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The Real Cost of Raising Meat Chickens – Year 1

By   /  January 20, 2014  /  7 Comments

It seems so easy: 1) buy chicks, 2) feed chicks, 3) harvest and package, 4) EAT. So backyard farmers decide they can do it too, and avoid the high price of Farmers Markets or Whole Foods. They could spend their spare time becoming “self-sufficient!” But here’s how much that can cost, when done by a couple of home producers. Share this with folks who think you charge too much!

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A few years back I was speaking at the Pennsylvania Assocation for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference.  I took the opportunity on my off hours to attend a presentation about raising meat birds because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.  I started out completely optimistic, but as I jotted down his numbers for feed costs, paying someone to process them, and then how much the finished birds sold for, I got depressed.  It was clear that this was not a profitable venture at the scale I could do it.

But somewhere along the way, I forgot that lesson, or I thought, “I can cut costs, and process the birds myself, and they will be so tasty!  And I have 3 acres that should be producing SOMETHING!”  So Leah and I said, “Sure, we can do that!  It will be fun!”

So here is the story of the “fun” we had, and how much it cost us to eat our home raised chickens in the first year of our experiment.

March 2011

19 meat birds will NOT fit in a cat carrier… but 19 pullets will!

19 meat birds will NOT fit in a cat carrier… but 19 pullets will!

X@&K! PULLETS!

We buy 20 fast grow meat chicks.  Seven weeks later, when they should have been almost full-grown and ready for harvest, we figure out why they haven’t gotten to harvest weight. We were given the wrong birds.  They’re pullets.  (Your garden variety egg-laying chicken.) We load them in the cat carrier, take them back and start again. Yes, we do feel stupid for being so slow on the uptake.  But, if you don’t know what you’re doing….well, you don’t know what to expect.

How do we know our second batch is really fast growers?  A friend picks one up to cuddle it and it shoots a long stream of golden poop down her lace shirt.  At first we thought the golden coating of something smelly all over the bottom of their pen was a result of them spilling their water.  No, we learned that it was their poop and it only got worse by the day.

These meat birds are 2 weeks old… they get bigger, but don’t get many more feathers in the next 3 weeks.

These meat birds are 2 weeks old… they get bigger, but don’t get many more feathers in the next 3 weeks.

Stench

About the time they are the size of softballs they get all sweaty like teenage boys and they stink just like them too… that’s not true, I’ve been in middle schools, they smell better than meat birds since they’re not also covered with a constantly growing layer of “poop.” All these birds do is eat, drink, grow and poop. Additionally, sometimes we’d go to check on them and one would just be belly up dead. There’s this thing that happens called “flip-over disease” which seems to happen when they eat too much and grow too fast and then they seizure, flip over and die. It’s awesome.

Housing

We were SO proud of our first chicken tractor!

We were SO proud of our first chicken tractor!

We raise the young birds inside with a heat lamp so they stay warm until they get their feathers. The first year we built our first chicken tractor to move them into when they got big enough. It probably cost us about $150 to build and a lot of time and brain power (to make it light enough for two women to move around). About the same time, we realized the local bear was scoping out the neighbors chickens. We thought there was enough other “easy” things for the bear to eat, so we put pavers around the bottom of our chicken tractor (to keep the small predators out) and called it good.

Butchering

Yep, boiling feathers smell great and the temperature is really easy on the pluckers hands…

Yep, boiling feathers smell great and the temperature is really easy on the pluckers hands…

Killing chickens is physically, emotionally, and financially draining.  We sang “Goodbye chicken, goodbye chicken, goodbye chicken, it’s time for you to die” to our first victim to soothe all of us.  Then we tied it’s legs together, slipped it head first into the killing cone (made from a $5 Home Depot bucket and some duct tape – classy!), and let it “rest” there before slitting it’s throat when it was finally calm.  Then we walked off to let it calm down again (or die in peace) while it thrashed around in the cone.  This was all done in view of the road and the neighbors, who knew enough to stay away from girls with knives.

