Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cost considerations

You might be wondering how cost-effective it is to keep one's own hens, rather than  buying eggs at the store.   Luckily we have been keeping detailed records with our collective.

We realized a significant savings by pooling our resources to build the coop.  Building one usually isn't cheap, even when you use reclaimed materials as much as possible.  On the other hand, our coop for 24 hens is significantly bigger than a backyard coop would need to be, so it does depend to some extent on how many chickens you wish to house and how fancy you want to go.  We paid several hundred dollars for materials.

The hens themselves are not terribly expensive.  Expect to pay $10 or less per bird.  They don't start laying until they are several months old, but once they get going, a good layer will produce an egg a day for two to three years, with production diminishing during the dark winter months.

The cost of feed depends on the quality and how much you're buying at a time.  Our calculations show that it's costing us about $1.50 per dozen eggs in feed.   You can reduce the cost of feed by giving your chickens table scraps, though this may not be as nutritionally balanced.  Or to put it slightly differently, you won't be able to control the nutritional balance as easily.

You could factor in the cost of gas to get to the coop, but you should probably also subtract something for the enjoyment and relaxation factor of being there.

Ideally, I would like backyard coop, or a communal one within easy cycling distance.  That way there would be no carbon footprint at all.  But our councillors took this option out of our hands.

And what about the education the children (and us adults) are getting about where our food comes from each time we visit the coop?  Can you attach a price tag to that?

If you're aiming for cost-savings above all other considerations, the cheapest grocery store eggs might be your option of choice.  But this choice comes with a hidden price that the commercial egg industry isn't keen for you to think about.

$2 and change will get you a dozen eggs from caged hens that spend their entire 18 month life in an extremely smelly space about 2/3 the size of one sheet of copy paper, with no room to move around in.  They never see the light of day.  The birds' beaks are clipped to prevent them from pecking each other.  When their productive time is over, they are dispatched.

Here in Windsor, the best quality grocery store eggs cost around $6/dozen, and they come from hens that are not free range.

Our hens are outdoors all day long.  They are not crowded, and there is no doubt in any of our minds that our trailer chicks enjoy 5 star treatment.  Our hens are 100% free range, and 100% organic.  When we collect our eggs, we know with 100% certainty that they were laid no more than 24 hours before.   What would be a fair market price for eggs like that?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Using Google to keep chickens

You're might be surprised to learn that Google is essential to our chicken collective.  When you have ten busy urban families all living in different parts of the city collectively raising 24 chickens, it's essential for everyone to be absolutely certain whose turn it is to be on chicken duty on any given day.  If somebody were to forget to go on their appointed day, it could be disastrous for the hens.  And when something unforeseen arises, which happens from time to time, it's essential to be able to find somebody else to step in at short notice.

Google to the rescue!   While keeping chickens is a grass-roots, back to nature activity, the organization of the collective is anything but simplistic. 

We use Google Docs to manage the operation, down to some very fine details.  If you're not familiar with this free application, we use an online spreadsheet to document, measure and organize our activities.  It's not quite as sophisticated as Excel, though it does have most of the functions that most people use with the more widely used Windows product.  The big advantage is that every one of the members is able to access and edit the spreadsheet remotely, whenever they wish, and version control is never an issue.

We have a page where we enter our names in a calendar so we know whose turn it is.  The names are automatically colour coded with conditional formatting, to make it harder to forget or overlook a turn. Next to our names, we record the number of eggs collected for each "shift".

Another page is the log, where we document any problems, questions or observations for the rest of the group.  For example, if feed is running low, or the ground is muddy, or somebody isn't sure about something, this is the place to record it.  Usually a response comes back very quickly.

We have a page of resources, with help on everything from duties that need to be performed, to lists of acceptable and unacceptable treats to bring the hens from home.

We also have a series of metrics.  We have charts that show daily egg production as well as how many eggs each of the members has taken.   There are metrics that show cost inputs, from building the coop to the cost of feed, and based on these, we know the cost per egg produced, as well as the number of eggs each member is theoretically entitled to, based on the number of shifts they have worked.  This last measurement is highly theoretical, because we simply take home all the eggs we find each time we work our shift.  However, some days there are more eggs than others, and some members have worked slightly more shifts than others.  Over time, these differences will even out, but still, it's useful to keep track of these things.

Please stick around, because I'll explain what our metrics are telling us about the cost-effectiveness of producing our own eggs in the next post.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Where have all the urban chicken supporters gone?

After Windsor's councillors voted against further exploring the pros and cons of urban chickenkeeping earlier this year, not much has been written on the subject in the media.  You may be wondering whether the supporters had given up.

Far from it!

What we really would have liked to see was a small pilot study so we could document our direct experiences and relay them to council in an objective manner.  We would love councillors to be involved too.

There are plenty of people in Windsorites who keep hens in their backyards, and ideally, we'd like to hear from them and their neighbours.  Obviously, these residents don't want a knock on their door from the city's hyper-efficient chicken enforcement sub-unit.  So we needed a different approach.

We've started a pilot project of our own!  Not in the city, mind you, since that would be illegal.  We've started a collective at an undisclosed location outside the city, where we can all share the rewards and responsibilities of backyard egg production.

Ten families are currently involved, and collectively own 24 hens.

I can tell you that the project is exceeding all our expectations, and I personally have begun to wonder if an urban collective wouldn't  even be a better model for most would-be chickenkeepers than individual ownership.

First, let me explain how it works.  We pooled our money and a modest $50 per family was sufficient to pay for most of the expenses to build a chicken coop, perimeter fencing, feeders, hens and feed to get us going.  It took a fair amount of work to make the coop  secure from predators, and since we used a lot of reclaimed materials, it doesn't look as hip as, for example, the pricey Omlet.  But the hens don't care.  They have every creature comfort they could ever desire:  clean nesting boxes lined with straw, access to the outside whenever they want during the daytime, and delicious organic food.

As for the human participants, where the project is blowing me away, is in the excitement of the children and even some of the spouses.  Since we take turns taking care of the hens, the participating families usually don't see each other very often.  However, the children have given "their" hens names.  There is one particular hen that is more easily identified than the others due to her slightly paler feathers.  She must be really confused:  depending on which day it is and who is visiting her, she is variously called Princess, Emma or Little Lady.

If, like most surburbanites, you haven't been around chickens very much, you would be really surprised to learn how peaceful it is to listen to them cooing and clucking as they go about their business.  So much so, that some of our members have taken to bringing a chair to the coop and reading a book for an hour or so for its relaxing meditative effects!

Be sure to check in again as I explain more about how this extraordinary project is organized.