As we’ve planned out our various enterprises, there has always been a lingering thought in the back of my brain: “Is there a reason why so few people raise meat chickens”? As we followed Nature’s Harmony Farm from their inception, one of the first things they shed as unprofitable was broilers. Digging through farms listed on Eatwild, few of them offered chicken. And this trend flies in the face of customer requests, as we’ve heard time and time again… “Will you have chicken, we’d love to buy some”. There must be a reason, I wondered.
Well the wondering is over, and the answer is clear: Chickens promise to be the least profitable enterprise we offer, in fact it took some financial gymnastics to get them to the point of even being in consideration! But before we got to that point, we struggled to find a breed of chicken that fit into our professed value system and approach. We knew we didn’t want to raise Cornish Cross chickens, the typical commercial bird with enormous breasts, weak legs, heart problems, and zero personality. To be clear, there is nothing genetically altered or scientifically adulterated about a Cornish-X, they have just been bred over the years for crazy feed conversion (fast meat production) shaped by consumer demand (white meat). The end result is a bird that simply doesn’t fit in to our production model, although many others are doing so with varied success.
The problem was, with Cornish-X off the table, what were our options? Most of the heritage breeds were dual-purpose birds, meaning they could be used for both meat and eggs, but honestly didn’t do either very well! We thought about going with a hybrid bird like a Freedom Ranger, or Murray McMurray Hatchery’s non-descript Red Broiler. At least they looked different than a Cornish-X, but were they really? And how did we feel about tip-toeing around our value system in order to squeeze a meat bird into the mix here on the ranch? I’ll be perfectly honest, this has been the first real challenge to balance what we say we believe with what needs to happen to be profitable.
If we could get past all that angst, then there are the pure financials to consider; and it ain’t pretty folks! Here are the cold, hard facts on producing chickens for meat:
- Buying chicks from the hatchery costs $2.84 per bird (including shipping).
- We are committed to non-GMO feed, no wiggle room there. It costs us $0.34 per pound of chicken feed which, because we’re buying from a local farmer, is actually cheaper than commercial non-GMO feed.
- It takes 12 weeks for a “fast-growing” heritage chicken to reach market weight of 5 pounds before processing, 4 pounds after processing.
- Heritage chickens require 3.6 pounds of feed to put on 1 pound of weight.
- Therefore, it would require 18 pounds of feed to grow a 5 pound chicken, at a cost of $6.12 per bird. Add the price of the bird, and my cost just to bring chicken to market is $8.96 per bird.
While that may not sound too bad, let’s add in the rest of the costs:
- $2000 in processing equipment
- $350 in materials to build mobile pens x 6 pens required = $2100
- $1000 for feeders, waterers, brooding supplies, etc
Even when you account for the fact that the above equipment could be used over the course of several years (I assumed 5 years), you come up with an average yearly cost of $1020. We’re planning on raising 225 chickens per year, so the equipment cost per chicken is $4.54 (and we would have to commit to 5 years of producing to recover the equipment costs)!
And that doesn’t even consider the last cost, the one most easily forgotten by small family producers like us: labor. I have mouths to feed as well, and this business has to be profitable in order to be sustainable! Generally speaking, the figure I use for my labor cost is $20/hour, which includes not only raising the animals, but advertising, marketing, customer service, management, etc. Chickens will require 1 hour per day for general care over 210 days (May-Nov), and 4 hours per batch to process and package (we’re planning on 9 batches). If I stayed true to my labor costs, that alone would add up to $4920, or $21.87 per bird!! Now I’ve got your attention, don’t I?!
So basically I can either produce chickens for free, or go bankrupt. We’ve chosen to produce them for “free-ish”. Our final cost analysis (per bird) is as follows:
- $2.84 hatchery chicks + $4.54 equipment + $6.12 feed = $13.50
- 246 hours to raise/process x $4.11 per hr labor = $1012.50 / 225 birds = $4.50
- GRAND TOTAL per bird = $18 / 4 pound bird = $4.50 per pound
That’s right, I’m getting paid $4.11 per hour to raise chickens, which is $3.74 BELOW Ohio’s minimum wage! Why would we still do it? This is a test run to see if chicken can function as a “loss leader”, meaning that customers who came for chicken would walk away with products we actually make a profit on like beef, lamb, etc. If that turns out not to be the case, then chickens will get the ax (hah! get it?!) next year, and folks will have to complain that they can’t find any true all natural, GMO free, pastured chicken in this area.
One thing is for sure, I don’t want to hear any complaints on how expensive $4.50/pound is for chicken! It makes me shudder to think of what industrial farms are doing to cut enough corners to bring you cheap chicken, which by all rights should be the most costly meat offered on the market. In a future post, I’ll discuss and elaborate on which breed of chicken we decided to go with and why, but for now let me implore you: Please don’t come to our farm stand and ask for 10 chickens and nothing else!