How Many Chickens do You NEED?
Almost anyone who keeps chickens will tell you that they can be addicting. You start off with a half dozen hens for fresh eggs and before you know it, you’ve got 50+ chickens, ducks, turkeys, and guinea fowl roaming your back yard. The feed bill keeps going up. There are two incubators full of eggs humming away in your dining room. You want to keep some of just about every breed of poultry because they all sound so interesting. Every time you go to the feed store during spring chick days, you’re tempted to pick up just a few more little fluffballs for your flock. Believe me, I know the feeling.
If you had told me a couple of years ago that I had too many chickens, turkeys, and ducks, I probably would have scoffed at the suggestion. However, I’m currently recovering from a winter of high feed bills and fewer eggs, an attack turkey, and the closing of my local feed store. Sigh.
Want versus Need
Sure, it can be fun to keep poultry and I understand completely why you might be tempted to scan Craigslist for ‘chickens for sale’ ads every day. However, if you are new to chicken keeping, let me give you some advice. Before you start buying birds, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How many eggs does your family use?
- Can you sell the extra eggs at a profit?
- How much room do you have for your flock?
- Do you need to purchase all (or most) of their feed?
- Are bedding, feed, and poultry supplies readily available in your area?
- What will you do with old hens?
- How much time do you have to care for your flock?
How Many Eggs Does Your Family Use?
Do you use enough eggs to justify a large flock of chickens? Or do you only go through a dozen eggs a week? If a dozen is enough, you will only need a few hens. Depending on the breed and age, a hen may lay an egg almost every day. A half dozen hens will provide more than enough eggs for your family, with extra to sell or share.
Of course, you still might find that you have Too Many Eggs!
Can You Sell the Extra Eggs at a Profit?
This will depend a lot on where you live, how much you pay for feed, and (naturally) whether you have customers. Do some research. Are there other people selling eggs nearby? How much do they charge per dozen? Ask them some questions…Do they sell out each week? Do they make any money selling eggs? Don’t assume that it will be easy to sell your extras, or that you’ll make enough to pay for the feed (and raising the pullets to laying age, the cost of bedding, medications and other supplies). In some areas you might be the only one selling organic eggs, for example, and you might find your egg business very profitable. In other areas you might be hard pressed to find customers willing to pay more than $1 a dozen.
How Much Room Do You Have for Your Flock?
If you have a small property, you’ll have trouble keeping free range poultry and a nice yard. They’ll eat your garden, poop on your deck, and scratch up your potted plants. This gets old after a while. You’ll be much happier if the flock is pastured in a secure pen that can be moved occasionally.
Byron Parker, from the Randall Burkey Company, suggests a minimum of 2 to 3 square feet of space in the coop for each hen (plus roosting space), or 8-10 square feet of space, including their pen. (Check out his article Top 10 Chicken Questions Answered for a fun, and informative, read.) This is a minimum amount of space for each chicken and they’ll enjoy more room to roam. Larger birds such as ducks and turkeys will, of course, need even more space.
So before you buy your birds, look at how much room you have to dedicate to your flock. Get your coop and pen ready, prepare for a few extras, and refrain from ordering again until you need replacement chicks.
Purchasing Feed & Supplies
You can save a ton of money on chicken feed if you are able to raise your own grain. However, most chicken keepers need to purchase feed, bedding, and other supplies. Take a look at the prices and availability in your area. Do you have to drive an hour to pick up feed? Does anyone nearby sell straw? Are there any farm supply stores in your area? Doing some research ahead of time could save you money and a headache down the road.
I save some money by feeding almost all of our kitchen and garden scraps to my flock. When I butcher, all of the offal goes to them. We order a hog or steer every so often and I always get the organ meats, soup bones, and any other ‘scraps’ they’ll let me have. These get cooked up and fed to the dogs and chickens for extra protein.
What Will You Do With Old Hens?
At some point your hens will stop producing enough eggs to pay for their keep. I’ve had hens that laid well for 3 years and others that weren’t worth their scratch after the first molt. Will you Cull Your Old Hens and process them for soup? Give them away to someone who will eat them? Or will you feed them through retirement?
If you think of your chickens as pets and plan to feed them through their old age, you might want to keep a few less. This kind of support can get pricey, so don’t accumulate more chickens than you can feed!
How Much Time Do You Have?
Taking care of chickens doesn’t really require a lot of time. However, the larger your flock, the more time you will need to spend caring for them. It can get tiring when you collect and clean several dozen eggs each day, refill water dishes 3 or 4 times, and shovel manure daily. You also need to close the chickens up every night and let them out in the morning if you have predators in your area. This messes up plans to go out to dinner or an event.
If you plan to butcher old birds or raise meat birds, you’ll have processing time to add to the mix. It usually takes me somewhere around 20-30 minutes to process 1 bird. On butcher day, I generally try to do at least a half dozen, so it can get time consuming. This doesn’t include the final clean up and freezing, cooking, or canning.
The More the Merrier?
For some people, the more poultry they have, the happier they are. I really like keeping my Ever Changing Flock of chickens, ducks, and turkeys. However, I think I’ve finally learned that there is a limit to my time and energy…and perhaps I’ve reached that limit. As I write this, I have the following birds in my flock:
- 13 turkeys
- 40 chickens
- 9 ducks
This is actually a reduction in numbers from previous years when I had close to 100 birds. Some members of my current flock are older hens that will be butchered later this summer when their production tapers off. I also plan to butcher 1 old duck, all of the turkeys and 7 young roosters. Later this year I should be down to a flock of 8 ducks and around 22 chickens. And that is still more than I really need. However, I do have friends at Trogg’s Hollow Farm who sell the extras for me with their CSA shares. So if you live in the Chicago/Rockford area and sign up for one of their shares, you just might get some of my chicken or duck eggs in your box!
Have a Plan
Once you figure out how many chickens you need to supply your family with meat and eggs, make a plan and stick with it. Choose a couple of breeds you want to try and decide how many hens will produce the eggs you need. If you buy chicks, plan on 5-6 months before you get your first egg. About a year after this, they will go into their first molt and may not produce for several months. Will you cull them and replace them? If so, order your replacements in time to take over production when the first batch goes ‘on vacation.’
Of course, plans can change. You might find that you have a steady line of egg customers willing to pay top dollar for your fresh eggs. That’s great! You can order more chicks for the next batch. You could also find that those fresh eggs sit in your fridge too long and it’s time to cut back on your chicken ‘stock.’