Chickens / Coop / Management

Frugal Husbandry: Take Your Chicken Dollar Further

Ton Rulkens [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Keeping chickens does not have to be expensive. (By Tom Rulkens via Wikimedia Commons)

The antitheses of Anthropologie’s $3,000 reclaimed lumber A-frame chicken coop is a coop that you make in your own yard with lumber you have reclaimed yourself from an old construction project, broken furniture, or wooden pallets.  A $30 bucket of dried mealworms can be replaced by worms from your own vermiculture bin or homegrown mealworms or black soldier fly larvae that eat your food scraps.  And feed costs, the bulk of chicken maintenance costs, can be greatly reduced or eliminated by pasturing your hens.

When I stopped keeping track of my chicken-related expenses, which was before I built a $900 8’x8’ coop, my small premade coop, run, incubator, brooder, hatching eggs, and extras had cost me $1,203.93.  I think I stopped keeping track because I was going over the $2K mark and hadn’t actually gotten an egg yet.

Fast forward to a year later.  In my chickens’ second summer, I fed 12 chickens on just two 50-pound bags of feed for about three and a half months.  I was getting about seven eggs a day for under a pound of organic feed, or about $0.53, per day.  Chickens usually eat about a quarter pound of feed per day, but instead of needing 6.3 50-pound bags of feed that summer, I needed only two because they ranged in forest and field scratching up a remarkable 68.25% of their food.

I have no idea what I’ve spent on my chickens at this point.  I am positive that it has been a losing venture, but I undertook chicken-tending as a hobby and not a business.  However, I am soon moving, and my chicken infrastructure will begin again from scratch.  It is an opportunity to rethink my approach to chicken husbandry and learn to spend my money only where it counts.  Here are some of the things I plan to do that you can try too:

  • I am lucky to have people who can build my coop for me.  We’ve been studying different “green” methods such as straw bale and cordwood construction.  My next coop will most likely be cordwood.  The wood will come from trees we need to clear on our land.
By Tony Wrench.PeterEastern at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

A very rustic cordwood construction home with earthen roof (By Tony Wrench/Peter Eastern from Wikimedia Commons)

  • I’ll be scouring the papers for free windows and doors.  I have some like those you see on my current coop, but I would like even more old windows to build a greenhouse at some point.
  • The main costs of the coop will be metal roofing, hardware such as latches and hinges, and concrete for the foundation and mortar.
  • Instead of buying feeders and waterers, I’ll reuse plastic containers or buy containers at thrift shops or garage sales which can be easily adapted to my purposes.  I like dish pans because they are great trays for almost any kind of wet feed and they can do double duty as chicken baths (not something I’ve undertaken as of yet, but still) or nest boxes.

IMGP7022ed

  • I use a deep litter system because it requires less upkeep, generates some heat in the winter, and provides some nutrients to the flock, mostly B vitamins from beneficial microorganisms.  The additional heat and nutrition for free are the money-saving benefits.  I have a raised floor which is sealed with porch floor paint and has held up just fine under the deep litter.  However, I would like to have a dirt floor in my next coop to make better use of my deep litter by providing drainage and contact with the dirt microorganisms.  (Read more about deep litter here; also explains nutritional benefits which are notable.)
  • I am going to try vermicomposting á la my favorite poultry man Harvey Ussery.  I may even try raising black soldier fly larvae in this chicken feeder set-up.
  • I will continue to ferment feed and hopefully do a better and more consistent job of it.  Fermentation allows the chicken’s digestive system to utilize more of the nutrients in feed and also increases the protein content very slightly, among other benefits.

IMGP9527edsq

  • I will also continue to pasture my chickens.  The food savings are huge.  Right now, I free range them completely and have been (knock on wood) extraordinarily lucky not to have a single bird taken over the past couple of years, even when we literally had foxes denning 25 feet from the coop.  (This is the Appalachian Mountains.  We have bears, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, opossums, hawks, and black snakes literally in the yard, but mostly at night when the chickens are locked up tight.)  If we are not able to do this at our new property, then I will probably invest in solar-powered electric fencing, although I won’t be happy about it.
  • I want to grow more food specifically for my chickens and perhaps use a rotating pasture system to make sure areas are not overgrazed.  Again, I’ll be returning to Ussery for ideas on what to grow.  I don’t want to use a lot of room growing grain, so my chickens might be returning to a more meat-and-greens based diet with seeds and grains as much smaller percentage of their feed.
  • I don’t like using artificial things in general, for myself or my chickens.  I rely mostly on things like vinegar, diatomaceous earth, lime, molasses, and egg shells, but I do occasionally buy medicines, vitamin powders, and other inputs.  I could save money by committing to using natural remedies when needed and using home-grown treats instead of purchased ones.
By Slaunger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Diatomaceous earth by Slaunger via Wikimedia Commons

  • One of the best ways to eliminate the need for remedies at all is to breed my flock to flourish under my local conditions.  This means not only selecting chickens who lay well and remain healthy but probably also allowing chickens who get sick when everyone else is healthy to pass.  I’m not sure I’m ready for this, but it is the pragmatic route.
  • Another pragmatic, frugal tip I’ll need to accept is – I have to eat my extra cockerels.  Right now, I hold on to them, and feed them, until I can find a home for them.  I spend a ridiculous amount of money feeding cockerels, and then I go down to Polyface Farm and spend $9 on a processed, pastured chicken to eat.  It’s bad economics, but I do like those little guys.
  • A third pragmatic practice I need to undertake is reducing the size of my flock in the fall and only overwintering pullets and cocks and hens which will be used for breeding or brooding.  I love my older ladies, but it would be more economical to eat them.
Sarah Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Broody Hen by Sarah Smith via Wikimedia Commons

  • Artificial brooding and incubation has figured considerably into my chicken-keeping costs.  Although I love them dearly and haven’t quite been able to make myself part from them, my two incubators and EcoGlows were not cheap and consume resources whenever in use.  (The EcoGlows are far more economical than heat lamps, and safer, too.  I will probably never part with mine.  They are too good in a pinch.)  I am gearing myself up to go full-broody: hatching and brooding by broody hen only.  My Welsummer did a fantastic job with her brood, but I may decide to get some Silkie crosses at some point.  (So far, I have resisted crossing the line into fluffy chickens, but they are broody machines!)

