Chickens are happier and their eggs are more healthful when the birds are allowed to forage for a variety of foods within a diverse habitat. But because free ranging is dangerous, most flock masters rely on commercial feed for most of the flock’s nutrition. These balanced but boring feeds are expensive and comprised of foods produced in environmentally damaging monocultures. But you can save money on chicken feed, give your hens variety and opportunity to express their natural behaviors, reduce dependence on industrial monocultures, and improve the quality of their eggs by supplementing with “natural” and healthful foods. Here’s how.
Save Money on Chicken Feed with Natural, Healthful Alternatives
I hate using the word “natural” to imply that some other food isn’t natural. After all, everything ultimately comes from nature, including the contents of a bag of commercial chicken feed. But here I am using the word “natural” to refer to less processed foods which are produced in more diverse ecosystems. That is, ecosystems which better mimic naturally occurring, complex ecosystems. So here, the distinction between “unnatural” and “natural” reflects the distinction between conventional agriculture and permaculture. (Read Permaculture Principles to learn how food is grown in systems which mimic natural ecosystems.) So now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’ll go on to describe how you can cut the cost of chicken feed and provide natural alternatives to chickens kept at various levels of confinement.
Feed them from your vegetable garden and orchard
Full sized chickens can devastate a vegetable garden, especially when plants are young. We exclude them from our garden with a 4 ft fence, but open the gate to give them access between late summer and early spring. We close them out as soon as spring planting begins. We don’t do much fall planting, and simply protect what little we do plant (like garlic). By late summer, much of our produce is already harvested or too high up for chickens to reach. Whatever they can reach, they’re welcome to take. You can see a diagram of our set-up, including vegetable garden, compost bins, fruit trees, and chicken yard, in this post: Limited Free Range Chickens.
When chickens must be confined, food from the garden and orchard can be delivered to them. We give them almost anything that we don’t want, and find that they appreciate any and all of the following:
- Excess produce that I don’t have time to preserve
- Young vegetable thinnings (lettuces, Asian greens, kale, carrots, beets, turnips, etc.)
- Weeds (don’t bother to shake the dirt off the roots, and chickens will pick through the dirt to find worms and insects)
- Garden pests, such as Japanese beetles and various caterpillars (I dump Japanese beetles into a container of water and let the chickens gobble them up right out of the containers)
- Small, poorly developed, bruised, and/or blemished produce, such as squash, tomatoes, and corn.
- Small, poor, or fallen fruit
- Sunflower seeds (which I leave on the seed heads as a free for all, both chickens and wildlife)
Some people go all out and plant a garden specifically for their chickens, but we just feed them the excess, the weeds, and the pests from ours.
Give chickens access to compost bins or piles
Our chickens take great pleasure in foraging through compost piles. The compost bins are located in the chicken yard for their enjoyment. Everyday when I let them out into the yard, they run to the compost to see “what’s new”. There’s nothing like fresh vegetable scraps from the kitchen and weeds from the garden.
Chickens don’t need to free range or have access to a large fenced yard in order to benefit from the compost. Some people put the compost bin right in the chicken run, and others don’t even have a bin. They simply throw many of their compostibles – vegetable scraps, weeds, leaves, and grass clippings – into the chicken run and let the chickens work it.
One thing I will point out, though. You’ll read here and there that chickens will do the work of turning a compost pile for you. Not exactly true. If the pile is not contained within a bin, it won’t be a pile for very long after you set the chickens on it, for they will spread it out flat in no time. If the compost is in a bin, they’ll scratch around at the surface but they’re too small to aerate the deeper portion. And while it is not absolutely necessary to turn and aerate, doing so has benefits beyond hastening the composting process. It discourages rodents from making their homes in it, and it brings some of the earth worms and other tasty decomposing organisms to the surface, so chickens can find them. There’s not much worm and insect activity going on at the surface of a static pile. I use a compost aerator up to twice a week to pull some of the deeper, active compost up to the surface for chickens to enjoy.
Other kitchen waste
As omnivores, chickens benefit from animal proteins, just like you do. Excess dairy products can be fed to chickens, (but only in moderation, because chickens cannot digest lactose). Excess eggs can be cooked, shell and all, and fed to chickens. DO NOT feed them whole, raw eggs, because they will soon learn to eat them right out of the nest boxes, and you won’t get any. Chopped or ground cooked meat is also fair game for chickens. Mine have enjoyed all of these.
Some people object to feeding chickens these animal foods, but there is no biologic basis for that. Chickens are omnivores, and will catch and eat animal foods when they can. They will eat anything from tiny insects to small snakes, toads, mice, etc.
Grow hydroponic green fodder for chickens
“Fodder” simply refers to food for livestock. You can grow grains, vegetables, or fruits to supplement their diet, as chickens are omnivores and can eat almost anything you eat. There is no need to do this during the warmer months if they have access to good habitat outdoors, but in cold winter areas, chickens welcome a break from dry pellets in the form of fresh, green vegetable matter. Hydroponic green fodder is a nutritious and inexpensive way to provide that. That said, it doesn’t reduce dependence on conventional monocultures unless you grow your own grains and seeds.
