April 18, 2022

Alternative Feeds for Chickens

Trying to make the food budget balance with rising food prices has become a bit of a challenge these days. It's caused me to analyze and re-evaluate our diet (which isn't a bad thing), because now, I have to ask myself what my price limits are for the things I usually buy.

Vintage USDA Poster

I'm very thankful to have a garden, fruit trees, and smallholding livestock. But there's a concern too, because some of the heftiest price jumps have been for livestock feed. So I'm analyzing their diets too, and asking, what are the alternatives for feeding our animals?

Well, how much food does a chicken need? There are various answers to that question because it depends on the age and type of chicken. Production estimates are usually around 4 to 6 ounces per chicken per day if the chickens are getting all their nutritional needs met by commercial feed. But what about chickens that free range and supplement their own diet? How does that factor in? I don't know a formula to calculate that, but I can tell you that because of our alternative feeding methods, our chickens eat very little pelleted food. In fact, they much prefer the other things we offer them.

So here's what we do to help cut the feed bill. As a heads up, you won't find that it conforms to what a lot of the experts say. But we have healthy, happy chickens and feed them for practically free. So these things definitely work. The links will take you to my blog posts for more information.

Free-ranging. We used to let our chickens out to pasture, where they eat grass, clover, weeds, and seed heads. But they tend to become counterproductive during pasture planting seasons because they will eat all the seed I've just planted. They've also done quite a bit of damage to my forest garden hedgerow and forest garden by scratching around newly planted trees and young plants. Because of that, we've switched to alternatives to full blown free ranging.

Alternatives to free-ranging. 

  • chicken tractor
  • fencing portions of the pasture with electric netting
  • portable chicken runs
  • enlarge the chicken yard and rotate where they're allowed access

Grazing beds. We grow fresh grass in these beds, which the chickens trim enthusiastically.

Any grass seed will do; chickens just love fresh greens. Occasionally, we move the bed to a new location, and let the chickens scratch up whatever they can find in the dirt.

Gathered greens and herbs. Sometimes I take my hand sickle and trim tall grass for them. Also, I gather weeds and herbs: chickweed (a favorite), clover, parsley, dandelion, plantain, purslane, bee balm, wood sorrel, basil, borage, marjoram, chervil, chives, cilantro, mint, echinacea, dill, comfrey, lemon balm, marigold flowers, hyssop, lemongrass, oregano, stinging nettles, nasturtium, purple deadnettle, rose, smartweed, sage, yarrow, tarragon, thyme, raspberry leaves, thyme.

Root crops. Hang a turnip, carrot, beet, sweet potato, etc. where the chickens can peck it, and it will amuse them for quite awhile.

Winter squash. These are easy to feed. I cut them in sections and let the chickens peck out the seeds and flesh.

Surplus melons and overgrown cucumbers. These can be fed the same way.

Compost. Moving our compost bins into the chicken yard was one of the best things we ever did. 

It's less work for us and they love scratching through it. What's especially amazing, is that there appears to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between chickens and compost. With only minimal turning on our part, our compost works up much more quickly than chickenless compost piles. It's almost like magic. (In fact, my How To Compost With Chickens is one of my most popular eBooks. See cover below, or follow that link for details.)

Do we do anything special about what goes into the chicken compost pile? No. They eat what they want and ignore what they don't want. So all kitchen and canning scraps go into the compost, including dried, crushed eggshells, moldy cheese, and meat scraps. Shockingly, we don't separate out coffee grounds and onion skins (big no-nos in the chicken expert world) because the chickens don't consider them food and leave them to decompose on their own.

Eggshells, dried and crushed instead of oyster shells for calcium. As mentioned above, these are fed via the compost. I know some people worry this will cause chickens to become egg eaters, but I've never had a chicken yet who was smart enough to look at a jigsaw puzzle of crushed egg shells and mentally figure out the pieces could be reconstructed into eggs.

Cooked eggs (scrambled or hard boiled). Extra eggs can be fed back to omnivorous livestock! We especially seem to end up with an excess of duck eggs, which I hardboil, then chop shell and all into small pieces for the chickens.

Surplus dairy. Apparently, chickens can't digest milk, but they can eat cheese, yogurt, kefir, curds, and whey. Since we have goats, we often have surplus milk, so this is an excellent way for it to not go to waste.

