The record-breaking price of eggs has encouraged some people to consider raising chickens in the backyard, but it’s important to do some research before buying those cute little chicks.
Raising and keeping chickens isn’t cheap, so you’re not going to save money compared to buying eggs at the market, according to Rebecca Thistlethwaite, Oregon State University Extension Service livestock specialist and director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.
“I think if you’re up for the maintenance it requires, it can be a great way to get fresh eggs,” Thistlethwaite said. “But it’s not necessarily going to reduce your costs. It will certainly get you eggs, but it’s not a big money saver.”
Almost 50 million chickens have been killed in the U.S. by bird flu, either directly or slaughtered because of exposure. The resulting egg shortage coupled with the rise in the supply costs due to inflation and too-few processors have led to near record-breaking increases in egg prices, Thistlethwaite said.
Nationwide, the average price of a dozen eggs jumped from $1.79 in December 2021 to $4.25 in December 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Center. Prices fluctuate depending on geographic location.
No matter the reason, if you want to raise chickens, there are things you should know first. Many people get chicks and don’t know how much work they take, Thistlethwaite said. It’s a daily chore of feeding, watering and gathering eggs. A fully and strongly fenced run is necessary to keep away predators such as rats, racoons, large domestic cats and in some areas bobcats and coyotes.
Many people get chicks and don’t know the work they take, she said. Once hens start laying, it’s a daily chore. A fully and strongly fenced run is necessary to keep away predators such as rats, racoons, large domestic cats and in semi-urban neighborhoods bobcats and coyotes.
“I won’t do it myself,” said Thistlethwaite, who used to raise almost 5,000 laying chickens. “Been there done that. Mainly it’s because I want to go play on the weekends. I’m not going to pay my neighbors to take care of them. If you go on vacation for a couple of weeks, you’ll come back to a bunch of eggs lying about, which is big draw for predators.”
For those who think raising chickens is for them, the first thing to do is build a coop. You can find scores of prebuilt ones online, but if you want to build your own, check out OSU Extension’s publication “Living on the Land: Backyard Chicken Coop Design.”
The main elements of a coop include:
- The bars the birds sit on – called roosts – need to be at least 18 inches off the ground. Give about one foot of roost space per bird. If you’re going to grow your flock later, make sure you account for that growth when you figure out how much roost space and how many laying boxes you need to build.
- Some ventilation is needed near the roofline so heat and humidity can escape without causing drafty conditions, but there’s no need for insulation.
- Buy bedding material like straw (not hay, which has seeds they will eat) or wood shavings, both available at feed and seed stores.
- Install an automatic waterer or use a traditional bell-shaped watering bowl. If they run out of water, it can impact the number of eggs laid and can eventually kill them.
Though you can leave food out continuously, it will go bad and can attract rats. Thistlethwaite recommends timed feedings – feed twice a day and make sure they finish it. The publication “How to Feed Your Laying Hens” goes into into more detail, including types of feed.
“You need to give them good quality feed that’s fresh,” Thistlethwaite said. “It needs to be laying hen feed. It can’t be pig feed or something else random. It has to have the right amount of nutrients that help them form shells. You can always supplement with kitchen scraps, but make sure they get consumed, too, and are not just laying around decomposing, where it will attract predators”
Be aware hens don’t lay until they are 3 to 4 months old. Be patient and feed them the right mixture while they grow, she added. Once the daylight length is less than 14 hours a day, they’ll stop laying. You can extend the season by putting timed lighting in the coop to give extra hours in the morning and night. More reasons for hens not to lay is covered in Extension’s “Why Did My Chickens Stop Laying?”
Sanitation is important, Thistlethwaite said. Dirty coops will support mites, which can lead to reduced egg production and eventually death. Make it a regular practice to clean the coop once a week. Also gather
Seed stores begin stocking chicks by the middle or end of March. Thistlethwaite warns against buying chicks for children or if you’re not able to give them the attention they need.
“If you want to raise chickens, start small,” she said. “Don’t start out with 10 to 20 birds. They only lay well for two cycles so what are you going to do with the bird at the end of their life cycle? Sometimes you get a rooster by accident, and you have to be willing to give it away. Think seriously before you get chicks.”
For more information, check out Extension’s “Raising Chickens in Urban Environments.”
About OSU Extension: The Oregon State University Extension Service shares research-based knowledge with people and communities in Oregon’s 36 counties and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. OSU Extension addresses issues that matter to urban and rural Oregonians. OSU Extension’s partnerships and programs contribute to a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for Oregon.
About the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences: Through its world-class research on agriculture and food systems, natural resource management, rural economic development and human health, the College provides solutions to Oregon’s most pressing challenges and contributes to a sustainable environment and a prosperous future for Oregonians.