Farm Enterprise Budget: Chix-a-Lay

Hardtimes come in November. My friends come to greet me at for breakfast...
Hardtimes come in November. My friends come to greet me at for breakfast…

The chickens went down the road a couple of days  ago.  Literally.   Once the fall CSA was over, we shut them up one night in their Portable Affordable Chicken Coop and drove them down the road where they took  up permanent winter  residency with the  flock at  Macs Happy  Acres  Farm. Once the ground froze up inour fields here  the clover and grass  was harder to  come by in the field  for the chickens and the insects that scurry around were gone. Gone also was the vegetable refuse that  we make seasonably available to them from the farmstand. I tried to encourage them by throwing them some frozen heads of cabbage and  cauliflower. They just ran up to me and looked forlorn and hungry. Now they live where there is  an unfrozen water supply and bottomless grain feeders.

We got into the chicken business 3 years ago when we did our farmstand upgrade and added a commercial kitchen.   I grew up  on  a dairy farm, so I had some experience around cows, but chickens?   I surmised that they  wouldn’t  make as much manure as  cows, and a chicken stepping on your foot wouldn’t hurt half as much as a cow  would.  How hard could it be?   Besides, Ray was  raising  meatbirds for sale and everyone can use eggs, right? How hard  to take care of a flock of laying hens be?  The kitchen sure would use eggs ….and we would be able to  sell the rest.

So armed with this bullet proof business plan,  we took an old   four wheeled  hay wagon running gear and built a  little  10x 12  house on it with  roosts and nesting  boxes.  I bought a book by Joel Salatin, the Guru of American Pastured Poultry Farming and read it.  We had a couple  acres of  clover and  fescue on which  we could pasture them on.    I drove down to Wellscroft Fencing and spent a small ransom on   portable electric poultry fencing. Then after some discussions Ray had  with a gentleman known only  to me  as “Bucky the Chicken Guy from Connecticut”, a pickup truck piled high with chicken crates drove into the yard. The chickens came home to roost.

Of course they were pullets, and we knew  they were going to lay little eggs for awhile.  What we didn’t know  is that it would be  some time before they started to lay little eggs at all.  About three weeks to be exact.   But they were full sized birds with full sized appetites. Despite the  fact they  had lots of  grass to supplement their grain habit,  a pallet of 25 lb grain bags was  vanquished in short order .  In no time we  understood that  putting up a grain silo and buying grain in 3 ton deliveries would pay  off the  capital investment in about 26 minutes.  But we didn’t see it coming….the hidden costs.

By week five the girls were laying a quantity of what  were now large eggs. The kitchen was  loving them, and the sales through the farmstand were   indeed cleaning up what our 175 chickens are  producing. Pasture  poultry eggs are a very different product  than anything that you find in the store. The yolks are a deep colored orange and the  total   egg and plops onto the frying pan and it doesn’t run at all. They taste really good. Probably the result of a varied  diet and exercise…(where have we  heard that  said before?)    But I realized that my role as  Old Geezer Who Cares for the Laying Hens is taking a lot of time.  Fresh water twice a day.   All the  kitchen and farmstand refuse is being diverted from the compost pile to the chickens, and dedicated  garbage cans must be  removed twice a day. The eggs have to be  picked up and cleaned. And boxed.  And taken up to the farmstand. Even the damn  chicken nesting boxes  became repositorys for chicken shit and had to  be cleaned  out and fresh straw added weekly.  So I tracked my time. And I tracked the number of  dozens of eggs that went to the stand.

There was predation and attrition. Chicken hawks would help themselves. Although we feared the eagles, they seemed to prefer fishing to picking off our bony little chickens. But the weasels, coons and foxes would move  in occasionally and help themselves. A couple of our family dogs, despite their affable and good nature with humans, discovered latent hunting urges occasionally when presented with a strutting chicken.   And that 4 foot poultry fencing?  Even  with clipped wings the more resourceful and energetic chickens  could  get a running start and  clear the top of the fence to freedom. (Fortuneatley most are still not smart  enough….)  So this year  our original flock of 175 birds dwindled  to  about 100-115 birds by the  time they went south on River Road to their winter home.

At the end of year two I had some figures to work with.  I calculated  the gross dollar sales from the eggs that I boxed  up for sale.  I totaled up my hours and charged myself out at$13 an hour.  I deducted the grain costs, the cost of the egg cartons  and the cost of 3 bags of oyster shells.   Looks like I made made $1100 profit.  Cool!  That’s not a lot, but at least we aren’t loosing money.   That is, if you didn’t amortize the capital investments in the  fencing ,the grain silo or the RTV I used to haul grain  garbage, water,straw to them.  Whoops.

So there are some lessons we learned  here along with the standard lesson of  “all that glitters is not gold”. We have to raise our price on eggs, and get  it  at  least in line with the pastured poultry egg prices in the stores (when you can find them).   We have to figure out  the reduction of bird loss.  What do can we do  to streamline some part of the chore  process that I perform to save time? This is a process that we  should use to figure out many aspects of our farm. We just don’t  raise eggs for  a living. We grow strawberries. Potatoes.  Basil.   And about a thousand other things.      It would be easy to figure out profit and loss for Edgewater farm if we just grew eggs, but we do not.  Turns out best idea for us  may not be the idea to grow pastured poultry, but the utilizing an exercise  that determines  whether  raising eggs and meatbirds  makes any real sense at all.

A couple of crafty chickens participating in Extreme Free Ranging
A couple of crafty chickens participating in Extreme Free Ranging