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Breaking it Down: Chickens or Eggs?

In January, HB20-1343 went into effect in Colorado, a new law requiring farmers to give one square foot of space to all hens to sell their eggs in grocery stores. The new law affected over 90% of the egg production in Colorado. On top of this, Avian flu swept across Colorado last year, killing off over six million egg-laying commercial chicken flocks. As a result, grocery stores across Denver have jacked up the price of eggs as they struggle with a supply chain shortage. The prospect of paying up to $6.00 for a carton of eggs at King Soopers or Safeway has led some Coloradans to consider raising chickens. But what is the true cost of fresh, cage-free eggs laid by hens in your own backyard? 

Broken Shovels Farm Sanctuary in Commerce City, Colorado, advises people not to go out and buy chicks. “We’ve all seen the hundreds of memes, heard the grumbling and watched the news reports about the price of eggs. You may get a wild hair and decide backyard chicken keeping is the thing to do, and rush out to go buy some peeping, adorable baby chicks. I get it, my lady friends… it’s like the ultimate peer pressure these days. But I’m begging you, don’t do it. After 15 years of chicken rescue, please hear me out. Buying chicks is not compatible with loving animals. It’s just not,” they wrote in an Instagram post recently. The caption went on to explain that the cost and level of maintenance required for proper chicken care is extensive, and many people who buy chicks are unaware of what they’re getting themselves into.

Heidi Beedle of Colorado Springs first started raising chickens eight years ago, and the four chickens she has now were adopted as chicks from the Humane Society. Her hens usually lay one egg each per day during the summer months, but in the winter months, it’s spottier. Years ago, when she had more chickens, she used to sell their eggs, but nowadays, she gives away any of the eggs that her family doesn’t eat. Raising chickens doesn’t come without challenges, according to Beedle.

“There’s a lot of challenges with raising chickens. It’s very labor intensive. When you get chicks, you have to have them under a heat lamp for like six weeks until they get big enough to go outside on their own, so you have to keep them in a little space or tub or something in your house. And, of course, you have to feed them every day just like every other animal,” she said. 

Once the chickens are big enough to go outside on their own, it’s essential to have an enclosed space for them to move around in that’s tall enough to keep predators out, and to keep the chickens in, because some smaller chicken breeds can fly, such as Bantam chickens. Beedle said the most significant predators that threaten backyard chickens in Colorado are hawks, raccoons, stray cats, and Bobcats. 

Another challenge people face when getting chicks for the first time is not being able to identify the sex of the chicken. Most municipalities like Colorado Springs and Denver don’t allow folks to keep roosters in their backyards, so if you end up with a male chick, you are tasked with rehoming it. And sometimes, in the absence of roosters, certain hens will adopt a “rooster-like persona,” according to Beedle. “They’ll become the designated protector; they’ll start crowing, grow spurs, and stop laying eggs. There are all kinds of weird quirks to raising chickens like that,” she explained.

Krista Kafer, of Littleton, Colorado, began raising chickens 11 years ago. She has five hens named Blackie, Blanca, Bernadette, Betty, and Barbara. She doesn’t sell her eggs, either.

“You know, occasionally somebody will offer me five bucks for them, and I’ll take it, but mainly I give them away. Now that there’s a shortage, I think having free-range chickens is important. I want all of my eggs to come from animals that are well-treated. And by giving them to other people, I feel like I’m encouraging them to eat responsibly,” she said.

In terms of temperament, Kafer described her chickens as being in the middle of the road. “They’re not the brightest, but in general, chickens are not dumb. They definitely have a pecking order,” she said with a laugh. “They can be kind of mean to each other.” She said she was surprised to discover they love meat and hunting mice. “They’re a lot more complex than people think they are in terms of their social organization and the fact that they’re capable of foraging and hunting. They’re just kind of neat.” 

Kafer echoed Beedle’s concerns about predators being a concern when it comes to keeping backyard chickens. In her area, she primarily deals with raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and skunks who want to get to her chickens.

“They’ll eat all of your hens if you don’t secure the area. And you know, I don’t blame them; chicken is delicious!”

Kafer said raising chickens doesn’t have to break the bank if you’re smart about it. The trick is feeding them her leftovers. “I spend about $18 a month on a bag of pellets for them and then feed them lots of scraps. They love human food,” she said. She said she probably saves a little money on eggs by raising her own hens, but ultimately does it for ethical reasons and because it’s fun.

Mike Goodman, of Aurora, Colorado, has been raising chickens for about ten years and currently has four. Goodman said that for him, raising chickens is a costly undertaking. He got them from Craigslist for about $15.00 a hen. “You have to take care of the coop and the chicken run, and then there’s regular feeding. I tend to use organic feed, so it’s more expensive. It can definitely get pretty pricey,” he said.

Goodman first got into raising chickens a decade ago while he had a vegetable garden and a couple of beehives. “It was more about just raising my own food and raising what we consumed, and belonging to community-supported agriculture,” he said. Goodman’s favorite part about raising chickens, he said, is watching them enjoy their favorite treat: mealworms. “I bang on the box that the mealworms are in, and the chickens just come running,” he said. “It’s so much fun to watch.” 

Wardle Feed & Pet Supply, Denver’s oldest pet and feed store, sells baby chicks from February to late August for $4.35-$6.35 a chick, depending on the breed. Nathanael Abeyta, one of Wardle’s employees, said there has already been an increase in chicken sales this year at their store since they began selling chicks on February 11th compared to this time last year. Most of their first-time customers buy three to four chicks rather than fully grown chickens, but there is about a 5-7% risk of getting a rooster, and they don’t take returns.

More experienced customers tend to buy six to eight chicks at a time and sometimes purchase their fully grown hens, which are around seven months old. “I would say look into it first before jumping into it. Chickens can be a lot more complex than people expect. You can’t just buy them and throw them in your backyard and expect to save money on eggs, because a lot of people don’t investigate how expensive the feed is, how expensive it is to house them, and everything it takes,” Abeyta advised. “It typically runs people anywhere from $50 to $65 bucks a month to take care of chickens. If you really want to spoil them, some people drop like $150 every month,” he said. This includes the cost of chicken feed, bedding, heat lamps, and water containers, which often break and have to be replaced.

So, is raising backyard chickens a solution to the high cost of eggs at your local grocery store? According to Abeyta, it really depends.

“If you only have two or three chickens of your own, you’re really going to be saving more money just buying eggs from the store. But if you can manage to have like 15 chickens or so, you’ll probably be saving a little bit of money in the long run. But it all depends on if the egg price is gonna stay where it is or go up. Or if it drops, then people are gonna end up with pets they didn’t really want in the first place, and then they’re stuck trying to give them away or get rid of them. So it’s really important that people do their research and make sure this is actually something they want to invest in,” he said.

In recent weeks, the price of eggs has slowly begun to decline again. While raising backyard birds may not be the solution to saving a few bucks on your favorite breakfast omelet, there are certainly a host of benefits to keeping a coop, like sustainable food production and fresher eggs. But if you’re feeling a little chicken, you might want to start with a vegetable garden this year.

Written by

London Lyle is a multimedia journalist.

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