Saturday, November 13, 2010

Backyard Chickens Not Worth It?

Today's Sarasota Herald-Tribune features a story (THE GREEN LIVING EXPERIMENT) by Susan Carpenter of the Lost Angeles Times. Ms. Carpenter has spent the last two years trying various ostensibly sustainable strategies around her home (and writing about her experiences). Of all the things she's tried, she ranked keeping chickens as the lowest. This blog entry exams why that may be and whether backyard hens are inevitably a loss leader.

Susan's bad experience can be traced to at least two errors. First, she obtained her hens from animal services, a compassionate gesture, but one has to wonder if her hens may have been past their prime and that's why they were available. But more importantly she didn't construct a predator resistant coop, so her ignorance led to the demise of her chickens. No one can make chickens rewarding and productive if they can't keep them alive.

But beyond bad coop design, are chickens worth it when the local corner pharmacies are pushing eggs at 99¢ a dozen? Those eager to avoid the argument might point out that no one asks for a cost/benefit spreadsheet for their pet dog or cat, but, that aside, what's the bottom line?

That all depends on your assumptions. If you sink $300 or more into a fixed coop, spend another $150 outfitting it and buying some ready-to-lay hens and feed them organic layer pellets at roughly 66¢ a pound, then your return on investment, as expressed solely in eggs, is destined to be a negative number.

But people don't get pets to save money and there are other ways to crunch the numbers. Building from scraps and recycled materials can dramatically cut coop costs. Chicks are inexpensive. That minimizes the fixed start-up costs. So setting those costs aside, and, based on an earlier blog "Tons of Rotting Garbage or 1,000 eggs a day?" if you fed your hens half on kitchen scraps and what they could find in the yard and half on that high-end organic feed, six hens might produce three dozen eggs a week at a total feed cost of $10.00. Then, when browsing Whole Foods, you notice organic eggs are going for $4.49 a dozen. Now your chickens are looking pretty good because you're getting three dozen for what your neighbor is paying for about two.

But wait, there's more. You may not need all those cable channels if you have chickens. Yes, they are that entertaining. You may drop that expensive collectibles hobby. The eggs you give neighbors may come back as grapefruit or tomatoes --put that in the plus column. Oh, and now you have organic fertilizer -- better get a price check on that and add it to the avoided cost column. And, guess what, if you decide you really didn't want chickens, your movable coop can be sold to the next owner, allowing you to "re-coop" most of your construction costs.

So as pets go, the balance sheet on backyard chickens can actually look pretty good.

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