The first things everybody gets when they move to a homestead or small farm are chickens! Small, easily moved and confined, chickens seem as though they should be the easiest, simplest—and cheapest—livestock to start with on a small farm.
Or so we thought when we began our farm, the Sow’s Ear, 20 odd years ago. But like so many other folks, we quickly discovered that it wasn’t that simple!
Farming for Feed
It has never made sense to us that a farm—the place where food comes from—should have to go to the store to feed its animals—or its people! And yet how often is the feed bill the downfall of a beginning homesteader?
Since those early days when our chickens plowed their way through tons of grower ration and laying mash, finding ways to ease our reliance on the feed-supply store has been one of the guiding efforts at the Sow’s Ear.
Chicken feed was an issue from the beginning.When we added up the costs of our first two years of raising chickens, we were amazed at how feed costs raised the price of our “free” homegrown eggs.
Other problems existed, too, such as unwanted chemicals and genetically questionable food sources. Unless we bought more expensive organic feed, our chickens were almost certainly eating genetically modified corn and soy, soaked in herbicides.
If they were eating undesirable ingredients, then so were we. We knew we’d have to find an alternative.
Almost 25 years later, our chicken-feeding regime has changed a lot! Today, we feed our flocks of laying hens, pullets and meat chickens an inexpensive diet of homegrown or locally-grown grains supplemented with high-protein, vitamin-rich additions sourced from right here on our farm.
This menu keeps our birds healthy and active, while laying lots of natural and chemical-free and GMO-free eggs for just a few cents a dozen. And eggs grown without GMOs—and with no corn or soy—command a really special price in the local egg market.
Pasture Makes Perfect
The first step to feeding our chickens a healthy, cheap and farm-produced diet was right outside the door. We mean pasture, of course!
While birds that live in confinement depend on us for their every need, if we give them access to their natural habitat, they can do a good bit of scrounging for themselves. Leaves, seeds, bugs and worms make a significant contribution to the dietary needs of our laying hens and broilers.
We don’t just turn our birds loose, though. We find that mobile, bottomless pens give our birds the best of both worlds. Moved once a day, these chicken tractors provide fresh pasture and a clean floor every 24 hours.
While fully free-range poultry do have a wider area in which to search for food, chickens in movable coops are protected from predators. Plus, they never hide their eggs where we can’t find them!
Furthermore, chicken tractors let us direct our chickens’ efforts where they will be the most beneficial for the whole farm, such as on empty garden beds. We often graze our chickens on cover crops and green manures that double as nutrient-rich chicken feed.
Chickens love buckwheat, a high-protein grain alternative, and will harvest it for themselves. Just pull their tractor pen forward on a fresh patch every day. And while you can use your tiller to incorporate a spring green manure of oats and Canadian peas into the soil, it’s much easier to let the poultry take care of that chore while they harvest a good proportion of their dinners at the same time.
Pasture is the first step toward noncommercial chicken nutrition. Leaves and seeds—not to mention bugs and worms—are a great start to a good chicken diet. But if we want to be sure our birds are getting enough nutrition to grow (and to lay eggs), we’ll need to offer something more.
Everybody needs energy! And energy comes from carbohydrates, foods such as grains and starches. Grains are the traditional source of energy for poultry. In commercial feeds this is usually genetically modified corn.
Needless to say, we were looking for something different. Non-GM corn can be hard to come by. Even heritage varieties readily cross-pollinate with their genetically modified neighbors.
Luckily, other grains—such as oats, wheat and barley—and pseudo-grains such as buckwheat—are just as good for chicken food. Some are even better. And all four can be grown in zone 6 climate in central Appalachia where we live.
In the summer, we grow a lot of buckwheat for the chickens to self-harvest. But wheat is our go-to for the bulk of our poultry grains. This is because wheat has a higher protein profile than most conventional grains: 11 to 14 percent, rather than 9 to 11 percent.
And, just as importantly, commercial wheat isn’t genetically modified.
Because it hasn’t been gene-spliced to withstand herbicides, wheat is more likely to be grown without toxins. That makes wheat a winner with us. What we don’t grow ourselves, we buy directly from local farmers at the commodity price. That’s just a few dollars per 60-pound bushel.
The savings and peace of mind are enormous.
Plenty of Protein
Eggs and feathers are made of protein. While a chicken diet of grains and pasture can be adequate for a hen’s maintenance, we want to feed her some extra protein if she is going to lay us a generous number of eggs.
For good laying, 16 percent protein is generally considered adequate. More protein means more eggs. Fortunately, a homestead grows lots of spare protein, if we know where to look.
First, there’s milk. At the Sow’s Ear, we’ve kept goats and cows from the very beginning. After all, these animals eat for free! And anyone who milks knows that where there is a dairy animal, there is almost always extra milk.
It turns out that chickens love milk. Historic farm texts all consider milk a must in the chicken pen. Fresh, sour or clabbered, all milk is welcome. And its high-quality proteins are exactly what a hen needs for egg-laying. It’s even probiotic!
