Every so often, someone writes to me to ask my advice about keeping chickens. Their goals usually boil down to “we want eggs” and sometimes also “we want to teach our children where food comes from.” These are admirable goals, even if the second one is rather dishonest — the eggs in the supermarket do not come from pet hens in backyards but from battery farms where the hens have a space about as large as a sheet of paper. I will go on record as saying I don’t think its a good idea to spring the realities of factory farming on your three-year-old, but neither do I think you need to outright lie.
Anyhoo. This has become more common as the backyard chicken thing takes off, although I think it’s now reached critical mass, and these well-meaning people often have some really drastic misconceptions about what keeping your own chickens means. I am then left with the unenviable position of pointing out all the problems with their plan.
1) You will certainly get fresher eggs, but unless your hens are free-ranging and the majority of their diet coming from pasture and bugs, the nutritional profile of the eggs from your hens is going to be pretty much the same as the ones you get in the supermarket. Free-range eggs are lower in cholesterol and higher in omega fatty acids, but eggs from a hen who lives in a coop in your back yard and eats commercial chicken feed with the occasional snack of kitchen scraps are not free-range hens.
2) Your eggs will not be “hormone free”. Hens in commercial egg farms are not treated with hormones to make them lay, as there’s no need. You can force a hen to lay by manipulating the level of light to which she’s exposed, which is what commercial egg farms do. Dairy is another story entirely.
3) Your eggs will be free of antibiotics. Some commercial egg farms do prophylactically treat hens with antibiotics. They need to because their hens are living in miserable, high-stress conditions. So as long as you’re not treating your hens with antibiotics, your eggs will be free of them. Keep in mind, however, that your hens may get sick and need treatment. They may get worms and need treatment. If you withhold treatment they need in the name of organic breakfast eggs, you’re an asshole.
4) You will not make money on chickens. You just won’t. You cannot compete with the economy of scale that commercial producers can leverage. It will cost you more to keep 3 or 4 hens at home for the eggs than to just buy your eggs at the grocery store, even if you are buying organic free-range eggs. I used to keep a spreadsheet amortizing the cost of feed and chicken facilities over the number of eggs produced. It got too depressing when it bottomed out at around $1 an egg, so I stopped.
You will also not make money selling offspring from your chickens. You are competing with the big hatcheries, and the people who will pay serious money for chickens are not going to want yours unless you have dedicated yourself to building a reputation on the poultry show circuit. This will take you years. There is no financial incentive to keeping chickens on a small scale.
5) There are only two ways to ensure you do not get roosters: either don’t keep chickens, or only buy adult hens. Vent sexing is 80-90 percent accurate, so even if you buy from the commercial hatcheries, you may still end up with a rooster or two. This leads us to another hard truth: as my friend s. e. smith stopped just short of saying when covering this, the name for extra roosters is “food.”
Even people like me, who live in the country and want roosters because we have a self-sustaining dual-purpose flock only need one rooster per ten hens. There is not a large market for pet roosters. It doesn’t matter if he is the sweetest rooster ever, if you tenderly hand-raised him for 8 weeks in a brooder in your spare bedroom, whatever reason you’re trying to convince yourself of. He is a surplus rooster, and the word for surplus roosters is “food.” If you are going to keep chickens, if you are going to hatch some eggs to teach your children about the miracle of life, then you have to come to terms with that.
You can try to sell your spare rooster. If you price him too high, say over $5, the odds are very slim anyone will buy him. If you price him under that, the odds are good that the person who comes to get him is going to eat him. If you can’t handle that, then hatching your own chickens or buying them as chicks is not for you. Stick to buying adult hens.
6) If a breed is “rare” then the odds are the gene pool is small and unhealthy. Someone is going to be upset with me for saying that, but it’s sadly true. Blue-laced red Wyandottes, a very pretty chicken, are the type I’ve seen it in most recently. They have a hard time thriving as chicks, and even as adults seem prone to mysteriously dying at a higher rate than other chickens.
People will try to tell you that “inbreeding doesn’t matter” with chickens. These people are at best misguided and at worst consciously lying to you. Chickens that have been relentlessly linebred for a particular look will have problems with fertility, with thriftiness, and with hardiness. You will end up babying them along and they’ll still drop dead at an alarming rate. THe problem here is that to keep an inbred line of animals healthy, you must cull relentlessly for fertility, thriftiness, and hardiness. Most people don’t. Beginner chicken owners are better off with a common breed purchased from a large hatchery, where egg-laying productivity matters, unless you want to have to coddle your chickens along for not much return.
If you truly want chickens who can thrive free-ranging with minimal human intervention, look for a flock of farmyard mutts. Local predators will have done the culling if the farmer didn’t do it herself.
7) The very last brutal disillusionment I have for would-be chicken owners: hens are loud. A hen’s egg-song is often just as loud as a rooster’s crow, and goes on for a lot longer. A hen will yell the characteristic “BWOCK BWOCK BGAWK” for as long as five minutes straight without ceasing. There are individual variations, of course, just as there are individual variations in pitch, length, and volume of rooster crows. But you should probably let go of the idea that you’re going to be able to keep chickens in an urban or suburban setting without your neighbors noticing.