chicken economics in round numbers

We recently encountered the opinion of someone named Mary Cuff, in a periodical called Modern Age, dismissing the family smallholding in these words:  “Only the most privileged people can afford to quit their jobs and their urban and suburban lifestyles to become gentleman farmers living off the land.”  We do not know how many people ‘living off the land’ Ms. Cuff is acquainted with, but relative to opinions like this one, we would like to share some numbers:

A chicken is supposed to eat one-quarter pound of feed per day.  I’m not sure whose chicken that would be, or what would be its breed, age, size, and position in life, but we’ll take it as a general rule that a laying hen eats something in the neighborhood of 4 oz. of something every day.  Ours do.  Generously, that means we need a few pounds short of 100 lb. of feed per bird per year — not a small amount.

Our own birds eat fermented or sprouted wheat, in addition to grass, bugs, and a bit of meat or milk for protein.   The grass, bugs, meat and milk are all free products of our land, things we have in abundance and need to feed to something. The wheat we buy, at $5/bu. (roughly 60 lb.).  That’s just over $.08/lb., so we may spend as much as $8/bird/year on feed.

Now, our birds lay at a rate of something like 50%, averaged over the year, or about 180 eggs/bird/year.  180 eggs is 15 dozen eggs — from a bird we pay about $8/year to feed.

That’s 15dozen pastured, cage-free, soy-free, corn-free, GMO-free eggs for just over $.50 per dozen.

The cost of buying the chick and raising it to laying age — about $7 — can be discounted, because when the hen gets too old to lay we’re going to make chicken pie, and feed the bones to the hogs.

Glory be to God for chickens and privileges.

8 thoughts on “chicken economics in round numbers

  1. Thank you for your calculations. The facts speak for themselves. They also give a great deal of hope to those of us who are trying to extricate ourselves from our debts (the ones we accumulated living in the suburbs) so we can move to a little piece of land where we are PERMITTED to raise chickens, have gardens, etc. I’m not allowed to own a chicken in my suburban subdivision, btw. When more Americans come to understand Chicken economics, we’ll all be better off. In addition, I remember my grandparents telling me that their parents kept chickens and gardens, allowing them to keep their children fed during the Depression and WWII. I join you in praising God!

  2. Something I think worth pursuing is the question of what people actually fed small family flocks before the days of cheap petroleum-derived, petroleum-harvested grain. ‘Scratch’ was more or less waste grain, but it must have been only sometimes available, and it must have been supplemented. I remember watching my grandfather throw out scratch for his hens from a coffee can, and it seems to me that even if he fed them in this way twice a day, which I think he did, the can wouldn’t have held more scratch than it would take to feed eight or ten birds, and I seem to remember more . . .
    People often fed them boiled potato skins (back then they peeled potatoes) mixed with some grain, or so we’ve read. Greens take care of B vitamins, easy to find in summer — some people gave them chopped clover hay soaked in water for winter greens, we try to have adequate wheat ‘pasture’ in their garden beds for winter —
    But it will be a service to the family farm if someone will figure out what farm produce not grain was grown in adequate abundance, and with adequate simplicity, that it could supply the bulk of a hen’s diet. A few hens thus fed would at least provide eggs for winter baking —

      1. A completely perverse situation, dating back at least to the British Industrial Revolution, I guess? Much the same here, although I know our land prices can’t compare with yours. But here there is a great deal of land that is completely unused and in decline, at least for human food production, much of it privately owned, often by people who don’t know much if anything about it, who are holding it as a speculation, or who wanted a ‘place in the country’ and now spend their weekends as lawn-jockeys. Some of these folks are in every rural area — in many places they seem to be the majority — and it’s not unusual for the disaffected weekend lawn slaves to allow other folks to use part of the land in exchange for minimal upkeep. Most of our own farm (fifty of our less than sixty acres of grass) actually belongs to a community of Fraciscan nuns.

  3. Gosia family still feed the chickens on boiled potatoes. They collect all the too small and damaged potatoes at harvest and thats the feed for the year. Add a bit of wheat that they grow collectively with the extended family of aunts and uncles and the bulk of the diet is taken care of. The flour mills in the area also give you the husk of anything that you happen to mill and the scraps from the table and garden are ready fodder and fill any gaps in the diet and of course all chickens are free range here, which I’m reminded every morning as I take the kids to school and pass house after house with chickens scratching around at the side of the road.
    Cost to feed, zero, just a little time. And they look after a flock of about twenty which provides eggs for three families, including ours.
    From a numbers point of view 8-week old birds cost $3 and eggs can be sold for around 25c and chicken soups if the national dish served every Sunday before lunch 🙂
    Mary Cuff, a name to forget.

  4. Eddy, Gosia, you are my heroes. I feel as though my fairy godmother had granted me a wish — I have been wanting to know what the potato ration for chickens looked like. Can you give me any idea how much boiled potato they feed 20 birds per day?
    Meanwhile, I have another burning question: how much wheat does everyone grow ‘collectively’, and how is it planted, cultivated, harvested, and stored?
    Obviously I want to come to Poland!

  5. Hello! Mary Cuff here! I believe you misunderstood my point. I would love to be able to buy land and have a farm. Growing up, I was lucky enough to raise chickens in my suburban backyard and it was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Best eggs ever–and you are right–so cheap! But there is more to a fully agrarian, self-sustaining lifestyle than that. I know tons of people who would love to be self-sustaining. I also know several who have various modified versions of a self-sustaining lifestyle (but do you really have a full one–comparable to the Amish, for instance?). Most of us can’t have that life in the current economic climate. Unfortunately, a lot of people who cannot–due to location, job, or government regulations–often end up dismissing the intellectual roots that underpin the agrarian way of life. My article in Modern Age was an attempt to get those people who think that an agrarian worldview is pointless to re-think their position. Even someone who lives in an apartment in NY city and cannot move to a place where they can adapt an agrarian lifestyle should be able to accept the relevance of the intellectual, traditional, and aesthetic position that grounds the agrarian movement. Far from criticizing small family ownership, I support it whole-heartedly. My article is an attempt to change hearts….that is necessary before changing regulations, social structures, and economic systems that block a lot of us from a better sort of lifestyle.

