Your chicken costs WHAT????
So earlier this week,I had a very enthusiastic new customer asking all types of questions about how we raise our chicken and what we feed it. She was very interested in knowing about her food! That’s great! We were having a good discussion – I was telling her all about it until the question of “What do you charge for your chicken?” came up. I politely answered her question and you know that moment when you say something and there is silence? You know… crickets are all you hear? Well, that’s all I heard. Not a word from her since.
I hate that. I know that feeling of being all excited about something and then you get some information that makes you feel let down. I completely understand it. Been there. Done that. But when it comes to food, I’m not sure we as a culture understand the true cost of food. I cannot speak for the big farmer – the one raising 10s of 1000s of chickens at a time (those big chicken houses you see? Each one of those typically can hold up to 40,000 chickens at a time. WOW!) but I can tell you about the small farmer. The one you find at the farmers market, like me.
To start with, when we raise broilers we get them as day old chicks meaning they hatched the day before and have been held by the hatchery for 24 hours to let them fluff out and dry off. By then they are up running around cheeping their little heads off. Typically, they have not been fed (or vaccinated for me) because when they hatch they have enough food from the yolk for 48 hours. Once we have them home, we offer fresh food and water and they are off and running.
Yesterday, for example, we got a new hatch of chicks. We put them in the brooder house lined with pine shavings under a 250 watt red heat lamp that will keep them a toasty 95º F for a week. They have enough room to move in and out from under the light to keep themselves warm, just as if they were under Momma hen. Every day they stay in the brooder with the heat lamp on 24 hours a day with fresh food, water and pine shavings to keep them healthy. Each week, the temperature needed to keep the chicks warm can be lowered by 5º F until they are fully feathered out and no longer need the additional heat at about 4 weeks old. By that time, we have already moved them to pasture where they are moved daily to fresh grass, with fresh water and food still available.
So what’s the big deal you say? Why are they so expensive? Well you would think not, but when you sit down and work out the numbers, the food, the transportation costs to get the food, the water, the electricity for the heat lamps, the red heat lamp bulbs (which always seem to go out at a bad time), the pine shavings, the materials for the brooder house and broiler house, the labor, the processing equipment (or if the farmer sends them out to slaughter, the cost of the slaughter house and transportation to get there and back), the coolers for chilling the meat, the ice and water to chill the meat, the bags and vacuum sealer, the labels (required by law), the electricity for the vacuum sealer, refrigerator and freezers, the refrigerator for chilling up to 12 hours to allow the meat to relax to make a more tender bird, the freezers to keep the chicken frozen and we haven’t even gotten to the transportation costs of getting birds, getting to and from market and all the marketing materials! Whew! AND I’m sure I’ve forgotten plenty. Oh and did I mention there is plenty of labor involved?
So it all seems pretty inexpensive until you add it all up. A little here, a little there. Mostly the organic feed is expensive. This year, we expect to more than double, almost triple, our cost in feed. As a small farmer, I am unable to buy bulk grain several tons at a time. We all know buying in bulk is less expensive than buying in smaller quantities. But I also would need a way to store that amount of grain – a grain silo. Don’t have one of those. The grain has a shelf life – a time when it is the most nutritious and should be used by. It would be wonderful if I only had to buy grain once a season! Unfortunately, I can only buy about a week or two worth of feed at a time. When they are young, like now, that’s about one (50 lb) bag. When they are close to processing that’s one bag a day! At the height of the season, I have been buying 10+ 50 lb bags a week. It’s a tough pill to swallow when the feed is $16 per bag. This year, the organic feed is $34 per bag. That’s not a regular pill – that’s a horse, no maybe elephant pill! Honestly, I have my moments of concern about buying feed when the birds are consuming a $34 bag a day! BUT, it’ll all work itself out. (Note to self – Have FAITH, Lynn!)
So where was I, oh yeah, costs. So by the time I crunch the numbers, it looks like the profit per bird will be somewhere around the $1-$2 mark. We will raise no more than 500 birds this year. Other factors play in to the total sum. Predator losses (we lost 7 turkeys last fall), grain losses, broken equipment, etc. That all comes out of the profit but the reality is I’m a small farmer. I won’t get rich doing this. For these first few years I have been in business, I have lost money. I get it – it’s kind of expected when you are starting a business, but I can’t do this forever. I don’t get the subsidies that the big mass production farmers do but I don’t do this for the money. I do because I want to. I truly believe this is a healthier option and this is what I choose to eat. I do it for my health, my family’s healthy, and my customer’s health. It’s truly a labor of love and not the love of money. It’s a love of doing something that is positive for you, the animals, our land and myself. I’m doing something I really enjoy and that’s worth more than money.
Ultimately, I have to, no, MUST, keep in mind that if I am running a business I have to make some money. If this were a hobby it would be OK to break even. If it costs me money then this is truly unsustainable (and I will be out of business soon!).
Support you local farmers market – your farmer will appreciate it.