Meanwhile, our not inexpensive turkey fryer, which has never yet been used to fry a turkey, is heating up a big pot of water.  When the chicken was truly dead, we chopped off it’s head and dropped it in the blood collection bucket just below the killing cone.  To pluck a chicken you have to dunk it in 200 degree water for about 15 seconds to loosen the feathers up.  This enhances their natural aroma.  Then you plop them on top of the plastic covered grill (the sideburner makes a great plucking table when closed) and yank out all the feathers.  The big tail and wing feathers are the hardest to pull and the little fine feathers are the most tedious to finish off.  If you’re fast, this takes 10 minutes.  We were not fast the first year.

THEN you use the burner for the turkey fryer to singe off all the fine hairs and feathers you were unable to pull out.  This smells AWESOME! (if you like the smell of burning hair, feathers and flesh).  Now, drop the body in a cooler full of $5 worth of ice and water to let it cool before gutting.  Don’t take a break or you’ll never get this done.  So while it’s cooling, go grab a chicken, sing to it, let it calm, slit its throat, let it drain, cut off its head, dunk it, pluck it and singe it.  It’s good to have multiple people to keep the assembly line moving.

Now to gutting.   We plop the chicken on the plastic-covered picnic table and cut off its neck and feet.  Actually, cutting off the feet is the most fun part of this whole process – don’t ask me why – it just is.  Now, cut a horizontal incision between the bird’s back legs, and then carefully cut out the butthole.  If you’re not careful, you’ll have poop everywhere.  Even though we cooled the chicken, it’s still warm on the inside, which you notice when you stick your hand inside the bird and then gently pull out all the insides.  We thought it was a little spooky when sometimes the chicken would cluck as we pulled out the insides.  This is because we were pushing air through the yet-to-be-removed Cluck Box which is in the windpipe.

Now the chicken looks like what you would buy in the store (if you’d been smart enough to buy them in the first place).  We are very proud of ourselves and manage to get 7 done in one day.  Then we cleaned up the bloody plastic, the disgusting turkey fryer, and the killing cone and blood buckets, and ourselves.  Our hands always smell like weird, dead, teenage chickens after a day of slaughter.

Awww… look how cute the cub is carrying the neighbors chicken!

Awww… look how cute the cub is carrying the neighbors chicken!

Predators

We butchered our first 7 chickens on a Monday and left the rest for the following Friday.  Tuesday it looked like something had been prowling around the chicken tractor, and something had even reached in and nabbed a chicken, so we threw an old trellis on the roof and added extra bricks around the bottom.  Wednesday morning, all was fine.  Wednesday afternoon, it looked like a glimpse of the apocalypse had happened in our back yard. It appeared a bomb had exploded the chicken coop; the roof was ripped off, there was blood and chicken carcasses all over, and there were very scared, traumatized chickens left in the pen. We moved the remaining chickens up to the hen house with our egg layers. While in the process of calling the Dept of Wildlife, the very happy bear returned to check out the murder scene. We chased it off and promptly put an electric fence around the chicken tractor. We left a dead chicken inside the pen to encourage the bear to come back and test the fence.  I checked the fence at 11:00 p.m. when I heard a scream.  It was a scary walk, but I was glad to see that the fence was still up, and the bear had probably learned about electricity.

Bears suck!

Bears suck!

Then we slaughtered the remaining 9 birds and decided it would be a really good idea to raise another batch of birds later that summer… Did we mention the bear was not trapped? Or that we had not totaled up the cost of each bird? We were inexperienced and optimistic.

Batch 2

We bought another 25 birds, fortified the chicken tractor with sheets of galvanized metal roofing, beefed up the electric fence, lost some birds to flip over disease, and went through the whole process all over again. We even sold a couple chickens to some friends for the high price of $15 each. Our freezers were stocked for the winter and we felt very successful.

