Though you can scrimp on chicken-care costs, some things are non-negotiable, including safe housing, protection from predators and access to adequate nutrition and hydration. While each of these is a requirement for quality chicken care, a bit of ingenuity and a “give it a try” attitude can help keep your costs down when keeping chickens.
Reimagine a Chicken Coop
Chicken housing has few requirements other than it be sturdy, safe, spacious (a rule of thumb for standard-sized chickens is 3- to 5-square-feet of space per bird) and well ventilated.
After that, all bets are off!
Look at what you may already own: Kids’ playhouses (plastic or wood), potting sheds, old corn cribs and even lean-tos can be modified into a safe haven for your feathered friends.
If nothing springs to mind, don’t fret: If you’re on a farm of any size, there’s most likely materials that can be cobbled together into a stellar chicken abode. Pallets, salvaged lumber, old cabinets and more (even trampolines, satellite dishes and old cars!) have all been successfully made into chicken coops.
If you don’t have any building materials lying around, plan a trip to a local construction surplus store (such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores) to look for building materials you can repurpose. And don’t stop at the frame! Your coop can be an extension of your home, put your decorating stamp on it.
If you want to build something from the ground up, find free plans online and spend some time on Facebook Marketplace or sifting through garage-sale finds to create your dream coop on the cheap.
Grow a Garden for Supplemental Nutrition
Quality feed can be one of the most expensive, ongoing costs of chicken care. Though not something to scrimp on, you can stretch your feed-bill budget. If you already plant a garden, consider adding (or planting more of) some chicken-friendly options, including:
- sweet potatoes
Here’s a bonus: Hens that eat dark, leafy veggies lay eggs with richer yolks!
If you don’t have room for a full-fledged garden, consider an herb garden: Chickens love basil, cilantro, dill, lavender, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, tarragon and thyme.
An added nutritional boost can come from the garden. While you’re weeding, thinning and watering, pick off Japanese beetles and June bugs, throw them in a bucket of water and then give them to your flock as a tasty treat.
Consider making your own chicken treats, too, using grains, suet and lard. If you’re the more-adventurous type, try raising your own grubs or meal worms.
Free-Range Your Flock
Free-ranging your flock offers a plethora of nutritional options while encouraging the natural foraging and feeding behaviors. Chickens will nibble weeds and grass, as well as insects, lizards and mice. They’re especially helpful in pastures where they will pick through manure, eating flies and their larvae, as well as other nuisance insects.
By spreading out the manure, chickens also disperse worm eggs and larvae, disrupting their life cycle and limiting livestock’s chance of reinfestation.
Allowing chickens access to your compost bin will also offer them supplemental nutrition, while their scratching will assist with aeration.
Think Outside the (Nesting) Box
While there are few things that make a chicken-keeper happier than seeing a hen snuggled in on her nesting box, these contraptions are made for people, not necessarily hens. A chicken will lay her eggs wherever she feels safe, which, in some cases, could be all over the yard, under bushes or in other farm buildings.
Nest boxes make it easier to collect the eggs, but they need not be fancy. Milk crates, 5-gallon buckets placed on their side, old cupboards, wooden wine crates, bookcases, mailboxes, plastic kitty litter containers (and litter boxes!), newspaper holders, large planters and even old computers (with screens and “guts” removed) and tires can work!
Nest boxes don’t have to be square, but they do need to make the hen feel secure, while offering enough room that the hen isn’t cramped. Standard nest boxes are about 12 inches long and 12 inches wide. The height is often between 12 and 16 inches, depending on the breed of bird you have.
Nest boxes should be elevated at least a few inches off the ground.
Investigate Other Bedding Options
Nest box bedding encourages your hens to lay in them, and it provides a soft space for the egg, which will prevent breakage. Nesting pads are reusable but can be expensive. Other options include hay or straw, pine shavings or needles, old newspaper and shredded cardboard.
While some of these options will have added labor involved, their relative accessibility and (lack of) cost often outweighs the added time.
Bedding choice can vary by season to cut costs: Grass clippings (free!) can be used in the summer and straw can be used in the late fall once it’s been used for seasonal decorations. If you live near a sawmill, you may be able to pick up pickup-truck bed loads for a reduced fee.
One of the most popular and least expensive types of bedding is dried, shredded leaves. Though leaf removal isn’t always necessary if you have property, access to leaves is usually quite easy, whether you rake them yourself or pick up bagged leaves from those who live in town.
Mulching them with a mower makes them more absorbent, and chickens enjoy scratching around in them and finding any bugs. Dried, mulched leaves can be stored in containers to use throughout the year, as well.
No matter what bedding you choose, cleanliness is key to keeping birds healthy. Fresh, dry bedding is a must to keep fungus, bacteria and pests at bay.
DIY Dust Baths
Though commercial dust-bath products for poultry are available, it’s easy to make your own. Dust baths (which are literally loose dirt) encourage feathers to shed and exfoliate skin. The baths also smother lice and mites that may be on your birds.
