It’s a bad day when you realize that the “free” eggs from your backyard flock are costing you. Deciding how to feed our hens is one of the first things we do when we bring our chicken flock home.
No matter what your feeding preference is, I suspect you would like to know how to feed them for less.
The great news is that there are several approaches to feeding chickens on a shoestring, and most of them, quite frankly, are perfectly natural. The cost of chicken feed keeps increasing, and as a community chicken lovers everywhere are challenged with feeding our flocks a nutritious diet while not breaking the bank.
We can all agree that keeping chickens is about much more than complimentary, fresh omelets. Most of us who are adventurous enough to devote part of our landscape and lives to these feathered friends do it for the lifestyle as much as the eggs.
We enjoy self-sufficiency. We love that our eggs are of superior quality. We beam at our bright-orange yolks.
And let’s face it: A yard or homestead dotted with a flock of hens pecking around is simply a lovely place to live.
If you love the flock but not the feed bill, here are seven tips to help feed chickens for less. Not only will these tips allow you to feed your gaggle on a budget, but they can also improve the overall poultry diet, resulting in healthier chickens and healthier eggs.
Free-ranging your chickens full-time or part-time is a fantastic way to feed the flock for nearly free. Chickens are omnivores, which means they eat plants and meat.
Chickens not only eat better if given access to the outdoors, they will thrive. Scratching and pecking are the chicken’s favorite pastimes.
Give them space, and they’ll feed themselves. Plus, they’ll eat a healthier diet.
Letting chickens graze about the yard or homestead will also help control bug populations on the property. Chickens eat a wide variety of insects including many nuisance bugs such as:
- Japanese beetles
Setting the flock free to forage can help reduce the number of insects present in the backyard oasis, as well as on the other livestock and even in the garden.
Of course, the chicken’s ability to forage for dinner is limited to the space they have and the landscape available. When given access to lush green property, complete with bugs, grubs and reptiles (yes, chickens will eat snakes and frogs), your chickens will flourish.
If your foraging environment is not adequate to support the nutritional needs of the flock, you’ll need to supplement the free-ranging. There are times and situations that call for additional feed even for the liberated chicken.
Some of these occasions include difficult periods such as:
- Winter or a drought
- If the landscape is not rich enough in vegetation or protein source
- When there are boundaries preventing the hens from foraging to their heart’s content
If free-ranging isn’t a possibility, bring the forage to the girls. When weeding, thinning or discarding garden waste, collect the materials in 5-gallon buckets and toss the goods into the chicken yard.
They will love rummaging through the bounty.
Sustainable Feed Options
The next best thing to the free food Mother Nature provides is the free food we can produce.
There are several ways to feed chickens without overspending on a commercial feed from the local farm-supply store.
The first sustainable method to feed backyard chickens is to dispense their own eggshells back to them. Eggshells provide a good source of calcium for the girls.
To convert eggshells into feed, first dry and crush them so the chickens won’t recognize them. Use the crushed eggshells as topdressing for their standard feed or sprinkle them on the ground as a chicken scratch.
If there is a fisherman or -woman in your midst, take advantage of the free “fish” food. Chickens will happily consume the guts, skin and leftovers from the catch. Additionally, offals left from game hunting are terrifically healthy for the flock.
No matter what the game, the chickens will benefit from the fresh protein source. Other fresh (free) sources of protein include scrambled eggs, pumpkin seeds and oats.
When feeding extra protein, keep in mind that the chicken’s diet should be 15 to 18 percent protein.
Another sustainable method to feed chickens on the cheap is to make sure they have access to the compost. If you don’t have a nook on your property where you allow organic matter to breakdown, start one near the chickens.
A simple compost pile can be easily created.
A compost pile is a collection of organic material that, over time, will break down and can be added to soil to help plants flourish. It is estimated that as much as 28 percent of our garbage consists of food scraps and yard waste. These organic materials can all be composted instead.
Compost is typically found to be richer in nutrients, vegetation and, of course, insects. Giving chickens access to this rich fertile deteriorating material can provide a multitude of sustenance.
The chickens will feast on the compost bits they desire, deposit their manure (adding to the overall compost value), and turn it while scratching and pecking for treats.
Grow a Chicken Garden
Allowing a flock of chickens to free-range through the vegetable garden is a recipe for disaster. If given the opportunity, the hens will eat and possibly destroy all of your precious vegetables.
There is a way your chickens can eat for free and you can still harvest hole-free tomatoes. Plant a chicken garden!
A chicken garden is perhaps the most relaxed and simple garden to grow. You will not need to fuss with weeds or bugs because the chickens will happily consume them all.
With seed packets costing less than $3, it’s possible to produce several pounds of food with a very small investment.
Great chicken-friendly crops to consider for a chicken garden include lettuce, buckwheat, beets, oregano, cabbage, sunflowers and a number of greens (radish, mustard, kale, bok choy, spinach, Swiss chard, collard).
Be sure to let the garden become established before allowing the chickens to ambush it.
Are you feeding the local rodents?
If you are feeding your chickens “free choice,” you could be feeding several other critters too. All sorts of drama surround the topic of free feeding versus rationing. If you have seen mice, opossums or raccoons enjoying your chickens’ feast, it may be time to close the buffet.
Instead of providing an unending supply of food for your flock, give your ladies (and gents) as much food as they need each day by hand. Rationing the chicken feed can greatly stretch your food dollar and make the bag of feed last longer.
