Trying to put a value on our free range eggs is almost as difficult as finding out what free range really is. The USDA defines free range poultry as any that has been allowed "access to the outside."* Well, it doesn't get much broader than that, does it? All of my chickens have access to a little run outside their coop. But I don't consider them free range until they are outside the run since the run has been picked and pecked and scratched bare.
Is there a difference in free range vs cooped up eggs? Yes. It really is simple to compare the look and taste of the eggs. As far as nutritional value? I don't have a lab on site to test them, but I know what we prefer to eat- the dark orange tasty eggs not the pale yellow bland ones. Confining our birds to the run for 3 days is all it takes to see the stark difference. How much are they worth?
After the coop is built and the feeding and watering equipment is purchased, other costs can sneak in. We run a light in the coop during the months with shorter daylight hours. And we purchased an automatic door opener for the days when we are unable to lock up the coop at night or open it in the morning. Our waterer sits on an electric base in the wintertime to keep the water from freezing. Besides all the electricity to run these things, time and money was spent installing them. How much was that worth?
Last month our flock was attacked twice by a neighborhood dog. All totaled in the end? We lost over half our flock. Most of them were 4 month old pullets, young birds that were going to start laying in the next 8ish weeks. How much were they worth?
Some we had bought as chicks and some I had faithfully turned every day in an incubator (because our mama hen had been taken by a hawk) for 30 days til they hatched. I had started out all of them on non-medicated chick feed and carefully monitored for illness over the long summer of bird flu. I cleaned and replaced the low allergen bedding regularly. I taught them to trust me and come when I called with scratch grains and treats. They had learned to eat their fare share of the store bought feed when it was too rainy or unsafe to venture out for their daily diet of bugs and sunshine. How much were they worth?
I don't think there really is an answer to their true value. To me, they were priceless. But now I'm finding myself questioning my next move. Do I replace them? Can I face the thought of starting from day 1 with a tiny peep just to know I may be picking up its dead carcass before it even reaches laying size? Do I keep the remaining birds forever on lock down (as they are right now?) Do I want to put good money into raising birds that are going to lay eggs I wouldn't even want to buy at the store for a much lower price? How much ARE they worth?
These are some tough questions I'm asking myself. But that is part of this homesteading venture, finding what is right for us and sharing our experience with others.
*USDA Food Safety Information