Although a healthy backyard hen can lay hundreds of eggs in her lifetime, getting a flock isn't always cheaper than buying eggs at the store or from your local farmer's market. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

People who raise egg-laying chickens in Maine do so for a lot of reasons. A return on investment is not one of them.

With eggs averaging around $5.50 a dozen — and closer to $10 for a dozen organic eggs — in Maine, people are looking for ways to save on costs at the grocery store. But if you’re considering whether it might be cheaper to start your own backyard flock of egg-laying hens, those who do warn that it not only won’t save you money in the long run, but will likely end up costing you much more.

Based on some comparative pricing mathematics and opinions of experienced chicken keepers in the state, the option will not cut down your costs. But for some, the extra expenses of home-raised eggs is worth knowing where your food is coming from.

But, that cost can’t be ignored.

Kelly Russell has done the egg math based on her family’s three dozen-eggs-a-month habit, fed by between 20 and 25 laying-hens.

“At the store [the eggs] would cost me $18 a month,” she said. “They eat about 8 pounds of grain a day so it’s costing me $3.52 a day to feed the chickens.”

It can take hundreds, even thousands of dollars to start a flock of egg-laying chickens. .

“The cost of raising them will vary, but my 40 hens cost me $200 a week with 10 hours of labor,” said Christy Fletcher of Corinth.

The cost of 2-day-old egg-laying hens is $4.76 each from one of the country’s top producers Murray McMurray. Based in Iowa, the company directly mails live chicks beginning in May and there is a minimum of six chicks per order.

Statewide, the costs per chick can range from that amount. The benefits of buying local means you get to pick out your own chicks and there is often no minimum amount to buy. Be sure to ask before buying if those chicks arrived through the mail from producers in other states if your goal is supporting local chicken breeders.

You will also need to check that there are no local ordinances prohibiting you from keeping poultry in your municipality.

Once you get the chicks home, they will need to be housed in a brooder with constant heat. A brooder can be as simple as a child’s wading pool or even a sturdy cardboard box that can keep the chicks contained and secure.

For a heat source, a standard brood lamp is around $12.

Regardless of what your brooder is made of, it needs to be lined with a bedding of wood chips or straw currently costing between $5 and $10 per square bale and $7.19 per cubic yard, respectively, around the state. That bedding will need to be cleaned out and changed every few days.

Probably the single biggest rise in cost when it comes to chickens is feed. It has more than doubled over the past several years.

The price of chick feed in Maine is averaging around 44 cents per pound for regular feed and double for organic feed. Each chick needs about 17 pounds of food before they reach egg-laying age. From that point on, each bird is going to eat around one-quarter pound of adult chicken feed a day.

Regular chicken feed is running around 60 cents per pound, with organic around 70 cents per pound.

Adult chickens need a coop. The amount you spend building a coop depends on how much or little work you want to put in. Pre-built coops can run $1,000 or more. But you can also build your own out of scrap lumber and boards. You can also repurpose things like a child’s playhouse, an old garden shed and even an old swing-set for a coop.

When setting up your coop, keep in mind that you need 10 square feet per bird of floor space and 10 to 12 inches of perch space per bird.

For a reliable dozen eggs per week, it will take at least three chickens, as each hen can lay between four and five eggs a week.

None of this takes into account your cost in time establishing a flock and the year-round care it needs.

Given that an egg-laying hen will only produce its first egg at around 5 months old, your first dozen could be far more expensive than if you simply purchased the eggs from the store or a local farmer. And forget about making any of that money back in egg sales.

“To sell an egg off the farm for profit, I figure I’d need $30 a dozen, [so] it’s clearly cheaper to buy them,” Fletcher said. “But it’s not about cost for me — it’s about not leaving home and the care they get.”

Russell sells her excess eggs, but even at $4 a dozen asking price, she does not begin to break even. Especially since all those chickens need to be fed during winter months when they stop laying.

“I think for many, having a cleaner food source [and] knowing your animals are well taken care of outweighs the cost,” Bell said.

“When you factor in the cost of the chicks, the feed while not producing and the time needed to get to production, it’s a no-brainer that even now store-bought eggs are cheaper.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.