Homesteaders often joke about chicken math. You get 3 chickens, and then one day you look up to realize you have 20, because you just couldn’t resist buying more. Not to mention chickens being the gateway to all things homesteading.

Parking sign, available from https://www.amazon.com/Chicken-Funny-Humor-Gifts-Parking/dp/B09QWFM5YZ

But with bird flu, supply chain issues and inflation, more and more people are wanting to get chickens to offset their egg expense at the grocery store. Egg prices have more than tripled in some states in the last few months and it’s not uncommon to see eggs for $5/dozen. Compounding that, our overall egg consumption has gone up as a country in the last few years.

Egg prices at my local grocery store, Walla Walla WA, Jan 11, 2023.

But is it really possible to save money by having your own chickens?

Michael Kilpatrick of Growing Farmers and the Thriving Farmer podcast argues that raising birds for eggs AS A BUSINESS is very often a losing proposition, unless you have a whole heck of a lot of them. (Thriving Farmer is a farm business podcast that breaks down how to run a successful farm business while also enjoying a good life. Highly recommended!)

I made this chart for my own flock so that I’m not over feeding the birds.

But backyard chickens are not a business venture. Let’s break chicken math down to the three basic considerations; labor, overhead, and cost of goods sold.

LABOR is, well, your time and energy. If you had to pay someone to do what you do, what would that cost you? I always use my local minimum wage + 15% (which is the absolute minimum you’d have to legally pay someone, with added taxes, if they were actually your employee). Then pull out the stop watch on your phone and actually keep track. How many minutes a day do I spend feeding birds, cleaning coops, collecting eggs, packaging eggs? You get the idea.

I get it. Most homesteaders are never gonna count their labor in their calculations. But it’s important to recognize that your time DOES have value!

Second is OVERHEAD. This, of course, is the cost of feeders, waterers, brooder lamps or plates, bedding, enclosures to keep your birds safe and out of the weather, including electric fencing if necessary, treatment for any medical or parasite issues that come up etc. It also includes stuff like electricity to keep those heaters on. Yes, you can keep a lot of this stuff VERY simple when you are first starting out (a hanging feeder you DIY from a 5 gallon bucket, or a simple bowl for water). And most of this stuff will last for years if well cared for, but the upfront cost is not insignificant, especially if you don’t already have a place you can use for a coop or need electric fencing to keep predators out.

And last and most important is COST OF FEED. A google search from state universities and extension offices gives us the following ball park calculations:

Local layer poultry feed from Pullman Washington. Fun video here on our road trip to go get it 3 times a year.

A chick, from the day of hatch to 10 weeks old, will eat 9 to 10 lbs of “chick starter”.

Birds over 10 weeks old will eat around 1.5 lbs of feed a week until they start laying (another 12 weeks or so).

  • So: First 10 weeks = 10 lbs chick starter
  • Next 12 weeks = 18 lbs chick starter
  • Total pounds of chick starter per bird until laying = 28 lbs

My local Tractor Supply Store price for a 40 lb bag of Nutrina Nature Wise 18% protein chick starter (as of Jan 11, 2023) is around $30/bag with my local sales tax included. So .75 cents per pound.

  • 28 lbs x .75/lb = $21 to get to 5 months.

After that, you can switch them over to layer feed. They will continue to eat about 1.5 lbs of feed per week as laying adults.

  • Total layer pellets for the first year of bird’s life (7 months or 30 weeks) = 45 lbs

A 50 lb bag of Nutrina Nature Wise layer pellets (16% protein) are running $26.45. So .53 cents/lb.

  • 45 lbs laying pellets x .53/lb = $23.85

So in feed alone, it’s going to cost you ($21 + $23.85) = $44.85 for one bird for one year.

In that time, at the VERY best scenario (one egg a day), you’ll get 210 eggs or 17.5 dozen at $2.56/dozen.

More likely, you’ll have some slowdown in winter with shorter day length and weather (see discussion below). So if we call it 180 eggs, or 15 dozen, that works out to $2.99/dozen just in feed costs.

That said, there are MANY great reasons to keep chickens that are not about the price of eggs. They include:

  • Better quality eggs
  • Manure for fertilizer
  • Pest reduction
  • Waste food reduction (as you feed the chickens food and yard scraps)
  • Entertainment value and companionship (because who are we kidding, we LOVE watching our birds)
  • Learning animal husbandry, a valuable skill for your whole family

There are also a lot of ways to save money raising birds. These include:

Saving money on feed by supplemental feeding kitchen/weed scraps and/or letting the birds pasture range. (It’s very hard to nail down feed costs with birds that also pasture range, but the general consensus is that you save money on feed but also get fewer eggs overall. Confined feeding operations have been optimized to get the maximum number of eggs per bird for the allotted amount of highly balanced feed. Anything that deviates from that decreases egg numbers, which is part of why commercial egg companies raise their birds the way they do.)

