Kids love raising chicks and watching them grow, but it's easiest to purchase a couple of young hens or even pullets that are ready to move into the coop. Pullets are hens ready-to-lay. These gorgeous Barred Rock hens moved in during the summer, when they were probably four or five weeks old. They first started laying in January.
Where does someone get chickens? Try Craigslist. Or visit the local feed store. Most feed stores will have a bulletin board with phone numbers of individuals who will raise chicks and provide hens that are ready to move into the coop. Contact a 4H group.
Want to raise them yourself? Here in Humboldt the feed store will have the cute baby chicks available around mid-March. And at any time you can order barred rock chickens for sale at californiahatchery.com, safely shipping chickens anywhere in the United States! The chicks will have to live inside for a month or so and will need a support system. We have a descriptive article on raising chicks from day-old to pullet-hood, but let's keep this simple for now and get animals that are ready to move into the coop.
How much are they? That depends on the seller, and a hen may cost anywhere from $15 to $35 each. Fancy breeds (show birds) cost more. Those are bred for plumage and generally make poor egg producers.
While at the feed store... buy bedding material (chickens can't walk on slippery surfaces) which will also absorb liquids. Here in California, rice hulls make an excellent bedding material. The small size of the hulls makes it very easy to clean the coop, and the used stuff goes in the compost pile or in the garden (zucchini plants are voracious feeders and benefit greatly if you bury several gallons of chicken manure and bedding a foot below the seeds). Rice hulls are also available by the bag at most garden stores because it makes an excellent mulch. Hay works, too. Chicken houses should be cleaned often, it will help keep the girls healthy.
Let's assume your hen's diet is half table and garden scraps and half purchased chicken feed, and that you replace her at the end of her fourth year. Her lifetime cost would be about $40, and a Rock would then produce around a thousand quality eggs during that time. That averages out to about fifty cents per dozen eggs, but that covers only the cost of the hen and the feed, not housing costs, babysitters when on vacation, or loss due to disease or predator.
The hens normally eat a couple of handfuls of laying pellets each day, and we generally keep a bowl available for them inside the coop. But these hens don't eat much bought feed because of the garden and table scraps tossed their way. In fact, these hens prefer the scraps and will fight over the goodies, and turn up their little beaks at chicken feed. We can't walk past the coop without them getting all excited in anticipation of food being tossed their way. They keep a steady eye on us while we are working in the garden, because a real delicacy (to them, anyway) is the worms and bugs and larvae that come out of the vegetable patch and the orchard. They also appreciate a handful or two of Crimson Clover greens, an excellent cover crop that rotates into the unused garden beds during the rainy season.
Bottom line on whether homegrown eggs are cheaper than the store? It's probably a wash if you compare costs to regular mass-production store eggs. Only a large production facility with economies of scale will be able to reduce the price of eggs by a meaningful amount. But the backyard flock does so much more than provide quality eggs. The hens close another ecological loop with the table scraps, the manure makes great fertilizer, and it is not possible to get this freshness or quality of eggs any other way. It really drives the point home when family members remark on the blandness of restaurant eggs. And don't forget the entertainment value and the chance to learn to speak 'Chicken'...