Homegrown grains and sunflower seeds. The thing about grain for chickens, is that it doesn't have to be processed. Wheat for example. Toss some wheat heads into the chicken yard, and they know exactly what to do with it. Growing grain for chickens is much less labor intensive than growing it for humans. Ditto for sunflower seeds, set a head out and they'll take care of the processing. 

Besides grass grains (wheat, oats, barley), small grains such as amaranth or sorghum are easy to grow and easy to feed. I toss whole seed heads into the chicken yard and they do the rest. Corn usually needs to be cracked to make it eating size for chickens.

Sprouted grains and fodder. Both of these can stretch the feed budget a lot. Also, they're very healthy. We feed sprouted grains when the root tails are about half-an-inch.

Sprouted mix of wheat, oats, and black oil sunflower seeds.

We feed fodder when the grass has grown about three inches tall. They eat grass, grain, and roots.

Same mix as above, allowed to grow into grass.

Fermented grain. This has the benefit of live probiotics.

I'm not sure how much it decreases the feed bill, but it definitely boosts nutrition. And the chickens love it.

Grubs. Any time I dig anywhere, I keep a small bucket handy to toss grubs into. The chickens adore these, and I hope it helps keep our insect population down as well.

Earthworms. The chickens find these in the compost, but for anyone practicing vermiculture for castings, this is a great way to manage the earthworm population.

Other insects and insect larvae. Some people raise mealworms or solder fly larvae for chicken feed. I've never tried either. If we ever find a cache of larvae, we scoop it into a bucket and take it to them. They also love crickets, but these aren't easy to catch and transport! 

How do I know they're getting a proper diet? How do I know it's properly balanced? Well, they get protein, carbohydrates, fats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and all from zero to minimally processed sources. They are bright eyed, interested in life, have good weight, shiny feathers and firm egg shells. We still keep free choice commercial feed available, but every single chicken (and the Muscovies) prefer the goodies I've listed above. 

If you're interested in learning how to mix your own feed rations, I have another little eBook that will teach you how to do that, How To Mix Feed Rations With the Pearson Square. It includes a lot of information on self-sufficient livestock feeding for a variety of species.

These are the book mentioned above. Their titles link
them to their individual webpages (and where to find them)
or you can visit Kikobian.com for a complete list of titles.

Prepper's Livestock Handbook is another of my books that emphasizes alternative feeds for self-sufficiency. The link is to its webpage, where you can find more information.

Back to the topic at hand. I've always had a goal of self-sufficient chickens, which means feeding them from the homestead and not buying feed. So, I've collected and experimented with a lot of ideas. As with all things, however, what I do and how I do it are habit. The way prices are right now is helping me change my habits. As they say, there's a silver lining to every dark cloud.

Alternative Feeds for Chickens © April 2022 by Leigh at http://www.5acresandadream.com


Ed said...

I remember enough from my youth to know chickens certainly weren’t picky eaters. My brother and I often entertained ourselves by taking something out to the chickens and watching them eat it.

daisy g said...

This was SO helpful! I need to make a screen like that to feed them sprouted grass. Is there any type in particular that your girls like? Thank you for the great ideas!

Leigh said...

Ed, chickens are most entertaining. Any time they see Dan or I heading to the chicken yard, they come running to see what we've got. If no one is in sight, I can call out "I need a chicken" and they race to wherever I am. I used to dread turning compost, but now, it makes the chickens so happy that it's a rather fun job.

Daisy, I'm so glad it's helpful! Mostly we use wheat and oat seed, because we use those for sprouting and foddering. I think any grass seed mix will do; they just love the fresh greens. So if you keep lawn seed around, I think that would work too.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, I have not had chickens in 40 years, and I still miss them (although I will say the quail we had were also super entertaining). The good news is in the meantime I am gathering all this great information about what to do!

Animal feed is going up in price (or unavailable) - even at the rabbit shelter, we are seeing the impact.

My "measure" for healthy chickens would be the same as yours: bright eyed, groomed, active, firm eggshells, and no cannabilism.

wyomingheart said...

I am so impressed with this post, Leigh! I have a question about the meat scraps. Do you put meat in the compost pile, or just give the chickens the meat scraps separately? I love watching chickens, so I’m sure I could be easily entertained at your house! Lol ! Thanks and have a wonderful week!

Nina said...