    God bless! btw: I love your icon! Beautiful!

    1. Thank you for your gracious reply, Mary; you have certainly caused me to examine my own heart! I will look up your article immediately and read the whole thing, and I apologize for referencing it without making myself master of its contents. Your point — that ‘even someone who lives in an apartment in NYC and cannot move to a place where they can adopt an agrarian lifestyle should be able to accept the relevance . . (of) the agrarian movement’ is similar to Wendell Berry’s statement that ‘eating is an agricultural act’, and not dissimilar from our own small efforts to help people realize that the uninformed, bargain-seeking consumer is entirely, if unwittingly, implicated in a toxic agricultural system of externalized costs and bankrupt farmers.
      You ask if we have a fully self-sustaining lifestyle — ‘comparable to the Amish’? Well, the large-scale reliance of many Amish communities on tourist dollars makes that question even more complex than it would be in any case. I’m not sure what would qualify as a ‘fully self-sustaining lifestyle’ by anyone’s definition, especially here and now. Cavemen with stone tools and skins for clothing were pretty self-sufficient folks; in the 21st century we would be hard put to it to find anything comparable. But I don’t suppose either of us visualizes that sort of self-sufficiency as being necessary or even, perhaps, desirable today.
      The real question begging urgently to be explored, I think, has less to do with an integrity characterized by a complete, or more likely imaginary, geographical unity of source, and much to do with another integrity, which I think I would like to call Respect; the Church, I think, calls it Purity, that is, the right use of things. Please don’t think I’m redirecting the question to something simply philosophical or theoretical, because what I am trying to say is expressed by every one of us, concretely, many times a day.
      At its most basic, life is sustained by food, by eating. Agriculture, therefore — in which we all participate very directly, even if we cultivate by proxy — involves us at the most primary level of vital moral issues. If our food originates in processes that honor the sources of that food — soil, plant, animal, human agent, and so on — then our eating is consistent with Respect, with Purity. Knowing what processes do, in fact, honor those sources, becomes necessary if we are not going to reject the moral responsibility inherent in living. I think over the past twenty years or so my family has come to know something about those processes and those sources that does, in fact, allow us to grow and eat food with a certain integrity. Let me tell you some of the most basic points.
      Stuff, as we have stated somewhere in this blog, matters. All the created world counts, that is, has worth, inherently and completely. Dishonor to the least bit of it is dishonor to the whole, and to the Creator. This can be restated in innumerable ways, and formulated into endless tenets. ‘There is no such thing as waste’ (Farm Rule Sixth and last). ‘All things should be used according to their natures’ (summary of the Principles of Permaculture), another way of saying what Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and a host of others have urged upon us, that is, the necessity of modeling our agriculture on nature’s own ecosystems.
      Here in Appalachia, our weeping hills maintain their integrity best under grass and grazing ruminants in a cycle of grazing-and-recovery that replenishes soil and perennial groundcovers. Through these processes the greatest possible proportion of contemporary sunlight is harvested over the greatest possible part of the year, and in the most productive manner, and converted into leaves. These are then harvested and converted again into manure — giving back what the soil has given, with additions from the atmosphere and precipitation — and into flesh, both living and as food. But when that sunlight is also converted into milk, suddenly it is made available in the most nutritious possible forms not only to the ruminant’s offspring, but, in the generosity of its quantities, to all of the other farm animals, to the humans, and to the soil.
      Milk was for millennia the mainstay of the human food system (we were, you remember, pastoral before we were agricultural). The provision of ruminant milk in quantities beyond what are needed for reproduction allows human beings to take from nature and yet leave it more abundant than it was before. The origin of those lovely, beguiling fairy tales wherein widow’s sons receive cloths that, whenever spread, produce a banquet, must surely have been the joy, wonder, and gratitude of the shepherd who saw how his flock’s grazing restored the pastures they grazed while twice daily filling his buckets with sweet, rich milk.
      So on our farm, grass is the source of all our calories, and through the cows, milk. Meat certainly plays a role, and not a small one, in our diets, but milk is King — or, I should say, Queen. After all, what other food leaves its source not only undiminished, but enriched? And who but a rumiant, when properly managed, can, in the act of eating, renew and expand the source of her food? And, of course, our meat starts out as milk. Calves are raised by their mothers on milk, the pigs grow on milk, the chickens fill our their foraging with clabber. Our gardens receive their fertility from manure from ruminants, or that of milk-fed pigs and chickens, as well as from drenches and foliar feeds made from milk or whey.
      Yes, we do raise most of what we eat — and we could, if we decided it should be so, eliminate those things we buy in. I suppose that might be called ‘self-sustaining’, if the ‘self’ is expanded to include all the life on the farm. But on that note, it is at least as significant that the plants and animals from which we take our food, also eat from the farm, not from bags of solar energy harvested somewhere else. They eat from here, and they take part in the regeneration of here, as do we. Our life comes from the sunlight that falls on these few acres, and from the grass that absorbs the sunlight, and from the soil that nourishes and the rain that hydrates the grass, and from the cows that eat the grass and give us their milk and their meat. All of our farm efforts flow from our attempts rightly to direct those energies, so that they stay on the farm as life and living things.
      The icon came from a little shop in Assisi, and watches over all our kitchen business; our own ‘Kitchen Madonna’.
      May God richly bless you; thank you for opening conversation with us!

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