More Than Free Eggs: How One Family’s Backyard Chickens Keep On Giving
Hurricane Irma was breathing down Penny Hoarder editor Rain Turner’s neck when she loaded up her compact Scion xB with her two teenagers, two small dogs, a 4-foot ball python in a pillowcase and a dog crate housing their two chickens.
Together, this ragtag team traveled north from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Gainesville, Florida, seeking shelter. Though the three hotels they called home over the next two weeks were pet-friendly, Turner and her family weren’t sure how well two clucking hens would be received; so, they hatched a plan for the entry and exit at each hotel.
“With a blanket over the crate, we pushed open the lobby door and started loudly talking, singing and generally stomping our way to the elevator to mask a soft but ever-persistent clucking noise,” Turner reminisced. “Our six nonsense bird parades may have looked insane, but they are one of the few points of light that kept us from worrying about the damage back home.”
Since Turner purchased Blackstar and Jareth (named after the late David Bowie) as chicks in June 2017, they have become an important part of the family. The chickens watch TV in the house and even enjoy being pet (the family is sure to wash their hands afterward).
While owning the hens has certainly been a source of entertainment, they are also proving to be lucrative for Turner’s family.
The High Cost of Eggs
Before her 1,000-mile move to Florida last year, Turner had bought fresh, pasture-raised chicken eggs from her friend Karla in Ohio. Because she knew the source, Turner could be sure the eggs were cruelty- and hormone-free, and Karla only charged $1.25 a dozen — “just enough to cover the cost of the chicken feed.”
When she moved to Gulfport, Florida, Turner discovered just how sweet of a deal those eggs had been. A carton of organic, free-range eggs would cost her about $6, and there was no guarantee that the chickens were local or treated humanely.
“One day after the grocery, we headed to a local pet store to get dog food, and there was a bin of baby chickens for $6 each,” Turner explained. “They were so friendly and soft, my teenage kids fell in love. I was soon looking up the local chicken laws on my phone — turns out, our neighborhood allowed backyard chickens!”
That confirmation was all it took for Turner to take two adorable little chickens home.
Upfront Costs for Two Baby Chicks
Turner incurred several upfront costs for the new additions to her family, but they were minimal compared to the costs of bringing a new dog home from the shelter.
Turner purchased a feed tray for $13 and a gravity waterer for $8, and she constructed a small run with chicken wire and metal stakes for $30. Her husband later spent $200 on a chicken coop for her birthday in July. “This is who I am now,” Turner joked.
Turner already had a heat lamp and birdcage on-hand for the chicks, which together could cost anywhere from $50 to $100.
Cost of Upkeep
After the initial costs, Turner found it doesn’t take much financially to keep two chickens alive and clucking. She buys a 25-pound bag of food for $18 and and a 5-pound bag of chicken scratch (dried corn and seeds) for $6 once a month for a monthly total of $24. She uses free newspapers to create the hay-like material needed to line the coop.
It’s possible that the chickens might need veterinary care or new equipment every now and then, but these costs, spread over years, would be minimal.
Benefits of Raising Backyard Chickens
Though the chickens were somewhat of an investment, Turner is already seeing that investment pay off. Blackstar, at just five months, began to lay an egg every day, totaling more than two dozen eggs a month.
Once Jareth begins to lay at that level (she has just started to lay, though not consistently), the Turners will have about 60 organic eggs (five dozen) every month, a value of $30 — and a profit of $6 a month over the cost of feed. But Turner isn’t just in it for the money. The peace of mind that comes from knowing her eggs are from free-range, cruelty-free chickens is valuable in itself.
While it would take some time to recoop the initial investment, Turner has discovered some indirect savings from owning chickens.
Turner explained, “We only expected to get eggs and snuggles from them, but it turns out there are other perks to owning chickens. They eat a lot of bugs in the yard” — a big deal in the Tampa Bay area — “and even keep the grass trim with their constant pecking. Our backyard rarely needs to be mowed, and any waste they produce gets washed into the grass with each rain.”
For reference, the national average annual cost of pest control is $177; the annual average for lawn mowing is $148. Turner even uses broken egg shells to deter slugs in the garden, and incorporates crushed eggshells right back into the chicken feed, saving $6 over buying oyster calcium supplements for the flock each month.
Raising chickens also allowed Turner and her family to give back to the community — in the form of poop. Turner told me that her family plans to provide chicken manure to the Gulfport Food Forest, a community initiative to grow fruits and vegetables in Gulfport’s parks and downtown area. “By composting food scraps with the poo we clean out from the coop,” Turner said, “we’ll be able to provide the community plants with some much-needed fertilizer this spring.”
Jareth and Blackstar are also generous with another resource: feathers. Being the crafty type, Turner makes boho earrings using beads and the feathers that the chickens naturally shed.
Challenges of Raising Backyard Chickens
There’s more to keeping fowl alive than just buying a bag of feed once a month. Like any animal, chickens require some tough work and a fair amount of time every day.
“If I’m not out there right after the sun comes up, they’ll start clucking until I go out!” Turner told me. And while she can let them run free in the backyard for most of the day, she and her family must always be on the lookout for predators. “Everything wants to eat them. The biggest challenge is the stress and effort that comes with making sure they don’t get snatched by a hawk or ravaged by local cats.
“We actually witnessed a hawk dive into our yard to snatch them up. We were peacefully swimming in the pool one second, then the next, we were splashing and jumping out of the pool to yell at this hawk while our chickens clucked over to the shelter of some tall tropical plants.”
Turner also explained that it’s more work when they’re chicks. They needed to stay beneath a heat lamp, and their cage had to be relined several times a day. As adults, the hens just need their coop to be cleaned about once a month — and of course the family has to gather eggs each day.
So are chickens worth the investment, effort and possible hurricane escape plans? For those who like responsibly produced eggs, it can prove to be lucrative over time — especially if you eat them frequently or sell your eggs at a local farmers’ market. But the real value seems to come from the experience — from the laughs that come from raising an unconventional pet and the pride in the work required to care for them.
In fact, the experience has been so rewarding for the Turners that they have just adopted their third chick, Sweetums (named after another Jim Henson creation, of course). Turner’s take on the potential challenge of sneaking three full-grown hens around Florida during the next hurricane season? “We’ll have to sing pretty loud.”
Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer living in Nashville with his partner and their two dogs. He prefers his eggs over-easy and crammed between two pieces of garlic toast with a slice of cheese and ham.