Cost and Coop Considerations for the Heritage-Breed Chicken Farmer

Reader Contribution by Jo Devries
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A water bottle provides clean water and entertainment.

I’ve raised chickens off and on over the past 20 years. Over that time, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve worked hard to figure out a way to make the chickens generate a profit or at least pay for themselves. I’ve purchased adult birds and sometimes bought chicks. I’ve bred birds and seen many a chick hatch. I’ve witnessed miracles and suffered losses.

The biggest poultry losses I’ve undergone have been from predators. Building a solid chicken coop solved part of the problem.

Risks with Free-Ranging Chickens

If you are going to let your chickens free-range, you will probably end up losing a few. Letting one’s chickens run free means choosing freedom for them to enjoy natural surroundings, over the risk involved. A dust bath enables a chicken to lie in the bosom of Mother Earth, to dry out their feathers, and be renewed in spirit. Still, I take a risk every time I let my chickens out.

My coop is surrounded by forest, dense brush and long grass, and some birds will venture 200 feet away. I’ve walked out to the coop mid-afternoon and found a dead chicken every 20 feet, down to the road. I lost about 10 that time. Some predators won’t simply dine and dash; they’ll kill as many chickens as they can.

Letting one’s birds free-range means the pocketbook could take a hard hit. Your investment, let alone profit, could be gone in minutes. But I love watching the birds scratching up the ground, finding bugs and worms, and wanting to come back home to a safe place to truly relax, at the end of the day. It’s a dangerous world out there. A well-fenced outdoor chicken yard is on my to-do list.

In the months when going outside isn’t feasible, my chickens enjoy an indoor dust bath. Each of the three large cages in my coop has a dust bath: fine sand and dry earth in any suitable container. A baby bathtub works great. I often add a bit of diatomaceous earth. This helps keep mites and fleas at bay. I know the birds truly appreciate it; they use it often.

A variety of chicken breeds deliver a pretty variety of eggs.

Cost Advantages of Raising Heritage Breeds

Chickens will provide fresh eggs for eating, and if you have enough of them, selling. A dozen farm-fresh eggs can fetch $5 in my area. They’re even easier to sell if you’ve got a variety of eggs. Different chickens lay different sizes, shapes and colours of eggs. I chose Ameraucanas for their large, pretty, bluish-green eggs, the Leghorns for their consistent laying ability of large white eggs, and the Silkies, because they are usually good mothers that lay small pastel eggs.

Different breeds also have different behaviours. The Leghorns are bossy pigs, but they’re smart, keep themselves clean, and are the best layers. The Ameraucanas can be bold, but some of them will hatch out chicks. There are advantages and disadvantages to each breed.

From a financial point of view, breeding chickens makes the most sense. A single heritage breed chick usually sells here for $5. You could get $5 for a dozen eggs or $60 for a dozen chicks.

The market is presently far from usual. Lately, I’ve seen certain breeds — Silkie and Guinea fowl — sell for $15 a chick, and you’d be lucky to get them. One single super-mom hen could hatch out up to four batches of 10 eggs. With an 80% success rate, she would generate a good profit. That’s not including the eggs she will lay in the other months.

Electric Incubators vs. Broody Hens

The fact that I’m breeding chickens and raising young is the reason for the bulk of work in my coop. When the eggs are laid, I either collect them for eating or date them with a marker and put them under a broody hen. I live without electricity, so I don’t have an incubator. It takes only 21 days for that chicken egg to become a chick. I inspect the eggs on a daily basis. A few chicks have needed help getting out. I’ve saved quite a few, and sadly, accidentally, probably killed a few.

I know an incubator could increase my numbers dramatically, and solar panels on my coop roof would probably power them, but I like to see a baby with its mom, not in a machine. It also means less work for me.

An incubator is a great investment for a chicken farmer, but it is not without its problems. A very large chicken breeder I buy from lost 800 eggs at one time during a power failure — heartbreaking and a serious financial blow.

Not all hens will hatch out eggs. The average commercial breed will not raise young. Some heritage breeds have a higher rate of broody hens, but the Silkie outshines them all. Silkie chickens tend to have a great disposition and broody hens will sit on any type of egg: chicken, duck or quail. I’ve had 5-week-old Silkies that mothered day-old Guinea fowl chicks. I believe the Silkie is one of the most sustainable chicken breeds and they will always be part of my flock.

A simple container can make a great dust bath.

A Coop Cleaning Routine that Works

Besides trying to make raising poultry feasible, I’m trying to make it easier and more enjoyable. I’ve realized that I spend a lot of time working with my chickens. I want my coop to have a great feeling about it — a place I enjoy being in. A place my birds enjoy being in.

For most people, the cleaning of the coop is drudgery. But keeping birds confined to a dirty cage is not wise living. A clean coop means everyone will be happier and healthier. Old chicken poop is very dangerous to breathe. A good quality mask is important when cleaning coops, especially old, unused pens. I’ve got more than a few masks around.

I make sure I clean my coop often; if it gets too stinky, the job becomes miserable. Dirty cages mean more likelihood of soiled eggs, which are going to require washing. So, cleaning the cage more often isn’t necessarily much more work.

I designed my coop to allow plenty of room to run my large wheel-barrow down the center of it to make the job easier. In between cleanings, I simply stir up the bedding and spread a new layer of shavings over top. I love handling wood shavings; they smell fantastic and are great at keeping the wet areas dried out. I only use straw for bedding in the cold months, when the temperatures drop well below zero, and the birds can burrow into it to keep warm.

I’ve also discovered the convenience of using rabbit water bottles for my chickens. This device keeps the water clean, and several bottles means you can leave home for a longer period of time. I think that the water bottles also help relieve boredom in the coop. It gives the chickens something different to do. As we all know, the days are long when one is being cooped up.

There’s a lot to be discovered in the business of raising chickens. Let’s keep learning and sharing.

Jo deVries(Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect withJo of the Woodsand read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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