The past couple of weeks have brought a lot of unexpected activity around the farm, and we’ve been taking what little free time we’ve had to ruminate about our situation. Foremost on our minds is the issues we’ve had with keeping our chickens safe from predators. Between losing nearly two dozen birds – mostly layers, but also including our beloved Mille Fleur Rooster, Billy Badass – to what we continue to believe is the neighbor’s dog (we caught it on our property again on Friday, sniffing around for birds – who were all thankfully inside), and then trying to find a way to provide them some fenced protection and getting into our Field Of Nightmares situation over the past couple of days, we have had to do some hard thinking about the why, not just the how.
How did we get chickens in the first place? We initially bought twenty birds, with the thought being we’d have eggs for ourselves, and perhaps a few extras to share with family. We wanted to insure a happy life for our flock, who would in turn produce better eggs for us. That’s still our goal, even with the large flock (about 160 birds currently, including the juveniles) we maintain today. One thing that is important to us is that our birds not be confined to the same little plot of land each and every day, such that it just turns into a dustbowl, devoid of the “salad bar” and “fixin’s” they they can enjoy by eating a variety of plants, insects, and small reptiles. Because of that, we’ve allowed them to free range – and up until November, we really didn’t have any issues with attacks or predation on our birds. Obviously, since then, it has become a definite problem. And we’ve been scrambling to come up with ideas of how to deal with this. We could fence in a large pasture for them, but that’s a huge expense – have you looked at fencing prices? In order to effectively contain chickens, you have to spend some serious cash. We would like to catch the neighbor’s dog in the act, with photographic evidence, so that we can be sure, and they can see the proof, which means getting a trail camera. Even the most modestly priced trail cameras aren’t cheap. And even if we did get the dog on camera, in order for his owners to believe that he was responsible, it would need to be an action shot – meaning we’d have to intentionally sacrifice one of our birds. We won’t do that.
Along with considering “how,” we have been contemplating “why.” Why are we keeping such a large flock? Is it worthwhile? Is it sustainable? And we keep coming back to the same realization: it is costing us more every month to feed, house, and care for these birds than we are making from selling their eggs. It’s been that way from the start. Even with our price increase a couple of months ago, we are still bleeding money every month in order to keep up with their appetites and subsequent eliminations. Just to give you an idea: every week, we go through about $100 in chicken feed, $10 in bedding, $5 in electricity. So that’s $460 dollars a month, roughly, that we spend just keeping them alive – it doesn’t count things like buying egg cartons, new feeders or watering fountains, etc. Now, consider the fact that we are getting, of late, about 2 dozen eggs per day, when we are lucky. We used to get 4-5 dozen a day, but the numbers have been gradually dwindling, and of course, dropped off drastically when we lost a bunch of hens last week. So let’s say we don’t keep any of those eggs for ourselves – we sell them all. That’s $210 in eggs sold per month – less than half of what it is costing us to keep the birds around. And that’s if none of the eggs are cracked, or Bantam (tiny) eggs, or otherwise “rejects.” We can’t keep this up.
It’s literally come down to us making choices like “Do we eat Ramen Noodles for our meals so we can afford to feed the birds?” and that’s just wrong – it runs counter to the core reason we got our chickens to begin with – to improve our food sources. It also runs counter to the foundation idea of sustainability that we’ve aimed for since starting our farming efforts. Unless a farm has the ability to maintain large portable structures like the Eggmobiles on Polyface Farm, which eliminates the need for deep litter, and so much grain, it’s really just not financially feasible to maintain a large flock. Some would say that it is, but let’s be honest, that requires you to cut corners on food and housing quality, but those are things we are not willing to compromise. We feed our flock a very high-quality, locally produced grain mixture that also comes with a premium price tag. We aren’t about to switch them over to a diet that consists strictly of scratch corn, as has been suggested to us by some other flock owners. Food quality not only affects the bird’s health and disposition in a negative manner; the quality of their eggs also suffers. Garbage in, garbage out.
We don’t think people want to pay $5.00 plus for a dozen eggs, and even if the desire is there, the ability is probably not for most folks. So, we have reached the point where it is probably best for us to scale back to a smaller flock, one that provides us with our own eggs, and perhaps some extras from time to time that our family can enjoy. Of course, once we downsize our flock, we will not be able to sell eggs like we have been doing, and it pains us greatly to say that.
If you don’t have another source of pastured eggs from happy hens, we encourage you to consider whether you could have a couple of hens in your own backyard! Many municipalities allow residents to maintain a limited number of hens on their property. You can learn much from communities like Backyard Chickens, and a great resource for the small flock keeper is My Pet Chicken – they offer small chick orders and everything you need to care for them, including some awesome chicken coops. (DISCLOSURE: I do some freelance research and writing for MPC, so I’ve written the description on some of those coops, but I don’t receive any compensation for pimping them out here. I really think they are a great company and highly recommend them, something I’d do regardless of whether I had this relationship.) We are also here to share our knowledge with you, and hope that you’ll continue to consider us a resource of information.
We truly appreciate everyone who has supported us and enjoyed our eggs over the past several months, and we truly regret that it’s come down to this – we wish we could continue. If you decide to get chickens of your own, we will be more than happy to answer any of your questions and cheer you on!
Trase and George Passantino
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