Will We Keep Keeping Chickens?

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One of our eggs on the left and an egg from Vital Farms on the right.

I love our current flock of chickens. They’re a strikingly beautiful genetic mashup of Barnevelders and Americana hens that we got from the folks at Winnetka Farms (Craig was a guest on episode 56 and 57 of the podcast). They’ve proved to be a healthy, peaceful bunch who are still laying eggs after five years.

We let our hens live out their natural lives which can vary between just a few years and a decade or so. Lately, I’ve found myself pondering the day we have to decide to either get more chickens or close up poultry operations. There’s a lot of negatives for keeping chickens in our small, urban backyard. We have lead and zinc in the soil, so many predators that the hens have to live in what I call “chicken Guantanamo,” and a small irregular piece of property that makes using a chicken tractor impossible. While I built a generous run for our four hens, I really wish that they could wander more freely, but that’s just not possible where we live.

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Another big change that’s happened since we started keeping hens ten years ago is the wide availability of pasture raised eggs. As most readers of this blog know, the supermarket egg labeling game, “cage free” and “free range”, is a load of . . . chicken poo. Cage free and free range supermarket eggs are from chickens crammed in huge sheds. These chickens never see the light of day and live in appalling conditions. You might be able to get eggs from chickens that live outdoors at a local farmer’s market, but beware of unscrupulous vendors.

A number of companies, such as Vital Farms and Red Hill Farms, have responded to consumer concerns and are marketing eggs raised on pasture. These pastured eggs are expensive when compared to the “cage free” and “free range” alternatives but probably cheaper than my feed and coop costs (though an accountant would argue I’ve already sunk the money into that coop!). And check out the yolk color in the photo above–the pastured eggs I’ve bought at the supermarket (during the winter–I don’t put a light in our coop) have a much darker yolk color than our ladies’ eggs. I should note that while I have spoken to Vital Farms sales reps I have not done full due diligence on any of the companies marketing pastured eggs.

I’m pleased to see our food system respond to the concern that motivated many of us backyard chicken keepers in the first place, namely the inhumane conditions in factory poultry operations. Perhaps the pasture raised eggs we can now buy at the supermarket would not have come to be without so many of us taking the extraordinary step of welcoming poultry back into the city.

What do you think? Do you keep chickens? Why?

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19 Comments

  1. This will be my 5th year keeping chickens. They are still the original batch so the laying is down considerably, but they are still doing their jobs, eating bugs, kitchen scraps and anything they can get their beaks on. I’ve gotten a little disillusioned by them over the years and they don’t get out as often to have full run of the yard (supervised, too many dogs) but they do have a decent run in their enclosed coop. I think I’m still providing them a pretty good life, and they are still providing me a pretty good life, so we are at an equilibrium. I’m not sure if I’ll get more to replace them when they die though. There are a lot of good egg options around now.

  2. I’m dealing with a very similar situation. The farm I bought a few years ago already had a large run and three huge coops for chickens (although i found later were infested with red mites), so no sunken costs that way. Between my time, the cost of feed (Scratch & Peck — not cheap), meal worms, and everything else you need to keep chickens I estimate I am paying around $3/egg.

    The pleasure in watching the chickens is beyond value, but I’m finally starting to consider whether i really need to be doing this. I’ll let the existing chickens live out their lives, but won’t be adding new chicks this year.

  3. We’ll be adding a couple of new hens to our flock of three this year when Chick Days rolls around at the local feed store. To me, it’s a secure, controllable source of protein we have on hand at all times that requires no loss of life to consume. It’s renewable food — you feed them, they make eggs. Our hens range freely for a couple of hours each day and have a large coop and run when they aren’t doing that. I consider the effort worth it, they are very low maintenance and I enjoy their personalities. What other pet earns its keep the way a hen does?

  4. I’ve bought the Vital Farms eggs in western Colorado, and I must say the yolks were no where near the color you seem to have gotten. They were a very light pallid yellow, lighter, in fact, than the “free range” eggs I usually buy. I wrote them off as greenwashing at the time, but I’m sure there’s significant variation between the individual farms they are sourcing from.

