In The Business of Raising Backyard Chickens, I approached the subject as a start-up founder might, anticipating the fundamental question of an angel investor: What's the R.O.I. of my investment? For the dollars I invest, what rate of return can I expect? My calculations showed that by what's often touted as the angel investor's standard – 500% in year 5 – raising backyard chickens as a money-making venture would be a very poor investment. Doug Mauer, business owner and backyard chicken owner, confirms this assessment: "We have probably $2000 in our chicken operation so the R.O.I. is probably sometime after our 90th birthday." The R.O.I. of raising backyard chickens, then, is not monetary, but has other dimensions – personal, aesthetic or educational, for example.
People do keep backyard chickens although objective sources of how many are hard to come by. If the R.O.I. of raising backyard chickens has other dimensions, might the "cost of doing business" with backyard chickens have other dimensions as well?
For an answer to that question, I asked my father, Robert H. Giles, Jr., Professor Emeritus, formerly of the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech, and founder of Rural System. He replied with a list of social, economic, governmental and environmental dimensions and implications of raising backyard chickens.
- Raising chickens takes more time than anyone imagines.
- Urban and suburban families are very busy. Around-the-clock care is very difficult to obtain. There are notable successes but notable failures when parents or children get "too busy" or must meet appointments. This is different from the 3-5 children family of the family farm where someone is always available to tend the chickens." One failure can destroy a great program for a community of chicken-raisers.
- Failure to tend chickens daily can result in disease, starvation, and other losses and thus family and social conflict.
- Poor care or low care can result in socially stressful conditions between neighbors, thus requiring government investigation and or intervention (with costs and time loss and stresses for children if cessation is required).
- The average size hen produces 1 cubic foot of manure every six months (.pdf). Disposing of the manure in the municipal waste collection system results in greater costs for the municipality. As fertilizer, chicken manure must be composted before use, thus requiring creation and maintenance of a composting system.
- Feathers will become a visible nuisance (like leaves), thus requiring collection and disposal.
- There will arise the problems of: the frisky dog who frightens the birds in their cages (The chickens are injured in their flight, thus requiring a local veterinarian's care, who may or may not be trained to give it.); the urban rat (there are many); the opossum or skunk or weasel that will get in (always a bewilderment to the owner); the hawk (if chickens are allowed to graze in the yard).
- Someone will acquire a rooster or not dispose of one. Thus the morning noise will become a social and government problem.
- Slaughtering, processing and marketing of non-laying chickens has multiple dimensions of its own.
- One person owning backyard chickens can be wonderful. If 1% of a town's or city's population decides to own backyard chickens, the dimensions of backyard chicken ownership multiply.
As the founding of my company approaches its three-year anniversary, I am reflecting on the costs of doing business that I did not anticipate. If I had known then what I know now, I would have had the opportunity to make more informed choices. For individuals and locales considering backyard chickens, I hope this post and The Business of Raising Backyard Chickens may be of value in assisting with making informed choices.
Photo credit: Vicki L. Mauer