There are many reasons to raise your own chickens for meat: a drive for self-sufficiency, a refusal to support industrial-farming systems, the satisfaction of knowing exactly where your food came from, a commitment to humane meat-animal production. Economics, you notice, is not on this list. From purchasing chicks to sourcing feed to processing chickens, there are both financial and time costs for everything.
Let’s say you want to raise one batch of chickens for meat each year: Fifteen is a good number to start with, giving you about one chicken to take out of the freezer each month and a few to give as gifts. Here, we look at the average cost of raising one batch of 15 chickens. The prices listed below are estimates based on numbers sampled from across the United States. Assuming you already have the infrastructure you need—shelter, fencing, waterers, feeders, storage space—consider these inputs from chick to freezer before embarking on a meat chicken-raising endeavor.
If you have a flock of heritage-breed meat chickens (such as Russian Orloff or Jersey Giant) or dual-purpose birds (Australorp, Buckeye or Chantecler, for example—breeds that are good for laying eggs, as well as good meat birds), and you have the patience and the know-how to hatch your own, you’re ahead of the curve already.
Without a ready-made flock, you need to purchase chicks from a hatchery, a breeder, a neighbor or a feed-supply store. Generally, fast-growing varieties that have been commercially developed specifically for meat—Cornish Cross and Red Ranger—will cost less than slow-growing heritage meat or dual-purpose breeds. The price will go up for the rarer breeds and will fluctuate depending on your source, as well.
The prices below are what you can expect for sexed cockerels, though keep in mind that male birds grow faster and put on more muscle:
Besides the cost of your chicks, feed will be the highest-value tangible input. Feed costs vary tremendously based on your location; whether it’s organic, non-GMO or conventional; current commodity prices; and the quantity purchased. If you have a means of storing feed, such as securely covered metal barrels, an old chest freezer or a feed wagon, you can make bulk feed purchases for a price break. Feed purchased in bags from the farm-supply store is generally more expensive than that purchased in bulk from a grain mill but also more convenient for small-scale chicken keeping. Pasture-raised chickens will get some of their nutrition from the flora and fauna of their surroundings—as much as 30 percent—so you can consider that in calculating your expected feed costs.
A slow-growing chicken that will be ready for processing in 12 to 16 weeks will eat less feed per day but more feed over its lifetime than a commercial-breed chicken that will grow fast, consume a lot of feed each day and reach market weight in eight weeks. Kentucky Cooperative Extension reports needing 105 to 120 pounds of feed to keep a flock of 15 fast-growing, commercial-breed meat birds. Raising slow-growing chickens requires 135 to 150 pounds of feed over the flock’s lifetime. Here’s what you can expect to pay for feed over the course of your flock’s lifespan:
Water is the most important nutrient for a chicken. Fast-growing meat birds require clean water to stay healthy.
Meat chicks need more than one-and-a-half to two times as much water as feed by weight, according to the University of Georgia Extension. Considering 1 gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds and using the feed estimates outlined earlier, your flock of 15 meat chicks will drink approximately 31 gallons of water over their lifespan. This number is averaged between the fast-growing breeds and the slow-growing breeds and will increase in hot weather and if your chicks happen to be eating more. Add in a few gallons for maintenance purposes: rinsing out waterers, cleaning off feeders, et cetera.
Whether you’re drawing well water or using a municipal source, your cost here is negligible. The Fairfax County (Virginia) Water Authority reports the average price of water in the U.S. is just $1.50 per 1,000 gallons.
During the chickens’ time in the brooder house and coop, they’ll create a lot of waste and will require bedding to absorb it, provide stable and dry footing, and maintain good air quality. Sawdust, wood shavings and chopped straw are good options.
Whether you choose to raise your meat birds on pasture or in a coop, they’ll all need to start out as chicks in a brooder house for two or three weeks. If you move your chickens out to chicken tractors at a few weeks of age, your bedding costs will be zero after that time. Keeping them indoors for their whole lives will mean the largest bedding bill, while providing access to a coop but not confining them to the structure will require a negligible bedding investment. The amount of bedding you need depends on the previously mentioned factors, as well as the size of the brooder house or coop.
As with most inputs, bedding costs will vary based on where you live and the source. Many lumber yards, furniture factories and other woodworkers give away their wood shavings for free; likewise, wood chips are often easy to come by from tree-trimming companies and utility contractors. If these sources are not available, you can purchase bagged wood shavings from a farm store—which is probably your most expensive option—or bulk wood chips from a landscape company.
Assuming you need to purchase bagged wood shavings over the course of keeping the chickens for 10 weeks, here are your costs:
The brooder house is the most expensive phase of this operation in terms of electricity, too, as chicks need a constant high temperature in their early days of life. Depending on the temperature outside and the size and type of space your chicks are in, you might have to run a heat lamp for just one week or for longer. Your cost will vary based on your electric utility rates, but the following number is from the Duke Energy Corp.
With only 15 meat birds, home processing makes the most sense from a financial standpoint. Here, your costs will be relative to water use, propane or electricity to heat scalding water, plastic bags for storing your meat, and ice to bring down the meat to storage temperature. At a processing facility, all of these costs are built into the per-bird processing fee, which will vary some based on the processor you choose, but tends to be in the $3 to 4 range.
Looking at each of these numbers individually might give you a new appreciation for the investment that goes into raising meat animals. Remember that none of these include the initial capital start-up investment of a brooder house, coop, fence, chicken tractor, waterers, feeders, storage space, processing equipment, chicken crate, shovel, wheelbarrow and whatnot. After your calculate in the value of your time, this is the price you’re looking at:
These numbers are enough to make you choke on your chicken pot pie. If you subtract your time investment and only consider your actual financial investment, they go down significantly:
There are many benefits to raising your own meat birds that reach beyond the financial, so don’t let these numbers discourage you. Realize, too, that if you were to have a larger flock, your per-bird costs would not increase, rather just the opposite would happen. If your chicken tractor is large enough to hold 30 birds, for example, you would not be spending any more time each day to care for a flock of 30 than you would for a flock of 15—you would still be moving only one chicken tractor each day—so your per-bird time investment would decrease. You would be paying more money overall for feed but the same amount of money per bird.
Consider all of these details—financial, tangible and altruistic—and be realistic about the scope of your investment before you put all your meat birds in one basket.
About the Author: Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma blogs each week about ag news and opinion at “The News Hog” and about farming and traveling around the world at www.freelancefarmerchick.com.
This article ran in the November/December 2015 issue of Chickens magazine.