We hear so much about the wonderful benefits of raising chickens, but the truth is that it’s not for everyone. So I thought an honest discussion of the pros and cons of backyard chickens would be helpful.
I am often asked by potential coop lords if it is time consuming or expensive. I never quite know how to respond, because it really depends on how you take care of your animals. A dog takes little time and money if you leave it chained to a tree all day. Or it can be very time consuming and expensive, if you walk the dog several times a day, and provide appropriate stimulation, veterinary care, etc.
It’s the same with chickens. They can survive with minimal care, but if you’re the type who will want to provide them with a life that’s even remotely similar to the way their wild relatives live, then the answer is yes, it will probably be time consuming and expensive. It will certainly be more time consuming and probably more expensive than purchasing eggs shelled out from the battery cage system. But I think the more important questions are whether or not you will enjoy caring for them, because if you enjoy it, the costs might not matter much to you.
In weighing the pros and cons, I think it’s important to understand the health and animal welfare costs of industrial chicken farms, so I have provided some links for further reading. If you decide you’d rather not keep chickens after all, I hope you will support farmers who treat their animals humanely. If you cannot find a local source of humanely produced eggs or meat, check to see if your grocer carries a brand with some kind of humane certification. Food labeling is confusing, but I do know that Animal Welfare Approved has the highest standards. Probably because their standards are so high, and maybe because the program is relatively new, AWA certified products are hard to find. Certified Humane products are much easier to come by. Certified Humane’s standard of care is lower than AWA’s, but still much better than battery cages.
Now for the pros and cons. I hope this helps you decide if backyard chickens would be a delight or a nuisance in your life:
The pros of keeping chickens
To appreciate the pros of keeping chickens, you really need to understand the cons of factory farms, for raising some of your own food reduces your dependency on them. This excellent infographic from Health Science Degree Guide, provides a great overview of the animal welfare, public health, and environmental costs of factory farming. And I’ll flesh it out with additional details below.
- Animal Welfare You will not be financially supporting factory chicken farms, which is an important step towards dismantling them, a great contribution towards farm animal welfare. You will have the satisfaction that your food animals are comfortable, content, and, dare I say, “happy”, unlike the vast majority of laying hens raised for commercial production of eggs in America. While some people doubt that chickens have the capacity for suffering and pleasure, I personally find that absurd. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it take a scientific study to say that the hen in the photo below is happy and content, and these chickens are suffering. Yet studies have indeed been done, and here you will find a review of the evidence that battery cage hens do suffer.
- Improved Nutrition Animals evolved eating a wide variety of plants and/or animals. We evolved eating animals which feed on wild fare, and eating them is probably healthier for us than eating factory farm prisoners raised on grain, garbage, arsenic, and antibiotics. The health benefits of eggs from chickens with access to natural forage include more heart-healthy omega-3 fats, less saturated fat and cholesterol, more vitamin E, more vitamin A, more beta carotene, and more vitamin D. Nutritive content of meat from chickens with access to a wide variety of natural foods has not been carefully studied, as far as I know. (Meat from chickens in outdoor movable pens has not been shown to be substantially better than conventionally produced chicken meat, but the moveable pen system doesn’t really give chickens meaningful access to a wide variety of wild foods.) In my opinion, there is likely to be a health benefit, given the known health benefits of meat from pastured cows.
- Environmental Health Backyard chickens are an extremely local food source.
Their waste can be used as fertilizer for your garden, rather than pollution of water associated with intensive farming.
- Public Health Keeping backyard chickens is a way to produce food without the overuse of antibiotics characteristic of factory farming. The latter has been implicated in the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This is a serious public health problem.
- Reduced Risk of Salmonella Infection In a study in the European Union, salmonella infection was found to be more common in battery cage flocks, than in organic, barn, or free range flocks. The higher risk in intensive caged systems could be due to the extreme crowding, enormous flock size, or poor hygiene, all of which promote the spread of bacteria. Also, the longer eggs have been sitting around, the more time for bacteria to proliferate. If you keep chickens, you have control over how soon after laying the eggs are refrigerated, and you know how old the eggs are when you eat them.
- Entertainment, if you enjoy watching birds.
- Education, if they inspire you to learn about avian biology, animal behavior, animal welfare, agriculture, sustainability, etc., or if you use them to educate others.
The cons of raising chickens
- Construction or purchase of coop, run, and fencing This requires time, thought, and money.
- Smelly Droppings Chickens poop often and indiscriminately. It smells bad, and can be tracked into your house.
- Noise Both hens and roosters are noisy, and if that doesn’t bother you, it might bother your neighbors.
- Rodents are often attracted to chicken coops and chicken feed.
- Daily Maintenance This will require about an hour, if you wash and refill water founts, collect eggs, shake down feeders, scoop up the worst of the poop, and rake the litter around to discourage rodents from moving in. That’s my basic daily coop routine.
- Annual or Seasonal Maintenance The entire coop should be cleaned out and litter replaced, at a very minimum of once a year. I do it 4-5 times a year.
- Dust Chickens create a lot of dust by scratching around in the litter, coating the walls and other surfaces in the coop with a fine dust that’s not good for your lungs, or for theirs. I use a shop vacuum on the walls every few weeks, so this is another possible maintenance task for your list.
- Vacation Coverage You will need to have someone tend to your flock when you are away. At the very least, you will need someone to collect the eggs daily, because chickens sometimes develop the annoying habit of eating those delicious eggs if you leave them in the coop.
- Conflicts with Wildlife Many predators covet chickens and their eggs as much as we do. You will need to learn about the predators in your area and figure out how to keep the birds safe, given your particular coop/run/yard set-up. Predator attacks can be a source of great angst and anger for some people, but I have enjoyed learning about chicken and predator behavior so for me the experience is a pro, not a con.
- Behavior Problems Chickens are complicated social creatures, and even in the best of situations, you might need to manage an occasional behavior issue, such as feather picking or bullying. But if animal behavior fascinates you, might enjoy the challenge of such management problems.
- Ailing Chickens Like people and any other animal, chickens are vulnerable to diseases involving all body systems. Problems range from parasites to respiratory diseases, to foot abscesses, to neurological disorders, and much more. Veterinary care for chickens is hard to find and expensive. This can be an overwhelming problem or an interesting challenge.
- Old Hens Egg production tends to decline as the chicken ages, and you will need to decide what to do with the less productive hens, given limited coop space. If you let them live out their retirement, you might have to buy some of your eggs. But there is a lot of individual variation. My seven year old leghorn (photo below) still produces well, but not as well as some of the younger ones.
- Euthanasia You might decide that euthanasia is the kindest choice for a sick or injured bird, or the kindest choice for everyone else, in the case of an extremely aggressive chicken. If you can find a vet who will do it, it will probably be expensive. You might have to decide how you can humanely put them down yourself.
- Slaughtering, if you raise them for meat. A messy job that not everyone can stomach.
Notice I did not list economics as either a pro or a con. That’s because the cost in dollars of producing eggs in the backyard depends, once again, on how you take care of your birds.
Me? I adore my birds. I’ve learned so much from watching them. Their habits and behaviors are more interesting and complex than I ever imagined. They inspired me to take a serious look at battery cages and other “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFO’s), which taught me how important it is to avoid supporting these factory farms with my purchases. Chickens taught me that, and I will be forever grateful to them for opening my eyes. Maintaining a flock of layers is definitely more expensive and time consuming for me than buying the cheapest available supermarket eggs, but I can’t think of a better way to spend my time and money. The animal welfare issue alone is a decision maker for me.
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