Tove Danovich is a writer in Portland, Ore., and the author of “Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them.”
To which I have three words of advice: Don’t do it.
Yes, eggs are expensive. But that doesn’t mean you should run out to buy chickens.
It’s too late to stop some people in this doomed quest to save money. People who work at hatcheries — the companies that incubate, hatch, and send chicks to homes and stores throughout the country — are seeing demand for egg-layers that tops even the great chick boom of 2020. “We’re already having customers calling about preordering or asking if they can come in and buy them all,” says a farm store employee near my home in Oregon.
An employee at one hatchery told me that they’re selling out of production breeds — those that lay the most eggs — at unprecedented rates. A lot of people ordering from them “have never owned an animal before in their life,” he said. These folks are about to discover that chickens are animals — not egg-laying machines.
I bought my first flock five years ago because I wanted to know that the hens behind my breakfast had good lives. People often say that “free eggs” are one of the benefits of raising chickens, but the sentiment makes me laugh. Backyard eggs are the most expensive free food ever.
I long ago stopped tracking how much money I spent on the ladies. There was the price of the chicks themselves, the heat plate to warm them, the special baby-sized food and water feeders, bags and bags of chick feed — to say nothing of the time I spent cleaning their “brooder” (where they live until they develop feathers to keep them warm) as they spilled their water dish time and again.
Then, once they’re old enough to move outside, you’ll need a coop — both to keep them in and critters out. While you can buy premade henhouses for as little as a few hundred dollars, most are flimsy. Building your own coop — or having one built for you — takes time or money and often a lot of both.
Which reminds me: Everything imaginable will try to eat your chickens. Depending on where you live, you’ll have to protect your flock from hawks, raccoons, weasels, coyotes, wolves, dogs, foxes and even hungry bears. And don’t even get me started on the rats. Think they don’t already live among you? Buy some chickens and learn how wrong you are.
While most people do their homework before raising hens, too many dive in as if it’s giving knitting a try rather than committing to care for animals. I’ve seen people nearly kill chicks by thinking they can keep them warm with a desk lamp instead of a proper heat source. Others think there’s something wrong with their hens when they stop laying in the winter. (Hens can naturally take a cold-weather vacation from egg-laying.) Your grocery store’s (normally) never-ending supply of eggs contributes to a fiction that eggs are laid as regularly as an assembly line.
New hen owners might also be surprised to learn that it takes about six months before most breeds are old enough to lay eggs. That’s a long time to wait for breakfast — and about when most new hen owners throw in the towel. Then, after a few years, chickens slow their laying and then stop altogether around age 6 — a process I refer to as “henopause.” Yet they can easily live 12 or more years.
All of this is a considerable hassle just to get some eggs when the grocery store shelves are nearly empty. If eggs were all I wanted from my flock, I would have sold them off years ago. “It’s still cheaper to buy eggs,” notes Tom Watkins of Iowa’s Murray McMurray Hatchery, “than raise chickens for eggs in most cases.”
Yet chickens can peck their way into your heart if you let them.
Early on, I spent so much time trying to keep my hens alive that I got to know them far better than I expected. Some were friendly, others standoffish. Each made me laugh as they got into mischief like flying on top of my roof and refusing to come down or hiding their eggs around the yard to keep me from grabbing them. Petting them is like stroking fluffy silk. Now, spending time with the chickens is what I do at the end of a long day. As flock animals, they’re in constant communication with each other; their burbles and chirps and purrs have become a relaxing soundtrack of my evenings.
And, yes, when my grocery store only had four cartons of eggs left on the shelves, I kept walking. I knew there would be eggs in shades of blue, green and chocolate in the nest box waiting for me when I got home.
Raising chickens is wonderful, but it’s not the solution to our egg shortage. It’s more like bringing home puppies than having a dairy case in the backyard.