Well, to paraphrase the old popular song, “Who let the hens out?”
It seems like our last humorous opinion piece on the great backyard chicken debate got quite a few people clucking. So before the newly converted egg gathering aficionados all start flocking to pick up some chicks, a few facts that may cool your ardour.
Most good pet owners know, for example, that when you buy a dog, you are committing to ten plus years of care, plus vet bills, feed, searching for pet-friendly hotels on vacation, and lots and lots of loving play time. Similarly, the same is true for raising backyard chickens. Except it’s a whole lot harder to find a hotel that approves of fowl guests.
These chickens can easily go ten plus years of gentle clucking and egg laying. And since there are no roosters allowed in backyard runs, you become the alpha; the hens will bond with you and look to you for food, protection and entertainment. This is not true for large factory farms where the relationship is more like that between the warden and the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption. Cooperate and you live; show weakness and you end up on the manure pile.
In a small scale backyard operation, the chickens become more like family pets with benefits. Your dog provides unconditional love, and your hens provide healthy food.
This is the time and care factor – you are making a long term commitment in animal care. Now comes the cost. Depending on the breed, it can cost from $20 to over $100 for four chicks. If you want ready to lay pullets (RTLs) they can go for a little more. Raising chicks adds another expense, but they will imprint on you immediately. Pullets take a little longer to bond, but are ready to start laying eggs once you get them adjusted to their new home.
A hybrid like the Golden Comet or Golden Buff, commonly called the red sex link is considered the best breed for backyard pets: they are gentle, quiet and prolific brown egg layers for their first three years. Like any chicken, other than the Canadian Chantecler breed, they slow down in winter, and as they get older, with fewer and fewer eggs as they age. So, while you may be giving eggs away to neighbours in the first three years, the final few are all yours.
Now, the new home. Allowing 3 square feet per chicken, you’ll need a coop 12 square feet for 4 hens including one nesting box for every 3-4 hens, and 30 square feet in their outside run. That construction should cost around $400 and your skilled carpentry time. Happy hens lay better in quality homes!
A 7lb chicken feeder at $20, a heated water container at $50, organic premium feed and oyster shell at $20 for a 25 kg bag that lasts 4 chickens about 3 weeks, a vermin-proof feed storage container at $20, and sawdust for floor material at $5 a container and you are looking at a total of roughly $700, not including ongoing electricity costs. Add in a bottle of bleach and a footbath container for your boots with hand sanitizer at the entrance to the coop, and you and your flock should stay healthy and happy for many, many years.
Now keep in mind that 4 chickens eating that much feed are going to produce manure – about 5 kg a month, and it has to compost before you can spread it on your garden.
As with anything, buying high quality equipment and taking good care of it means longevity, so your investment should last the lifetime of your hens. You can go more economically with less investment in high end feeders and watering stations, and Trump Tower style coops to keep the price down. But let’s be honest, whatever the initial outlay, deciding on nurturing backyard chickens takes time commitment and a financial investment. Here’s the payback.
Three to four stress-free, happy hens will lay about 2-3 eggs a day or about one dozen eggs a week. One dozen free-run organic large brown eggs costs $6.00 at the local Zehrs store or 50 cents an egg. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada an average family of four in 2016 consumed over 80 dozen eggs a year. That’s over $400 in yearly egg costs. At that rate of consumption, you’ll be getting your free organic eggs in the third year of your backyard operation. And then for the remaining life of your hens, ongoing food costs and maintenance aside, healthy organic eggs are yours to enjoy.
But these are not factory chickens; these are family pets with benefits. Besides eggs, they will provide you with endless hours of entertainment, each bird with her own distinct personality. And as family pets you will get attached. When they get sick with coop cough, who treats them? When they die, as all animals do, where do you dispose of the bodies? These are all concerns that need to be considered in a community by-law. With a factory farm, it’s all business; with a backyard flock, it’s personal.
So, are backyard chickens worth it? If you have the time, finances and commitment, and if you are a responsible animal care-giver, and if your property fits with the new to-be-determined Town of Caledon guidelines, absolutely YES. The right of citizens to grow and nurture their own healthy food supply should be sacrosanct.
Caledon Council, let’s get crackin’!