Feeding Chickens Without Buying Feed

You locked him up... now you gotta feed him.

You locked him up… now you gotta feed him.

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:

Turnips
Radishes
Jerusalem artichokes
Carrots
Mangels
Beets
Rutabagas
Parsnips
Onions
Garlic
White potatoes (this may be a warmer-season crop if you live up North)

Warm-season roots for chickens:

Sweet potatoes
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

Duckweed

Duckweed: Teeny-tiny little plants I have to trick my chickens into eating.

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.)
Crickets
Wild game
Roadkill
Duckweed
Kale
Collards
Feral Cats
Beans
Maggots

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…

(1) http://www.small-farm-permaculture-and-sustainable-living.com/what_do_chickens_eat.html

(2) http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2004/51409/

About David Goodman

David Goodman is a naturalist and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David writes a regular column for Natural Awakenings magazine in North Central Florida, posts on the Mother Earth News blog, owns a nursery of hard-to-find tropical edibles and grows roughly 1.5 zillion plants on his one-acre homestead. In mid-2012, he launched www.floridasurvivalgardening.com as a place to share his ongoing experiments with tropical and temperate crops. He currently has over 20 intensive beds, multiple field plots, over 100 fruit trees, two food forest projects in different climates and a series of ongoing experiments in-progress - all of which bring him closer each day to complete food security. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie. Visit his daily blog here: Florida Survival Gardening Follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/DavidTheGood

View all posts by David Goodman

15 comments on “Feeding Chickens Without Buying Feed

  1. Kimberly on said:

    Great post! I have a small flock of 5 hens and 1 rooster. They do indeed enjoy pretty much anything I feed them. They receive a portion of purchased feed every day supplemented by veggies, oatmeal, yard trimmings (they love plumbago and spanish needle), scratch grains (they also get the leftovers from my messy and picky cockatoo), fruit and just about anything else we have left over from dinner that might be OK for their diet. We also trade eggs for veggie scraps from neighbors, coworkers and farm stands. I must admit that I tossed a barrel of rotting seed and maggots…really can’t stomach the thought and won’t risk illness. Love your prepper site!

    • David Goodman on said:

      5 hens and 1 rooster is perfect. You could, most likely, take care of all their food needs on a small homestead. I’ve ranged from about that many to almost 50 birds. I think raising the population until you find a good balance of what’s supportable is a really good idea. Good work with finding neighbors and others to feed the birds. They’ll love you for it… and give you eggs, which is even more cool. Glad you stopped by.

  2. Floria Maier on said:

    Great info. Wish I could rear chickens here too. I grew up in rural area (deep in the forest of Borneo), we rear chickens and freely ranged. Day time we let them loose and evening will call them and shut them in the chicken coops. We just give them rice grains or corn (maize). Very organic. :) Good job. Keep it up. :)

    • David Goodman on said:

      Rice, corn and foraging sounds great. The previous two cover the carbs… the latter covers the protein angle with lots of bugs and worms. Thanks for the compliment – glad you’re here.

  3. Very good article. My first read on my way towards starting to prepare my family for food security and, with four children, food safety.

    I’m curious about your opinion (again, just starting to learn) about having a manageable garden, say 50 yards x 100 yards, fenced in. The chickens would be somewhat free range, and could eat the insects, weeds, and worms. HOWEVER, would they also destroy crops like the plants of my roots veggies, corn, peppers, tomatoes, etc?

    Meaning, is this a stupid idea? (smile)

    Thanks for your time writing this article and thanks for considering my question,
    Joe

    • In an established perrenial system that might work. I have about 3/4 of an acre that I’m putting into perrenial production that my permaculture designers feel should be able to support 12 ducks, with the system providing all the food through forage.

      However we have talked about how that’s not possible with chickens for me yet, with just a 2 year old perrenial system, because the chickens scratch, and that would demulch all the trees and plants that are getting established. Once we didn’t need that mulch to stay in place any more, the story might be different.

      Also, if you are going to be planting annual seeds in this garden, the chickens gobble down, and dig up all those seeds if you allow access.

