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Raising Chickens on a Budget
Step One: Assessing Your Situation
If you've ever considered getting chickens, you were likely daunted by two factors: First, the overwhelming amount of information on the subject of chickens, and second, the cost. I can address the first issue fairly easily by reassuring you that chickens are actually some of the easiest animals to raise--simpler by far to care for than more ubiquitous pets like cats or dogs. While a single human being would be hard-pressed to try to care for the wants and needs of a pack of 200 dogs, a flock of 200 chickens would be well within the abilities of a single caregiver. With a little basic preparation, even large flocks will require less than an hour of dedicated care each day.
That just leaves the second issue to be addressed: the cost. How does one enter into the wonderful world of backyard chicken keeping if they are on a tight budget? A search online or at local farm supply stores for prefabricated coops will reveal lofty price tags on anything worth owning, leaving cash-strapped backyard farmers suffering from a serious case of sticker shock. Throw in the initial investment of equipment, supplies, and the birds themselves, and you're looking at potentially thousands of dollars just to get started. For those who live from paycheck to paycheck, that simply is not a realistic scenario.
So what is a soul to do? Just give up on the dream of fresh, homegrown eggs or meat? Certainly not! For those on a tight budget, being able to produce your own food in your own backyard is absolutely invaluable. When you grow your own fruits and vegetables at home and are able to enjoy them fresh off of the plant, they are tastier and more nutritious. This is true for eggs as well. Homegrown eggs from chickens allowed to range freely will not only be fresher, but will have higher nutritional content than their caged counterparts. They will be higher in Omega-3's, beta carotene, vitamin A, and Vitamin E, while simultaneously being lower in bad fats and bad cholesterol. As such, the value of home-grown eggs is more than what you would save compared to buying the cheapest eggs at the store--they are an investment in your long term nutrition and health, which is something most of us on a tight budget do not usually have the luxury of being able to strive for.
With that in mind, it is worth the extra effort to find ways to keep your backyard flock without breaking the bank--and yes, it can be done! The first step is to assess your situation. What do you already have on hand that you could use to house and care for your chickens? A cute, picture-perfect chicken coop is nice if you can get it, but you could just as easily convert an old shed, the corner of the garage, or even a child's abandoned plastic playhouse into a shelter for your future flock. Fancy-pants nesting boxes from farm supply stores might run you upwards of $50 to $100 each, whereas an empty square tote that once held cat litter is the perfect size and shape for the job and is essentially free. With a little thought and ingenuity, you may discover that you are already equipped to handle a small flock of birds, and as you become more comfortable in your newfound hobby, you'll likewise become more resourceful.
Step Two: Recognize Your Limitations
One of the greatest pitfalls to chicken farming on a budget is a little thing those of us in the biz call "chicken math". What is chicken math, you may ask? Chicken math is how you go from the humble ambition of just having three or four birds to having three or four hundred. It starts out innocently enough--you get a few extra because you're worried some may not survive to adulthood, then you discover that there's a breed you didn't know about that lays blue eggs and you just have to have some... Before you know it, your spouse has bought you an incubator for your birthday and you're in the process of building your fourth coop. That is "chicken math".
The obvious problem with chicken math is that the more chickens you have, the more resources and time they will require. You will need more coop and run space, more feed, more feeders and waterers, more medicine... To an extent, selling excess eggs can help reduce the cost, but if you are in this endeavor to save money, then you want to take measures from the start to avoid getting caught up in chicken math.
To do this, you need to recognize your limitations and set clearly-defined rules for yourself. If you are planning on feeding your birds entirely on forage, then make sure you don't exceed your yard's capacity to feed them while free-ranging. If you don't have the means to expand or build another coop, then determine the limitations of the available space and take care not to exceed that number. Research breeds in advance, so that even if you can't get the ones you want when you want them, you won't be quite as tempted to add impulse buys to your flock when you see them in the store. In many ways, the planning stage of setting up your first flock is far more important for those of us on a tight budget, because we can't afford to play it by ear. Knowing exactly where we're going with our flock and how we're going to get there will save quite a bit of time, money, and energy in the long run.
Plan for the Available Space
Step Three: Coop Design on a Dime
Once you've gotten all of the planning and assessing and agonizing out of the way, it's time to get down to the business of actually putting together your coop and run. If you're at all handy with power tools, then you can probably throw something together using scrap lumber and materials. If you're not, then there is still hope--as I mentioned before, you can utilize existing structures to house your chickens, even converting something as simple as a child's playhouse into a makeshift coop. Since chickens don't require an airtight structure to live in, you're free to get pretty creative with your design.