Hydroponic green fodder refers to grains and other seeds sprouted in water and grown until green appears. At least that’s what it means in the technical literature (1). Unfortunately, “fodder” in some of the popular literature refers specifically to hydroponic sprouted grain with several inches of green growth. These sites define “sprouts” as hydroponic sprouted grain with less than several inches of green growth.
Regardless of terminology, these are the advantages to sprouting grain hydroponically:
- It’s a cheap way to give chickens the pleasure of green forage during the winter months.
- It increases the availability of B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids (2).
- It’s a way to grow food for animals without using precious garden space.
Hydroponic sprouting is not something I have personal experience with, so I offer you this video showing how to do it. I chose this video from among several because it’s briefer and very well presented:
If you research growing “sprouts” and “fodder” for chickens, you’ll find some disagreement over the optimal length of green growth. One school of thought says several inches of growth (“fodder”) is best because the longer growing period increases nutrient availability. But the other side cautions against feeding longer pieces of grass because, they believe, it can cause crop impaction. Quite honestly, I don’t think either are true.
The study I found suggests that younger sprouts are actually more nutritious than older ones (3). As for longer pieces of grass causing crop impaction? That’s probably not an issue, because you feed sprouted green fodder as a mat, not in individual strands of grass. Chickens bite off pieces, just like they bite pieces of grass from a lawn or pasture. But I’d go with younger sprouts anyway, for better nutrition.
Raise worms or grubs
As omnivores, chickens relish many types of insects, grubs, and worms (not to mention animals like small snakes, toads, and mice). If your chickens do not have access to habitat with these protein rich delicacies, and you don’t mind the disgust factor, you could raise any of these creepy crawlies to the delight of your flock:
- Earthworms – Check out Harvey Ussery’s article on vermicomposting (4)
- Mealworms, the larval stage of the darkling beetle. Peak Prosperity has an excellent article on that (5)
- Soldier grubs – Check out Harvey Ussery’s article on this (6)
To bypass most of the grossness, take the easy way out, like me, and purchase dried mealworms. I feed these in small quantity as a protein rich treat, especially in winter when worms and bugs are otherwise unavailable.
Foraging for chickens
If your chickens cannot go out to forage, you can forage for them. Harvest grasses and weeds from your yard or from the wild. No need to spend a lot of time or make a production of this. Give them grasses and herbs in messy handfuls, and don’t bother to pick berries clean. Just bring them berry laden branches or clusters. I give mine a lot of autumn olive branches and some elderberry clusters, because those grow nearby in relative abundance. Here are some other wild foods my hens enjoy:
- Yellow wood sorrel (a great favorite of my birds, from young chicks to old hens)
- Dandelion seed heads (my hens rarely touch the leaves)
- Clover and lamb’s quarters are eaten to some extent
- Grasses, especially if in seed
- Grapes (mine don’t eat them unless I smoosh them first, expelling the soft interior, making it easier for them to grasp)
- Berries: blueberries, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, and autumn olive berries. My hens have shown no interest in chokeberries or hawthorn berries.
- Hickory nuts and hazelnuts (let husks dry till they fall off, crush shells with a stone or hammer, and chickens will pick out the nuts)
Make your own chicken feed
It may or may not be cheaper to mix your own chicken feed. This recipe for organic homemade chicken feed looks great, but you’d have to add up the cost of the ingredients available in your area to see if you’d actually save money. Fermenting the feed increases nutritional value, thus reducing the amount of feed needed to sustain the flock, and you can learn to do this here. Mixing and fermenting might save money on chicken feed, but don’t reduce reliance on environmentally damaging monocultures, unless you grow your own grain.
Grocery store and restaurant waste
Some grocery stores will donate over-ripe, wilted, or bruised produce to farms to feed farm animals, which is a great way to reduce waste. A friend of mine feeds her pigs with old produce from a local farm stand, and I’m sure chickens would appreciate it especially in winter. I have read of chickens raised on restaurant scraps, which seems like a great way to reduce waste, but I’d be concerned about high quantities of salt and refined carbohydrates in most restaurant food. I’m not sure how well can chickens handle the high dietary salt, in particular. Salty foods like leftover pizza are just an occasional treat for my flock.
- Bakshi, M. P. S. and Wadhwa, M. 2015. Recent Advances in Animal Nutrition. Satish Serial Publishing House.
- Sprouted Whole Grains (from WholeGrainsCouncil.org)
- Peer, D. J. and Leeson, S. 1985. Nutrient content of hydroponically sprouted barley. Animal Feed Science and Technology. 13(3-4) 191-202.
- Raising Earthworms to Feed the Flock (by Harvey Ussery)
- Raising Mealworms for Chickens (from Peak Prosperity)
- Cultivating Soldier Grubs to Feed the Flock (by Harvey Ussery)
How do you save money on chicken feed? What are your cost cutting secrets? Feel free to share your comments and ask questions below!