      So chickens need to be managed. However I think a management strategy of dividing your garden into 4-5 sections, letting the chickens sit on one section until 30% of the greenery is gone. Ideally you want this to take 10 days. Then you move them into their second section and repeat the process. Managed this way, each section of garden never gets over eaten, and gets a constant input of chicken manure as well.

      That’s how I’m managing mine. Actually I built them their own seperate garden to do this in, while my other perrenial system is maturing.

      Hope this helps.

    • Our experience is that chickens are extremely hard on a garden. They eat the young shoots, destroy corn, and feast on beans and peas. We fenced our garden in for that very reason, however we don’t clip our birds wings and they just fly over the fence if they want to get in. Haven’t come up with a great solution to that problem yet.

  4. I have several acres and mine free range everywhere here. I only feed them during really cold weather and allow them to free range year round….though they can be a pain. The Garden has to be fenced in and these birds will eat anything and everything. I give them any and all left overs and I keep them in a huge pole barn with the other animals. I have a big compost pile going year round. It provides them with food and then warmth during the winter months. I grow food during the summer for them (they love veggies) and I harvest and save squash and Pumpkin for winter feeding….buy very little commercial food during the winter. I commend you for doing all you do and with just one acre. Very impressive!

    • Question for you Julia…

      How does your egg production compare to the average egg ratio of 2 eggs every 3 days that a chicken on full feedbag rations would lay?

      Is it the same? Is it half? I’d be curious to know.

      I think a great place for people to start is to know what kind of production a free range chicken can give, then use math to buy as many chickens as it takes to meet the production you’re after.

      Please share :-)

  5. Hello,
    My father lives in a small town in Romania, he has about 50 hens and 16 ducks and I know he buys for them a lot of corn and wheat grains, so I’m looking for some improvements that would allow a cost reduction. I remember from my childhood that my grandma always had at least one cow, usually with calf, and a LOT of birds (chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc.). There was a really big heap of manure, straws etc. in some shaded area of her backyard (which was used for animal growing, not gardening). A long fence parted the two sides of the land, with the house in between, facing the garden. Generally the birds were allowed in the backyard only and were able to dig freely into this heap during daytime and generally wander around the backyard. They spent a lot of time and looked really happy digging into the composted manure and taking out worms and other insects. During night time they were either left outside (and climbed some small trees with wooden ladders attached, sleeping perched to their branches) or – in winter – allowed to go inside their coops. So I think that a great heap of compost/manure,eventually colonized with some red earthworms – if there aren’t enough around – could mean a lot for a happy group of birds :o) Of course, this heap should be placed as far as possible from the house, to avoid its inconveniences (smell, insects etc.). I think earthworms are much more acceptable as a protein source than fly worms growing on carion. And they’re also useful as fish bait, while their castings make a great fertilizer…But you already knew that. Good luck and keep up the good job!

    • Thanks for stopping by. I think you’re right about the deep manure… great story. The biggest problem I’ve run into is trying to keep more chickens than I can support with my gardening. There has to be a balance reached. I imagine a big manure pile would be a good start.

      • Thanks, I’m still reading around, it’s a good website with a lot of practical stuff, which I like! Yes, it is amazing how many living things can be found in a big manure heap, and hens are the best ”machines” for finding these living things, so why don’t get some benefits from their natural behavior? There were also a lot of weeds, bushes, willows, swampy areas in my grandma’s backyard (a little river streamed on a side, were the water birds of the villagers could be seen always) so the hens were spoiled, I may say. And they laid eggs like crazy…

        • I just remembered: grandma always had some areas planted with beets, some variety with large, green, thick leaves, and from time to time she threw some of these leaves to the chickens. It was always a feeding frenzy!…

  6. Hugh Belleth on said:

    I live in Canada. Ihave started a project in Sri Lanka to provide jobs to the local pepole and help their children with their education. I have four acers of land in the rain forest area. I have planted tea and black pepper wich is producing to support them. This year I started free range chickens. I link-fenced about two acerce for this reason and bought bulk grain directly from farmes about 2000 killos. For now I am buying commercial feed until the fenced area is complete which is about a week away. I have sixhundred hens about three months old. I like to know howmany chikens per acer I can sustain without buying commercial food. I am also planing to buy land to plant the feed.
    Hugh

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