Want to Raise your own Chickens?

//Want to Raise your own Chickens?

Want to Raise your own Chickens?

1,000 free-ranging hens, enjoying a 1 o'clock lunch break.

1,000 free-ranging hens, enjoying a 1 o’clock lunch break.

This just in: We’re clucking crazy about laying hens.

In 2013 alone, Suzanne McMinn’s Chickens In The Road and Lisa Steele’s Fresh Eggs Daily were each best selling books, and the cover of Kristin Kimball’s hit farmoir The Dirty Life pictured her with a chicken cradled beneath one arm. Murray McMurray’s hatchery is so nice they named it twice, and within its glorious website one can order breeds as whimsical as Silver Laced Wyandottes to sturdy New Hampshires to fanciful Blue Andalusians.

But as Josh Vaillancourt explains in his excellent (ok, ok, eggscellent) article Small Farm Egg-Onomics, romantic notions of chicken ownership frequently wither beneath the gaze of financial scrutiny. Though I’ve raised laying hens for decades, our farm remains just as vulnerable to these economic realities as any upstart poultry ingenue. So now that Josh has provided a healthy dose of dollars and cents, allow me to ‘lay’ a few hard-won opinions on you.

1) Everyone loves chickens… as long as they’re laying

How well did your hens perform this year? 75% laying rate? 70%? Because if your percentage was less than 70, chances are you’re losing money… an experience I know all too well. A farmer can easily work three, four or five hours each day doing everything right,  hauling water, gathering eggs, pitchforking the bedding. Yet there’s still no magical button that will make our hens lay. How can we best stack the deck in our favor?

One of the best parts about raising chickens: fresh eggs!

One of the best parts about raising chickens: fresh eggs!

Ironically, it was the Byrds who sang “To everything, turn, turn, turn.” I’ve never met a newbie chicken farmer who wants to hear this, but my most profitable years are when the hens are strictly culled after twelve months, and immediately replaced with a new flock. (An even better idea is to stock hens at 6 month intervals, so there’s no lapse in cash flow if they unexpectedly slow down early). As most chicken farmers know, hens lay considerably fewer eggs in year two. On our farm, older birds are processed and sold as stew hens for $12 apiece. In our nearby urban market, we can’t come close to meeting demand.

By definition, laying hens must lay. Our customers are more than happy to pay for authentic free-range eggs and flavorful stewing hens. But when it comes to excuses and disappointment, they refuse to pay me a nickel.

2) Chickens are big fat Time Vampires

"I vant to suck your tiiiiiiime!"

“I vant to suck your tiiiiiiime!”

Things I Like: Opening a gate into a new pasture, and watching my cattle eat grass instead of buckets of grain. Checking on my pigs, knowing that none have been eaten by hawks. Filling the lambs’ salt tub, without discovering they’ve gobbled up their own eggs.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Chickens are ‘Time Vampires,’ sucking energy, resources and opportunities away from many farms. While cattle, pigs and sheep undoubtedly have their own share of problems, compared to everything that can go wrong with chickens, raising these species seems practically effortless. With 1,000 layers on our farm (in my opinion, an economy of scale kicks in at around 400 birds), daily chicken chores typically require 3 people devoting 2 hours per day. This runs the gamut from feeding to moving poultry nets to cartoning eggs.

At the end of each day, when 60 dozen eggs are ready to sell, it’s reassuring that $300 gross more than offsets the daily overhead. The fact remains, however, that chores MUST be done each day. No short cuts, no days off. In a pinch, I could spend 5 minutes moving my cattle and sheep into a new field, and they’d be fine for the rest of the afternoon.

The same CANNOT be said about thousands of chickens free-ranging on pasture. Left unsupervised for an entire day, the results would range from light-hearted mayhem to full-tilt apocalypse. From personal experience, I can recount scenarios so graphic they would terminate cutesy Facebook photos from here until 2027: “Aww, that chicken’s wearing a little Santa hat! But, wait a minute… are… are those its intestines???

In short, if you want to raise chickens profitably, you’re volunteering for a life of hard work, low margin of error, and no days off. I naively climbed on this ride when I was twenty-two, and seventeen years later those darn hens still haven’t let me off.