Any kind of meat—except poultry—makes a good offering in the chicken house. Whenever we butcher a hog, sheep or steer, the organs we don’t want for our own consumption are ground or chopped and fed to the chickens. Often there is so much that we freeze it in fist-sized lumps so we can use it over a long period.
Leftover meat from our own table is just as appropriate. Aand a little goes a long way. Our chickens go into a feeding frenzy when there is meat on the menu.
Then, to fill out the protein requirements of our birds when milk and meat scraps aren’t available, we use high-protein seeds such as sunflower (20 percent) and squash or pumpkin (30 percent).
They’re easy to grow and harvest, and store passively. We hang sunflower heads from the rafters of an outbuilding, and store pumpkins and winter squash in a cool room in the basement. They keep through the winter.
Feeding them out is simple, too. Sunflower heads can be stuck through the chicken wire walls of our poultry tractors. They’ll hang there while the birds peck the seeds out for themselves—protein and exercise in one step.
Split a squash or pumpkin and offer the whole thing. Or just scoop out the seeds and put them in the feeder.
Farm-raised protein is a game-changer. With so many ways of providing protein from the farm itself, we never need to purchase expensive or questionable chicken treats. And we never have to worry that an interruption to delivery will leave our chickens hungry.
The Daily Routine
Of course, wet feeds such as soaked grain, clabbered milk and squash seeds aren’t going to work well in those fill-it-and-forget-it commercial feeders that you may have used for dry crumbles or pellets. When we switched to whole grains and farm-raised proteins, it meant that we began to carry feed to the poultry by hand, twice a day.
If that sounds like more work than just filling a feeder, it is. And the rewards are many.
Regular, attentive trips to the pen at feeding time mean we notice the behavior of individuals.
- Is every bird getting her share of the feed?
- Are all the animals active and alert?
- Did the chickens clean up the feed from the previous meal?
- What feeds are their favorites?
All these questions and many more find answers when the chicken-keeper is there at feeding time. And there is a distinct advantage in the waste avoided when birds are hand-fed. You serve only what your animals will eat, with no free meal available 24/7 to the barnyard rodents and sparrows.
A single bird’s daily ration of commercial feed is usually 1⁄4 pound, and that quantity is about right for any grain-based feed. But since our chickens are also enjoying high-protein supplements, their feed ration can vary a little from day-to-day.
Still, the 1⁄4 -pound recommendation is a good rule of thumb, with half offered morning and half in the evening. We offer their protein with the morning’s grain. The evening feeding is grain alone.
This means our girls go to roost with their crops full of slow-digesting grain. Their stomachs stay full during the night.
Natural foods like these really seem to bring out the best in our birds. Our chickens, ducks and turkeys gobble up their morning and evening feed with real delight.
At the Sow’s Ear, natural conditions are important to us. We aren’t looking to break commercial records. But we do want to see good utilization of feed and to get a return on our labor. And this diet delivers.
Like the best preindustrial, naturally-raised farm poultry, our birds lay about 200 eggs a year for three or four years at least. (Commercial birds today are expected to lay more than 300 eggs, but only for one year. They’re then sent to the soup cannery.)
With feed costs as low as ours, that means we might have 50 cents in a dozen eggs. And that comes with free tilling, manuring and bug-eating services!
Marketing our soy/corn/GMO-free eggs is easy. Although we place a substantial price tag on our exceptional eggs, we don’t have a problem finding folks who want to buy them. A sign by the road and an ad online bring us all the customers we need.
All sorts of people seek (and seldom find) eggs like ours, including:
- People on restricted diets
- Folks who struggle with autoimmune conditions
- Parents of children with allergies
- Health-conscious eaters
They are happy to pay two or three times the usual price for ordinary farm eggs to get food they know is natural and uncompromised.
At that price, we don’t need to sell many eggs to make a good profit. So we aren’t tempted to overproduce or cut corners. When it comes to keeping things natural, smaller really is better.
That’s all there is to it! Poultry-keeping doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. What it does take is attention, daily commitment and respect for how nature is designed.
The rewards are tremendous for the whole farm.
Sidebar: Cold Storage
Even in cold weather, we can offer our birds fresh pasture. We winterize their tractor homes with plastic sheeting so they can graze frost-resilient beds of green wheat and turnips.
When no other fresh food is available, we hang whole plants of kale, mangel-wurzel or daikon radish in the pens. The birds tear them up! The bright orange yolks in our breakfast eggs show us how much good we are doing!
Sidebar: Fermented Foods
Chickens are happy to eat dry grains. But soaking, sprouting and fermenting all increase available nutrients and aid digestibility.
To prepare our chicken ration, we soak grain for two to five days, allowing the bran to soften and activating the germ. Plain water works just fine for fermenting grains. But we often add whey or a little raw vinegar as well.
Some salt, dried kelp or a mixed livestock mineral is also nice to boost micronutrient content.
Five-gallon plastic buckets are ideal for soaking about a third of a bushel of grain at a time. It only takes a day or two. We know grain is ready to be fed out when it gets a good, sour, yeasty smell.
Often, the tiny white radicle—the baby root—appears.
Fermented grain stays good for at least a week, even in hot weather. But we generally only soak as much as we can use in four or five days.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.