Do Backyard Chickens Really Help Your Grocery Budget?

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  • Backyard chickens are legal in many areas, but there are often restrictions on how many you can keep and where you can house them.
  • There are a lot of startup costs, including purchasing the hens and setting up a coop.
  • The time investment isn't huge, but the emotional investment can be.

Backyard chickens can be eggcellent investments.

As we become more interested in the quality of our food -- and the quality of life for the animals that make it -- more and more people are jumping on the backyard chicken bandwagon. After all, what's not to love about a steady stream of eggs right in your backyard?

But it isn't so simple as "buy chickens, get eggs." You have to consider all the personal finance implications. There are a lot of costs associated with rearing your own egg-layers. This includes the tangible costs, like startup supplies and maintenance costs. There's also the less-tangible things, like your time and emotional investment.

In the end, whether you actually break even -- or, better, reduce your overall grocery costs -- isn't sure. There are a lot of variables involved. Let's take a look.

But first: The legality of backyard chickens

Before getting into the costs, it's worth mentioning the possible legal intricacies. Backyard chickens are indeed legal in many places, and not just for country homesteads. Many cities allow residents to raise backyard chickens, even larger urban areas like Boston and San Francisco.

However, you shouldn't take it for granted that you're allowed to have your own flock. What's more, even if backyard chickens are allowed, there are usually restrictions on how many, what kind, and where they need to be housed. For example, most urban areas limit you to three hens, and no roosters. You may also need to build their coop a certain distance from both your home and any nearby properties.

The startup costs

Now, onto the costs. The first bit of money you'll need to shell out is to get your chickens set up -- and to actually acquire them.

This leads to the questions: chicks or hens? You can typically purchase chicks (baby chickens) for a few dollars each at the local farm supply store. But, chicks don't lay eggs; you'll need to wait around six months before they start producing breakfast products for you. Hens, on the other hand, are ready to lay -- but they're not cheap. Depending on age and breed, you could be looking at $30 or more per bird.

Next, the house. Chickens need a coop. A good rule of thumb is to allow for at least four square feet per chicken, plus a nesting box for each hen. Prefab chicken coops can easily cost $500 or more just for the coop. While you can certainly build the coop yourself, this still means material and time costs.

You'll likely also need heat lamps for the winter, fans for the summer, bedding materials, and some kind of water dispenser. Oh, and a webcam, if you want to keep an eye on your flock from the comfort of your couch.

Maintenance costs

Costs don't end once you get your initial setup. Maintaining your chickens will also come with some regular costs. The largest of these will likely be keeping your chickens fed. Hungry hens don't lay eggs.

How much you spend on feed will vary based on the quality of feed you want and how you supplement it. If you have a garden and/or go through a lot of produce, the scraps can go a long way towards keeping your flock fed. And letting them roam your yard to snack on insects and weeds can also help keep the feed bill down. But chances are still good you'll need to purchase feed at least during the winter.

Upkeep for your coop will also come with costs. This includes power for the heating and cooling, lights, and webcam. The bedding materials will need to be replaced regularly to keep your coop clean. And, like anything living, your flock will need the occasional medicines and healthcare. There's also the cost of pet-sitters -- chicken-sitters? -- if you need to leave town; while your flock may be okay for a few days on their own, anything longer will lead to disaster.

Another important cost to keep in mind is that of maintaining your flock's size. Hens get old. Old hens lay fewer eggs, then stop laying altogether. To keep the eggs coming, you'll need to add additional hens to your flock over the years. Alternatively, you could get a rooster -- if local ordinances allow -- and incubate your own chicks. But roosters come with their own drawbacks, so be sure to research it ahead of time.

Time costs

This particular expense is more ephemeral, but not less real. You'll be sinking a decent bit of time into your chickens. You'll need to feed them every day, for instance, as well as taking a few minutes to gather any eggs. You also need to regularly clean out the coop. This should include spending some time inspecting your hens for any parasites or other issues.

Emotional costs

Lastly, there's the potential emotional complications of raising chickens. Chances are pretty good your family will grow to love the little food producers like pets. Unfortunately, chickens aren't always the most long-lived of creatures.

Which brings us to the old hen dilemma. As mentioned above, old hens stop laying. What then? Do you send them off to the proverbial "farm" to "retire" and become dinner? Or do you pay to house and feed hens that don't provide any eggs in return?

There's also the predator issue. Pretty much anything with canine teeth will probably want to take a bite or two out of your ladies. Even in an urban environment, foxes, cats, dogs, or even large predatory birds can all cut your hens' lives short. Be prepared for the inevitable discussion of what happened to Henrietta.

The return: Eggs and entertainment

So, what do you get in return for the money, time, and emotional investment? Eggs. And potentially a lot of them. The average hen can lay between four and six eggs a week, depending on their age and the season. Three backyard hens can easily net you a dozen eggs a week. A comparable dozen of organic, free range eggs at the market can go for $5 to $7.

If you're a gardener, you'll also score another perk: chicken poop. A flock of hens can provide a whole lot of free fertilizer.

There's also one more benefit that may not have monetary value, but that can be worthwhile all the same: entertainment. Many backyard chicken owners report that their little feathered friends are a constant source of hilarious hijinks. Think of it as on-demand Chicken TV.

In the end, whether backyard chickens really do help your grocery budget will depend on a lot of variables. With some initial investment, a little upkeep, and some time, you could definitely get some good value from having hens of your own. But chickens aren't for everyone -- or every yard. Be sure to research the requirements before gathering your flock.

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