As long as your flock has access to do some scratching and pecking in addition to their daily ration of feed, they should flourish. The average chicken eats 1⁄2 a cup of feed per day.
Obesity is a common problem today in urban chicken flocks due to overfeeding. Giving the hens too much food or too many treats can actually be harming them.
Keep a Healthy Productive Flock
It’s not a popular subject, but culling old laying hens can be a successful part of managing feeding costs.
Let’s face it: Feeding hens—especially during times when vegetation and bugs are low—can be expensive. If part of the crew you’re feeding is not producing eggs, you’re throwing money down the drain.
Taking the time to cull old or unhealthy hens is a farm task that can keep your entire flock healthier. Older hens are more susceptible to injury, disease and pests.
When selecting which hens to remove, consider eliminating hens that are older, have some sort of physical disability that could affect production or have physical problems such as scaly leg mites.
DIY Chicken Feed
Some people try to mix their own chicken feed.
This can save money. However, a homemade feed may not contain all the nutritional requirements your flock needs.
Professionally concocted chicken feed is specifically designed to address all the nutritional requirements of a laying flock. It will contain the correct balance of fats, proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and minerals.
Just like other animals and people, if a chicken’s dietary needs aren’t met, over time that deprivation will lead to a reduction in egg production and eventually health problems.
For this reason, in addition to the creative free foods you can supply for your flock, it’s always a good idea to offer them a healthy chicken feed developed by professional nutritionists.
Feeding your chickens should be enjoyable and fun. While we all want to be responsible with our feed dollars, at the same time, we don’t want to risk the well being of our chickens.
In order to keep your flock well fed (without spending a fortune), feel free to incorporate some or all of the ideas listed in this article.
Remember, in order to keep your chickens at their best, provide a varied diet containing leafy greens, protein sources, fats and carbohydrates.
The best nourishment for a thriving, productive flock consists of foraging, natural foods, high-energy treats (such as suet cakes and fodder), as well as a supplement of high-quality chicken feed.
Using sustainable and do-it-yourself chicken feeding techniques is a great way to save money. We are saving cash, we are becoming more sustainable, and we have happier healthier chickens.
And all of this means healthier (and cheaper) eggs!
Sidebar: Sprouting Grains
Grain sprouting greatly increases the nutritional content (and digestibility) of the food, and it decreases the amount the chickens eat.
Sprouting grains for the backyard flock will give them access to greens year-round, provide entertainment and multiply the amount of food, simply by adding water.
Barley or wheat grain are most commonly used for sprouting.
Grains can be “sprouted” on the kitchen counter without the use of any special grow lights or equipment. To sprout grains for chickens, simply rinse the grains, soak them in clean water overnight and drain.
Select a shallow container with small holes in the bottom for drainage.
After soaking grains, spread them 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-inch thick in the bottom of the sprouting container. Place the container holding grain over another container to catch the extra moisture.
Water the grains each day for seven to nine days. You will begin to see sprouts as early as day two. By the eighth day, the root mat will be thick and fully developed, and the green tops should be around 3 to 4 inches tall.
Allow sprouts to grow to a height over 4 inches, and you’ll have made fodder!
Sprouts are less than 4 inches in height. Fodder is a sprouted grain greater than 4 inches tall.
Sidebar: Foods to Avoid
Chickens are foraging machines and will eat almost anything. But just because a chicken will eat it doesn’t necessarily mean it is good for them.
As conscientious chicken-keepers, we need to be sure we are not leading our flocks astray. Here is a list of some of the foods that are unsafe for chickens. This list is not comprehensive.
Avocados: They contain a toxin that can be fatal.
Beans (dried or raw): Raw beans can actually kill a chicken. Be sure to thoroughly cook beans before providing to the flock.
Chocolate: Your favorite treat contains Theobromine, which is toxic to birds and many other pets.
Citrus Fruits: These can cause a drop in egg production.
Eggplant Leaves: These are also poisonous.
Moldy Food: Some molds are good; some can kill. It’s best to just leave it alone. If food is molding, don’t feed it to chickens. (This includes moldy chicken feed.)
Potato: Don’t feed chickens potato plants or potato peels.
Rhubarb Leaves: The leaves contain oxalic acid, which can cause kidney failure.
Tomato Plants: Chickens can safely consume the tomato itself, but the leaves and vines are poisonous.
Uncooked Rice: If you want to feed your chickens rice, cook it first.
Sidebar: DIY Chicken Loaf Recipe
This recipe for chicken suet cakes is flexible. If you have another chicken friendly treat lying around, feel free to add it to the loaf. Great ideas include corn, oats and flax seeds.
- 1 1⁄2 cups melted tallow, lard, coconut oil or meat drippings
- 1 cup unsalted sunflower seeds or unsalted peanuts
- 1 cup unsweetened dried fruit (such as pears, peaches, raisins, apricots, apples, etc.)
- 1 cup whole grains (wheat berries, millet or barley)
Line a loaf pan with parchment paper or foil. Stir the dried fruit, nuts and grain together and pour in the pan.
Melt the fat and pour over the dry ingredients until they are completely covered. Stir to eliminate any air bubbles.
Allow the loaf to cool completely. (A refrigerator will speed up the process.)
Remove from the pan cut into slices. Serve slices to happy chickens as needed for entertainment, fun and to increase the fat (and protein) in the diet.