Hindsight (is only 20-20 if you look)

Cost of chicks – $2.35 each from the store = $105.75
Cost of feed  – $105
Cost of the chicken tractor- approx $120
Cost of repairs and renovation of the chicken tractor $40
Cost of materials for slaughter (year 1)- approx $100
Labor for raising chickens, building the chicken tractor, putting up fence, repairing the tractor, and slaughtering 2 batches of birds, all at the $7.78 Colorado minimum wage – $933.60

WeAteLikeQueens

Leah in her castle with her meal fit for a Queen.

Grand Total = $1404.35

Cost per bird – about $40

We ate like queens (who didn’t do the math until much later).

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

7 Comments

  1. Nancy Oswald says:

    Too funny (or not). It reminds me of our chicken raising experience only we didn’t key into fact our birds were fast-growing until our layers walked by their pen and we noticed they were waaaaay bigger than our full grown hens. When we finally got around to butchering them (we did have a turkey roaster, but opted to use the 9 quart enamel canner and put it on the propane base for our turkey roaster to heat the water) they weighed between 7 and 9 pounds. My husband, who loves fried chicken, couldn’t figure out why it took two fry pans to cook one of these birds. After that we smartened up and just roasted them. Yes. Delicious. For the two of us, one chicken made a week’s worth of meals, with soup being the grand finale. Since we were raising them only for ourselves, our batch of 25 minus the “flip-over” will end up lasting us about two years. I hear the “voice of reason” in all of the other blog responses, but your post sounds too much like real life to me. And oh, instead of building a movable chicken coop, we opted to cheap it out with an old stock tank and rolled it around every few days. I enjoyed your post thoroughly. Made me smile.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Thanks, Nancy! The next year, we moved the birds into a hoop house we built from 6x6x6 wire, chicken wire, 2x4s and a tarp to give shade. It was awesome, UNTIL the bear decided that 23 chicken nuggets (the chicks were 2 weeks old at the time) were worth the shock of the electric fence. He ate all but 2, which I moved in with the egg layers. Though I’d put them in their own area of the pen in a little fence, one escaped and drowned itself that same day. I think he just couldn’t live with the horror he’d seen. Since the remaining one had been through such trauma, we decided she could live until it was clear that it was time. She was the size of a small turkey with the most amazing layer of fat I’ve ever seen on a chicken. We served 6 people and ate the leftovers for a week.

      Every year we tried, we learned something new. There are all these things that farmers just take for granted and that they never tell anyone, or that they just assume will be clear. And then there are events, like bears, or huge blizzards that last for 3 weeks. So every time we solved a problem, we encountered a new one the next year. And since we weren’t butchering all that many, we never got very fast at the whole pluck and gut thing. We checked out mechanical pluckers, but the building or buying of one looked like a larger investment than we thought we could afford, and there were no farmers in town to borrow one from.

      All in all, it was a great learning opportunity, the meat was great, and….I appreciate folks who raise chickens!

      • Nancy Oswald says:

        So true everything you said about agriculture. If it’s not bears, it’s something else. May all your bear-eaten chickens rest in peace, and especially the one that got the pleasure of an extended life until it reached the dinner table. Good luck with all your other ag enterprises and may you be blessed with chickens raised by someone else.

  2. Sandra says:

    You can avoid “flip-over” disease by only feeding your chicks what they should eat in a day instead of free-feeding. This also cuts down on vermin. If you are moving your pastured poultry on a twice daily basis, sprinkle the feed on the ground prior to moving the coop to that spot. It will teach your birds to move forward and to forage in the grass and dirt.

  3. SpaceChicky says:

    Save yourself a lil’ time, trouble and stank, and just skin those puppies!! It’s quicker and way less stanky!!

