Ah chickens, one of the universe's greatest gifts. Whether you eat meat, or just eggs, or simply like to watch the "chicken tv", chickens are lovely to have around, easy to maintain, and provide a great many services including food, entertainment, and fertilizer. I believe that every household should have at least a chicken or two but many cite the prohibitive cost of feed (especially organic) as an argument against it.
If you're one of those people I have good news for you! Decent chicken food doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, in fact, if you have a little bit of time and creativity, it can be 100% free. Here's how:
Ripped Bags at the Feed Store
Where do you get chicken feed? Well, at the feed store, of course. Next time you go, before you buy check and see if you can get it for free instead. Bags of feed often rip or are cut accidentally and the store can't sell these but if you ask at the counter what they do with the ripped grain bags they just might let you have some. Don't limit yourself to just chicken feed either, go for the sunflower seeds, bird food, corn, etc. This also goes for local farmers that grow grain. There is often quite a bit of unavoidable waste when storing or processing grain and some farmers will let you go around their grain bins with a shovel and shovel up the spilled grain.
The classic kitchen scrap method: it's what your grandma did and it never failed her! Chickens are omnivores and they can eat a lot more of our kitchen waste than people imagine. It is best to make sure the majority of the kitchen scraps you give to your chickens are raw fruits and vegetables, but grains, like oatmeal or cereal, also make good treats. We try not to give our chickens any processed foods, but it is not out of the question for them to get an overcooked waffle or piece of toast every once in awhile. We will also sometimes give our chickens egg shells to make sure they get enough calcium. Some say that you have to wash them first or that the hens will begin to eat their own eggs if you do this, but our chickens eat egg shells and even raw egg fairly often and they never peck their eggs. This might be true for some people, but we've never had a problem.
"Not for Human Consumption" Vegetables
Grocery stores, farm stands, etc are always throwing away produce that they deem not fit for sale, but is still perfectly good, despite a few blemishes. Ask around at your local markets and see what they do with the produce they cannot sell as you can often get cases and cases of produce to feed your birds. Often, this produce goes to the local food pantry, some of which have a section for food like this. This is not just for chickens either, pigs love this kind of food waste too, especially cheese, milk, or whey from local dairies.
Meal Worms or Worm Composting
I've just recently gotten meal worms and haven't had them long enough that their population has risen so that I can feed them to the chickens, but so far they seem like an easy and cheap way to raise foods for your chickens. There are all sorts of directions on how to do this on the internet, but basically you buy a couple dozen mealworms at the local bait shop and put them in a container to grow and reproduce. I use plain oats as bedding and feed them a couple kitchen scraps every 3 days or so. Easy as can be! Some people, who use worms to compost their kitchen scraps, also feed worms to their chickens when they have too many.
Our mealworms live by the rest of the chicken food, but will have to come inside during the winter.
Grow Your Own Grain
This one may not be so viable if you are low on space, but if you have a bit of garden space to spare, this could be a good option.
Growing corn, wheat, or even sunflowers, is fun and requires less maintenance than a regular garden. Plus, you get to eat some too if you want! Some may worry that they do not have the right equipment to do this if they have a large flock. Remember that hand harvesting is always a possibility- make some food, invite your friends over and have a chicken food harvesting party!
If growing grain may sound a bit too much of a task for you, you can also plant a chicken garden with low maintenance veggies and fruits. If you have your chickens on a rotation you can simply move their fence around it in the fall or you can harvest it yourself and put it in their pen. Some people plant a permanent garden for their chickens and include fruit trees, like mulberries that bear heavily. If you don't want to commit to a permanent garden you can plant simple things like pumpkins and squash, sunflowers, corn, etc. Really anything that your chickens will love to eat and you will love to grow.
Here's a great post about this by Country Living in a Cariboo Valley!
