The Sustainable Suburbs: Fowl Language

The Sustainable Suburbs: Fowl Language

ByGroovy Green Apr 14, 2008

Another story in our series from Wendy. This one has some nuts and bolts about the cost of keeping chickens in your backyard.


I live in the suburbs. Mine may not be a “typical” suburban neighborhood – my house was not part of a “planned” subdivision, although a subdivision plan was filed with the town for the road on which I live.

There’s also a planned subdivision across the road from me. The house lots are each a 1/2 acre. There’s another planned subdivision going in right down the road from me. I know the owner of the property. He’s my neighbor and owns the garden center next door.

About a 1/2 mile up the road from me is another family who also has chickens. I think they might also have bees.

This is a residential area. It’s a suburb. With the exception of my home business, the few other home-based workers and the garden center, there are no shops or other stores – just a bunch of houses from Route One until the grocery store that is the beginning of the town proper.

Maybe I am being overly optimistic, but my experience is that we (the people in my community and my neighborhood) are moving toward sustainability – not necessarily “self-sufficiency”, but we are moving toward lifestyles that are going to be able to survive in a petroleum starved future.

Maybe it’s just us, Mainers, but I don’t REALLY believe that people who live in Maine are more innovative than people in other parts of the country. Don’t get me wrong, there is an above average amount of that old Yankee Ingenuity in this part of the country, but we’re all still as average as every other American. There are still people who drive Hummers. There are still people who don’t recycle. There are still lots of people who water their lovely, lush, green lawns in the height of a heat wave (which, in this part of the country, is when the temperature reaches 90° and stays there for more than two consecutive days – about two days per year :) . On those “hot” days, while potable water is being wasted on grass no one will ever eat, those people are likely hiding inside their 2500 sq ft homes with the air conditioning blaring – although it’s more likely than not, a less efficient window model, because central heating is an oil furnace and there aren’t many homes, even newer ones, equipped with HVAC (electric heat is incredibly pricey and horribly inefficient in this part of the country).

So, what’s my point? The point is that I don’t believe I am an idealist and that my vision of the future of suburbia is so far-fetched or unrealistic. I’ve said it before, and I guess I need to say it again in an oil-starved future, today’s rules will be changed to meet the demands of tomorrow. In short, it ain’t gonna be the same, folks.

But with regard to my supposed “idealist … dreams”, truth is, a lot of what I describe is actually my present.

Right down to the chickens in my backyard.

Let me tell you about them.

We have six.

There’s Emily, the Araucuna. She lays green eggs. She is the sole surviving Araucuna following the raccoon massacre last spring.

The other survivor of our predator experience is Penny. She’s the oldest of our hens and will be two this spring. She lays white eggs. She molted at the beginning of the winter, and we were a little worried about how she’d fare in the cold and snow with her featherless body, but she did just fine, and actually started laying about about two weeks into her month-long molt. It was only a couple of eggs a week, but it was pretty incredible how devoted she was to her “job.”

Leah is our Australorp. She’s the biggest of the hens and is the first one to explore “new.” She’s the first in line for the “goody” tray. She lays brown eggs – one every day.

Princess Layah is our Buff Orpington. I catch her in the nest more than any of the others, and I haven’t decided if she’s just broody, or if she’s a daily layer, too. We’re not sure if her eggs are the other brown one, or if she lays the pink-brown eggs.

The other possibility for pink-brown eggs is our checker-board chicken. We’re in a constant debate as to whether she’s a Plymouth Rock or a Barred Rock … maybe a Wyandotte. Her name is, aptly, “Checkers”, and she might be the other brown egg layer.

Last, but not least, is little Treeah. She’s a brown leghorn (Penny is a white leghorn). She lays white eggs.

Our six chickens give us, on average, four eggs every day. We always have at least one white one, usually two brown ones, and either a pink-brown one or a green one. I think they trade. Emily will say, “Hey, Checkers. It’s your turn. I gave yesterday. Today’s my day off.”

Four eggs per day is plenty, especially on days when we don’t eat eggs for breakfast. Right now, we have almost three dozen eggs in the refrigerator. We give away about a dozen each month. I know, not a lot of excess, but it is there.