This is not even remotely an exhaustive list of things you can do to raise chickens frugally, and I am sure that you have many ideas of your own!  Please leave a comment and share.  Your experience and innovation can benefit us all!  Please also feel free to leave links to pictures or write-ups of your ideas.

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16 thoughts on “Frugal Husbandry: Take Your Chicken Dollar Further

  1. Thank you — an always timely and necessary subject.

    My main expenses are predator-proofing and feed. Hawks are a daily presence and hit my chickens at least five times last year. Note to the wise: rare-breed, costly chickens have signs on their backs —
    “I’m expensive. Eat me first!” (Ask me how I know . . . .)

    Sturdy chain-link fencing, barriers under the dirt-floor coop, hardware cloth, and a huge net to cover the chicken yard — we never would have been able to afford all that if we hadn’t scavenged. Fermenting their feed must be helping, how much I don’t know. Getting their food at a local mill instead of buying bagged cut that cost nearly in half, but being confined to a 30′ x 50′ yard limits how much free-ranging the chickens can do.

    You might want to reconsider those tribbles known as Silkies — mine seriously rocks.

    I’m looking forward to your future articles. 🙂

    • Thank you for the advice on the “tribbles.” 🙂 They may be somewhere in my future. I agree on the predator proofing for sure. The more tightly you have to lock them down, the more expensive each square foot becomes.

  2. We grow beans for feed extension. Especially in winter. I put a pan on the woodstove to cook before bed, and that usually lasts a few days. The ladies get a cup or so per 10 birds in the morning, and egg production has better then ever this winter.

    We also grow our own wheat and corn, and the ladies get a few handfuls tossed in their deep litter bedding before bedtime. The extra carbs help them stay warm and ready to lay by morning, and they keep the bedding fluffed by digging through it for their treats.

    They have come to rely on these two handouts each day, and mob the gate when they see us coming.

    We also do rotational grazing paddocks and occasional free ranging in the house yard and horse pasture. They clean up the garden at tilling time too.

    • You are my hero right now. These are all excellent ideas. I’d really like to try the beans and the paddock method. I am sure that slow cooking the beans overnight makes them more digestible as well. All fantastic ideas!

  3. I repurposed the doghouse into a brooder and growing out coop when the dog died (of old age). I drilled some ventilation holes around the top, and added a hardware cloth door. Cup hooks screwed into the ceiling hold the heat lamp and cord. I intend to get a ecoglow in the not too distant future. Dog crates are handy things to pick up at yard sales, too. I free range whenever possible. It definately cuts down on feed costs. I’ve discovered that feed and bedding is a lot cheaper out of the city, so I’ve started combining rides in the country with feed shopping.

    • I forgot to mention that, in the fall, I rake leaves and/or pine straw to put in my runs over the winter. My neighbors’ love when I ask if I can rake up their pine sraw.

      • Many excellent ideas, Deirdre! I agree about the dog crates – you can never have enough! I also bought a ferret cage at Goodwill, cut out all of the ladders and levels, and spray painted it with black Rustoleum. It has made a perfect poultry cage. I also have a rabbit brooder which is great for carrying chickens. Repurposing for different species!

  4. I am so glad I found your blog. This is a wonderfully informative post. I keep a homemade compost bin in my run made of hardware cloth. I just roll and scooch it around and the chickens feast on the worms and creatures underneath.

    • I really like this because it not only creates great compost for the garden but “harvests” free protein in the form of happy, plump bugs which have been enjoying the compost as well.

  5. I know how sad it was when we moved about 16 years ago and were not able to take our chicken house with us which he had built from board and batten. We made it free standing, but the cost to get it hauled would have been astronomical. I have a recipe for making mealworms just have not got to it yet. They are really quite expensive to buy and they would eat the whole container in one setting if I would let them.

    Recently a couple of my girls have been laying in the yard under dense tropicals. I cut down the vegetation, but they still seem to want to lay there. Never had this problem before. My older girls would go to great extreme to get to the house to lay. My dogs have been enjoying the eggs. This must stop! I also put extra nest boxes where I want they to do and has been somewhat successful.

    I know my girls eat a lot more purchased food since I cannot totally free range them due to fox problems.

    Good luck on your move.

  6. Thank you, I really appreciate (again) how you’ve worded this. There are so many sources for advice nowadays, and most, in my opinion, go a trifle overboard thus increasing cost unnecessarily. I believe my chickens are far happier and healthier if I intervene as little as possible, not to mention that I am far happier as is my budget.

  7. Pingback: A Better Feed | Sunbird Farms

  8. I just got 3 golden sex links and believe they are 2 wks. old. I’ve been told I must have them on medicated starter feed. Something tells me that’s not so. When can I transition them to grains and greens?

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