Some things your coop and run absolutely must have:
- A roof that they can go under to get out of the rain, snow, sleet, and hail
- Adequate ventilation to avoid excessive moisture and related maladies
- Roosts for perching on
- Nesting boxes for laying eggs in
- Some form of bedding material to absorb their droppings
- And predator proofing
The importance of a roof is obvious. We would hardly fathom keeping any animal outdoors without any shelter from the elements at all, but if you find yourself daunted by how to create a weatherproof enclosure for you birds, do not despair. Even something as simple as a wire frame with a tarp strapped over it will be sufficient shelter for most varieties of chicken, and will give them a place to go to get out of the sun, rain, or sleet.
Roosts are a problem with a deliciously simple and easy solution: salvaged tree branches. Not only are tree branches a free source of chicken roosts, but the chickens seem to prefer the natural shape and rough bark texture of them. If--for whatever reason--tree branches are not available to you, pieces of scrap wood will also suffice. Just make sure the chickens have a wide enough surface to grip with their feet and rest on while they sleep.
As I mentioned earlier, nesting boxes can be made from something as simple and inexpensive as an emptied cat litter tote--the rectangular kind that some varieties of cat litter are sold in. If you don't have cats yourself, you can probably find someone who does that would be willing to save them for you. Plastic milk crates and wooden boxes will work well too, but whatever you choose, it should be large enough for the chickens to comfortably sit in with a small lip to keep the nesting material from falling out of the front. If you don't have any suitable boxes, crates, containers, or totes to use as a nesting box, that's fine too. You can give your chickens a clean, comfortable place to lay their eggs simply by piling nesting material on a low ledge or shelf to keep it up off the floor and out of the poop.
Bedding is a necessity for any chicken coop, but what you ultimately use is largely up to you. In conventional coops, sand or pine shavings are the two most popular choices, but if neither of these options are cost-effective for you, there are many other things you can utilize. Dried grass clippings, straw, or dead leaves will all work in a pinch, as well as most dried plant matter like wood chips and yard clippings. With clippings and straw, be mindful of the potential for mold and mildew, but if you are cleaning the coop regularly, it shouldn't be an issue. Two things you shouldn't use: sawdust or cedar shavings. The sawdust can become impacted in the chickens' crops and the cedar shavings release fumes that are harmful to birds' respiratory systems.
Predator proofing is arguable the most important detail on this list, and unfortunately, it will likely also cost you the most money. Chickenwire is inexpensive, but utterly ineffective at keeping predators out of your coop. You will need to acquire hardware cloth and/or welded wire fencing to keep out predators like raccoons, foxes, possums, and stray dogs. Your run will need four sides and a top, to keep climbing and flying predators out, and to prevent creatures from digging in, either bury the wire six inches or make a wire "apron" that lays flat on the ground around the outside of the run and prevents critters from digging through. Avoid simple latches like hook-and-eye, since a clever raccoon can easily open such devices. These measures, while potentially expensive, will protect your investment in the long run, so if you cannot acquire the necessary materials to build a secure coop and run before you get your birds, consider either keeping them in a more secure location (like the garage), or hold off on getting birds at all until you can better secure their living quarters.
Coop Design on a Dime
Step Four: Acquiring Your Birds
It is important to have your coop and run set up and ready to go long before you even think about bringing home your first chick. Ask anyone who has bought chicks thinking they had plenty of time to build their coop, only to discover that chickens grow faster than coops do. Once your coop and run are good to go, it's time to get your chickens.
There are basically three different ways you can acquire chickens: as chicks, as juvenile or adult birds, or as hatching eggs that you incubate and hatch yourself. Each option comes with its own pros and cons. For the purpose of chicken-shopping on a budget, your best bet is to purchase chicks and raise them yourself. Hatching eggs could be cheaper, but only if you already own an incubator or can borrow one for free--a decent incubator can be expected to run you at least $100-$200 new, which will add substantially to the cost of establishing your flock, especially if you only want to hatch out a few birds. Purchasing started birds is likewise problematic, since you are going to be paying for the convenience of having those birds raised for you in advance. If you intend to buy adult birds, expect to pay 6 times or more what they would have cost as chicks.
It is possible to get chickens for a bargain, but be careful in how you go about it. For one, do not low-ball or haggle to death a breeder or fellow backyard chicken keeper who is offering to sell you their birds. If their prices seem high, there is probably a very good reason, and all you will accomplish by trying to drive those prices down is alienating a potential networking connection that could be valuable to you later. Ask instead if they have any "retired" hens they would be willing to sell--older birds past their laying prime who will still produce eggs now and then, but not at the rates you could expect in their youth. Many backyard keepers will let go of older hens at a much lower price, possibly even giving them away for free, so if you don't mind lower egg production from your hens, this could be a cheaper alternative than raising chicks or buying started pullets.
Another option is to keep your eyes and ears open on local buy/sell/trade groups or craigslist for people looking to rehome their flock. There are many reasons why someone may suddenly have to give up their chickens, including moving, local ordinances, predator problems, or poor health. By being patient and watchful, you may be able to get a flock of chickens at a reduced price--or even for free.
