Want to find out the cost to keep chickens?
Never one for making hasty decisions, I’ve been banging on about keeping chickens for years, and two weeks ago we finally brought home our first three hens.
When we made the big move from London to Suffolk, I rather fancied the idea of chickens scratching around at the bottom of the garden, with newly-laid eggs on tap. It took risks of a no deal Brexit and lockdown food shortages to convince my husband.
The clincher was my Mum moving nearby, as she used to keep chickens herself, and could help out with words of wisdom and chicken care if we’re away.
However, I didn’t want to blow the budget, so we looked for ways to save.
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As a novice hen-keeper, here’s what we spent to get started. Anyone more experienced with chickens, do chip in with comments at the end, as any advice would be gratefully received!
Low cost chicken coop
By far the biggest cost is the hen house or chicken coop, way more than buying the chickens themselves.
Opting for a fancy design, a bigger house to keep more hens, and a bigger chicken run, will all send costs spiralling.
I do lust over one of the easy to use, easy to clean Omlet Eglus. However, my favourite Eglu Go UP with a short run starts from £449 – hard to justify when I didn’t know if keeping chickens would work out.
Even second hand Eglus on eBay and Gumtree are pretty pricey. That’s great if you have one to sell, not so good if you’re trying to buy one on a limited budget.
You can find cheaper wooden chicken houses for a couple of hundred pounds, especially if you’re up for self-assembly. If only IKEA did chicken coops.
The cheapest option tends to be either making your own or converting something else. We* ended up adapting the kids’ wooden playhouse as a chicken coop.
*When say ‘we’, I actually mean my Mum arranged for a handyman to make the changes, as my birthday present. She knows my (lack of) competence at DIY. Thanks Mum.
- shortening the legs
- adding a nesting box on the side
- putting a roosting pole inside
- cutting a hole in the floor under the roosting pole and lining with chicken wire, for the poop to fall through
- making a little ramp up to the door
- attaching wood blocks as latches to keep the door tightly shut at night
A friend who got her chickens a couple of months before us, and whose husband is a DIY maestro, adapted a large dog kennel.
Next question: run or no run?
Chickens wandering round your garden sounds lovely in theory. Less so, once they’ve pecked precious plants, scratched up the grass, pooped all over the place and hidden their eggs.
As you can tell, I’m biased in favour of a chicken run, not least to protect our chickens from our terrier puppy, Otto.
Again, you can pay a ton of money for a chicken run.
In practice, we fenced off the far end of our garden, which meant we could rely on the existing fence on three sides and only had to add a new fence with a gate on the fourth side. We used chicken wire to line any gaps.
Top tip from my mum was to dig a trench along the bottom of the fence, so the chicken wire can extend downwards and curve forwards before replacing the earth. This helps keep out burrowing foxes.
Our fence is only about four feet high, so when we collected our chickens we asked to have their wings clipped, so they can’t fly out. Otherwise, you’re going to need a higher fence, a covered run, or both.
Three chickens: £24
The cost of the actual chickens will depend on the breed and their age.
Just like any other pet, fancy pants breeds command fancy pants prices. Hens also lay fewer eggs after their first year, so older birds will cost less than ‘point of lay pullets’ around 15 to 18 weeks old and just about to start laying.
The cheapest and kindest option is to rehome ex-battery chickens, which would otherwise be killed after their first birthday. These poor hens look very bedraggled when you first bring them home, with missing feathers that should regrow.
There are several battery hen rescue charities, of which the biggest is the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT). The BHWT asks for a donation of £5 per hen. In contrast, you’re looking at £30+ per bird for a pure breed Buff Orpingon, Cochin or Brahma.
When we got our hens from Suffolk Poultry and Pet Supplies, we were offered a choice between year-old ex-battery hens at £5 each, or six month old hens for £8 each. We actually went for the £8 option hoping for more eggs. No clue on the breed – they’re just brown ones!
Budget for at least three hens, as they like living in groups. There’s no need for a cockerel, and ear-splitting crowing in the early hours, unless you’re keen to breed your own chicks. Or like annoying your neighbours.
Chicken food: £10
We shelled out on a big 20kg bag of Farmgate layer pellets for about a tenner. With three hens eating about 100g to 150g each per day, that should last 40 to 50 days (hopeful).
DEFRA has draconian rules forbidding people from giving chickens leftovers, so you can’t just shove family food waste at your chickens. However, hens do need a bit of greenery in their daily diet, so budget for stuff like cabbage, cauliflower leaves or spinach to supplement their pellets, along with dandelion leaves and grass clippings.
Food dispenser: £14.99
I lashed out a whole £14.99 on a plastic chicken feeder, which allows you to fill up the middle, while letting limited amounts slide out at the bottom for the chickens to eat.
It is not a thing of beauty but seems to work fine. With hindsight, I think I could have got away with a smaller and slightly cheaper version. Still, at least it’s heavier, and thus less easier to knock over.
Tip: if your food dispenser has a hole in the top (as this one does, for the handle), keep it INSIDE the hen house so the pellets don’t get soggy in the rain. Otherwise, look for a rain proof food dispenser with a hat.
Water dispenser: free
I didn’t buy a fancy chicken water fountain. Instead, I use a large slightly chipped ceramic pie dish, the kind of thing you can normally pick up for pennies in a charity shop.
It holds the 1.5 litres needed for three chickens, and it’s big enough that several can drink at once, and heavy enough that they can’t tip it over. I rinse it out and refill it every morning, with water lugged down from the kitchen in empty lemonade or squash bottles.
Grit such as oyster shells: £3.50
So apparently chickens need some grit in their diet, to help digest their food. We bought a £3.50 bag of crushed oyster shells to scatter around, as they also contain calcium to help make egg shells.
Since we got the hens, we’ve also been setting any eggs shells aside, so they can be dried when I’ve got the oven on, crushed, and then sprinkled over their food.
I came over all extravagant with the bedding for the nesting box, in the hope that comfy chickens would lay more eggs. I spent about £18 on a mahoosive 100 litre bag of Dengie chicken bedding, which claims to be chopped straw with ‘pine oil added for its natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties’. I was told it should last ‘for ages’ (technical term).
Alternatively, you can get big bags of straw and shaving mixes for less, around £12 to £14.
Gardening gloves: free
I got a pair of rubber gardening gloves free with a magazine, and now I keep them down by the chicken coop to use when replacing straw and removing poop. I just use a large plastic flower pot for carting the straw around and emptying it onto the compost heap.
Dustbin for storage: free
Another of my mum’s top tips: keep anything to do with your chickens as close to your chickens as possible. Lugging food and bedding from the cellar is no fun.
So we moved the small metal dustbin with lid, left behind by the previous owners of our house, into the chicken coop. It now keeps the bag of pellets, couple of bottles of water, box of oyster shells, jar of crushed eggs shells and the gardening gloves safe from rain and rats.
The sack of bedding also lives inside the chicken coop, with a garden waste bag stretch over the top, to keep the contents dry.
Totting up the cost to keep chickens
On top of fencing off the garden and adapting the chicken shed, we kept our costs to just over £60 to get started. That amount will obviously rocket if you opt for more chickens, fancier breeds and a fabulous new hen house.
To put that in perspective, we’ve had our hens for two weeks and they’ve lain 24 eggs. Normally, I buy 15 mixed weight free range eggs for £2. Fair to say it’s going to take a while for any egg production to cover the costs!
Now – over to you. Any experienced chicken keepers have tips on looking after hens on a budget? Do share in the comments – I have a lot to learn and I’d love to hear!