Feeding chickens without buying feed has been a long-time goal… but it’s a goal I’ve never successfully pulled off.
A few years ago for The Prepper Project.
There are many problems you’ll encounter when you dig into the nitty gritty of feeding your backyard flock. Let’s jump into them one at a time.
Chicken Feed Is A Weird Collection of Junk
The typical bag of chicken feed you get from your local farm supply
That means you’re feeding chicken to your chickens.
Other ingredients include bone meal, restaurant grease, canola (which is also a GMO) and barley malt left over from brewing.
Modern chicken feed is a bizarre collection of bits and pieces. If you’re not comfortable with having genetically modified organisms and chicken wastes being brought onto your homestead to feed to your chickens, I don’t blame you.
However, if you want to buy “organic” chicken feed that doesn’t contain all the weird stuff, it’s going to cost you. $40 a bag isn’t uncommon. That’s compared to the $13 – $16 I paid per bag for the cheap commercial feed.
The chickens don’t seem to know the difference between feeds, either. They’ll lay eggs when fed the nasty stuff and they’ll lay eggs when fed the good stuff.
I’d rather give them all great food but my budget didn’t allow that… so we gave them the cheap feed and supplemented their diets with good nutrition from other sources, such as extra produce from the garden and fresh pasture where they could munch on weeds, grass and insects.
Feeding Chickens with Homegrown Chicken Feed
You’ll see recipes for mixing up your own chicken feeds from time to time. I’ve found that the effort, money and time involved makes this unattractive. Unlike some chicken enthusiasts, I don’t want to spend all day babying my birds. I’ve got gardens to dig and books to write!
Justin Rhodes covers some innovative methods for stretching your feed budget and getting the most from your feeds in his Permaculture Chickens movie (you can) but I haven’t gotten to experiment with those ideas yet as we’re in-between homesteads right now.
You could technically grow enough food for your chickens if you planted them some gardens with high-protein legumes mixed with grains and roots for carbohydrates. Chickens will also eat just about any kitchen scraps you pitch their way, including meat, vegetables, pasta, Vienna sausages, ramen and birthday cake. Chickens are the pigs of the bird world.
The problem in feeding chickens is protein. We’ve fed them on homegrown grains, vegetables and kitchen scraps, only to have them quit laying. They need the protein levels found in chicken feed. If they don’t get enough protein, they may be happy and scrappy, but they won’t lay any eggs.
Getting the right ratios is tricky. Modern chicken feeds, despite their unsavory ingredients, are well-balanced in their carb/protein ratios.
If you’re feeding your birds lots of good stuff but they aren’t laying eggs, they’re not paying their way on the homestead.
If I just quit here and said it was “tough” to get enough protein for your chickens, I’m sure people would write comments talking about soldier flies, mealworms, maggots and earthworms… so I’m going to cover those as well.
Soldier Flies, Mealworms, Maggots and Earthworms
All of these are potential sources of protein for your chickens – but have you ever tried to produce any of them on any kind of scale?
Soldier flies produce those chunky, half-flat, segmented maggots in the compost pile. Chickens love to eat them and they’re high in protein – but getting enough of them going, particularly year-round, to feed more than a couple of hens would be tough. You’d need a good source of compostable material and you’d need a good way to harvest them. I’m not saying it couldn’t be done on a large enough scale to give your chickens enough protein – in fact, I’m sure it can – but it would take some engineering skill to pull off.
Mealworms are similar. They’re the larvae of the darkling beetle and can be raised at home with some simple techniques, but there is time and labor involved, you’ll likely have to buy grain materials to feed them. Do you want to become a full-time mealworm farmer in order to feed your birds? I don’t.
Another chicken protein source idea that’s always kicking around online is the “roadkill in a perforated bucket dropping maggots in the chicken yard” approach. This is a disgusting and stinky way to feed your birds. Carrion flies carry diseases and potential illnesses that can kill your birds, your chicken yard will smell like death if you do this. I’m obviously in favor of returning organic matter to the soil, but I’d rather buy roadkill and plant a fruit tree over it, not have to smell it for weeks in my backyard while watching maggots spill into the chicken run.
Earthworms are another good source of protein for chickens but they’re not that easy to grow in quantities sufficient for regular feeding. I’ve red wigglers on purpose and encouraged earthworms on accident through deep layers of mulch, but there are never enough to feed my greedy chickens. If you went large-scale, I’m sure you could pull it off – but then you’ll be a worm farmer. Better to sell those valuable worms to fishermen and vermicomposters, then buy eggs from someone else!
So What’s the Final Deal on Feed?
Since we didn’t have access to affordable organic chicken feed, I calculated that we would be paying way too much per dozen eggs if we dropped the creepy commercial feed.
So commercial feed it was.
But alongside that GMO-cannibal-restaurant-grease-cow-guts junk, we gave our birds other good things to eat. They got lots of fresh grass and weeds as we moved their tractors around the yard. They got to eat insects and caterpillars. They were given kale and moringa and sweet potatoes. They got weevil-filled rice from the pantry. They even got lots of food scraps from church dinners, including beef, noodles, stew and bread.
My chicken feeding has never hit a perfect level, but it did keep the birds laying. When I tried for an affordable organic approach with lots of homegrown materials, they quit laying. So compromise it was.
I’m not done, however. I still think you can feed your chickens off your land and have them keep laying. It’s just a matter of finding the right foodstuffs and the right chicken breed for maximum conversion of food into eggs.
One day it will happen.