‘Chicken math’ is an inside joke amongst modern flocksters. You start out with a few peepers and a cute little coop, only to realize that you ‘need’ more. More hens, more eggs, more space. So you buy a few more, add on to the coop, maybe buy an incubator to hatch your own, or <shudder> start keeping roosters. Next thing you know, you’ve spent $1000 for a few dozen eggs and some cackling poop-machines.
One antidote for that kind of chicken math is record-keeping – obsessive, daily, microscopic tracking of any data you can collect. At Seven Trees Farm we track feed consumption & costs, egg production, egg sales, hatch rates, date of lay, pedigrees, color, conformation, and so on. While rustling through a pile of spreadsheets can get old, it really helps in visualizing the difference between chickens as pets/hobby and chickens as livestock.
Today we sold 3 pullets that didn’t meet the cut for our breeding program. They laid perfectly decent olive green eggs, and were pretty hens, just not what we needed. So we listed them as a trio for $50 and they sold immediately. Judging by all the inquiries we can also tell that there is a solid market for these flock fancies, at least in springtime.
Looking over our records, we know that it takes us an average of $10 to raise a pullet to point-of-lay, about 5 months. Over the next 6 months each hen eats about $15 in feed, but earns about $36 in egg sales if we assume a production rate of 60%. This kind of chicken math tells us that each of those 3 hens brought a net profit of $27!
Not too shabby, considering that our household supply of eggs is basically free (we don’t count labor costs).
Industrial-sized ‘pastured’ poultry producers look for a production rate closer to 75-85%, but they use breeds and methods that are too close to factory farming for our liking. There is still much room for improvement though, and upping the ante with our ‘math’ is the key. Next up is a serious program of trap nesting, meaning each nest box gets a special door that closes when a hen goes in to lay, so we can see who lays what and how many.
This will allow us to cull (sell or eat) hens whose egg numbers don’t add up, and also to see which hens lay eggs that we want to hatch (no funky shells or off coloring). Another benefit to trap nesting is being able to sell a specific hen that lays a specific egg. The deeper you fall down the flockster hole, the more important it is to have just the right colors in your egg basket, and that translates to a value-added product for us.
Another way to push the math is to supplement bought feed with homegrown goodness. Maintaining the right nutrient balance is critical, so we can’t just toss them bread from the outlet store or past-prime lettuce and hope to keep the eggs coming. Since we live near a dairy with excellent (and cheap) milk, we’ve started feeding our flock kefir a few times a week. The process of culturing the milk makes it digestible to chickens and adds protein, calcium and probiotics. They absolutely love it. As an alternative we cook up a pot of beans mixed with dried nettles, full of protein, vitamins and minerals, which is great in winter when there isn’t as much green food to forage. The beans need to be cooked to neutralize an otherwise harmful enzyme, but in the winter it’s easy to get a pot bubbling on the woodstove.
In the evening we throw a few handfuls of homegrown wheat and corn into their bedding so they can scratch and fluff it, keeping it fresher longer, and providing them with a little exercise. If the nights are cold, some bedtime carbs help with egg production, but in the summer they get only a scatter of treats.
We’ve also experimented with pellets vs. crumbles to minimize waste, and are working on trapping the food-stealing, biosecurity-breaching English sparrows that plague our flock.
Chicken math doesn’t have to be boring. Make it into a story problem with lots of interesting variables to solve for, and both you and your flock can prosper.
Here is a downloadable Excel template for the chicken tracking spreadsheet – Blank Chicken Tracker