Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How to Save Money While Raising Chickens

We love our chickens and their eggs, but they're more expensive to keep than if we just bought eggs from the store! Many people are in the same predicament which they love eggs, but are breaking the bank trying to care for them. But there are ways to cut down on the costs of feeding and housing your birds!

Cutting down housing costs

The coop makes up the majority of your start-up costs of chicken keeping. Depending on the size and how it is done, it can end up costing you anywhere from $100 to $2000! So, how do we keep it on the lower end of the spectrum?

Our playhouse coop. All additional wood used in this
coop was upcycled from an old barn!
"Upcycle" existing buildings! To build our first coop, we obtained an old playhouse that was no longer being used, for free. The playhouse was 5 and a half feet off the ground, and had enough square footage to hold 10-12 chickens. We originally had 6 hens, so this gave us room to expand! We enclosed the bottom part of the coop with chicken wire, and put a sliding door in the floor of the coop. The chickens love roosting high up, which provides extra predator protection. We still use this little coop, and plan to upgrade it with more predator-proof welded wire. Considering original construction of this coop cost us only about $70, such upgrades can easily be afforded! This can also be done with old sheds or barns, and I have even seen it done with old campers!

Reuse old wood for your new coop. Are you tearing down an old building, or have a friend who is? Salvage all decent wood from it! Lumber will probably be the most expensive part of building your coop. As long as the wood isn't cracked, rotting, painted with lead paint, or warped, you can probably use it! Using old boards for roofs, walls, and maybe the floor can give your coop a rustic feel and is much better for the environment!

Using the deep litter method keeps you from using too much bedding. When you are replacing straw or shavings once a week, you go through a whole lot of bedding! With the deep litter method, you just keep adding litter on top, stirring it so that air can get to all of the bedding and it stays dry. As the organic matter breaks down, it produces heat that keeps the chickens warm enough without any fire-risky lamps or electric heat! Just make sure your coop is well ventilated, and replace all of the bedding twice a year, or every few months if you don't like to wait that long. You can also reuse bedding if it is only a 'little' dirty. I replace chick bedding a lot. The bedding has a little poop on it that makes it too smelly for my house, but is still pretty good, and it feels wasteful to throw it on the compost pile. To clean the bedding, fill a bin of water and put the soiled bedding in it. Use a stick to stir the bedding, which will separate the "icky stuff" and the straw. Spread the bedding out in the sun to dry, and use it for the big chicken coop! I've found that this works best with straw, because shavings break down too easily. For the main coop, I also use free bedding types, like leaves and dry grass clippings, which the chickens love to scratch in!

Cutting down on feed costs

The majority of your long-term investment is taken up by feed costs. The chickens have to eat - there's no way around it! You will be spending some money on feeding your chickens. However, you don't have to sign away your savings! There are ways to save on feeding your birds!

There are tons of protein-rich insects in this soil!
Free ranging - If you can allow your birds to run freely around your yard, that will significantly cut feed costs! During the spring, summer, and fall months when Mother Nature is providing, my chickens will go from eating fifty pounds of feed a week, to that much in three weeks! They engorge themselves on clover and dandelion, and eat invasive species like Japanese beetles and stinkbugs by the hundreds! While the layers and dual-purpose birds seem to need a little bit of feed to support their bodies, the bantams live almost solely off of the land during these seasons, and are healthy as can be! 
Also, in order to support your flock more off the land, don't mow your lawn as often! Allow the grass and flowers to get tall enough to produce seeds! The seeds have a lot more nutrients and calories than the grass itself, so it allows your chickens to get a lot more out of free ranging! If you have a large yard, you have the option of mowing just around your house regularly and letting the rest grow up for the chickens!
Be aware, however, that allowing your flock to free range can come with risks. Hawks soar high above, and dogs dig under fences. There is no way to fully protect your flock while free ranging, even if you're out there with them. Most of the time, they will be fine, but there lives are at a higher risk out in the open. Cover, such as bushes and brush, and a good rooster will help keep them safer than an open field. 

Fermenting your feed may allow you to feed them less, while providing them with more nutrition! Fill a bucket with your regular feed, and then put water in the bucket, so that the feed is covered by just a couple inches, then allow this to sit for a couple of days. This should then be fed to your chickens in a trough. Many experienced users on backyardchickens.com swear that it reduces their feed costs, and that their chickens seem healthier and fatter than before! This study found significant health benefits of using fermented feed in laying hens, such as better resistance to certain bacteria, when compared to the control group. They did note poorer plumage condition and aggressive behavior, although many people report improvements in plumage after feeding fermented feed.  

Yogurt is a healthy treat, but most other dairy should be avoided!
Feeding your chickens kitchen scraps can significantly reduce your feed costs! Many people criticize this method, but it's not a bad option. The way I see it, if I eat a healthy, balanced diet, my scraps will also be balanced. Therefore, my kitchen scraps are okay for my chickens, too! Furthermore, it's not going to hurt my chickens to have an occasional unhealthy treat anymore than it hurts me. If you would let your kids occasionally eat Doritos or mac n' cheese, why is it so horrible to let your chickens eat that when you have some left over? Your chickens probably shouldn't be living solely off of scraps, but if it's mostly healthy food, they can make up a lot of the birds' diet! Good things for the chickens are the same as what's good for you! Veggies, cooked beans, whole grains, lean meats, yogurt, and cottage cheese are all good for them! Be careful with uncultured dairy, however. Humans developed the ability to process lactose as adults when we began domesticating animals, but other animals didn't! So unless you want to be cleaning up chicken diarrhea, it's best to avoid most dairy!

Buy feed by the ton from a grain mill and store it in a dry place, to avoid the $14 a bag pricetag at the feed store! If you have a lot of chickens, this may be the best option for you! Most grain mills require at least one ton of feed be bought at a time, sometimes more, and they often deliver it to your house. People who do this usually store the feed in large plastic barrels. When storing such large amounts of feed, you may encounter problems such as rodents and mold, and measures must be taken to prevent them from ruining your feed. Traditionally, cats were kept in grain storage buildings to catch mice, a job which they were bred to do. To prevent mold, you may need to run a dehumidifier in your storage area, depending on how damp it is. 

Accept that chickens can be expensive

You can always cut corners, but sometimes, we just have to fork over the bill! They need some chicken feed for a balanced diet. They need a safe coop, and while it's easy to skimp on the welded wire for chicken wire (guilty, and correcting), it's a pain when you're replacing chickens due to predators. Chicken keeping simply costs money, but there's nothing wrong with trying to reduce that cost as long at their needs are met!

Do you have a creative chicken-keeping method that saves you money? Share! Don't forget to check out our Facebook page and our Instagram for regular updates!

Engberg, R. M., M. Hammershøj, N. F. Johansen, M. S. Abousekken, S. Steenfelt, and B. B. Jensen. "Fermented Feed for Laying Hens: Effects on Egg Production, Egg Quality, Plumage Condition and Composition and Activity of the Intestinal Microflora." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2009. Web. 03 May 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19373724>.