    My family will probably get chickens in the future, and the pleasure two young kids derive from the chickens will help offset the additional cost over store-bought eggs. When that happens, I plan to grow grasses for them to eat, as well as raise various bugs and grubs for them to munch on, so hopefully we can get yolks closer to the nice dark orange I’ve seen from other urban homesteaders.

  5. I cherished the fantasy of keeping chickens for a long time, but I’ve finally given it up, for several reasons: (1) Our Upstate NY city’s regulations on the subject are unclear and confusing; (2) we have every variety of predator the country folks have and then some; (3) like you, we don’t really have enough room for a chicken tractor arrangement to work; (4) we have a neighbor across the street who’s the 21st-century version of Margo Ledbetter in “The Good Life,” for folks who remember that hilarious 1970s BBC comedy; and (5) my husband and I are now in our 60s, battling a few physical and mental challenges, and thinking hard before taking on any major new ventures.

    So we’ve decided we’ll encourage the folks at our local farmers’ market who are raising eggs and chickens. So far, our best luck with eggs (in terms of both cost and quality) has come with very small-time operators who can’t afford to get certified organic and bring just a few dozen a week to the market. Get to know your suppliers, and they’ll do right by you.

  6. While we don’t have the space to raise the number of hens required to make selling eggs profitable (unless I can find a cheaper way to feed them, I’m considering trying raising Balck Soldier fly this year), I feel we get an adequate return on investment from our hens kept for personal use. We get chicks and slaughter older hens on a regular cycle, which keeps them more profitable (I make soup stock from the carcass and eat the meat), and I only feed productive birds, plus they produce valuable manure that my urban farm needs. We don’t have any eggs that can be purchased in a store here (Mid Michigan)that equal those my hens lay. Plus, I enjoy keeping livestock and my 1 1/2 yo daughter already loves feeding her birds- worth their feed in and of itself!

  7. totally off topic, but I just had the chance to listen to the podcast about Kelly’s aortic disection adventure. I was really touched, hearing the narrative of events and the post-trauma reflection. I’m glad you’re alive, Kelly. There’s little else I can or need to say. Just that. Welcome “back,” so to speak. And gosh, but isn’t life precious.

  8. I miss having chickens! I moved to a snottier neighborhood and am afraid my new neighbors will freak out over the noise. They are so easy to care for and my worm bin that is teaming with pill bugs is a chicken buffet. Maybe some day…

  9. I have been contemplating this questions as well. I inherited my chickens. The previous owner had ten tens in a run built for three, so she let them free range. They were very happy free-ranging, to the point that when a hawk moved in and I tried to keep them in their run, they viciously attacked each other. So, it was a debacle either way. Eventually I decided to let them free-range and let nature take its course. This was sad but better than watching them kill each other in their run.

    So, I’m currently without chickens. I buy the Vital Farms eggs and have had consistently good quality eggs. I *do* miss my chickens. If I were to get them again, I would commit to spending more time with them when they were young so they were a little more easily managed and trained. I’d build them a better run or figure out how to make a tractor situation work. But I’m not going to get them unless I’m really ready to take excellent care of them.

  10. Each morning I am greeted by our hens is a treat. We’ve been at this for over five years and the eggs are a break even proposition. Feeding table scraps helps. We have ample runs and no way to have a tractor. I’m planning a tractor for my brother in law’s hillside vineyard. Reminds me of your front yard bed. Should be able to make it work.

  11. I’ve never kept chickens and undoubtedly never will. I’ve been Vegetarian most of my life, and I use eggs only in baked goods. But I like watching poultry–there’s something homelike and pleasant about watching chickens peck the ground. They are useful and productive creatures.

    I used to keep Guinea fowl. Charming creatures with polka dotted feathers and Delorean wings. My cats adored them. Noisy as all get out. I loved them because they ate all the fire ants on my acreage. And that was plenty productive enough for me.

