Tips for Improving a Home Egg Business
Very few of us who have ever had a home egg business started out thinking we would be small-time poultry farmers when we got our first chickens. Most of us started with a few chickens and became captivated by their beauty, diversity, and personalities. Then we decided to get a few more. Suddenly, the flock size and the number of birds we owned seemed to increase exponentially. And so did the numbers of eggs. Cartons, trays, flats, and bowls of eggs suddenly began to take up space in the refrigerator and kitchen counters. Neighbors, friends, family, and coworkers became the recipients of a dozen eggs here and a dozen eggs there. And after giving far too many eggs away, we were finally able to sell some. Word spread that we had fresh eggs available. Demand increased, and suddenly we were in the business of actually selling a few dozen eggs every week. Without any advanced business planning, we had suddenly become catapulted into the role of small-time chicken and egg farmers. Does this sound familiar?
Perhaps you are at the point of wanting to increase sales to your growing list of egg customers. Or maybe you have been growing and selling produce, and you realize fresh eggs would add diversity to your list of offerings. Whatever the case may be, there is just something about high-quality, farm-fresh eggs that most consumers find hard to resist.
In producing and selling eggs from a home flock, one of the worst realities all of us face is that profit margins generally are razor-thin. The cost alone of high-protein, nutritionally-balanced layer feed often leaves very little room for profit. Production cost becomes very important when planning a home egg business.
Consumer Preferences and Beliefs
Consumers like big eggs. That seems like a no-brainer. But it is an important fact to keep in mind when choosing breeds for your backyard production flock. Many people equate large and extra-large eggs with healthy birds. Few consumers realize that certain breeds lay medium or even small eggs while other breeds produce large eggs. Choose breeds that consistently produce large and extra-large eggs, and the product itself and customer word-of-mouth will become your best forms of advertisement.
Another issue facing a producer is the plethora of consumer beliefs and misperceptions about shell color. These can range from assumptions that brown or colored-shell eggs are more nutritious, green or blue-shelled eggs are lower in cholesterol, and white eggs have been bleached to make them white. Extra-large eggs with colored shells are often equated with freshness and thought of as “real farm eggs,” while white-shelled eggs are considered substandard, “factory-farm products.” That is the unfortunate reality.
What Should You Do About These Misperceptions?
As an egg producer, what should you do about these misperceptions? Realistically, you will not change most peoples’ established consumer prejudices. My advice? Roll with the flow. If your customers want extra-large eggs with colored shells, provide what they want. Chocolate-brown shells? Consider adding a few birds like Marans to the flock. Customers fascinated by blue or green eggs? Look at the many hatchery offerings for breeds and strains being developed that can produce these eggs in profitable volumes.
As a home egg business, how can you find the perfect breeds or strains to produce what your customers want? You will need to stay on top of and continually educate yourself about the breeds and strains that hatcheries offer. Think like a commercial producer, crunch some basic numbers, and base your operations on the most productive breeds and strains you can find. Treat the operation as the business that it is.
Think like a Commercial Egg Farmer
Whether you have 20 birds or 20,000 birds, here are a few production basics and terms that are important to commercial egg producers:
Think in terms of feed conversion:
“Feed conversion” is nothing more than determining how much feed each chicken uses to produce a dozen eggs. Another way to figure feed conversion is to determine how many eggs a hen will lay in a year and how many pounds of feed she will consume. Multiply that by the number of chickens in your flock, and you can calculate how many pounds of feed you will need to buy for the entire year. Years ago, in the commercial layer section, many hatcheries gave egg conversion factors in their catalogs. The number of eggs a hen would realistically lay in her first year of laying, average egg size, and feed per dozen eggs was standard information. As egg production slowly moved from family farms to corporate mega-farms, hatcheries dropped much of this information from the catalogs.
To give an example of how important feed conversion is, a 4.5-pound Leghorn laying 330 large to extra-large eggs will consume just under 110 pounds of feed in her first year. A 6.5-pound Brahma hen, laying 180 medium eggs in her first year, will consume almost 105 pounds of feed. That is around four pounds of feed for each dozen large to extra-large eggs produced by the Leghorn, compared to nearly seven pounds of feed per dozen medium eggs produced by the Brahma. While the Leghorn is the breed most commonly used to produce white eggs, I am using it here to explain why feed conversion is so important.
Think Rate of Lay:
“Rate of lay” means nothing more than how many eggs a hen will lay in a year, but it is expressed in a percentage form. For example, with 365 days in a year, if a chicken laid 365 eggs that year (highly unlikely but used here as an example), she would be producing at a 100% rate of lay. In her first year, a chicken laying 280 eggs is laying at roughly 77% per year (280 eggs per year divided by 365 days). Our sweet little Brahma hen, laying 180 eggs, performs at a production rate of only 49%. Most poultrymen concede that anything under 80% is getting into a financial-loss territory.
While many people use a rule of thumb that a hen will lay 600 eggs in her lifetime, production rates are not consistent in the ensuing years. Under normal circumstances, hens will only produce about sixty percent in the second year of what they did in the first year and about forty percent in the third year. High production hens may well burn out after their second laying season. As a small-time, commercial egg producer, you will need to decide, in advance, what you will want to do with these birds. If you want to keep them as pets, be aware that they may cost much more to feed than what you will make from the eggs. Some people butcher them as stew hens or sell them for a nominal cost to other people who want them for the same purpose.
Think Longevity of Laying:
Yes, this means just what it sounds like: How many years will the bird lay? Years ago, this was much more important to commercial egg farmers. Today many commercial flocks are sent to meat processors after no more than eighteen months of laying, sometimes sooner. Even though production usually drops in the second and third years, it is still something you may want to consider when you select breeds or strains for your flock for your home egg business.
Think Light Hours:
Hens produce the most eggs when supplied with 15 to 16 hours of light per day. Commercial egg farms have artificial lighting in the hen-houses for this reason. If you need consistent production during reduced daylight hours in the winter, simply secure an incandescent light fixture in your coop, run an outdoor extension cord to it, and plug it into an inexpensive wall timer in your home or garage. Forty watts is usually more than sufficient. Set the timer to turn on in the early morning hours before sunrise and shut off once it is light outside. The cost of electricity under these circumstances is minimal, but it will keep your hens inconsistent winter production.
Consider Breeds that Mature Early
While not always the case, many breeds and strains which mature and start laying early are often better layers. You may want to think about these for your small, commercial flock.
Other things to consider in advance for your home egg business are where you will procure your supply of egg containers and how you can get them at a reasonable cost. Prices of containers can cut significantly into the profit on each dozen eggs. Designate a spot or shelf in your refrigerator where you will store the eggs. And by all means, decide what you will use for bedding in the nests and how often you will need to change it. Most consumers do not like manure-stained eggs, no matter how many times they have been washed. With these simple thoughts in mind, enjoy your venture into backyard egg farming!
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.