By KATHY SWEEDLER
University of Illinois Extension
When you work for the University of Illinois Extension, you receive interesting questions. My latest unusual question was "Is it cost-effective for a family to raise backyard chickens?" Like many questions about money, this is a more complex question than it might initially seem.
To determine the answer, we need to consider our costs as well as benefits (savings) from raising chickens. We could calculate how much a family spends on eggs in a month, then subtract the cost of raising chickens.
Eggs produced locally cost about $4 a dozen. According to the American Egg Board, people eat about 250 eggs a year (although they might not all be eaten at home). This is a potential savings of $83 annually per person before costs.
One of the most significant costs, according to cooperative Extension researchers, is feed costs.
But rather than listing detailed costs, let's stop and consider this decision. There is much more to this than just adding up costs and savings. People make financial decisions based on values and goals. Money helps us do things that we enjoy and find satisfying. What else do we need to know for a cost/benefit analysis of raising backyard chickens?
My Extension educator colleagues represent a wealth of research-based knowledge, and I went to them for help. I was reminded that raising chickens provides not only eggs, but also potentially chicken meals, too.
"Poultry is a versatile source of high-quality protein," said Leia Kedem, a nutrition and wellness educator. "It can be enjoyed hot or cold and in a variety of dishes: casseroles, soups, stews, salads and more. Most of the fat in chicken is found in the skin, so remove the skin before eating. When butchering your own chickens, it is important to follow food safety guidelines. Regardless of the source, always cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Looking for juices to run clear or for the meat to get opaque aren't reliable ways to know if it's safe to eat."
If someone else butchers your chickens, you need to consider this expense.
Could there be other cost savings? Horticulture educator Diane Plewa said, "Chicken manure can be used as a fertilizer for home gardens (a money-saving opportunity), though it must be composted first. Fresh manure can damage plants, but after composting, it can be added to soil to increase organic matter and water retention."
Sandra Mason, another horticulture educator, wisely reminded us that everything poops. According to the University of Missouri Extension (depending on numerous factors), six chickens will produce a range of 175 to 700 pounds of litter per year. So what is your chicken poop plan?
"I see backyard chickens much like backyard gardening," Mason said. "Do it because you love the lifestyle and the life cycle, not just to save money. It is a way of life to cycle through too much and too little, to go from toting baskets brimming over with fresh tomatoes to dreaming of next season's bounty with not a fresh tomato in sight."
How do we place a dollar value on this?
"In households with children, another value in raising chickens is an educational, family project, a time for the family to bond and work together," said Chelsey Beyers, a family life educator. "Also, a family could gift eggs to friends and families."
Youth educator Jamie Boas points out that "raising chickens can lead to a 4-H project and the opportunity to show at our local fairs."
Our backyards lead to our neighbors. Zach Kennedy, a community economic development educator, said, "From a community development perspective, backyard chickens may strengthen a sense of community and bring neighbors closer together. A recent article in the Napa Valley Register highlighted how neighbors already raising chickens helped a family new to the neighborhood construct their henhouse.
"On the other hand, there are also examples of backyard chickens as the root of conflict between neighbors, as reported in Brooklyn, N.Y., by the New York Times last fall."
Local food systems and small farms educator Steve Ayers said, "First check local ordinances. Then do your homework and research to determine if the effort fits into your lifestyle and budget. Chicken producers say it only take about 20 minutes twice daily for a backyard flock, but remember that is 24/7/365."
UI poultry specialist Ken Koelkebeck assembled an information packet; contact Ayers at 333-7672 if you'd like one.
Clearly, there's more to this decision than can be decided by a simple calculation. Perhaps the most cost-effective plan is to be a friendly neighbor to someone who raises chickens. Then you can benefit when the chickens are in high-egg production mode without the costs of raising them.
Kathy Sweedler is a consumer economics educator at the UI Extension. Contact her at 333-7672 or email email@example.com.