The Environmental Impact of Backyard Chickens: No Impact Is Not an Option

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
A red chicken walking outside of a coop.

Thurtell /Getty Images

Those of us who spend a significant portion of our time thinking about our environmental impact often dream of magic solutions to cut our carbon footprint drastically. For a long time, in my head, chickens were one of those solutions. And it seems I am not alone. Backyard chickens have always been a popular subject here on TreeHugger. But even backyard chickens have an environmental footprint.

When I'm talking to other green minded folk, I often find they respond with a mix of admiration and jealousy when I tell them I keep backyard chickens. (Ahh, that green, green eyed monster...) How nice it must be they enthuse, to have fresh, guilt-free eggs and be that much closer to self sufficiency. It's almost as if chickens have become a locavore status symbol to be aspired to and coveted.

And I'm not going to lie — keeping chickens is a wonderful, rewarding experience. I would encourage anyone with a little space, and some tolerant neighbors, to give it a try. From the fresh eggs in the morning to the endless mounds of chicken poop and bedding that goes into my compost to the aforementioned bug control, there is indeed much to be said for chickens as a key element of a sustainable household. Add to that their role in gobbling up food scraps, and keeping my daughter entertained, and I really wouldn't live without them. But there's no such thing as a free lunch.

How Eco-Friendly Is Raising Chickens?

Backyard chickens in a coop surrounded by greenery.

ParkerDeen / Getty Images

I get a little nervous when folks start talking about backyard hens as a key element of "self-sufficiency." The way some greenies talk about them, it's almost as if these beautiful creatures offer a magical ticket to emission-free eating. Yet it's important to remember that pretty much nothing we do is without its environmental impact.

Chickens Eat Grain

A woman in warm clothing feeding her chickens in the coop.

Siro Rodenas Cortes / Getty Images

Only yesterday I emptied two giant bags of grains into a storage tub next to the chicken coop. That grain had to be grown somewhere. And it was most likely grown with the fossil fuels, pesticides, and soil erosion that are part and parcel of modern agriculture.

While my hens are free to scratch in the dirt, eat bugs, and get a steady diet of scraps from our kitchen too, I suspect the largest portion of their diet still comes from these grains. I have yet to calculate how many eggs we get for each bag of grain, but I am sure it would be an illuminating calculation. (Currently I seem to also be feeding a hungry, vegetarian possum intruder, so I'd need to fix the coop properly for it to be an accurate experiment.) From a vegan standpoint, it would almost certainly make so much more environmental sense to feed those grains direct to humans, rather than pass them through a system of animal husbandry—however local and low impact—and deal with the inevitable nutrient loss that come along with those pesky laws of entropy.

They Provide More Than Just Eggs

Chickens picking inspects off lawn.

georgeclerk / Getty Images

Of course to focus on eggs alone would be to underestimate the utility of chicken keeping. I often think high quality, concentrated manure is a more valuable output than the eggs themselves—and this somewhat limits my need to import compost or other manures from outside my garden. Add to that their potential role in bug control, and the opportunity to put their scratching to use in a chicken tractor, and they become not just egg-laying machines, but an integrated part of a broader system.

Nothing Is Ever No-Impact

Chickens walking outside on the grass on a homestead.

Johner Images / Getty Images

I share all these musings not because the environmental impact of backyard chickens needs to be a priority concern of the environmental movement, but rather because it reminds me of a key lesson in all this sustainability business—despite No Impact Man's best efforts, there really is no option for us humans to have no impact. Instead, we need to understand the impact we are having with any particular activity—whether that be the food choose we eat, where we choose to live, or how we choose to get around—and then seek ways to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives.

Let's accept that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Instead let''s figure out how much lunch costs, and how we want to pay for it.