got back from a Sunday morning excursion to get fresh eggs – at $3/dozen – from a friend of mine who raises her own chickens. Actually, this was my second trip, as I went over yesterday only to find she had already sold out, as she does most days. Her eggs however, are worth the hassle. Unbelievably golden, with a flavor that makes store-bought eggs seem like liquid cardboard. There is absolutely no comparison. Really.
So why don’t I raise my own? Well, in fact I did, for most of the years I’ve lived here. Last spring however, something – I’m not quite sure what, most likely a fisher cat or a weasel – climbed over a six foot fence, got into the coop the one evening I wasn’t home in time to close the inner door, and slaughtered every single hen and rooster. This was the third year running that something similar occurred, and frankly I simply decided enough was enough. When I first started to raise chickens here 17 years ago, we used to let them roam the grounds during the day without problems (other than the birds digging up the gardening beds, which can be a real issue for newly planted borders.) But then, coyotes appeared; then foxes. So, I constrained the chickens into a very ample 50-100′ fenced enclosure with a wonderful cedar coop in the center. Then eagles attacked, requiring protection from above. Then the fishers began to arrive. These little beasties, which have a dog-like head, a beaver like body, and a long, furry tail, had been extinct in Massachusetts for over a hundred years. With the demise of farming – and the farmers who routinely trapped and killed them – they and other predators have reappeared with disastrous results for chicken fanciers. Fishers can climb right over and up most buildings or fences, meaning that unless you’re around to completely close up your coop tight each night, your flock is at risk. Not wanting to have to be home every day at sunset, nor wishing to constrain the chickens into a smaller space that was closed 24/7, I decided give up raising chickens here, and to let my friend Jane handle my egg needs: she runs a stable, and has help around most days to make sure everybody is safely enclosed each evening.
All of which is a long winded way of explaining that after all these years of raising home flocks, I have a pretty good idea of what chickens cost to keep, and I disagree with the expert quoted in the Times. While it’s true feed isn’t cheap, chickens don’t require a diet of commercial food – they eat anything, and I mean anything, leftover from your table: watermelon rinds, rotten fruit, soft bananas, vegetable trimmings, wilted lettuce, expired yogurt, cheese, and any other milk product; meat scraps and old carcasses of all kinds (including chicken, which they love…); coffee grounds, leftover desserts, crackers, or stale bread; even egg shells (which they eat as a source of calcium.) In fact, the thing I miss most about not having chickens at the house is not having to worry about what to do with left-over bits unsuitable for the dog or the compost pile. Previously, everything went to the chickens, and they LOVED it, recycling all this debris into a rich production of eggs. Fed this way, and given ample room to roam, scratch, and eat the bugs, worms, grass, and other natural things they also love (providing you can beat the predators of course) chickens require almost no supplemental food except in winter. Even then, if you provide light in the coop (laying is dependent on daylight length) the constant production of one egg per hen per day is more than enough to offset your costs. And if you sell the eggs, and are located in a non-rural area where such organic delicacies go for a considerable premium, a small profit almost certainly ensues.
So if you’ve ever been tempted to raise a few birds in the backyard, I urge you to go ahead and try, just making sure you have the time, and can provide an enclosure sufficient to thwart the predators in your area. (Fortunately most folks are blessed with far fewer hazards than I am.) The rewards are ample – in addition the culinary advantages, many of the heritage breeds of chickens are a colorful treat for the eyes – and I think you’ll find, as I did, that there’s a marvelously cyclical magic in producing such delicious bounty from unwanted scraps and waste.