Outfitting hens with snowshoes each winter takes more time than you'd think.

Outfitting hens with snowshoes each winter takes more time than you’d think.

3) It’s difficult to raise chickens year-round

One foot of snow.

Eleven inches of chicken.

Any questions?

4) No one likes shoveling chicken manure

When it comes to poultry, it takes two pounds of grain for a single pound of gain. In other words, what doesn’t become eggs or meat becomes expensive chicken poop. It reminds me of that kid who excitedly trades a dollar bill for two shiny quarters. “Look mom! It’s worth twice as much!” Where in nature do we find such unsustainable practices?

Fortunately for grass farmers, we capture close to 100% of the value of this manure in the form of fertilizer… so long as the chickens spread it themselves. (For more on how we do this, check out an earlier post HERE). On our farm, true sustainability is found in our herbivores, the sheep and cattle. The pigs, chickens and turkeys serve as glorified soil enhancers, helping us replace generations of nutrients that were eroded, plowed and mismanaged away. If we simultaneously enhance soil fertility while producing the planet’s best eggs, poultry and pork chops, then what’s not to like? Just don’t catch yourself shoveling chicken manure (which is how most confinement operations are managed), and chances are you’re doing it right.

In Conclusion

If you dream of laying hens as a profitable enterprise, you’re not alone. I’m fully convinced of its viability, and have been raising them (mostly) successfully on pasture for over 15 years. But if a steady income is your objective, you must exhibit almost draconian discipline in your management. Ask yourself these questions:

I keep this old carton tacked to the wall of our office to remind myself where we've been, and the possibilities of where we might go.

I keep this old carton tacked to the wall of our office to remind myself where we’ve been, and the possibilities of where we might go.

Can you feed 500 hens at dawn, ring an egg-eater’s neck at noon, and shoot a fox at dusk? Can you ensure fresh water on zero degree mornings, as well as 100 degree days? Are you a Type-A time manager who can properly introduce new flocks every six months, while processing older birds the week they turn one year old? In short, do you have it in you to perform the unsexy aspects of chicken farming?

If you answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then chances are you can run a sustainable pastured egg operation. Properly managed hens will produce more than enough eggs to turn a profit, especially at $5 to $6 per dozen. The devil, as in any business, lurks in the details. And for all their feathery cuteness, chickens are the devil incarnate when it comes to farmers who cut corners.

So enjoy the fresh air, the marvelous singing hens, and plan, plan, plan ahead. Naturally, you’re bound to break a few eggs along the way. Everyone does. But rest assured when you do, it’ll be the most satisfying omelette you’ve ever tasted.

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By | 2015-09-22T09:00:45+00:00 December 15th, 2013|Farm|18 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

18 Comments

  1. David Smith December 16, 2013 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Excellent article…very informative and entertaining. Great video too. Thanks!

  2. woolfarmgal December 16, 2013 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Total agree on you analysis of chicken farming. My farm focuses on fiber, sheep, angora rabbits and such. I raise a few (34) chickens for personal eggs, their manure for the garden and some amusement. I also have 5 ducks, same purpose. The chickens are in two coop with a fenced yard. And ducks free range and are trained to go into a stall at night. I have shot foxes, I have dealt with halls, and I have cut the heads off snakes who invaded the coops. In fact, you chat call yourself a chicken farmer until you have killed your first snake. I cannot imagine raising the clucks on a larger scale. The sheep are hard enough. Can you say fly strike?

  3. hopefarms December 16, 2013 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Spot on, again, Forrest! It seems romantic until a few of them disappear to a raccoon or opossum, get egg-bound, or are on a de-worming schedule (so their eggs cannot be used) and on, and on. This last year was not as profitable because of increasing feed prices and a few other time-management related issues, so this next season the price will have to increase. I won’t be insulted by those who say “that’s too expensive,” anymore, either. For if they’d like to raise their own, I’ll point them to this article.

    🙂

    Great article, thanks again for keeping it real.

    Cheers!

