Since I got my first chickens three years ago, I’ve been pushing towards getting them completely fed off my property.
Problem: my property is only an acre – and on that acre, I’m trying to feed my family as well.
There are plenty of theories and grand ideas on feeding chickens self-sufficiently, but many of them are unwieldy… require a significant amount of land… are unrealistic… or, in one notable innovation involving buckets of maggot-riddled carrion… disgusting.
I can’t say that this post is going to have all the answers on feeding your chickens without buying in feed – but I do hope it helps you get further in your quest to nourish your flock without trucking in bags of factory pellets.
What Chickens Need
If you have plenty of space, chickens can feed themselves pretty well. They’ll eat grass, worms, seeds, roaches, frogs, leaves, berries and just about anything they can peck into pieces and swallow. They’re omnivorous eating machines. Letting them run on the edge of forest and meadow is perfect. However, in a free-range situation like that, you deal with predators… chickens laying eggs randomly in the bushes… and runaway birds. Unless you’re around to play chicken guard, you’re going to lose birds. We’ve had hens taken by dogs, beheaded by coons, torn to pieces by hawks and whacked by owls. The great wide world is not friendly towards stupid flightless prey species. The cost of making a predator-proof run on a large scale is prohibitive. Building “chicken tractors” (portable coops) is one solution, but when you have a good-sized flock, it’s hard to deal with moving multiple tractors to new pasture daily. Yes, the birds eat plenty of weeds – and I still run them in tractors now and again through the year – but having a coop and a fenced run is by far the easiest method of bird-raising I’ve used.
Chickens will survive on some pretty minimal fare. They are tough little birds and can get by on a diet that would make us die from malnutrition. However, hens won’t lay eggs unless they get a certain minimum amount of protein and calcium along with plenty of carbohydrates. A rough breakdown of a complete diet would contain 17% protein, 3% calcium and 80% carbohydrates. (1)
When you buy chicken feed, it’s mixed to specific ratios. The bag will tell you the protein content. But… when you feed your own… you’ve got to do math – which I readily admit, is not my strong suit, so I’m going to skip it, dang it, and give you a general idea instead. And speaking of that… it’s time to put in another nice bold heading.
Carbs for Chickens
Let’s start with carbohydrates. There are plenty of easy-to-grow foods that will provide the bulk of your chickens’ carbs. Grains are the obvious choice; however, they’re not very good on yields, meaning you’ll need lots of space to grow them. Roots are much better for the smaller homestead, particularly if you balance the cool with the warm-season crops. There are lots of roots that grow during the cool to cold time of the year – which is perfect, since chickens like a few extra carbs to help them stay warm, fat and happy in the winter.
Cool-season roots for chickens:
White potatoes (this may be a warmer-season crop if you live up North)
Warm-season roots for chickens:
Cassava (tropics only)
Yams (tropics only)
Beyond roots and grains, there are some other good sources of carbs you can grow in the garden. The best in terms of productivity and storage would probably be large winter squash such as “Hubbard.” Beyond what you grow on your homestead, feed them all the scraps from your table – and check with local bakeries, produce stands and groceries to see if they have stale bread and other overflow. The carbs are the easy part of chicken feeding… it’s protein that really starts to get tricky.
Protein for Chickens
Chickens are voracious insect eaters. When you see eggs advertised in the store as “vegetarian fed hens,” it means those birds aren’t getting a normal chicken diet. In the wild, insects provide chickens with most of their protein – which makes sense, since insects are usually about half protein – or more – by dry weight. (2) When you buy chicken feed, the protein in it may come from various weird sources, such as soybeans, slaughterhouse waste… or even ground up dead poultry. A more disgusting look here (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/industrial-agriculture/they-eat-what-the-reality-of.html). I’ve read that during the pioneer era, children hunted wild game to feed chickens, particularly in winter. That’s better than ground-up dead chickens – but it’s still a tough way to keep your flock fed. Free-range insect foraging is the best… but if you can’t pull that off, there are still a few options.
To stay inside the world of “what chickens normally eat,” some have started raising worms or soldier fly larvae in bins to supplement their birds. I can’t state an opinion on feeding with soldier flies since I haven’t done it except by occasionally throwing a cup of them from my compost bin into my chicken run… but I do know that raising worms on a big enough scale for regular poultry feeding is painfully difficult. Unless your ground is naturally teaming with earthworms (mine isn’t), you’re going to be raising them in boxes, feeding them paper shreds, compost, etc., and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for enough to throw to the birds. Worms are easy to raise – and there are reasons to do so – but to feed chickens? I’d rather keep the worms and use their compost in the garden; plus, keeping the population large enough to feed even a dozen birds would require some big boxes and lots and lots of worms.
Other sources of protein include:
Meat scraps from the table/butcher
Fish waste (Do you fish or have a fisherman friend? Have him save fish guts for you. Freeze and use as needed to feed birds. Been there – done that.)
Yeah, the last one was maggots. If you’ve been around the internet for a while, you’ve probably come across the “roadkill in a bucket” method I made allusion to at the top of this post. Basically, you drill some holes in a bucket, insert an animal carcass, let the flies lay their eggs and, a couple weeks later, voila! Yummy maggots fall from the sky and your chickens wolf them down! Beside the gross factor, this method can kill your chickens with botulism plus make your chicken yard smell like a butcher shop after a week-long power outage. In my opinion, chopping up and feeding fresh roadkill to the birds is much better.
There are some good vegetable sources of protein, like beans (though beans require cooking or elase they’ll sicken your birds), collards, kale and duckweed… but you need to plant plenty. And in the case of duckweed, my chickens don’t care for it. I also have a gut feeling that animal/insect proteins are still superior to the protein in plants. (A further list of high-protein feeds is here.)
Wrapping It All Up
So… hopefully you have some sources of carbs… and some sources of protein. Now you have to mix them up to keep the hens laying. This is where math comes in again. You need to make sure you’re getting roughly 1 part protein for every 4 parts carbohydrates. So if you’re feeding your birds something that’s almost all empty carbs, like white rice, you’ll want to add something like mealworms to get the protein levels up. Since mealworms are an insect, putting them roughly at the 50% protein level, and rice only has a few percentage points of protein, you’d serve perhaps 10 cups of rice to 4.5 cups of mealworms and you’d be in the ballpark.
In reality, though, you don’t have to be super picky. Do you balance your own carbs and proteins really closely? No? Yet you’re still able to lay an egg a day! Maybe not – but you can live pretty well off what you eat without having the perfect, ideal diet. Chickens are the same way. The percentages are rough guides. Provide them with a wide choice of proteins and carbs and they’ll live. If the egg-laying drops off, increase the protein. If their eggs have thin shells, increase the calcium they have available by adding oyster shell. If they’re looking sad or their yolks are pale, give them nutrient-rich greens.
In the wild, they’d balance all this themselves… but when you’ve got them cooped up, it’s suddenly your responsibility. Getting away from commercial feed may not be possible all at once – or ever – but simply by knowing the complexities of keeping poultry nutrition up and finding innovative ways to eliminate some of the feed, we can get a good start on raising a healthy, resilient flock for the Econopocalypse in progress. If I reach my goal of complete flock self-sufficiency, I’ll let you know. I have a bad feeling it’s going to take a worm bin the size of a bus…