Because of snow, my chooks are barn bound in the winter, but they do love the leftovers I bring them out for treats. Once the snow is gone and I can let them out, they hardly eat any commercial feed at all. I do regularly feed them leftovers, veggies, greens and stale whole grain breads because they stay closer to home when they get "treats". But yes, it costs hardly anything to feed the girls in the good weather. As long as they seem happy, inquisitive, aren't pecking each other and have decent eggs, I figure they are doing okay.

Leigh said...

TB, I don't know if you ever ran across her blog, but Cockeyed Jo (Cockeyed Homestead) fed her rabbits almost entirely from foraged greens. That wouldn't be practical for the shelter, but it might be worth looking into for home rabbits.

Wyomingheart, this post is the result of years of experimenting! :)

We put the meat scraps into the compost. We put everything into the compost. That way, if the chickens miss something (unlikely) then it adds to the compost.

I believe meat scraps in compost is frowned on because it tends to attract rodents. With chickens having access, however, they finish off the meat scraps as soon as they hit the pile.

Nina, winter is always the most challenging for homegrown feeding. I'm hoping that if we get a greenhouse built this summer, I'll be able to grow greens just for the chickens. I don't know if it will be enough, but it will be a start.

Mama Pea said...

Great post, Leigh, for folks who feel they can't keep chickens because of the expense of feeding them. We do much the same as you do. Our compost bins are within the chicken pasture and they can turn it into lovely black dirt faster than you would believe. They don't have access to the bins in the winter so we dump the "chicken bucket" right on the floor of their solarium and they eat every bit. If I find a leftover in the refridge that is past it's prime, it's no waste because the chickens get it. When I make bone broth from the bones of a turkey or chicken, the bones end up fairly soft. Believe it or not, the chickens make those bones disappear very quickly. We keep a chicken bucket in the heated part of our workshop that is kind of a kefir/yogurt mix. We stir some of this into a portion of their laying mash and let it ferment overnight. They think it's candy. We haven't reached the point of having a good place to sprout grains for them in the winter, but it's on The List. I've read that years ago, farmers would trap and skin a beaver, hang it in the chicken house during the winter and the birds would strip it down to the bones. Perhaps a wee bit unappetizing to us, but it supposedly kept their chickens going!

Rain said...

Hi Leigh!! ☺ This was a wonderful post. I think it's such a shame that animal feed and animal food prices are rising. Seems quite unfair in a way. We can do without chocolate and coffee...but animals need their nutrition. I think it's wonderful how you feed your chickens! And this post is now bookmarked for my future little hobby farm! Thank you!! ♥

Rosalea said...

Very interesting and informative post, Leigh. Makes me want to rush right out and get chicks!

Leigh said...

Mama Pea, good idea about the leftover bones from bone broth. I sometimes carve off the soft ends for them, but I think putting the whole thing in the compost would be a better idea.

Interesting about the beaver! Dan tosses dead mice and frogs into the compost pile, and they always disappear by the next day.

Rain, sadly, rising prices are something we can do very little about. Except to not buy or find alternatives. Pets and livestock, especially, need quality food. They're worth it because of how much they enrich our lives.

Rosalea, thank you! Nows the time of year to get chicks! :)

Nancy In Boise said...

Great ideas!

Leigh said...

Nancy, I imagine you have a few creative ways of feeding your backyard chickens too.

Annie in Ocala said...

I do the black soldier fly larva thing. Its easy, A scoop of any cheap (or not) livestock feed in a bucket with about a cup of water and (no lid) once warm enough it takes about week and they congregate in clumps, I scoop a cup out an put in a shallow pan. If there's much of the feed material left once the larva are eaten I put it back in the bsf bucket and can do that about every other day throughout the warm season. I change it all out once in awhile as the environment in the bucket gets out of balance over time. I generally keep less than 20 chickens and 2 bsf buckets keeps em all fed some regularly. I also keep some commercial feed out and bring them other goodies as you do but the bsf thing is easy! I grew up doing it for fish bait and chicken feed.

Leigh said...

Annie, thank you for the how to! I didn't realize it was so easy. Sounds like an excellent source of protein for chickens.

Kev Alviti said...

Funny you should post this, last week I bought the old war time book "keeping chickens and rabbits on scraps", not read it yet but looking forward to seeing what it says.

Leigh said...

Kev, I hope you'll do a blog post on it and anything interesting you learn. I'm always on the hunt for more ideas!