Sustainable Economics– Starting with Chickens Isn’t Sustainable

If you’ve spent any time in the world of sustainable farming folks, you’ll hear tons of stories about raising chickens and/or their eggs.  A lot of people into this type of farming love them some chicken-raising.  However, it’s just not sustainable at the medium level of several hundred birds/dozens of eggs a week.  This is a pretty interesting postmortem for a chicken-centric operation, Soul Food Farm, that is now at hobby/homestead levels of production.

A huge problem with Soul Food Farm was starting with chickens.  From there numerous other problems flowed.  Starting with chickens is absolutely fatal to a small-scale operator. I am distinguishing backyard chickens from small-scale farming efforts here.  Having a few backyard chickens is fine and generally pencils out ok for most people.  The problem comes in scaling up.  Like vegetable farming, people get excited about the high per-unit profits (wow, 20/25/30 dollars a chicken!!!) and fail to understand the economics coherently.

Chickens are tiny, all current models of production for wider sale are industrial to some degree, and the labor to profit ratio is pretty poor until you are producing thousands of birds per week or so.  At that hundreds of birds per week where most sustainable types get to and crash hard, you’re generating a decent cash flow, but you’re suffering the worst ratio of labor to effort and also have most of the same high fixed expenses as the people with 10k+ chickens for sale each week.  But because those small farmers start with a few chickens, they get into buying more and more birds and doing a lot of the care inefficiently and not really catching up to the problems until they are overworked, exhausted and unable to afford to stop when disaster hits.  

Whether it’s free ranging pastured eggs or broiler production, chickens are the kind of livestock where you really have to go big or go homestead/hobby level if you want to still be in business at the ten year mark.  Fifty chickens to clean up after your family cow is manageable.  Five hundred, not so much.  And it really seems to be an artifact of starting with chickens, not so much having chickens around.

In the specific case of Soul Food Farm, the high labor requirements of focusing so much on chickens left them unable to deal with issues like arson and non-animal predation.  In one of the articles mentioned in the postmortem up above, another chicken-specializer mentions losing 25k of cash value in chickens to theft– given the arson that destroyed much of Soul Food’s production animals, it is very likely theft was a potential obstacle they had to cope with as well.  That is of course another reason chickens are bad to start with at this level.  Petty theft of a dozen here, fifty there and suddenly you have mysterious 25% or 30% losses, destroying your margins.  And again, chickens are tiny, and the pasturing model makes it just difficult enough to keep track of hundreds of birds that it would be quite possible to miss small occasional thefts that added up over time, separate from animal predation issues that are also potentially margin-wrecking at that scale.

Where we live there is, for example, occasional theft of firewood where people live off busy main roads, to pick something that is also easy to run off with small amounts of, but which adds up to a problem for the families losing it over time.  With thousands and thousands of birds, those losses aren’t either as damaging or as likely due to how one has to manage that volume of birds.

My husband and I were discussing the postmortem for Soul Food Farm, because there was a lot going on there and it really did seem to us that it kept coming back to starting with a high-labor, low-margin animal that is hard to protect.  And we were thinking of examples of people who started with chickens and everyone we could think of scaled back or went big.  Chickens are a great add-on animal, but they don’t seem like they work out so well as a primary farm product unless you go into some high-volume model.



3 thoughts on “Sustainable Economics– Starting with Chickens Isn’t Sustainable

  1. I think that chickens are attractive to new farmers because they’re easy to care for, relatively cheap, and don’t require a lot of capital to house. But I think you’re absolutely right that they’re hard to keep track of when you have hundreds — which ones aren’t laying? How many did we lose last night? and so on.
    I can think of a lot of farms that started with chickens and transitioned to something else when they finally got a feel for the business. For me, it wasn’t until I started selling whole, live chickens at the farm gate that it made sense for me. The processing cost and labor requirements were too much, but just handing the chickens over to the customer made it a whole lot easier. And even with that, chickens aren’t my primary market. As you said: A nice add on.

  2. Our farm does 600 broilers a year… feed costs are less than $10 per 50lb of feed as we produce our own. This includes diesel fuel/equipment costs to plant the corn/soy, harvest, dry etc.. I use around 1500lbs per 100 full sized birds, that average 4-5lbs after processing. I’ll round up to $2000 in feed costs. We get $4.59/lb making for a $18-20bird. It takes 3 people, 6 hours to catch, process, bag/tag the birds for a total of 18-20 man hours, at $9/hr= $180 per 100 birds. . Bags are about .10 each, so $60 in bags. I spend about 2 hours a day feed/water/moving 600 broilers for $20/day for 7-8weeks at a cost of $1120 in labor. The chicken tractors are amortized but are made of reclaimed barn lumber and old hog panels… only costs are in a few tarps each year to cover the tops.

    So.. Feed $2000, Labor to raise $1120, Labor to process $1080, Misc Costs $200= $4200 for 600 birds. Our gross on the birds is around 10,800-12,000.. so about $8000 net for 600 birds.

    It doesn’t make a ton of cash, but it is a nice addition to the poultry feed business, beef operation, and egg layers (which are our worst profit margin by far).

  3. Oh.. and I rarely lose birds.. usually 1-3 per 100 birds raised… Predators are not a problem as the poultry are in the same fields w/ the cow/calf pairs, which keep predators away.

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