Dust bathing areas can be made in containers or in a shallow depression. Like nesting boxes, dust bath containers can be repurposed from things like old flowerpots, sandboxes, shallow feed pans and kiddie pools, among other items. The container should be low enough that chickens can easily get in and out, but with some sort of side so that the material doesn’t escape when the feathers really get flying.
Dust bathing is a multibird endeavor, so the space needs to be large enough to hold three to four flock members at a time.
All that’s really needed for a dust bath is loose, dry dirt. Dense heavy clay should be avoided. If you have only clay in your area, you can use potting soil (fertilizer-free, please!), fine wood shavings or sand to ensure the bath stays clump-free; the preferred sand is often called river, mortar, construction or concrete sand, which offers multiple particle sizes. (However, sand can go by various names across the country, so it may be necessary to go and lay eyes on the sand you’re purchasing.)
Fine-grained play sand should be avoided as it can cause crop impactions if ingested and respiratory issues if inhaled.
There are some things that can be added to make a dust bath even more appealing, including peat moss to keep the bath aerated, wood ash or charcoal. Don’t use charcoal briquettes or wood that has a chemical coating or has had lighter fluid on it, however. You can also add a small amount of sulfur dust, garden or agricultural lime or diatomaceous earth. Each of these kill lice, fleas, ticks and other parasites.
You can also add fresh or dried herbs to the bath as well. These will keep the area (and your chickens!) smelling sweet, and they can help keep insects at bay. Some herbs you can add include basil, cinnamon, ginger, lavender, lemon balm, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme and yarrow.
These are also tasty treats for your birds to nibble as they bathe.
Creative Chicken Tractors
Like chicken coops, instructions on how to build your own chicken tractor abound on the internet, many of them specifying that they are easy to build in one day with limited tools and capabilities. Movable chicken tractors offer chickens the ability to forage for food while being kept safe from predators.
A chicken tractor can be used as permanent housing for chickens that aren’t allowed to free-range. It’s basically a mobile home for poultry.
Many plans require only some structural supports (think pallets, cattle panels, old gates, remnant lumber or PVC pipe) and chicken wire or hardware cloth, though they can get as complicated as you prefer to make them, adding tires, shingles, siding and more.
Like coops, functional is often better than elaborate!
Secure Additional Food Sources
Table scraps can supplement your flock’s diet while reducing food waste. Most birds welcome the addition of meat, grains, greens, veggies and bread as a tasty treat. If you don’t have a lot of leftover food, there are other options you can investigate to supplement your chicken’s diet.
Consider approaching your local grocery store and speaking with the produce manager to see if you could pick up produce the store is preparing to throw out on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Farmer’s markets are another option: Most producers don’t want to pack up extra produce and may let their goods go for a song.
Who knows, you may even be able to barter eggs to sweeten the deal!
Investigate Easy Ways to Feed
While most chicken-keepers would prefer to have feed that remains feces-free, chickens don’t care if their food has been on the floor for more than 5 seconds or if it’s covered in some nasty stuff. Most chicken feed that’s offered daily isn’t harmed if it gets wet or dirty (except for layer pellets) once it’s on the ground. And chickens prefer to scratch and hunt for their food.
Because of this, the scatter method works surprisingly well for both chicken feed and any scraps you share with them.
It’s important to note that chicken feed should stay dry when stored, but the flock’s daily ration can get damp before it’s ingested with no adverse health issues. Any feed that is moldy or looks “off” should be discarded.
If you prefer your birds eat out of designated containers instead of scratching for their meals, nonfancy feed scoops can double as serving containers for a small flock. If your flock is larger, consider using 8-quart dishwashing tubs, gallon jugs cut in half or juice containers on their side with the top cut off to hold daily feed rations.
If buying in bulk, plastic, 55-gallon drums can store up to 250 pounds of chicken feed. If the top doesn’t fit well, weigh it down with a cinder block or other heavy item you have around the farm. Plastic pickle barrels hold a bit less feed but have screw-on lids that keep feed secure from weather and vermin.
Chicken keeping isn’t overly complicated or expensive, but there are ways to cut costs that don’t sacrifice quality of care. If you’ve got some great cost-saving tips, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A well-appointed hen house includes areas for the chickens to roost. While there are commercially available roosts, it’s not difficult to find sturdy branches, dowel rods, spare 2-by-4s or even old ladders that can be repurposed as roosts.
Additional Money-Saving Measures
Additional ways to save money while keeping chickens include the following.
- Use old golf balls as artificial nest eggs.
- Cull old laying hens that are no longer productive.
- Butcher on time so birds aren’t fed longer than necessary.
- Keep only one rooster for egg fertilization.
- Hatch your own chicks.
- Raise bantam breeds. Smaller birds eat less.
- Cook and feed extra eggs for added protein and calcium. (Just be sure that these eggs are cooked and crushed up/scrambled so egg-eating isn’t encouraged!)
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.