The big payoff with chickens comes in many forms. If you can create a free range system you can get by very cheaply on feed for three seasons of the year, while still getting eggs. Then you are feeding hens through the winter but not getting your full egg count, but if you've been savvy about hatching chicks in the spring and are culling your flock each year, you'll have meat to eat in the winter months instead of the eggs. Meanwhile, the free ranging is improving their own pasture, removing bugs and pests from your garden surroundings, and~if you use free leaves in your coop to promote a composting deep litter system~you've got finished compost by winter's end to place directly on your garden. More compost equals better plant nutrition and better crop yields. Feeding the veggie and fruit scraps back to the chickens and any garden wastes right back to the coop composting system and you've got no food wastes at all.
Another way to get even cheaper on chickens is to ferment your feed. This gets you to feeding almost half what you would normally feed, creates a more pleasant coop environment, healthier chickens, and the eggs and meat taste 100% better than they did if you were not fermenting and free ranging.
All these things gets you to a place where chickens start to pay for themselves in multiple ways and replicating themselves each year so you won't need to buy more stock. If you cull for laying, you will only be feeding the hard working hens of the flock and the rest become food for the family. Breed your best layers and you are finally getting all you can get from a chicken flock. What you invested initially suddenly becomes a pittance when you consider how well and how long this investment pays off as the years go by.
Unfortunately we are in the city and cannot free range. We are toying with deep litter. Wife is kinda having a hard time with the thought. Hurts me some as I have been using grass clippings and leaves as free mulch in landscaped areas to decrease mowing. We have thick straw down this year and I think she is coming around. We have tried to keep the flock small so that they are getting a "fair" amount of sq ft per bird.
We have been trading trying to cull out aggression and non layers but it seems that we just made a bad trade and picked up one who isn't laying but gave up what looks like two that started laying after they were gone.
Can you tell me more about fermenting food? Are you speaking about fodder?