Real food — unprocessed, healthy stuff that tastes good and that you can recognize on the plate as something edible — doesn’t cost the same as mass-produced, highly processed stuff. Whether it costs more or less is a point of contention and debate in many circles. Like many food and agricultural topics, it’s complicated. I think it’s important to recognize, however, that there’s a big difference between the cost-effectiveness of raising eggs to sell and raising them for your own use. In addition to the monetary aspects, I don’t think you can have a conversation about whether it’s worth it to raise your own food without considering the quality. When you raise your own food, you know exactly what goes into into it, and what doesn’t go into it — like antibiotics, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and hormones. You also know exactly how healthy your chickens are, and whether your eggs are handled for maximum freshness, nutrition and safety.
I recently ran across an article on the Weston A. Price Foundation website in which the author lined out costs for raising eggs (he was selling them to a CSA). I thought it would be interesting to compare his calculations to my own.
Author Bill Hyde and his wife run their 75-100 chickens on seven acres in Colorado, along with sheep, pigs and goats. The chickens live in moveable pens (chicken tractors) during the summer and fixed coops with yards during the winter. Hyde buys food in addition to using pastures for forage in the summer. He also buys his chicks. He includes other costs, such as the transportation costs of driving to town to sell the eggs, packaging, land and supplies. It sounds as though his permanent coops have lights, although he doesn’t use them to force laying. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/the-real-cost-of-real-food/
Although we have much more land (185 acres), I raise my 30-odd chickens in confinement on deep litter — less predator pressure, and I can use the compost the chickens make from the litter and manure in the garden. One pen is made of 5-foot wire fencing panels with a coop that was a pump house in a previous life. The other is a chicken tractor with a small fenced run. Both were built almost entirely with salvaged materials. Although I bought the original chicks, my hens raise their own chicks (I’ve used incubators, but frankly I don’t think they’re worth the effort for a family chicken flock). I feed food scraps — including those from the local school — grain screenings, excess milk and meat scraps from our butchering, as well as weeds and trimmings from the garden. My chicken pens have neither lights nor running water.
It’s hard to make a direct cost comparison in this situation, since a lot of my pens and structures are made from recycled material. And much of the food is grown here on the ranch or would otherwise be wasted – like excess milk, meat scraps from butchering, spoiled hay and garden weeds. Still, it’s pretty clear to me that It’s VERY cost-effective to raise my own eggs, and if I wanted to sell some, I wouldn’t have any trouble making a profit.
Hyde buys his chicks from commercial hatcheries at around $3.20 per chick. He figures that by the time a hen is ready to lay, he’s put $15.40 into her. That’s basically feed and losses from chicks that die. He also calculates that the average hen will lay 20 dozen eggs over the course the next two years, so he sees his egg cost as $0.77 per dozen. But he also included costs for shelter, a mobile tractor, land, labor, transportation (to take the eggs to market) utilities and supplies. By the time he totes all that up, his eggs cost him $11.52 per dozen, and that’s without profit.
Although I bought my initial batch of hens as chicks, now they raise their own. No hatchery cost. I don’t feed the chicks special feed, their mama rustles it for them from the stuff I feed my chickens (clabbered milk or chicken cheese, grain screenings, kitchen waste, food scraps from the local school, garden trimmings and weeds, spoiled hay, meat scraps and offal). My chicken pen is built of recycled materials, as is the chicken tractor, and both are at least eight years old. The chicken coop itself started life as a pump house several decades ago. Unlike Hyde, I figure a three-year life for my laying hens. However, I do agree with his calculation of about 120-150 eggs per hen per year. Most of that cost is for the grain screenings we buy in bulk. So, although it costs me about $14 to bring a hen to the point where she’s ready to lay, that means my eggs cost me about $.05 each or $0.60/dozen if I figure a hen will lay about 360 eggs over three years (plus the additional feed, which Hyde seems to leave out of his calculations). Obviously, it’s cost effective to raise my own eggs. And should I decide to sell some, I could easily undercut the going price for equivalent eggs (currently around $5-6 per dozen) and make money.