The real cost of small-scale egg production

Posted by Alberto Suarez Esteban on January 5, 2022

A lot of people dream of keeping chickens in their backyard. If you are one of the lucky ones not hindered by local by-laws, you may be wondering whether it is worth it. We wanted to share an economic analysis to help you make the decision.

The benefits

Chickens are amazing animals. They are resilient and hardy to a wide range of temperatures. They eat almost anything. They require relatively low maintenance. They are smart animals and entertaining to watch. If integrated in the right way, they can be amazing partners for preparing a garden or regenerating soils. They can help reduce pest (and tick!) pressure. And obviously, they produce a source a high-quality protein for us: eggs.

The data we have collected over 3+ years of keeping chickens suggest that young hens (<1.5 years) bred for laying (we have kept Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Barred Rock and Black Sex Link, all brown egg layers), produce 0.65 eggs/day on average. In our latitude, peak production happens in the spring, when days are relatively long and temperatures are ideal for chickens. In extreme temperatures, either cold or hot, laying decreases.

This means that our flock of 20-25 hens provides between 7 and 8 dozen eggs per week, on average. Since 2019, we have been selling our eggs at $8/dozen, which means we get between $56 and $64 per week. If you think we charge too much, keep reading.  

We keep chickens in our nursery over the winter, so they can continue to scratch, have dust baths and be sheltered from the weather.

The costs

Chickens are relatively low-maintenance compared to other domestic animals, but they do need a few basic things:

  • Food: we feed our chickens organic mixed grains and food scraps. Between March and November they are out on pasture, eating plants and bugs. In the winter they need a calcium supplement, as they don’t have access to bugs or green vegetation.
    • Each laying hen consumes about 1 Kg of organic mixed grains / week. The cost of organic grains is about $1.4/Kg (more than double the price of grains grown with chemicals). Feeding our flock costs us about $32/week.
    • Hens take 6-8 months to start laying. It costs us about $35 in food alone to raise a hen to the point of laying. Raising chicks also involves more labour and electricity costs. For simplicity, we will not include those costs here.
    • Calcium supplements cost us about $17/year ($0.33/week).
  • Water: chickens drink a surprising amount, and they can make water very dirty very fast. To ensure they maintain access to clean water, we have a 5 gallon bucket with nipples that they peck at when they need a drink. Over the summer, we re-fill the bucket 2 or 3 times per week. Over the winter, we provide warm, clean water every day in an open container.
    • The labour to keep our flock fed and watered is around 15 min/day (or 105 min/week; roughly the equivalent of watching a movie). If we paid ourselves minimum wage (we are running a business after all), that would be around $26.25/week.
  • Shelter: Every predator the size of a weasel or larger, including winged ones, would love to eat chickens. Small chicks are vulnerable to even more predators, including rats, snakes and squirrels. To protect our chickens, we use two basic pieces of infrastructure:
    • A secure coop, impenetrable to predators, where chickens spend the night, when they are the most vulnerable. We have a mobile coop for the summer, and a fixed one for the winter and for raising chicks. The cost of building these coops, including our labour, was $850. We hope this infrastructure will last us 7 years, excluding minor repairs, which means that they depreciate $2.33/week). Coops need to be open and closed every day, or else we risk losing chickens.
    • A secure chicken run: over the summer, we keep our chickens inside an electrified net. This net, plus a solar energizer powerful enough to deter most predators cost us $950 (or a weekly depreciation of $2.60 over the 7 years we hope this equipment will last us for). Over the winter, we keep our chickens in our nursery, which cost us about $500 to build using a lot of reclaimed materials. This depreciates by about $0.53/week for chickens only. The summer run is moved every few weeks, which usually takes about 1 hr of labour each time. For simplicity, we will not include this cost here, but rotating the run enables chickens to maintain access to high quality fresh greens and bugs that not only support their health but increase the nutritional value of their eggs.

Now that chickens are taken care of, eggs need to be harvested, stored, and sometimes cleaned. The labour for this accounts to about 5 min/day, or 35 min/week. At minimum wage, that is $8.75/week.

As a business, we also pay insurance, which comes to about $8/week just for the chickens.

Over the summer we have our chickens out on pasture on their mobile coop, protected by an electrified net.

The balance

In a nutshell, it costs us $89.79/week to produce eggs at our scale, and we get an average of $60/week in return.

Weekly income from eggs$60
Weekly cost of feed while laying- $32
Weekly cost of feed while not laying- $9
Weekly cost of calcium- $0.33
Weekly cost of care labour- $26.25
Weekly depreciation of coop- $2.33
Weekly depreciation of run- $3.13
Weekly cost of harvest labour- $8.75
Weekly cost of insurance- $8
Balance- $29.79

Does this mean that we are losing money? Sort of. This means that we don’t pay ourselves barely anything for the labour that providing this service requires.

This also means that, starting in January 2022, we sell our eggs at $9/dozen, because it is not sustainable for us not to pay ourselves. We will still not be making minimum wage, but it will be an improvement.

Now, if you are looking into keeping chickens for yourself, you will not have the labour and insurance costs that we have, and your infrastructure costs may be smaller, depending on the size of your flock and how you manage it. We hope this breakdown will help you to roughly calculate how much keeping chickens would cost you.

Why bother?

There are a few reasons why we keep chickens:

  • We like them! A farm does not feel quite like a farm without animals. And everyone loves them. The first thing people, particularly children, are drawn to when they visit the farm is the chickens.
  • Organic, farm-fresh eggs are just superior when it comes to flavour and nutrient content and we want our community to enjoy them.
  • Our chickens provide non-monetary benefits including ground preparation, fertilization, pest control and even heating in the spring (chickens and seedlings overlap for a few weeks in the nursery).
We raise our flock from day-old chicks, so we know what they have been fed, and they develop their natural foraging instincts outside.

Why feeding organic grains?

Because we did not get into farming to support practices that damage our planet and our health. We don’t want to feed our chickens, or our customers for that matter, harmful chemicals (grains get their fair share of chemical pesticides, including glyphosate) that damage biodiversity, contribute to climate change, and have been linked to cancer and other diseases in humans.

Organic principles are the minimum bar we set for our farm, and we want to support other farmers that do the same.

Why not buy ready-to-lay chickens instead of raising them from chicks?

Ready-to-lay hens cost about $20 each. They take a couple of weeks to start laying after you buy them, but it is still cheaper than raising day-old chicks, which costs us about $35 each.

We have avoided this option for two main reasons: one, we have not found a source of ready-to-lay hens that are raised with organic grain, and if we had, it would probably be much more expensive than doing it ourselves. Two, ready-to-lay hens come with their beaks cut off (so they don’t hurt each other at the high densities they are raised at in hatcheries). As a result, they may not be as capable of foraging while on pasture.

Why not increase the size of the flock?

That would be a great way to increase revenue while fixed costs (shelter, labour) remain about the same. However, this is risky for us. At our current flock size, we are sold out of eggs every week. If we were to increase the size of the flock significantly, we may end up with more eggs than we can sell, which would hurt our economics even more. Also, demand is not very consistent and it is hard for us to predict how many dozen eggs we will sell every week.

Do you have questions?

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One comment on “The real cost of small-scale egg production”

  1. Fantastic breakdown and sharing of the costs and considerations Alberto. Very insightful and really appreciate the openness in sharing your info and data.
    They are indeed delicious eggs and the noticeable difference is worth the cost.
    Thanks as always!

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