I also never feed my birds chick starter after they are about 8 weeks old. The birds are then in with the adult birds and out on pasture and eat the same layer pellets that the big girls eat. I’ve seen advice that says the extra calcium is bad for their legs, but I’ve literally been doing this for 20 years with no issues. I DO think that access to pasture makes a difference. It’s just too hard to keep the flocks completely separate until the birds start to lay at 5 months of age.

Not buying super expensive feed. It’s a fine line to walk, but I’ve never been able to make organic feed pencil out, and until I found a local source of layer feed, I was unable to avoid GMO corn/soy in the feed I was buying. It’s a trade off, for sure. But a home raised egg is still very likely going to be better nutritionally than an inexpensive commercial egg, regardless of organic or GMO status.

Optimizing egg laying by buying birds with a higher number of eggs per year and/or birds that will lay during the winter months. I get it. We all love a pretty bird. But some of those gorgeous heritage breeds only lay about 150 eggs per year, while other not so fancy breeds can lay closer to 300 a year. I’ve raised mostly gold and black Sex Link and Rhode island reds for years for this reason.

Also, selecting breeds that don’t tend to go broody can go a long way towards more eggs per bird. One year I bought both Welsummer and Cuckoo Maran chickens for their very dark brown eggs. Every single Maran went broody for the entire summer, which means that I got about 90 fewer eggs from each bird than I did from birds that had not gone broody. (Granted, they also pretty much stop eating when they are broody, so at least you are saving on feed). Sure it’s fun to let a mama hen try and raise up a clutch of chicks (which is often unsuccessful for other reasons when they are in a coop with other birds). But if you want the largest number of eggs, birds that don’t go broody are much better producers. I’ll never buy Maran’s again.

Image from IFA Country Stores

Be willing to cull birds that are more than a few years old. Chickens are born with all of the eggs they will ever lay (ahem, same is true for human females). So if you get fewer eggs per year, you may get eggs for a longer number of years. But egg production drops off pretty fast, with birds generally laying only 60% of their first year production by the third year. (The eggs, however, are often larger). Meanwhile, they are still eating about 1.5 lbs of feed a week. I’m notoriously bad about this myself, and even now, after two years of systematically butchering my older birds, I still keep a few around that just get to live out their lives here on the farm, even though I’ll likely never see another egg from them.

From The Happy Chicken Coop dot com.

Along with that, it’s often worth buying sexed chicks (where you KNOW you’re getting females) rather than straight run birds. Buying 25 birds and having 12 or 13 of them turn out to be roosters is a lot of extra feed not going into egg production, and then you need to cull most of those males in order to keep the hens happy and healthy (I keep about one rooster per 10-15 birds and butcher roosters at about 5 months of age).

Keeping a draft free dry coop. Birds will definitely slow down their laying due to stress. And let’s face it, trying to produce an egg when you have wet feet and a smelly coop is no fun (and terrible conditions in which to bring a baby chick into the world, which remember, is the REAL reason for egg laying in the first place).

Unavoidable Slowdowns

Slow downs from molting (replacing of feathers, which first happens at about 18 months and then every 12 months thereafter) are to be expected. A bird can’t both replace all of its feathers and continue to make and lay an egg a day. Energetically, its just not possible to do both. If you buy your chicks in the spring, you can expect them to molt in the fall 18 months later, and then again the following fall thereafter. And again, this makes sense. Maximum insulation in the colder months = replace all of your feathers with new ones in the fall, when there’s no good reason to hatch out a chick anyway.

Shorter day length can drastically drop your egg production, especially if you live in northern climates. Most chicken breeds need a minimum of 12 hours of sunlight (16 is better!) for optimum egg laying. Egg laying is hormonal, driven by the pineal gland, which is situated behind the hen’s eyes and is light sensitive. When the days shorten, the pineal gland stops sending the hormone and egg laying slows down or stops. Our days start to shorten after the fall equinox (September 21) and will continue to get shorter until the Winter Solstice (December 21). We won’t be back up to 12 hours a day again until late March. More importantly, in late December our day length is about 8 hours 38 minutes long (as opposed to, say, South Carolina, where the shortest day is still 10 hours long).

You CAN put supplemental light in the coop in the winter to “fool” the birds pineal gland into thinking the days are longer. Aim for a minimum of 12 hours of daylight total with both coop lights and natural light.

Day length chart for year, Walla Walla WA.

So, in short, its probably costing you more than you think it is to raise back yard birds, but there are still LOTS of reasons to start or keep your backyard flock.

© Miles Away Farm 2023, where we’re Miles Away from giving up our chickens, but sure wish feed costs would come back down. Want more content? Sign up for a monthly newsletter to your email inbox HERE.