Let Them Glean Your Garden
Why grow another garden when you already have one? Many people will simply let their chickens into their gardens at the end of the summer to clean up after them and glean all the imperfect veggies. Some say that they won't do too much damage if your plants are already established, but I don't know if I'd trust my chickens to get in there during the peak growing season.
As I'm sure you learned in my post 10 Reasons You Should Forage for Food, the world is your grocery store! There is chicken food all over the place! This year was the 17 year cicada hatching in our neck of the woods and they were everywhere so Zak and I would go out every morning with a container and simply pick them up. We got a nice amount in just 10 minutes and fed them to the chickens immediately. They freaked out over them! I've never seen chickens get excited about a snack like they get about cicadas. There are all sorts of plants you can feed to chickens as well, if insects make you squeamish. Nettle is one of my favorites as it is easy to dry and powder and can be mixed in with their feed to stretch it. Plus it is high in protein and many vitamins and minerals.
A big protein filled bite for a chicken!
Don't have time to forage for your chicken? Let them forage for themselves! One of the best solutions to decreasing your food bill while also increasing overall chicken happiness is to increase and diversify their range. In nature, jungle fowl have very large ranges with a diversity of plants so it only makes sense that our domestic birds might enjoy that too. I first learned about this from from One Acre Farm, you can read more about it here. Allowing your chickens to roam around, especially in forest or edge habitat will allow them to find much of their own food, cutting your feed bill drastically in the summertime. If you're worried about predators, invest in a movable electric fence (it's well worth it) and give your chickens plenty of places to take shelter in and under.
This fence works great for us!
Okay, this one is a little gross, but honestly, this is one of my all time favorite methods for feeding our flock and it works EXCELLENTLY! This idea has been bouncing around the internet for a couple of years, but I finally decided to try it this year and was shocked at how well it worked. If you haven't see this before, basically you get a 5 gallon bucket with a lid and drill a ton of holes in the bottom and sides of it, fill it with roadkill or other meat scraps and hang it in your chicken enclosure. Within a couple of days, a seemingly endless supply of maggots will be spilling out of every hole onto the ground. While this may seem unthinkably gross to some, the chickens absolutely love it and it produces a TON of food with very minimal effort. There isn't even any butchering involved, just throw entire whistle pigs, opossums, etc in and get maggots and clean bones out. The bones are especially a plus for us, because we practice many primitive skills and bones are always useful to have around for making needles, awls, jewelry, etc.
No, it does not attract predators to our chickens (the are just as repelled by the smell as humans are). And yes, it does smell, so if you live in the city, this probably isn't the best solution for you. It really does not smell as badly as you would expect, but sometimes you will get a whiff of it when the wind blows. I just think of it as a nice reminder that my chickens are happily eating to their little hearts' desire and I didn't spend a nickel. It's the smell of money in my pocket. Plus you get the added benefit of grossing out your friends if you have a sick sense of humor like I do.
Our hens absolutely love the roadkill bucket and I do too!
*This isn't the first time I've talked about roadkill on this blog, to learn more about why I consider it a valuable resource check out my post 10 Reasons You Should Eat Roadkill.
Duckweed is a plant that extremely quickly grows in high nutrient, still water. Apparently, it is also high in protein (between 30-40%) and can be fed to all livestock and eaten by humans as well. I haven't tried this one personally, but I'd love to someday when we have a permanent pond for the ducks. Here's a link if you want to learn more about it:
Let Them Into Your Compost
Last, but not least, let your chickens into your compost pile. They will eat scraps and insects out of it, while also turning it over and adding fertilizer.
Well, that's all I've got for now- If you have more ideas please let us know about them! None of these are perfect solutions, but experiment yourself, and see which ones work for you and your chickens.
Disclaimer: This blog is just my own opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be completely accurate or complete. Sorry, I'm only human, so do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog (seriously not very much at all guys). If you click on any of the links in my blog I may make money from it, at no extra cost to you. I'm not sponsored by any of these people I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medical practitioner; consult a health professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.