Volume No. 13 Issue No. 10 October 2016  



  The most expensive “free” eggs ever
  By Jason Gray

     “Five dollars for a dozen eggs?!? But your chickens give you the eggs for free!”
   
   Ask people who have backyard or homestead chickens why they originally wanted hens, and many will say they wanted to make sure they get the healthiest eggs possible. Many think it is great to get “free” eggs every day or two from their own backyard.
   
   They build the coop or chicken tractor, buy the chicks and all the related equipment, and then feed the chicks for the 22 weeks it takes before they start laying. That first egg will taste much better — and it should, because that egg cost you hundreds of dollars.
   
   A couple weeks later; if you're a family who didn't eat many eggs before, you'll be drowning in them. Your neighbors will tire of the eggs, too.
   
   It is why many small homesteaders charge so little for eggs. I’ve seen eggs for as little as $2 a dozen for pasture-raised eggs that would go for $8 or more at Whole Foods, and that is not a good deal for the small-scale local food movement.
   
   A laying hen will eat about a quarter pound of feed per day. They lay about three to four eggs a week, if you average out their production across the year. Hens go through natural molt processes, where they reduce egg laying while swapping out their feathers in the fall; shorter daylight hours in the winter also reduce production.
   
   So, it takes three hens, eating about 5.25 pounds of feed, to lay a dozen eggs. Non-organic feed goes for about $12 for a 50-pound bag, which is about $1.26 per dozen eggs in feed cost. At $2 per dozen, we're covering feed costs! But feed is only a sliver of the total cost of a chicken over its laying lifetime.
   
   Let's look at the other costs accrued to those three hens.
  • Egg cartons and labels: 50 cents per carton at Big R, and another 30 cents for required legal labels = 80 cents per dozen. Many neighborhood-level flocks use recycled cartons (not strictly legal even at a small scale, definitely not legal commercially).
  • Cost of the chicken: $3.50 per chick from hatcheries. Assume that 10 percent will 'accidentally' be males or not make it to egg laying age. Since a laying hen will have a two-year productive lifespan once they start laying at about six months, this comes out to about 11 cents per dozen eggs. After two years, egg production and shell quality dramatically decline.
  • Cost of raising the chicken to laying age: Six months from the hatchery to first “pullet egg” is all “overhead” while they haven't started laying yet. This is a long, expensive time without revenue. Chick feed is more expensive per pound, which offsets the lighter appetite of baby chickens. Divide the six months of feed for these three sample hens or about $32 worth of feed, grit and other consumables, by their production in eggs over their laying career. We get about 31cents per dozen in prior costs.
  • Chicken coop, fencing, feeders and waterers are the hidden killer in per-dozen egg pricing. At Gray Area Farm, we spend about $500 just in materials to build pasture shelters that will stand up to Colorado's rough weather and predators. Each shelter holds 25 chickens, which we guess will last about eight years before we need to rebuild. Add in feeders, waterers, utilities to keep water thawed during the winter or to keep the chicks warm — and fencing. That’s another $750 over those eight years for 25 chickens, or about 40 cents per dozen in infrastructure costs.

   Already, we're at $2.88 per dozen just in actual cash flow costs, even for non-organic, soy and GMO laden feed. The $2 per dozen neighborhood flock is already losing money. Organic, non-soy feed is at least twice as expensive per pound.
   
   Do you want your local farmer to work for free? Feed and water has to be checked and filled twice a day, every day, even in the worst Colorado blizzards. Pasture shelters have to be moved at least three times a week, and stationary coops have to be cleaned out. Eggs have to be packaged, sick birds cared for, coops built and fences mended. Each carton brings with it almost 20 minutes of labor for medium-sized pastured flocks at local farms — far more for small backyard scale flocks. If you want to compensate your farmer at least minimum wage, that's another $2.77 per dozen — or $5.65 per dozen for standard-feed eggs.
   
   The next time your local farm says their eggs cost $5, $6 or more per dozen, don't say your neighbor gives them away for $2. Instead, realize that for local food to survive, all these costs need to be considered. You can still buy them from your neighbor, but toss them another $5 bill on top to show you understand what those eggs represent.
 
 
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