Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Chicken Experiment: Calculating the Cost

The chicken experiment continues.  I've become a regular at the local feed store.  They know me  now.  I go in once a week and buy five bags of chicken grower/finisher.  $60.   A few days ago, my husband commented that he was sure we'd spent $600 just feeding these chickens.  It was a bad day for him.  He wasn't trying to be unsupportive, he was frustrated about other things.  He did vocalize a concern that is a universal plague for farmers.  How do you make more money than you spend?

As far as I can tell, the only way to make money by raising meat is to grown your own feed.  This is something we are looking into, but we aren't there yet.  We don't have the equipment or the knowledge.  It's possible that we might be ready to get this started next spring.  Right now, feed comes from the feed store.  The costs add up quickly.  When the chickens were several weeks old 250 lbs. of feed lasted a long time.  Now it lasts just a little longer than a week. 

Our chickens aren't the fast maturing type.  They will look like healthy, happy chickens until they are ready to harvest.  They won't have jumbo breasts.   They won't weigh eight or ten pounds at twelve weeks. This is important to me.  I know there are breeds of chicken that will grow faster and mature sooner than our chickens.  Those chickens concern me just like the use of antibiotics concern me.  I'm not against chickens for meat.  I'm growing 100 chickens for meat.  I have serious concerns about chickens developed for meat without consideration of the well being of the chicken.  A chicken that can't move isn't a healthy bird. 

The catch is that the sooner a chicken matures the less you have to feed the chicken.  The less you feed the chicken the less it costs to produce chicken meat.  Four weeks, at the rate my chickens are eating can mean $2.40 per chicken.  That's the difference between profit and no profit. It's huge. We've tried to cut our production costs by employing the chicken tractors.  I'm sure we'd be spending more by this time if we didn't have some "free ranging" going on but we are still spending a lot of money on feed.  Granted, at our production rate it doesn't make much difference.  We are really only hoping to cover our costs.  Given the costs of the chicken tractors we've produced, we have quite a bit of costs to cover.  It will take several chicken crops before we break even.  But if we plan to make this farm into a viable business we have to figure out how to make money.  Are we willing to produce factor chickens in a non-factory setting in order to turn a profit or do we maintain our principles and produce real chicken for real people?

As a consumer, it never really occurred to me to wonder what breed of chicken I was purchasing.  Today, as I picked up my last, I hope, bag of frozen chicken breasts I wondered what breed of chicken I was getting ready to eat.  Where did my chicken come from?  What kind of chicken was it?  Not just breast or wing but what color were the feathers?  What did it look like?  How did it behave?  A year ago it wouldn't have even occurred to me that my bag of frozen chicken breasts had feathers at one point.

It's said that when we know better we do better.  I'm not sure that I know better or that I am doing better but my perspective has shifted.  With that shift comes a sense of responsibility for my chickens and for my family.  If we lived in a city, I could charge upward of $3 a pound for my antibiotic, free-range, happy chickens.  Here in the country, I hope for $1.50 to $2 per pound.  We'll probably sell our chickens for $6 or $7 each.  Most will be in the four to five pound range.  My ethics say that raising the kind of chickens I raise the way that I raise them is the right thing to do.  My profitability says something must change.  We'll be tweaking and trying chicken production again in the spring.  Maybe with experience, we'll see an improvement in profitability.  Maybe with experience, we'll find a market to get top dollar for our birds.  Maybe with time, we'll find consumers that value what we are trying to provide enough to pay for our birds.  At the very least, I know my family will be eating happy, healthy chickens and I will be able to tell you about the color of their feathers and the breed of the bird.  I will be the most informed of consumers.

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