Hobbyist poultry-raising for eggs and meat has experienced a resurgence of sort. Many people get chickens eagerly thinking it will improve their food security or self-sufficiency. Glossy magazines like Mother Earth News and popular blogs gush about how easy it is.
They always seem to leave out one major detail: it’s all about the protein. Chickens require large inputs of amino acids to produce eggs and grow to an edible size. They cannot create free protein. It has to come from somewhere. They can only transform one type of protein (like soybean or insect) to a different type (egg and meat).
Just how much protein do they need? Auburn University’s Animal Nutrition Handbook recommends 18g of protein per day per laying hen (~1/4 lb of layer feed). This would roughly be the equivalent of me eating 21 T-bone steaks a day. For a small flock of 6 hens this amounts to 1.5 lbs of feed per day or about one 50 lb bag of feed per month (currently $25 for organic layer feed).
Poultry can actually decrease self-sufficiency and further dependence on industrial food production. Unless you have a really good system setup for providing cheap and abundant protein for your chickens, you will end up buying grain like many chicken owners. Due to rising feed costs many poultry setups are a net loss. Not only can eggs be produced at a loss but they can be poor quality as well. If chickens do not have continual access to fresh forage, their eggs and meat will contain a less beneficial ratio of fatty acids than pastured poultry from your local friendly farmer.
In addition to all the normal requisite care that comes with any animal like feeding and constant water access, chickens are very difficult to secure from predators. Just about everything shares our appetite for chicken: raccoons, possums, dogs, foxes, coyotes, hawks, snakes and even rats. We learned putting them up in a coup every night and letting them out every morning was required but still insufficient. We lost 2 whole flocks of chickens to daytime predators. And we still had a raccoon open the coup door for a little midnight snack (they have thumbs and know how to use them). The best system seems to be a well-trained livestock guardian dog with solid perimeter and garden fence so the chickens don’t damage plants but can still safely free range.
Large predators aren’t the only thing attacking chickens. As I recently learned when researching our housemate’s sick chicken, they can get many difficult to diagnose health problems from mites and turkey gnats to bacterial peritonitis and egg binding. I stumbled upon dozens of popular forum posts desperately asking for advice with no clear answer or helpful solution.
And then there is the age old question of what to do with those old hens that do not lay anymore: