Let’s face it, good, fresh eggs are expensive. Whether you buy free-range from Whole Foods (Stock Quote: WFMI) or freshly laid dozens from the local farmers market, this kitchen staple will set you back at least $5, and in some places even more.
Why not consider shelling out your hard earned scratch to raise chickens in your own back yard? You will get healthy, delicious eggs for less. (And while you're at it, check out our delicious, inexpensive egg recipes.)
Step 1: Learn the Local Laws
Most cities and towns allow you to keep a small flock of birds, providing you don’t have a rooster to annoy your neighbors. Call your town hall to find out. If you need help navigating red tape, or just some advice and moral support, there are regional groups, such as JustFood.org, dedicated to bringing a little country to the city.
Step 2: Count Your Chickens
How many chickens do you want? A good layer will pump out as many as 20 dozen, or 240, eggs in one year. Think about how many eggs you eat a week and decide.
Once you’ve figured out how many chickens you need to make some room for them. Chickens need at least three square feet per chicken and you should have at least two chicken runs to rotate. (Hey, while you’re at it you might as well start plotting a little vegetable garden too!)
Step 3: Get Set Up
Whatever you decide, you’ll need some sort of fence to keep your chickens in and the neighborhood dogs, cats and children out. A quick trip to the hardware store for some long wooden stakes and some chicken wire (it's called that for a reason) will do the trick. Fence materials will cost about $50. There are lots of options. Many urban chickeneers opt for a small fenced-in area, and then let their chickens into the yard to forage on grass and bugs during the day.
Next you’ll need to make them a coop, where they will lay eggs and sleep. These can range from expensive custom-built jobs to free structures constructed out of salvaged wood scraps. They need not be fancy. A perfectly serviceable coop can be made from a re-purposed tool shed or kids' play house. Keep in mind that your coop will need bedding, like shredded newspaper, and should be cleaned often. (You can find some ideas at BackyardChickens.com.)
Step 4: Water and Feed
There are large, expensive commercial feeders available, but the needs of most small flocks can be met with simple gravity feeders available for just a few dollars at any pet store for dogs and cats. Just be sure to clean the feeders daily and add fresh water.
Chicken feed is not as cheap as, well, chicken feed anymore, but it is still pretty inexpensive when bought in large bags. What you’re looking for is laying rations with added calcium and other minerals. Make sure you don’t buy “medicated” feed as this contains chemicals you do not want. To find your closest feed store, scan your local phone book for local agricultural supply houses.
Step 5: Choose Your Chickens
There are books devoted to all the myriad breeds of chicken in the world, from tiny Bantams to Jersey Giants, but what you want is just a normal laying hen. Typical breeds that are commonly available are Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds. Leghorns produce more eggs, but are skittish, while Rhode Island Reds produce less but aren’t as flighty and have the added bonus of having more meat on their bones if you later decide to eat them.
Either way you go make sure that you buy “sexed” chicks from the store, as male chicken don’t lay eggs and will irritate the guy next door. Chicks will need to be raised for the first few weeks in an incubator before they are big enough to be put outside. An incubator can be easily made from a cardboard box with a light bulb hung above to provide warmth. Just make sure they don’t get too warm!
If you want to get a running start you can also find a local farmer that will sell some young laying hens already ready to produce eggs. They are more expensive (between $5 to $10 each) but will cut down on the time it takes to get your flock up and laying.
Step 6: Gather Your Eggs
After all that work and planning, it’s the part you’ve been waiting for: Eggs.
The best time to collect eggs is during the day when the hens are out scratching. You will likely avoid getting pecked by a protective mother. After collecting your eggs give them a quick rinse in cold water and then place them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat the most delicious eggs in the world, the ones from your backyard!
Keeping Chickens: What It Costs
Fencing: $25 to $50
Coop: $0 to $250
Chickens: $5 to $10 each for hens ready to lay
Feed for one year per chicken: $50
If your family eats two dozen eggs a week, the amount of money you’d spend on eggs of the same quality would be at least $520 a year. It'll cost you about $240 a year to buy and keep four chickens, once you’ve built out their coop.
And keep in mind that you can’t put a dollar sign on the satisfaction you get from eating an egg from your own backyard.
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