Chickens can turn a profit just like any other farm animal. My family raised ordinary chickens for several years for the usual reasons: fresh eggs and meat. That all changed when my children started showing chickens in the 4-H Club. We began to acquire unique breeds for the kids’ projects, and then continued to add new breeds every year for several years. Along the way, we started hatching our own, and soon our barn was full of a fantastic array of chicken breeds.
With over 100 birds, we wondered what else we could do with them. Through internet searches, we discovered that while we were selling our regular eggs for $3 per dozen, numerous poultry breeders were selling fertilized hatching eggs for $35 to $55 per dozen! We had to give it a try. What started out as a fun way for my son to earn some extra money soon grew into a family business, TarBox Hollow Poultry.
After discovering hatching egg auctions on eBay, we decided to attempt to acquire and sell our own fertilized hatching eggs. Our first concern was figuring out how to ship them safely. (In my mind, I pictured cracked eggs oozing out of the box upon delivery.) My son decided to package up a box of eggs and put them to the ultimate test. He threw the box against the wall, across the room, and down the stairs. When we opened the box, to my disbelief, not a single egg was cracked.
With a foolproof way to package eggs for shipment, we decided to make a go of our new enterprise. We modified our barn to accommodate several breeding pens. Next, we set up eBay and PayPal accounts for payment and fee transactions. Finally, we set up our first eBay listing and started selling fertilized hatching eggs. It was an unquestionable success! Eggs were selling consistently, and we even had a few orders sell for $44 and $68 per dozen.
After the success of our first year, we decided to carry more specialized chicken breeds that would bring higher dollar amounts. We started purchasing niche breeds, those that were harder to come by and would sell for an above-average price. Before buying a breed, we researched its characteristics to make sure it was a good fit for us. Traits we looked for in specialized breeds included cold-hardiness and productive egg laying. We avoided breeds that were flighty, aggressive, or had special needs, such as Old English Game bantams, which require their combs to be dubbed. To learn the correct breed standards, we consulted the American Poultry Association’s American Standard of Perfection, Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, and the American Poultry Association website. We bought our breeds from hatcheries, auctions, and breeders. We learned that the best quality birds were sold by breeders because they breed for quality, not quantity, and good-looking birds bring top dollar. And unless we know the breeder, we only buy chicks and eggs to avoid bringing infection to our flock, as adult birds can be carriers of a disease while showing no symptoms of illness.
Today, we offer 18 breeds of chickens, made up of a mix of large fowl (standard-sized chickens) and bantams (miniature-sized chickens). While both types sell equally well, bantams offer profit advantages over larger fowl because they require half as much food and space. Plus, having both sizes of poultry is an excellent way for us to diversify, since some customers only want one or the other. We’re continuously adding new breeds to satisfy our customers’ desires.
To take our poultry business to the next level, we needed another breeding facility. Last summer, we built one that contains 11 breeding pens. Each pen has built-in nest boxes that allow the gathering of eggs from outside the pen, a roost, and individual outdoor runs with wire-netting covers to protect the birds from hawks and varmints. To maintain optimal health, chickens must get outdoors for exercise, sunshine, and fresh air. Our new building has 22 windows that allow plenty of natural sunlight to filter in, especially important on days when it’s too cold to let the birds out in their runs. We’ve installed an automatic-drip watering system for convenience and clean water. The building has a door on each end and a hall down the middle for easy cleanup with a wheelbarrow.
Healthy Hens in Breeding Pens
To ensure maximum fertility and to prevent cross-breeding, we set up our breeding pens three weeks before collecting eggs. In winter, we let them all run together for convenience. Ideally, a breeding pen should have a minimum of 10 hens to ensure plenty of fresh eggs to accommodate demand, and each of our pens has one rooster for every seven hens. We feed them quality feed, oyster shells, probiotics, vitamins, and electrolytes.
The roosters are continually tested for fertility, and we observe our flock daily for any possible health issues. Being proactive is key; chickens are resilient, but if illness isn’t detected early, you could lose them. We clean the pens regularly to avoid damp conditions and to prevent rising levels of ammonia. (High levels of ammonia are a big concern because chickens have sensitive respiratory systems.) Also, we have our flock tested for pullorum-typhoid disease and avian influenza yearly, and we’re National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) certified. This is a significant credential for a poultry business to achieve, as it demonstrates to buyers that you’re selling quality poultry and running a professional, disease-free operation.
