2023 Poultry industry trends: Egg prices and backyard chickens

A look at the wider cultural causes behind broader interest in backyard chickens
calendar icon 8 May 2023
clock icon 6 minute read

As people wring their hands over high egg prices, or throw them up in despair and buy chickens instead, we look at what it all means for the poultry industry, now and in the near future.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the wider cultural causes behind broader interest in backyard chickens, how they’re related to the reasons for egg inflation, and the practical fallout for consumers who go through with buying their own flocks.

It’s no secret that egg prices are higher now than they have been in a long time; even in the context of widespread inflation, eggs in particular have been hit with noticeable price hikes around the world. While this can be attributed to supply chain issues, policy changes, and most importantly, an unprecedented outbreak of avian flu, it has been noticeable not only to industry watchers but also regular consumers. As such, an increasing number have been turning to a seemingly dramatic solution: raising their own chickens.

While backyard chicken ownership had already been on the rise throughout the 2010s, when many people, including myself, started keeping a flock for a variety of reasons – concerns about animal welfare, the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, unhealthy additives in their food, or just a desire to have more animals in their lives – this number spiked during the pandemic. While growth has slowed since the heady months of March and April 2020, it has begun ticking up again recently, in conjunction with egg prices. Some hatcheries have even sold out of their most popular layer breeds. In this article, I’ll try to break down some of the causes behind and likely effects of this shift, in both the short and long term.

Not just penny pinching

It’s important to acknowledge that, while many new chicken keepers are currently being driven largely by rising prices, there are other, further-reaching reasons that ordinary consumers are turning increasingly to producing their own eggs. Some of these are somewhat silly or frivolous, like the documented phenomenon of more people seeking out and buying exotic or high-maintenance pets after they start going viral on TikTok and other social media. Others are much more serious, like the increasing awareness of animal cruelty and negative environmental impacts in the industrial agriculture industry.

This increasing awareness has even, in some cases, been a direct cause of rising egg prices. In New Zealand, for example, the current high egg prices are largely attributed to a shortage of eggs caused by the recent ban on battery cages, enacted in the name of animal welfare, which forced a number of large facilities to stop or slow production at the end of 2022. News coverage of the ban and resulting shortage has in turn increased the average consumer’s awareness of treatment and conditions in the egg industry, perhaps leading them to further skepticism about industrial agriculture as a whole.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the egg shortage and high prices can be primarily attributed to a historic bird flu epidemic, which has killed more than 50 million birds in the past year, most of them layers. While experts generally agree that crossover to humans is highly unlikely, reading about the rapid spread, high death toll, and massive culls of otherwise healthy birds could easily alarm consumers and put them in mind of the deadly outbreaks that have occurred, like those in 1997 and 2006. Especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, another flu-like illness that suddenly jumped from animals to humans, those memories and fears may feel very close in 2023.

With that context in mind, it’s easy to see how a wider move toward backyard chickens is being fueled not just by economic calculations, but also by broader concerns about the effects of industrial agriculture on both birds and humans. As people are increasingly encouraged to be conscious and ethical consumers, there are a number of reasons they might feel that the means and methods of industrial egg production don’t align with their values or represent a system that they want to pay into. Rising prices may have been the catalyst to bring these issues into the headlines, but they are only a small part of a wider shift in consumer mindsets.

Long-term costs of backyard chickens

I’ve had chickens long enough that when I started seeing headlines about people buying chickens to save money on eggs, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Anyone who thinks that keeping your own flock will be cheaper than buying eggs at the store is likely in for a rude awakening.

While it’s true that chickens will provide their owners with a kitchen staple, and that they won’t charge you markups for shipping, packaging, and branding, they don’t exactly work for free. First-time owners, in particular, will have several large investments in their near future, including coop costs, fencing, feeders and waterers, heaters and fans, and, of course, there’s the ever-present feed bill. Costs go down significantly after that first year, and there are lots of clever ways to reduce them. (Chicken coops are free if you build them out of old cabinets!) Some keepers can also start making their money back by selling eggs to their neighbors or at a farmers’ market. However, the fact remains that it’s difficult to break even on a small chicken coop, especially in the early years.

On top of that, it can also be difficult just to keep chickens. Disease and predators present constant threats, and even a healthy flock of low-maintenance birds needs to be fed, watered, and have their eggs collected multiple times a day – which is all before we get into coop cleaning. One of the reasons many people are happy to pay for store-bought eggs, after all, is the convenience.

Of course, none of this has dissuaded me or millions of others from keeping backyard chickens, my expensive, time-consuming, backbreaking, impractical hobby that I wouldn’t give up for the world. My point, though, is that the current wave of interest may be sweeping up a lot of people fed up with high prices who haven’t done the research on the reality of chicken ownership. Much like with pandemic puppies, we may be seeing another wave of news stories a year or two from now about all of the people suffering from chicken regret.

Alternatively, the people driving up search rates and populating discussion boards about getting chickens may actually do their research and decide that chicken ownership is not necessarily a proportionate reaction to what’s turning out to be a temporary spike in prices that’s already subsiding. For all the real ethical concerns we discussed above, wallets are usually most people’s most powerful motivators. When the economic calculus gets muddier, a lot of folks may opt back into the cheaper, more convenient world of store-bought eggs.

Many people get paid a lot of money to make predictions about the economy, but they’re usually wrong and I’m not one of them anyway, so I won’t try to say what lies ahead for the egg industry or the world of backyard chicken ownership. What I will say is that the recent rise in egg prices may have been temporary, but it has hopefully revealed a few longer-lasting trends in the industry. Most notably, the wave of interest in chicken coops has highlighted the tension between consumers’ awareness of the flaws in industrial agriculture and the irresistible allure of the low prices and easy access it affords.

Chris Lesley

Founder | Chickens & More

Chris Lesley has been raising chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth generation chicken keeper. She holds a certificate in Animal Behavior and Welfare and is interested in backyard chicken health and care.

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