The Real Cost of Raising Meat Chickens – Year 1

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 the speaker's 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 my friend 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 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

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7 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Raising Meat Chickens – Year 1

  1. 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.

    1. 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!

      1. 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. 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. 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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