As for price. Well, we paid about $3 each for our chickens. That’s $18.

We spent around $200 for supplies for the chicken coop, including the corrugated plastic roofing material that is transparent to let in sunlight, and the plastic we use to winterize it so that the chickens don’t have to be cooped up in their house when it’s snowing.

Feed and hay cost about $75 per year ($10 for feed which lasts about two months and $5 for hay that lasts about three months).

I paid $100 for the brooder supplies, including mash, but had I been a little more savvy, I would have used a cardboard box instead of a small animal cage, that cost $60 (over half my start-up cost), but the bonus is that I can reuse the animal cage, and not just for chickens. It’s the perfect size for rabbits, guinea pigs, or even a ferret, if I wanted one of those … which I don’t. It has other uses, too, which I’ll get at in a minute.

We got them as chicks and hand raised them. They started laying about four months after we got them. Once they got over the initial shock of pushing the egg out, even our most lax layer gives us an egg every other day.

Maybe it’s our coop design, which allows the chickens full, all day, natural light (we don’t have any artificial light or warmers in the coop or henhouse), or maybe we were just lucky to pick chickens who like to lay eggs, but they give us, on average, four eggs per day, every day.

So, for the first year, our chickens have given us 80 dozen eggs. Wow! I hadn’t really run the numbers before. All I can say is “You go girl(s)!”

Comparable eggs, that is “cage-free” … there isn’t a factory farm equivalent to “hand raised”, and so I can’t put a price on that … But comparable eggs would cost, at best, $5 per dozen.

In other words, if we didn’t have our chickens, we would have paid $400 for eggs in the first year.

My chickens cost us $393 for the first year, including coop supplies and brooder supplies – all of which are ONE TIME costs.

So having chickens, actually saved my family $7 in that first year.

This year, we don’t have to build a coop. We don’t have to buy brooder supplies. We don’t have to buy baby chicks.

We’ll spend $75 for feed and hay.

Which means, our chickens will SAVE US $325 per year in eggs.

That sounds pretty darned sustainable to me.

Oh, but there is the issue of what to do with my hens when they get old, and while I could take care of that here in my neighborhood where there are no laws prohibiting such things (we raised meat rabbits for quite some time and took care of the butchering ourselves), what I would most likely do is to take them to someone to pay to have it done.

There is a butcher not far from where I live who will take a live chicken (which is where the small animal cage will become useful, again) and turn it into meat for the small fee of $4. By the time my “girls” get old enough for this to be an issue, they will have more than covered the cost of having them in what they’ve saved me in eggs, and they will have more than covered the cost of $4 to prepare them for my stockpot. In essence, the meat will be free.

But even if it weren’t, the $4 processing fee would work out to much less than I would be paying for comparable meat in the grocery store. Again, it’s hard to put a price on “hand raised”, but they are hormone and antibiotic-free for sure, and will have lived a relatively stress-free life.

At an average weight of 5lbs of meat, the cost per pound for my lovelies will be about $1. Organic chicken in the grocery store is $3 or more per pound – on SALE. Organic LOCAL chicken is $9 per pound.

I recognize that every suburb isn’t like mine, but I have lived in other suburbs in other parts of the country, and when I was a preteen, the folks in the big house on the corner just down the road from my house had a huge backyard filled with annual, edible crops and chickens. Suburban homesteading is not a new thing, and I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that there are more suburbs like mine and the one where I grew up than there are like the ones that have very restrictive HOAs.

Even those, in my idealistic and overly optimistic view, have a future in an oil-depleted future. I don’t believe they are the “slums” of the future, and neither do I believe that the people who live there will be holding out for government handouts.

Consider that most of the people who live in suburbs are upwardly mobile young people who have college degrees and have worked very hard in their chosen careers – doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, business owners, entrepreneurs, computer programers … these people are not going to wait until someone makes it better. These are the people who change things every day, for a living.

They aren’t going to want to give up their cushy lifestyles – which is why they are going to be the ones making the changes to preserve what they have – a comfortable home, in a nice neighborhood that’s not quite the country and not quite the city.

Afterall, anyone who has studied a great deal will have realized: In medio stat virtus — Horatio

That’s the future of suburbs – being in the middle. And it has its advantages, as well.