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The backyard flock – is it worth it?

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If spring isn’t in the air it must be on the mind because everywhere I go I am seeing spring sales, plant sales and in the local farm store I am hearing the chirping of baby chicks for sale as well. My mom always said chickens were the gateway drug into farming – once you get a couple you will soon want a dozen and then you will move on to turkeys, pigs, goats and cows (or at least we did).

The backyard chicken is easier in some ways than a fish tank, and they will provide you with more than enough fresh eggs for your friends and family. The thought of starting your own flock may raise some questions, like how much work is this going to be? Can I have them in my backyard? How many eggs will I really get? I’d like to answer all those questions for you today.

For most homeowners living in rural communities having backyard chickens is an acceptable practice, but there are a few rules you should follow. The first is you should only keep hens in your flock, as having roosters crow every morning will turn your friendly neighbor into a cranky neighbor! Many cities will allow you to have hens but not roosters, so if you buy chickens and end up with a rooster you should remove him from the flock.

Chickens must be kept in a chicken coop with at least two square feet per bird. The coop should be cleaned and bedded with sawdust about one to two times a month. Chickens can make great use of your food scraps too, such as vegetables and old bread, but you shouldn’t feed them anything you’re not willing to eat. Food that has gone bad is better utilized in your compost bin with the chicken manure.

The manure and bedding are very high in nitrogen and phosphorus and make great additions to a compost pile for later use in the garden. It’s important to note that fresh manure must be composted to a temperature of 140º – 160º F to kill off any bad bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli. To achieve this temperature, the manure must undergo hot composting by piling your manure and food scraps into a large mound, getting it wet and leaving it for a few weeks to months.

Your flock will need fresh water and food daily. Chicken feed can be found at your local farm supply store. Depending on the age of your chickens, they will require different protein content to properly develop. Chick starter is very high in protein for early development, as your chicks get to be six weeks old, they should switch to a grower feed which is slightly less in protein. At 20 weeks, when your chickens start to lay their first eggs, you should switch your birds to a layer feed which has more calcium to support egg production.

So how many eggs will you get and how much does it really cost to own your own chickens? Once chickens reach maturity and start laying eggs, they will continue to do so for three or more years provided they are healthy and kept in good condition. Egg production will peak in summer and slow in winter, especially for older birds, with almost no eggs during the coldest months. Depending on the type of chicken you get, a chicken can lay about 250 eggs a year, which means you could get almost five eggs a week per bird. Since backyard flocks usually have at least six chickens, you could expect over 30 eggs a week!

Now that your chickens are producing you must figure out what to do with all these eggs – one possibility is to sell the extras. If you decide to sell eggs you must figure out how much to charge and what food safety rules you need to follow.

For backyard farmers selling their own eggs, NYS Ag & Markets does not make you follow any specific guidelines, but here are a few tips to keep your eggs fresh. Always wash your eggs of any dirt and manure then refrigerate. It’s smart to also package and label by the date you collected your eggs (old egg containers could work great for this). The amount to charge will depend on how much you feed the chickens and other inputs you have. To find your cost of production you need to keep track of your costs including feed, bedding and initial chick purchase, and don’t forget your chicken house and labor costs. After all that, most backyard chicken operations could produce a dozen eggs for between $3 -$4.

Given that large grade AA eggs in Wegmans right now cost $3.49, raising chickens might not generate the most savings, but many other nonmonetary benefits may outweigh that. For example, raising chickens can help teach your kids about responsibility and taking care of animals. Chickens can also help eliminate some of your compostable trash from going to the landfill. Chickens also eat bugs like ticks, spiders and beetles.

Overall, chicken ownership can be a very rewarding thing to do in your backyard. For more information on chickens CCE is offering a backyard poultry class April 11 for families and a 4-H poultry club for youth. If you have further questions on raising chickens and starting your own flock, you can also call Ag Economic Development Educator Jacob Maslyn at or 585.394.3977 ext. 402.

by Jacob Maslyn, Agriculture Economic Development Educator, CCE Ontario

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