My chickens love the explosion of insect life in the spring—and so do I, but it wasn’t always that way. In my life before chickens, my Kentucky backyard was unusable for several months of the year, simply because of blood-sucking insects. Because my chickens devour a majority of the bugs that bug me most, my free ranging flock has given me the freedom to enjoy my yard like never before.
A free-ranging flock has the best access to a natural omnivorous diet beyond the grain. Ticks, beetles, mosquitoes, grubs, spiders and even mice the cat dragged in are the protein sources the hens have waited for all winter. Not only do the girls free the yard of pests and recycle them into breakfast, but they also reduce my feed costs to almost half.
Regardless of what you’re feeding your hens now, if you free-range them in an area where they have access to insects and a variety of healthy forage, you can expect to see a noticeable reduction in feed costs. Even if you don’t free-range, there are some things you can do to incorporate more natural foods into your flock’s diet.
Feeding the Free-Range Flock
Chickens eat constantly. If they’re not preening, bathing or laying, they’re eating. A feeder full of chicken feed is sort of like a fast-food drive-thru. It’s easy, and the chickens don’t have to expend much energy to fill their crops. If your flock has constant access outdoors during daylight hours, you can reduce your feed costs a little more by feeding them twice a day: Once in the morning, and again just before they go to roost at night. Feeding twice a day instead of keeping the feeder full forces them to forage more through the daytime hours. The instinct to eat is nonstop, so the flock will work harder to eat through the day, clearing the yard of insects even more thoroughly. Just be sure they have full crops at bedtime by offering feed.
Of course, don’t starve your chickens. You’ll know by their behavior if they’re getting enough to eat or not. If you walk out back and your chickens run to you in desperation, then they’re hungry and you should feed them. The desperation run is a lot more hurried than the oh-boy-do-we-get-kitchen-scraps run, and it often includes flying. Also, if you offer feed and they fight over it, they’ve gotten too hungry. Gauge their needs and feed accordingly to keep them healthy and laying.
Feeding the Confined Flock
The confined flock has greater challenges. Whether it’s law, traffic, dogs or grumpy neighbors that keep your girls cooped up, these chickens have little choice in diet. To reduce your feed costs during the warmer months, offer some living foods:
1. Grow Fodder
If you grow sprouts for your chickens (or for you own salads), consider growing them longer. After sprouts form, continue growing them for about a week until the roots interlace, making a mat. This is fodder, and it provides hens with nutrient-dense greens similar to what they’d be eating in your lawn. If you grow a lot at once, it can be ripped into chunks, and the rest refrigerated to slow the growing process.
2. Build a Grazing Frame
A small raised bed topped with framed hardware cloth can grow grasses and other plants that give your chickens access to healthy greenery as it grows, while protecting the roots at the same time. Some chicken keepers maintain a grazing frame right inside the run.
3. Offer Pests
If you garden, gather the pests you pick from plants, or those you dig up from the ground, and then toss them into the run for your flock. It’s an easy way to remove unwanted insects from your yard and garden without undesirable squishing. Another easy option is to purchase freeze dried mealworms. For the best price, order a large bag of these unanimated creepy-crawlies online, and the chickens will love you for them.
Just Add Grit
During the months when the chickens are eating insects and plant matter from the yard, offer crushed granite grit free choice to avoid life-threatening impacted crops. Find crushed granite grit wherever you buy chicken supplies.