Your last option, of course, is just to buy the baby chicks and raise them yourself. You will need to feed them for 4-6 months in most cases before they will start laying, but if you have a small flock, those expenses will be minimal, especially if you can supplement their diet with foraging and kitchen scraps. I strongly recommend investing in high-quality chick starter to get them started, gradually cutting back after the first few weeks of life so that it only supplements their diet while they free range for the rest. As tempting as it may be, avoid saving money on the cheaper chick starter. A strong start in life will pay off in the long run with healthier, faster-growing birds.
Buying Baby Chicks
Step Five: Flock Maintenance
Once everything is set up and ready to go and your birds are settled into their new home, you can start to get comfortable with the routine of long-term maintenance. You will need to provide your chickens with food and water, periodically clean their coop and run, and provide occasional medical care as needed.
To feed your flock on a budget, you can get by feeding a small flock(5-10 birds) almost completely on what you would throw away as food waste and what you have growing naturally in your yard. Although most experts recommend feeding your chickens a carefully-formulated diet of commercially-produced feed, the fact is that chickens have survived for thousands of years on our kitchen scraps and what they could forage out of the landscape. Their diet won't be perfectly balanced, they may not lay quite as often, and you may have to supplement some nutrients (such as calcium) that aren't present in their foraging diet. However, if you are committed to the idea of chickens on a budget, it is a manageable scenario.
Whether you plan on feeding your chickens a primarily formulated diet, supplementing it with forage, or going full-on frugal, you can set aside a bucket in your kitchen for things like meat scraps, egg shells, fruit and vegetable pieces, nuts, bread, and other scraps that you dump in the chicken run daily. I have a designated area of my chicken run for such scraps--a sort of compost bin inside of the coop, so that anything the chickens don't want to eat is able to break down into compost for the garden. (incidentally, this bin is also where I dump their soiled bedding when I clean the coop). Avoid feeding your chickens anything rotten or moldy, as this can make them sick just like any other animal.
If you have chosen not to feed your hens layer feed, make sure to offer crushed oyster shell on the side to supplement their calcium. Do not give layer feed to mixed flocks, as the extra calcium will damage the organs of chicks and roosters who don't need it.
For basic coop care, you can play it by ear (or nose, as the case may be) as to how often you should actually clean out the coop. Many chicken keepers use "poop boards" under the roosts to collect the bulk of the droppings, which they can rinse off with a hose once a day, reducing the need to change out the bedding. Sand can be sifted like cat litter, while other forms of bedding will need to be completely removed and replaced when they become soiled. As I mentioned earlier, to can cut down on the cost to provide bedding for your coop by saving things like grass clippings and dead leaves. Simply make sure the material is completely dry before you put it in the coop, and keep a watchful eye on it for signs of mold or mildew as these will affect birds' respiratory systems long before ours. Mixing in dried herbs will also help keep the coop smelling fresh, provide the chickens with a fun treat to scratch out, and may even deter pests. If you have plants like lavender, mint, or oregano growing in abundance on your property, it may be worth considering to dry out the excess harvest and use it in your coops and nesting boxes. Lavender in particular will help discourage external parasites like mites and lice, though it works better as a preventative than as a cure.
Keep waterers filled with clean water at all times, arduous though it may be. The absence of water will drastically reduce egg production and weaken your birds, especially in hot weather. A variety of water fonts and attachments are available, but I have found the most effective design to be either vertical or horizontal poultry watering nipples. Poultry nipples and cups are sold on a variety of poultry supply websites and in some farm supply stores, and they can be used to transform virtually any container into a water font for just a few dollars. I personally prefer horizontal nipples to vertical, because they allow me to simply set up a barrel or bucket where I need it without having to suspend the item above the ground, but at just a few dollars per package, feel free to experiment with the options yourself.
The last major aspect of long-term flock maintenance that you will need to consider on this subject is what to do with your hens when they are no longer laying enough to earn their keep. For many of us, our chickens become a part of the family, and we can't bring ourselves to part with them even when they retire, but if your goal is to be as frugal as possible, you may not be able to keep any chicken that is not contributing. It is important to plan ahead for this inevitable stage of your chicken-keeping endeavors. Either have a home lined up for you unwanted birds, or be prepared to process them, but do not--as many have unfortunately done--dump your birds in a park or rural area. To do so is to condemn them to a very bad death, and it is sincerely more humane to butcher and eat your birds than abandon them to this fate. If you can't bring yourself to butcher your birds, you can usually find a licensed processor to do it for you for a small fee, or you can simply rehome your birds with someone else who doesn't mind their lower rate of production. Another alternative, if you are willing to consider it, is simply to keep an old bird in your flock. An experienced hen will serve as a matriarch to the flock, teaching them where and how to find food, how to avoid danger, and how to get along with each other. She may not lay eggs as often, but an old hen can still have her uses.