Answer: In addition to traditional day-old chicks, many hatcheries are now selling started pullets. These are birds that have been raised at the hatchery up to 17 to 22 weeks of age, or the onset of lay. Since these birds spent more time at the hatchery, the price is higher to cover feed, housing, and shipping costs. A chick can cost anywhere from $1 to $3, but a pullet can cost $17 to $20. Buying day-old chicks and raising them until they start producing eggs provides several advantages: lower start-up costs, reduced financial risk, and greater adaptability.
Although every farm situation is different, raising chicks up to lay will usually be more cost-effective than buying started pullets. Feed costs at the hatchery will usually exceed farm feed costs, depending on the source. Furthermore, the added expense of a started pullet causes higher economic risk for a producer trying to make eggs a viable agricultural enterprise. Predator attacks and disease can become even more costly when the starting cost of stock is so high.
Furthermore, although some hatcheries start their pullets on pasture, most do not. The transition to a new, pastured environment is more difficult for an older bird whose habits have already formed. When birds are introduced to pasture at a young age, they can get comfortable with the conditions they will be living in for the long term. USDA's NOP organic regulations require that "Poultry or edible poultry products must be from poultry that has been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life." If a farm is looking to become certified, it must maintain organic conditions for new chicks, or buy from a pullet producer who maintains organic certification.
You can learn much more in the ATTRA publication Pastured Poultry: Egg Production. This publication examines many of the risk factors that beginning poultry farmers should consider before acquiring a pastured laying flock. It addresses animal-management issues including breed selection, housing, nutrition, predator control, and natural-resource management. It also discusses processing and marketing of the end product, table eggs.
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