  4. Janet G December 16, 2013 at 11:53 am - Reply

    HI Forest. I totally agree with your assessment on profitable chicken farming. that is why we just keep the hens for our family needs. I like to give the extras to neighbors and relatives when I have any with no obligations. I try to explain that I can’t count on the eggs but I am happy to share any extra we don’t need. They try to offer me money sometimes but I usually laugh and tell them they really can’t afford what the eggs would cost. I don’t think I would want to try raising laying hens for profit. But I love your stories and we have learned a lot from your pasture methods.

  5. Forrest Pritchard December 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Appreciate the positive feedback! It’s good to know we pastured poultry crazies have plenty of good company 🙂

  6. Fresh Eggs Daily December 16, 2013 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    My husband always says that our eggs are the most expensive that we will ever eat! I agree with him, but they are also the best. Economy of scale does help, but you’re right then the work and problems also increase exponentially. Regardless, I wouldn’t trade this lifestyle for anything – and thank goodness I can make some money on the side writing as do you! Thanks for the mention of my book.
    Lisa
    Fresh Eggs Daily

  7. Susan December 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    I could write a comedy on urban chicken farming ……

  8. Lisa December 16, 2013 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    I have a question…. I have hens and roosters that keep missing. There is no sign of a killing with feathers laying around or anything… I cant understand what is getting my birds. If a wolf or Fox gets them… Wouldnt their be a sign of a fight with feathers or body parts laying around?

    • Forrest Pritchard December 16, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Not necessarily. It’s hard to believe, but it probably depends on how well-fed the fox is! (Yes, I’m assuming you have a fox). If your hens are disappearing one by one, the predator must be large enough to carry them away, yet satiated enough not to trigger their ‘slaughter instinct’. As an internet farm detective, I’m guessing you’ve got a fairly lackadaisical fox, who thinks he can grab a hen whenever it likes :^(

  9. Susan December 17, 2013 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Lisa, I wonder if you have free range chickens, as we and our neighbors do. I can’t count the times we’ve exchanged chickens who’ve escaped. Fortunately we’ve gotten all ours back, but I know our neighbors haven’t always been so lucky, and report the same thing…..no feathers, just missing birds. :/ I think we’ve just been lucky, or maybe more diligent. Still sad.

  10. Ross December 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    Some farmers just ought not to be quoted out of context:

    “…Checking on my pigs, knowing that none have been eaten by hawks. Filling the lambs’ salt tub, without discovering they’ve gobbled up their own eggs…..”

    Pig-eating hawks? Lambs that lay eggs? It makes one yearn for the simple horrors of Monsanto.

  11. Anslie December 27, 2013 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    Hi Forrest! We are loyal clients at your Chevy Chase farmers market and enjoy your blog. This may be a silly question but how do you ‘track’ the age of a chicken? Do you mark them with a band on their leg or something like that? Also, do you allow your chickens to ‘replace’ themselves (lay and egg and let them hatch it) or do you buy the chickens from another source? Thanks for humoring these questions!

    • Forrest Pritchard January 14, 2014 at 9:46 am

      Exactly, we band every other flock as it arrives. We source our birds as starer pullets from a local farmer, because the economics are much more favorable from a mortality standpoint.

      Thanks for the support at Chevy Chase, we’ll see you in the spring!

  12. […] Pritchard writes humorously and truthfully at Smith Meadows about the real-life challenges of chicken farming. For […]

  13. […] Pritchard writes humorously and truthfully at Smith Meadows about the real-life challenges of chicken farming. For […]

  14. Jonathan Herron April 27, 2014 at 8:17 am - Reply

    I really love your site and your energy that goes into it. I’m from Ohio, but living in South America (Peru). We’re starting a pastured hen farm after having “free run” hens for some time now. I like the “wagon wheel” idea with the fencing to act as sparks, but just wanted to know approx. how much space you’re giving to your hens since it seems like a huge parcel for only 900. What size “spokes” or areas should we use for let’s say 2000 hens?

    Thanks Forrest and I’m flying home to Ohio in May and would love to visit your farm if it’s ok with you?

    • Forrest Pritchard April 28, 2014 at 5:50 am

      Sounds great, come visit! I recommend capping your flocks at 750-1,000 birds for a number of reasons. We use runs of four 165 foot nets side by side, ie, 8 nets per run, 10 foot wide spacing. This does the trick if rotated every 7 days. Best of luck!

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