Get Your Chickens in a Row
Here’s a simple, important rule to making a profit raising chickens: Run your business like a business. To stay organized, we document everything using a spreadsheet. We track revenue, expenses, and keep a customer list with their contact information to connect with them for future sales. To market our business, we maintain a Facebook page, a Pinterest account, and a website (www.TarBoxHollowPoultry.com). We even designed our own logo to create a business identity. Setting up a website is a must, and it’s relatively inexpensive; hosting costs are less than $10 a month, and you can build the website yourself with WordPress or hire someone to do it for about $100. A website will pay for itself with the savings from reduced seller fees associated with e-commerce sites alone.
Facebook is an excellent marketing tool. Once you create your own Facebook page, you can join a variety of poultry groups to sell eggs and chicks by posting your product and directing those interested to your website to place an order. We’ve also joined breed-specific clubs for increased exposure. As a member, you’re added to the club’s list, where you can buy and sell. Potential buyers searching the web often check these clubs, as they’re an excellent place to find quality stock.
Gather Ye Eggs While Ye May
We collect eggs several times a day to avoid cracks and breakage caused by hen traffic in and out of nests. Our process consists of gathering the eggs and penciling the breed of the chicken on each egg. We don’t wash the eggs, so we pack plenty of straw in nesting boxes to ensure their cleanliness; eggs that are really dirty are discarded. The collected eggs are stored small-end-down in an egg carton in a cool room in our house. We have a corresponding paper tag numbered 1 to 31 for each day of the month; each batch of eggs collected is separated by breed and will have a paper tag signifying the date it was gathered.
We ship 1-to-3-day-old eggs to give our customers the best possible hatch. If you add in shipping time, plus one day for the eggs to settle after shipment, they’ll be at most seven days old when they go into the customer’s incubator. This is ideal timing for a successful hatch.
We ship orders of our hatching eggs via the United States Postal Service (USPS) by priority mail to all states except Hawaii (because of its import regulations). USPS priority mail orders arrive within 1 to 3 days and include $50 insurance for lost or damaged orders.
We meticulously pack our eggs for safe shipment by wrapping each one in a paper towel, and placing the wrapped egg inside a Styrofoam cup packed with shredded paper. Inside the shipping box, more shredded paper is added above and below the cup-packed eggs. This keeps the eggs stationary inside the shipping box, which is critical because rough handling can kill embryos.
Because we set up an account with the USPS, priority mail shipping boxes are free of charge and delivered to our doorstep. Most of our shipments are sent in 12-by-12-by-8-inch boxes. We buy shipping labels from eBay at a lower rate than if we’d purchased postage directly from the USPS. Shipping charges and fees are automatically deducted from our PayPal account, and the balance of the sale is deposited. The process is fairly smooth, as all parties get paid simultaneously electronically. We handwrite a thank-you note on every invoice, and add that inside the box along with our business card. Finally, we slap on stickers reading “Fragile” and “Hatching Eggs,” and deliver our packaged orders to the post office to make sure they ship the same day. (Orders will ship the following day if our rural postal carrier picks them up, and we want to avoid this.)
While selling fertilized hatching eggs is our primary source of income, we make incremental revenue by also selling chicks and adult birds. We purchased a GQF Sportsman 1502 incubator last year, and sold enough chicks to pay for it in the first season! We’ve learned to plan for early hatches — in March at the latest — to meet the springtime demands of our customers. Early buyers are often purchasing chicks for 4-H Club projects, and they need the chicks to be 16 weeks or older when they’re shown. Our other customers are leisurely backyard hobbyists whose chief concern is to get quality birds. Both 4-H’ers and hobbyists are willing to pay more for unique breeds not typically found in local farm stores.
Hatching chicks can be lucrative, as there isn’t much work involved, and people will come to your farm to pick them up. Also, chicks can live on their yolk sac for up to three days, so they can be shipped safely by priority mail for long-distance orders. We also sell adult birds at local exotic animal and poultry auctions; it provides extra income and helps trim our surplus of birds, particularly roosters. And we sell our breeding stock after the second laying season; they have good value, and will be replaced with younger hens and roosters for the following season. Keeping birds that you don’t use for breeding hurts your bottom line, so they should be sold whenever possible.
Time to Fly the Coop
Raising poultry for profit is a fun and gratifying business, and while it requires work and diligence, it certainly pays off. You don’t need a pile of money to get started. You can set yourself up for success by researching and then selecting a few breeds with good earning potential, keeping your flock healthy with good animal husbandry practices (quality feed, plenty of room to exercise, and protection from hawks and varmints), and promoting your offerings with common marketing tools.
Consider a mix of bantams and large fowl size chickens for diversity, and plan to sell hatching eggs, chicks, and adult birds. You can start with a few breeds, or many breeds, and grow from there. You might be surprised at just how fast your home business grows.
Valerie Boese is a fourth-generation chicken keeper, and the owner of TarBox Hollow Poultry.