The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, "hmm.... that's funny...." Isaac Asimov

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lawns, the Price of Eggs, and Chicken Tractors

Lawns provide fine venues for sports, but why do people maintain big lawns that are never used for anything? Maybe lawns stimulate something deep in our psyches. Maybe at an unconscious level the smell of fresh cut grass equals “good” (food for a horse) or an expanse of close-cropped green surrounding the house equals “safety” (no snakes nearby). Lawns don’t come without some cost however. According to EPA, Americans burn 800 million gallons of gasoline yearly, about 0.6% of the total use of that fuel, to mow grass. Lawn care also uses water and pesticides.

A big lawn could become a useful resource for feeding chickens. There's an upsurge in interest in chicken-raising, perhaps related to the price of eggs, which has risen recently as shown in the chart. Agricultural commodities can be expected to rise in cost as energy prices increase, so eggs may get more expensive. Also, the grossly crowded conditions of today's industrial poultry operations raise questions about the quality of commercial eggs. Unfortunately, producing one’s own eggs with a small flock of chickens is only marginally cost-effective. The main cost is the price of feed. My calculations suggest that buying, housing, and feeding a dozen or so egg-laying hens for three years will cost in the range of $150 per bird, not counting the labor to take care of them. Each hen will produce approximately 50 dozen eggs during this period; so if the eggs are worth $3 a dozen the benefits more or less equal the costs.

However, if you have a flock small enough so that you can feed it largely with kitchen and table scraps, and if you can keep your chickens on good pasture a lot of the time, the cost picture improves. The scraps from a family of four could make up half the feed of four chickens. Good pasture would cut the feed bill further. Chickens will eat just about any food scrap that is at all edible. They are adept at catching flies and other insects and ticks. They love green matter so much that they will quickly defoliate a small fenced-in yard, reducing its pasture value to virtually nothing. The key to providing good pasture is to have a large enough area so that the birds can’t get ahead of plant growth. An ideal approach is to frequently move them to fresh pasture. It’s not hard to do this with a different kind of lawn tractor - a chicken tractor. The chicken tractor pictured was built by a co-worker of mine, Dave Bean. It houses several chickens and is not hard to move around on the lawn. It protects the chickens from predators, but it’s open to the grass below. With a chicken tractor making its rounds, the chickens eat, the grass gets chopped off and fertilized, lawn insects and ticks are obliterated, and there’s still a lawn area for a volleyball game.


  1. I'd always assumed that the biggest resource drain associated with maintaining lawns was on fresh water rather than fossil fuel--is that true? Where would you suggest I look to find reliable data on how much potable water is used each year to keep lawns green?

    Also, is there any info on the "upsurge in interest in chicken-raising?" I'm totally willing to believe it, considering how many suburban families I know of who now keep chickens, but I wonder if a survey or something has ever been conducted...

    Great post!

  2. Hey Rachel,


    I haven't been able to find good info on how much water is used for lawn care. Clearly it's more of an issue in areas where lawns don't naturally grow and water is in short supply, e.g. the West. I'll keep looking for some specifics.

    My info on the upsurge in backyard chicken raising is mostly anecdotal. There was a good article on this in the NY Times in August, 2009:

  3. Thanks for your posts. It's so wonderful to have actual statistics for what I just know to be true!

    By the way, I have a wonderful book called 'CHICKEN TRACTOR: THE PERMACULTURE GUIDE TO HAPPY HENS AND HEALTHY SOIL' by Andy Lee and Pat Foreman. I plan to use it for this year's group of hens. It includes several plans for these useful dwellings.

  4. Thanks for reading! Well, with luck, at least sometimes, a deep enough look at the data will get us into new territory - I'll keep trying to get there! It looks like that book is in print and available from Amazon, etc. I'm gonna get it.