Are backyard chickens the solution for shellshocked egg shoppers?
Some suburban shoppers shellshocked by the soaring price of eggs are scrambling for ways to save money, leaving them to ponder a variation of the age-old question: Which to buy first, the chicken or the egg?
The worst avian flu outbreak in U.S. history -- 60 million chickens have been killed so far -- and inflation have more than doubled the price of eggs in 2022. That kind of markup might make the idea of fresh eggs from backyard chickens very appetizing.
But some suburban chicken owners say would-be farmers shouldn't count their savings before they've hatched.
"If someone wants to get chickens just to save money on eggs now, I don't know if that's necessarily the smartest move," said backyard chicken farmer Rachel Johannsen.
Johannsen and her family moved to unincorporated Dundee Township in Kane County in the fall of 2020, knowing they wanted to do some backyard farming. By the next spring, they had half a dozen day-old chicks. Their flock is now up to 14.
"They call it chicken math," she said. "Once you start, it can get pretty addicting, and you'll have more than you planned before you know it."
Johannsen said that chicks are cheap, but everything else it takes to get started -- including the coop, a fence for the run, and feeding and watering supplies -- set them back about $3,000. A backyard farmer just starting out could probably do it for about $1,000, she said.
"We see this as a really long-term thing, so we had somebody build us a really good coop," she said. "We decided it was better to spend more on quality upfront to make it last."
Johannsen said her costs of feed, bedding and winter supplies are about $700 per year. With the number of chickens she has now, all of which are egg-laying age, the cost to produce their eggs will be about $2.40 a dozen. That doesn't factor in their initial investment.
"In the long run, it will get more cost-effective and be more financially smart for us," she said.
Andy Atwell and his wife, Alix, have had chickens in their backyard in the Barrington area since 2017. He agrees cost savings shouldn't be a motivating factor for would-be backyard farmers.
"For us, it's not a break even. It costs more to have chickens than to buy eggs," he said. "From the standpoint of a backyard farmer, it's a hobby. It's not saving anything, certainly not at the scale we're doing."
But as long as saving money isn't the only motivation, Johannsen and Atwell say having backyard chickens is definitely worth it.
"First off, it's just nice to have fresh eggs," Atwell said. "We have two teenagers. So we go through quite a lot of eggs."
He also said chickens are fun to have around.
"My wife really enjoys it, she finds it therapeutic, and they're quite friendly," he said. "When we can let them free range, it's fun to see them cruise through the yard. They're just goofy."
Atwell said they currently have 11 hens and two roosters. They lose three or four a year to coyotes or hawks.
"That was part of the learning process," he said. "You get connected to it as a pet, and then a coyote runs off with it in its mouth."
Johannsen said her chickens help her organic garden, providing compost and pest control.
And her two young kids love to watch them. The chickens provide both entertainment and learning opportunities.
"It's great for them to interact with them, and then you can teach them about where food comes from," Johannsen said.
But the biggest benefit is on the plate, she said.
"The eggs we get from these backyard chickens are far superior to probably any grocery store chicken eggs," she said. "You can definitely taste the difference. So yeah, they might be more expensive per dozen. But at the same time, they're far better quality than a grocery store egg."
Atwell said chickens are pretty hardy and easy to take care of, even in the winter.
"As long as their water doesn't freeze and they have high-energy food, they'll keep themselves warm," he said. "They're not afraid of much, and nothing seems to faze them. They're like little dinosaurs."
Johannsen said they used to name their chickens. But that pretty much stopped after losing one to a coyote. She said people get attached to them and they become like pets, but better.
"These pets give us eggs."