The rising cost of eggs has some people scrambling to buy chickens instead.
Angie Attaguile, a backyard chicken farmer in Northeast El Paso, said the number of people interested in buying hens and learning about backyard chicken farming has been on the upswing.
She’s the administrator of the Facebook group, Backyard Chickens El Paso, which started with about 300 members in 2017 as a way to unite a handful of farmers like herself. Then in 2020, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group’s numbers increased as people began to buy and raise chickens while they were stuck at home.
With a dozen eggs going for up to $9 these days, the group’s numbers are increasing once again: It now has more than 1,300 members.
“Lately, we’ve had about 10 people requesting to join our group per day,” Attaguile said. “But I don’t think people take into account the actual cost of raising the chickens.”
Experienced chicken farmers caution against buying the animals just for their eggs and urge consumers to do their research before cracking open their wallets to buy the domesticated fowls. Attaguile spends about $50 a month on feed even though her costs are offset because she also grows her own vegetables to feed her chickens.
The rising cost of eggs can be attributed to several factors beyond a farmer’s control, including inflation and supply chain challenges related to cost and availability of feed and grain, labor, diesel fuel and shipping, Emily Metz, president and CEO of the American Egg Board, said in a recent press release.
“In addition, intermittent supply disruptions due to bird flu, which has affected egg farms in several states, as well as commercial broiler and turkey farms, have had temporary impacts on commodity pricing,” Metz said.
Today, a dozen eggs can range between $7 and $9. In December, the average price of a dozen eggs was $4.25 – 238% higher than $1.79 in December 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
Know Before You Buy
While consumers can buy chicks or chickens sold as “laying hens,” Attaguile said the term can be confusing.
“People don’t realize that chickens stop laying during the winter because there are less daylight hours,” she said. “Just because they said it was a laying hen doesn’t mean it’s laying now.”
K’Lee Ollom, owner of Krazy Arrowhead Ranchette, said a chicken that is 1 year old will lay one egg a day during the laying season. But as it ages, the chicken will lay eggs less frequently.
“If you buy a chicken that is older than a year, you won’t be getting an egg per day,” Ollom said. “You just bought that chicken for $25 or more, and now you don’t have a dependable way to get eggs.”
Ollom said another option is to raise chicks to ensure a good supply of eggs once they start laying.
“Then after that you need to consider that you are going to be raising the chicks for six months before they are old enough to lay eggs,” Ollom said. “And then they need to consider what they will do with all the eggs once they start laying, and what they will do with their chickens after they start not laying.”
Kelly Jakubowski, 48, has wanted to raise chickens for about 15 years. But she kept putting it off because her husband was in the military and they were constantly moving. When she settled in El Paso last year, her neighbor surprised her with six chickens from Tractor Supply.
Jakubowski said while the chickens were a gift, she spends about $17 a month on a 40-pound bag of feed. It cost about $1,200 to build a coop.
“So, when one of my chickens laid its first eggs, I said that was a $1,000 egg,” she said laughing.
The chickens are now about six months old and some are starting to lay, she said.
“I’ve named them. I know who everybody is,” Jakubowski said. “They’re our pets with the bonus of breakfast. It definitely takes a specific kind of person. It’s a lot of responsibility and I don’t think people are really prepared for that.”
Backyard Farming Rules and Regulations
Backyard chicken farmers need a permit from the Texas Department of State Health Services or their local health department to sell their eggs. People can sell eggs from their backyard so long as they have a temporary food establishment license and meet other requirements, including temperature, labeling and handling rules.
Ollom and other chicken farmers said people also need to check that the chicks they plan to buy are pullets, or female. Ollom has taken in several roosters from people who didn’t check if the chick was female.
“You only need roosters if you are hatching,” Ollom said. “And sometimes if you decide to go free range, the roosters can be good to alarm the girls about hawks. But otherwise nobody wants them because they are loud.”
In addition, those considering raising chickens in their backyard need to familiarize themselves with the city ordinances. While it is legal to keep up to five chickens without a permit, their coop must be 30 feet from any private residence.
Having chickens could also invite predators such as snakes, foxes, coyotes, owls, skunks and hawks into yards. And with the strain of the avian flu in the area, if one chicken catches it, all chickens within a 20-mile radius will likely have to be euthanized, Ollom said.
Since the peak of the pandemic, Julie Ito Morales of Stick House Sanctuary, a wildlife rehabilitation and feathered farm rescue in West El Paso, has received about 70 chickens that were surrendered to the rescue or abandoned at Ascarate Park or other areas across the city.
“I think that those are the lucky ones,” Ito Morales said. “There’s probably a lot more that were dumped.”
Roosters are dumped a lot, too, Ito Morales added.
“Because people want hens, they don’t want roosters,” she said. “They don’t realize you just can’t toss them in your yard.”
Some chickens and roosters end up at the city’s Animal Services, spokeswoman Michele Anderson said in an email.
“Chickens are oftentimes part of some families as pets, and as any other pet, chickens picked up by our animal protection officers will go through the same process,” she said. “Our (officers) will make every effort to reunite them back to their families, even canvass and go door-to-door in the immediate vicinity to look for any leads for their owners.”
If the owners are not located, the chickens are brought to the shelter and can be adopted or sent to a rescue.
The life expectancy of a domesticated chicken or duck is estimated to be six to seven years – or longer with good care, Ito Morales said.
“They’re wonderful creatures and they’re wonderful companions,” Ito Morales said. “But if people are impulse purchasing chickens because they are going to be used for a purpose, which is to get eggs, they should do their research.”
Ito Morales also recommends having a veterinarian lined up because chickens get sick just like dogs and cats and other pets.
What if chickens aren’t laying eggs?
If the chickens aren’t laying eggs, owners might consider butchering them.
But Mike Swafford, an experienced butcher and farmer, said it needs to be done properly and humanely.
Swafford offers butchering classes and shows people how to use the appropriate tools to kill chickens, pluck their feathers and remove their innards. Then, he said, there’s the smell: People have fainted or vomited during his courses.
“You have to have a pretty good stomach for it,” Swafford said. “Sometimes it’s the sight of blood that does it.”
The Chicken or the Egg?
If people are looking to buy the chicken just for the eggs, experts instead encourage them to buy eggs from their local farmers or nearby ranch where they are sold at lower prices than at grocery stores.
Consumers can also consider using egg substitutes.
“If you’re going to do it (raise chickens) then do your research,” Swafford said. “ Join the Facebook groups on backyard chickens because you will see the costs that are involved.”