Urban Chickens: Frugal Fad or Pricey Pastime?

If you hear the sounds of clucking over the morning news, don’t be alarmed. It’s likely your neighbors have joined the hot new movement sweeping the country: urban farming, the practice of growing and distributing food in an urban environment.

It’s a national trend that has been on the rise, and although there are no reliable backyard chicken statistics, there is evidence that the practice is growing, with an estimated 44,000 subscribers to Backyard Poultry Magazine and over 15,000 members of BackYardChickens.com.

I joined this underground movement in early 2011 and am happily raising four Rhode Island Red hens just blocks from downtown San Diego. While my backyard chicken hobby may be an increasingly common practice, it doesn’t come without its risks. Because the line between livestock and pets is blurry, chickens aren’t welcome in every suburban backyard. For example, my city has a strict code that allows only chicken coops that are at least 50 feet from a dwelling. And since mine are more like 5 feet…. Let’s just say that more often than not I have to participate in a little eggstortion to keep my neighbor’s quiet.

As the cost of food rises, and the movement towards ecological and sustainable living grows, many urban residents are turning towards raising backyard chickens. There is serious doubt about whether or not urban chicken farming is a frugal venture though. The costs of maintaining backyard chickens varies, with chicken feed running anywhere from $15 to $50 dollars a month and some coops can cost upwards of $4,000 (mine was purchased on Cragslist for $200 and coops can be built with scrap wood for next to nothing).

Breaking down the “eggonomics”

Here are some examples of the different costs associated with urban chicken farming:

-Baby chicks: $1 each.
-Full-grown, egg-laying hens: $10 each.
-Cost of building a basic chicken coop and purchasing a simple waterer and feeder: $100-$250
-Cost of buying an uber-chic pre-fab coop: $400
-Cost of buying a fancy schmancy coop that might land you a spot in a national home and garden magazine: $4,000
-Cost of chicken feed: $25.00
-Cost of organic chicken feed so you can brag about your homegrown organic eggs: $40
-Cost of making your own chicken feed from all local organic produce so you can brag about your homegrown organic eggs and copious amounts of time on your hands: $80
-Egg production from two hens: 1 doz/week, or 624/year appx.
-Cost of one dozen supermarket eggs: $3.00
-Cost of one dozen “organic and free-range” eggs: $5.00

Can you “recoop” your investment?

As you can see, the costs associated with urban chicken farming fluctuate. For those of you who are looking to participate in the urban chicken movement, whether as a hobbyist or capitalist, let’s break down the numbers into bottom-line figures.
Bare-bones math:
-12 eggs per week: 624 eggs per year
-One dozen store-bought, non-organic eggs: $0.25/egg
-Cost of basic chicken coop: $200
-Cost of chicken feed: $175/year
-Number of eggs to pay for coop and feed prices: $375 / $0.25 = 1,500
-Time required to recoup costs: 1500 / 624 = roughly 2.5 years.

Added “eggspenses”

There are a few other elements to consider as well:
-Number of years a hen lays eggs: four years on average
-Number of years a hen LIVES: eight years on average
-Four years of room and board for a menopausal chicken: $375
-Four years of buying store-bought eggs (1 dozen per week): $624
-Cost of hiring a mobile butcher to come “take care of” a menopausal chicken because no matter how much you fancy yourself to be an urban farmer you just can’t bring yourself to kill the poor girl: $60

I know it’s a lot of math, and there are so many factors to consider, but here is the bottom line: It’s unlikely the average American household will realize any significant cost savings from raising backyard chickens, and certainly, no one is getting rich off of it.

Although, if time is money, it’s important to know that chickens are incredibly low-maintenance. With basic coop upkeep adding up to around an hour a week, and a once-monthly coop clean out running about 90 minutes, raising a few backyard chickens takes a lot less time than walking a dog, in my not-so-humble opinion.

“Eggstra” benefits

Keep in mind that there are some also other significant advantages to raising backyard chickens that cannot be monetized. When compared to factory-farmed eggs sold in supermarkets, one study showed free-range or pasture-raised chicken eggs have four to six times more vitamin D, three times more vitamin E, two-third more vitamin A, and seven times more beta carotene. They also have an two times more omega-3 fatty acids, a firmer texture, and superior flavor.

Most supermarket eggs are weeks old and require refrigeration. Egg shells are porous and the longer an egg sits, the more its nutrients are depleted. Factory-raised eggs are also susceptible to losing flavor and texture as they age. Backyard eggs can be eaten within minutes of laying, which maximizes the flavor, texture, and nutritional value of one of nature’s most perfect foods.

It is also difficult to put a price on an in-house bug-removal system, nutrient-rich homemade fertilizer, and bringing the food chain a little closer to home. Finally, let’s not forget about the bragging rights/celebrity status that raising backyard chickens will earn you amongst your friends and neighbors. Because that is truly priceless.

Morgan is a freelance writer and blogger living in Southern California with her husband, two daughters, and flock of backyard chickens. You can read more of her at The Little Hen House.

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