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Nov 06
Backyard Chickens May Bring Happiness But Not Cost Savings

Bill, could be the name of any American retiree thinking about what to do for the rest of his life.

In this case, let's say that he is a 64-year-old corporate sector retiree, recently fulfilling his lifelong dream of leaving the suburbs to build a retirement home on the 60 acres where his grandfather ran a truck and livestock farm a half century ago.

One of the first things he may want to do is raise Rhode Island Red, Dominique and White Leghorn chickens — the same breeds raised on his grandfather's farm roughly a half century ago.

What's wrong with this idea? Nothing, if he's raising these birds solely for a sense of nostalgia and the enjoyment they provide.

But that's not the case. Bill is raising them primarily to save on grocery store costs. And for that reason, he's in for a letdown, experts say.

Dr. Ken Macklin, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System poultry specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of poultry science, says there are plenty of reasons to raise poultry, but cost saving isn't one of them.

This applies whether they are raised for their eggs or their meat, Macklin says.

For starters, there are a lot of upfront costs. And even assuming a few things — a coop already built and electrically wired to provide the laying hens with the prescribed 16 hours of light a day — you still have to account for feed costs.

In terms of profit and cost saving, feeding the chickens is often the biggest obstacle to raising backyard chickens.

Macklin cites figures showing that a 20-bird flock will typically consume in 10 days a 40-pound bag of feed, which typically costs more than $7. Add to that $2 for cracked corn and $2.50 for bedding straw.

With 20 chickens, a homegrown producer, under ideal circumstances, will harvest about 120 eggs in ten days. Selling these eggs for a dollar a dozen at the local farmers market nets a monthly profit of $4.50. And this doesn't account for electricity costs for the coop, upkeep on anything that breaks and any disease treatment that may be required for the birds.

The same obstacles also apply to raising chickens for meat.

If this is true, how come so many of our parents and grandparents got through the Great Depression and other hard times raising their own chickens?

Because those were different times — years before the advent of commercial poultry production and supermarket chains, Macklin says.

"You just can't raise an animal cost effectively that is readily available at the supermarket — whole and dressed — for about $4," Macklin says.

"One chicken will eat that much money in feed in a month. And even then, its dressed carcass won't be as big as the one available at the supermarket."

That's only the beginning of the challenges associated with homegrown chickens.

The taste of homegrown meat often doesn't compare with those of commercially grown chickens.

"Free-range chickens, for example, don't necessarily have a gamey taste, but they do taste differently than what we're accustomed to." Macklin says. He attributes these differences in what the birds eat.

Even so, he says some people enjoy the different taste.

Backyard chickens also contain more bacteria, simply because they, unlike commercially grown chickens, are not only exposed to elements — rain, wind, cold and heat — but also to diseases carried by other birds that fly in and scavenge the feed.

Exposure to these stress factors typically stymies the growth of these homegrown chickens.

Still, Macklin readily acknowledges the personal satisfaction that often comes from raising backyard chickens, even though this doesn't translate into cost savings.

"It's a lot like backyard beekeeping, you raise the chickens because you enjoy doing it as a hobby, not because you're saving money," he says.

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