    Heckle and Jeckle lived uncommonly long and happy lives…..until they were carried off by birds of prey (a hawk and an owl, respectively). I would love to keep Guinea fowl again but my neighbors object. As I said, noisy as all get out.

  12. We are on our second flock, and I’m thinking of integrating a younger flock to stagger the egg production. We are in an urban setting, but we have a large chicken run for the girls. We let them out to roam the rest of the yard when we can, and plant fodder for them as well. I consider them pets with benefits! I enjoy them very much and hope to always have hens.

  13. Our 2 chickens have both died. The most recent 6 months ago. The empty coop calls to me daily as I, too, weigh the pros and cons of replacing them. I enjoyed the chickens on many levels, all pointed out in other comments. I miss having the sweet girls in my garden. I am approaching 70 and my husband has stage 4 cancer, so I have to factor in that I will be hauling feed and cleaning the coop. Still, the pro list tips lower on the scale of value. Watching hens chase Japanese beetles is priceless.

  14. I don’t know how many hens you have, but for eggs, for just the two of you, three hens would be enough. It’s too easy to keep more than is needed and then it gets to be a boring chore! Get three production birds at ‘point of lay”, under a year old or raise them from chicks. Get rid of them at 3 years old and replace with new ones. Old hens make excellent “chicken and dumplings” when slow cooked. If that isn’t your thing, find them new homes. Either case, keep fewer birds. Then you can afford the very best feeds Whole corn, (as an addition, not instead of lay pellets), will give you nice, yellow yolks!

  15. I’m on the other side – I moved to Canada and had to sell off my Hollywood chickens! I miss them all the time, and cringe every time I have to throw something they would have loved into the compost. To make matters worse, my family owns a restaurant here, and the amount of food waste could probably feed a small flock. We hope to buy a home this year and a chicken coop will be one of the first things I build.

    Now, I did always light my chicken coop in the winter. One LED 40 watt equivalent kept them laying just fine, and the hens that didn’t lay or have particularly sparkling personalities went into the pot. Hauling expensive organic feed for yard ornaments makes the math work out poorly!

  16. Remember, just as a note, that marigold petals in the feed will turn the yolks a golden color. A Purina rep, dismissive of organic, non Gmo, and pasture preferences, was giving a talk about their feed and how it gives consumers the golden yolks they want even if they don’t leave the pen. I was horrified that what I thought was evidence of a good diet could also just be marigold petals in the food…

  17. We cull our hens after a few years, sooner if they’re not producing. We don’t think of them as pets; if the city wants to let us keep them as pets, great. But they aren’t pets. They don’t free range as yet, but we have only three, and their run is huge. I do want to bring them into the garden to get their help with weeds and insects, and slugs. Which reminds me that if I’m going to do it, it’d better be soon because now is the time to get the soil prepped. If they could get all the slug eggs out of the soil now it would sure lower the slug population well before I transplant seedlings into it. One thing to remember is that you’re not going to get the same freshness as backyard eggs from supermarket eggs. But I get that you have a less than ideal situation.

  18. We are in our seventh year of keeping our own chickens and do so for the same reasons you do. We currently have 13 layers and one Roo, all of whom free range on about an acre (and yes, we’ve had heartbreaking challenges with predators). There’s nothing like a homegrown chicken egg for breakfast (or any other meal), not only in color and taste, but in the knowledge that our chickens are happy, healthy, and have eaten *very well day in and day out. I’m glad to see the changes in the grocery stores as well, but nothing will ever compare to our very own eggs.

  19. Just got my hens 2 days ago. My grand daughter, 2 1/2 yrs, chose them. What a delight. Put a run up for them. Seems they are are on a learning curve too. They don’t know that slugs and mice are good to eat. Clipped their left wings, looking forward towards the beaks, as they are young & light & can flutter up somewhat. So much rain here in the UK, they look a bit swamped, but they have their dry house to go to. Very talkative, do I talk back,(of course not, except sometimes). Well, must start cooking up some mash for them, nothing too good for my hens.

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