Cost-Benefit Analysis of Backyard Chickens, Cuteness Included

Homes-Ready For Chickens
Charles Dharapak/AP

By Lars Peterson

At a Safeway in Southern California, chicken egg prices range from $3.29 to $6.09 a dozen. At the top end are cartons labeled "organic" and "free-range," suggesting happier hens, better feed and, ultimately, better tasting and more nutritious eggs. At the bottom end are cartons labelled "large," suggesting little more than big, cheap eggs.

In California, egg producers are now required to provide each hen a cage big enough to allow her to spread her wings -- about twice as much room as the industry standard -- which makes eggs destined for the California market 35 to 70 percent pricier than elsewhere, Ronald Fong, CEO of the California Grocers Association, told NPR. Out-of-state producers have brought a lawsuit in federal court in an attempt to end this requirement -– or at least not have it apply to them.

All of that is to note that one of the drivers of the recent boom in small, backyard egg layers is humanitarian concern for hens in factory farms. Following a big salmonella outbreak in 2011, egg safety has become a concern, too. Other factors include the trend toward locally produced foods, a growing do-it-yourself movement and the sheer novelty of raising three or six chickens at home.

But What About the Cost?

A number of backyard egg advocates have crunched the numbers -- and sadly, this is not a money-saving endeavor for most. Cost per dozen of backyard eggs ranges from about $3 for non-organic free-range eggs to $6 and up for organic.

Feed is by far the biggest expense, but it takes money to start a backyard flock, house it, feed it, provide it with fresh straw or wood chips for bedding and protect it from predators. The average hen's egg production peaks at one year and declines until she stops producing altogether at four or five years. At that point, the rancher can continue to house and feed the non-laying hen (recouping none of those costs via eggs) or slaughter her for chicken soup. Unless the backyard rancher is capable of this, that's another cost.

Add it all up, and there's no question about it. Grocery store eggs, even the high-priced organic free-range variety, cost less than home grown for all but the most efficient ranchers. Given that the economics do not favor the backyard flock, here are a few reasons why people still do it:

  • Backyard, free-range eggshells are more colorful. Hens that forage for bugs and grubs, grasses and clovers produce eggs in a variety of colors. Backyard hens reward their owners with white eggs, brown eggs, speckled eggs and even blue eggs. Every day is Easter.

  • Backyard eggs look and taste better. Because of the forage, table scraps and generally high quality feed backyard ranchers offer their flocks, the yolks are brighter. In addition, fresh eggs feature yolks that stand up better and whites that resist beating. Most aficionados claim backyard eggs taster better. Some testers agree, while others -- including researchers who work in the egg industry -- do not.

  • Backyard eggs are more nutritious. According to a 2010 study by Pennsylvannia State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, eggs from pasture-raised or free-range hens have about half as much cholesterol as factory-produced eggs, twice as much vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids and 38 percent more vitamin A.

  • Backyard hens live happier lives. Backyard hen husbandry is not without its cruelties. Few backyard ranchers desire roosters, which means hatcheries have to rid themselves of unprofitable male chicks; hens may meet violent ends due to predators or butchers. Nevertheless, the life of a free-to-roam backyard hen is far happier than that of a factory hen crammed into a narrow cage in a dark room.

  • Backyard flocks teach lessons about agriculture and responsibility. From farm economics to avian behavior, a backyard flock has plenty to teach. In addition to a strong work ethic, children given the responsibility of raising hens have to learn to make decisions, set goals and perhaps even experiment with different tools, techniques and practices.

  • Backyard flocks are entertaining. Most backyard egg ranchers describe their flocks as funny and entertaining to watch as they scratch and forage. Some even describe their hens as affectionate pets. Seen that way, maybe it's unfortunate that a cheerful flock also produces a commodity and must do so profitably. After all, few of us expect our pet dogs and cats to pay us back in anything other than joy and companionship.