    I am not sure why the chicks are stinking, and covered in poo, unless you are not cleaning their box and giving them fresh shavings, daily. Of course, it’s added labor and expense, but it’s a lot more sanitary and less stressful for the chicks as well.

    Whatever you do, don’t get ducks…they are the messiest creatures on earth, next to pigs.

  4. Shorter reply.

    I get it. The idea behind the post is a humorous look at what you could put yourself through if you want to raise chickens on a home scale. I do get it. But there’s no way I can justify anyone spending an hour per chicken in the pasture, an hour per chicken processing and another 30 hours building a chicken tractor. I feel pity to the point of frustration.

  5. It’s hard to scald chickens at 200 degrees without cooking the skin. Far better, in my opinion, to scald at 145 for a minute. That gives you time to kill two birds while two are soaking in the scald water. Working alone, batching 4 birds at a time through start to finish is pretty efficient.

    Economies of scale certainly apply but I’m having all kinds of trouble with the math. $1,404.35 divided by 45 is $31.21 per bird, a far cry from $40. Aside from that, $2.35 is too much to pay for birds. But I’ll forgive that too. She is also absorbing the entire cost of her chicken tractor in year one. It’s hard to believe she will neither re-use nor sell it.

    Let’s move on to feed. She says she spent $105 on feed for 50 birds. Each pastured bird likely ate 3.5 pounds of feed for every pound of gain. If she butchered her birds at 4 pounds she would have gone through 630 pounds of feed. A 50 pound bag of Purina Flockraiser (the stuff that goes in yellow and crumbly and goes out yellow and runny) costs $16 in Illinois. So that takes us to $201.6 for feed. You can do better on price but that gives us a starting point.

    She spent 120 hours of labor (160 minutes per bird!!!) to build a chicken tractor (4 hours) and repair the chicken tractor (30 minutes maybe) and slaughter the birds (at most 5 minutes each). If it took a week to build that tractor she should have just hired a carpenter for half a day. I would roll the labor costs of the chicken tractor into the chicken tractor itself then spread that cost over 10 years. Let’s say $200 for the tractor and $20 per year.

    I’m not sure what her first year slaughter costs could possibly be at this scale. Maybe a $100 turkey fryer? That could be borrowed but is not in any way needed. If you want to pluck the birds faster you could rent/borrow a plucker. If not, you can usually buy a used Whizbang plucker from CL for under $500. Depreciate that over 10 years. This is optional too.

    With her scale in mind I would calculate labor at 11 minutes per bird (5 minutes per tractor per day for 56 days divided by 25 birds) while the bird is alive and 4 minutes per bird after it dies, including packaging and labeling. That lowers the minimum-wage labor figure to $87.52 (((15 minutes per bird * 45 birds)/60 minutes) * $7.78). Really, that number is very, very high because for the first 21 days the birds are in the brooder. If you are in the brooder for 5 minutes each day you’re just playing with the baby chickies…hard to bill for that.

    I would break it down this way:
    Chicks – $105.75 (should be half that)
    Feed – $201.6
    Chicken tractor – $20 (cost of labor, repairs, bad design and all spread over 10 years)
    Cost of materials for slaughter $0 (Boil water in a pot on the stove, sharpen a couple of kitchen knives and pluck by hand. It’s just 20-25 birds!)
    Labor for moving chicken tractor, feed, water and slaughter – $87.52

    That brings the total cost to $9.22 per bird (not $31.20 from above). With the same labor and equipment she could raise 45 birds in a single batch bringing the total cost to $8.59 per bird. We haven’t begun to account for electricity and water usage or to depreciate brooder, drinker or fencing costs but that brings her numbers into a better range and we are far, far below the $40 per bird quoted above. (We also haven’t added back the fertility value of the chicken manure or the composted chicken offal on the pasture.)

    *The hatchery we use will ship 45 birds to my door for $1.44 per chick ($1.54 to Colorado). That’s including shipping. $1.12 including shipping from a certain hatchery closer to Colorado.

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