We all want to save money. Part of the reason some of us raise chickens is to have healthy eggs or meat for cheaper than we can buy at the store. But buying feed can cost a lot more than you expected. And honestly, some of the feed you get is just like buying junk food for your birds: it’s full of cheap stuff to fill them up, doesn’t provide a lot of vitamins and still costs a lot. Kind of like getting your kid that $4.00 box of breakfast cereal (hello, Cocoa Pebbles – I’m talking to you!).
First, let’s remember chickens are omnivores so they eat meat and vegetables. When you let them free range they’re eating bugs and grasses (and sometimes your strawberry patch but that’s another story…).
Just like with your kids you need to make sure treats come after a balanced meal and don’t fill their little bellies up enough to replace the protein and calcium they need in their diets to make eggs or meat and maintain their overall health. Ideally (and this is according to the “experts”) leftovers should never be more than 20% of their whole diet and should be portioned out so it’s only what they can finish within 20 minutes.
Now…let’s go back to us real life poor folks. I will pay for a decent feed for my egg layers – I don’t want junk in there so I look for something that doesn’t have by-products or anything I can’t identify near the top of the ingredient list. However, I can’t afford to pay for organic feed either. So, I’m looking for a reasonable compromise.
Kids Won’t Eat It? Try the Chickens
To start with, you can obviously feed them your family’s leftovers. Pretty much anything goes here as long as it’s not spoiled food. You shouldn’t give them things high in fat, sugar or salt because (again, just like your kids) it’s gonna fill them up without providing nutrition. And their bodies are a lot smaller than ours so a little can have a big impact. That said, I’m guilty of giving my birds leftover birthday cake (it was going to get thrown away!). So we don’t have to be the food police but do use common sense: obviously, I’m not giving them cake every day.
Any scraps you don’t eat, are perfectly fine to give them, including chicken. You should also include any of the scraps you create from preparing fruits and vegetable. They can have the peels and the bad spots (as long as there’s no mold). Keep a bowl, small bucket, disposable foil pan – whatever works for you – in your kitchen and make a habit of throwing all your scraps and plate scrapings into it. Stick it in the refrigerator and feed them some every day.
If you have more eggs than you can use, cook them up and feed them back, shell and all. Just crush them up so they don’t recognize them and end up becoming egg eaters. If you can get yogurt or any other fermented dairy product cheap, I’m a big believer in the benefits this brings to chickens. I’m not talking about the Yoplait stuff with the sugar and flavors added but the plain yogurt that contains live active cultures. I start my chicks on it and swear by the benefits.
What They Can (and Can’t) Eat
The only things you have to completely avoid are banana peels, avocado peels, coffee grinds (use those in the garden instead), green tomatoes, uncooked beans and chocolate. Yes, it is okay to feed them cooked poultry although some people find it a bit creepy. In fact, any cooked meat, even on the bone is fine; just throw away the bones when they’re done so you don’t risk attracting rodents.
If you’re a hunter, you can feed your birds anything your family doesn’t eat. I’d say the same if you fish but just watch because “they say” that eggs and meat can take on the taste of what they’ve eaten. I’ve always fed my birds a LOT of garlic and no one’s ever said, “These eggs/meat taste garlicky”. But maybe it hasn’t been enough to affect that. I don’t know how much is “too much” but if you have extra fish (or fish scraps) go ahead and feed them as a good source of protein and minerals, especially omega 3.
If you have a good sized flock, you may want to look into getting scraps from a local restaurant, deli, grocery, co-op or farmer’s market. One great idea I’ve heard is asking for the leftover pulp from juice bars (think of the nutrition there!). The trick though, is to be able to use these up before they go bad. Some businesses can be too overeager and end up giving you what should have gone in the garbage – spoiled, rotten, moldy food which, same as if you ate it, will make your chickens sick. So the responsibility falls on you to go through those scraps and make sure they’re safe. If you do make a partnership with a business, you have to keep up your end of the agreement to pick up the food on the set day and time. This can be beneficial but can also end up making more work for you as well. Weigh it out carefully or maybe see if a friend will split it with you if there’s too much for you to use.
Add in Vitamins – Cheaply
Another trick is stretching your feed by adding other vitamin-rich things to it, like sunflower seeds, whole or rolled oats, whole wheat, or millet. Check with your local feed store or co-op and then figure if it saves you money to supplement with these. You can also feed them as “scratch” – toss them on the floor of the coop or run or outside and they’ll have a good old time pecking for them. And by the way, make sure your feed is pellets rather than crumbles; they’ll waste a lot less.
Plant a little extra in your garden (or start a garden if you don’t have one) of the high producing things like squash and give the leftovers or the ones that are too big to the chickens. If you have anything with a hard outer rind, make sure you cut it in half for them to get at the inside. Hit up your friends who garden as well – everyone is sick of zucchini after a while and they might be happy to find someone to unload a few to! Greens and turnips are also good choices to plant. Kale will winter over plus you can cut it and it will grow back as will a lot of other greens. You can’t go wrong though with greens, melons and squashes. As an added benefit, during the hot weather, the melons will help cool them down and the greens provide them with entertainment, year-round. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are good cheap fillers, too.
Take Them Out to Eat
Let your birds free range, if they can do it safely, even if it’s just for a short time every day while you supervise (and laugh at them. I promise, you’ll enjoy it!). If not, toss them your weeds and grass clippings (as long as they’re not sprayed with pesticides, of course) or consider a movable coop.
And think of your chicken run as a way to help, too. A lot of the “chicken experts” point out a dirt chicken run is bad: it ends up completely covered with droppings and becomes a breeding area for disease. Instead, cover it in a thick mulch (leaves, hay, straw, grass clippings, wood chips) and the area stays cleaner, the droppings turn into compost which then give you worms and other insects for your chickens to eat. Plus they’ll be much happier with an area to scratch in.
A lot of people I know feed their flocks cat or dog food because it’s high in protein and you can get it cheaper than chicken feed. Chances are you’re trading off more junk for the lower price. Something very important to consider is that pet food is not made for animals we’re going to eat – it’s got meat in it, usually in the form of “animal by-products” (could be bones, feathers – who knows?). And this could carry disease. If anyone remembers “mad cow disease” that’s how it began. Better safe than sorry.
And don’t forget to always feed oyster shell separately for the calcium laying hens’ need. Otherwise, they’ll tend to overeat their feed to make up for the calcium loss and cost you more in the long run.
And For Those Who Want to Experiment…
I’ve read a lot of stuff about how you can completely do away with store bought feed. So for those of you with more ambition, here are some interesting resources you may want to check out:
Harvey Ussery has been around for years advocating the “grow your own feed” idea. He’s pretty scientific in his research: http://www.themodernhomestead.us/article/Feeding.html
Justin Rhoades is more of a newcomer to the chicken movement but he’s got plenty of ideas you may not have thought of (like growing your own maggots): http://theprepperproject.com/feeding-chickens-without-buying-feed/
Good information from a farmer who’s been doing it for years: http://www.sustainablechicken.com/2009/04/30/an-interview-with-bob-cannard/
Fermenting your chicken feed: http://countrysidenetwork.com/daily/poultry/feed-health/how-fermenting-chicken-feed-can-benefit-your-flock/
Using Sea Buckthorn: http://countrysidenetwork.com/daily/poultry/eggs-meat/what-to-feed-chickens-more-healthier-eggs-seabuck/
Using Comfrey for chickens: http://www.coescomfrey.com/use.html
Sprouting grains for chickens: http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2014/02/sprouting-grains-for-chickens-fodder.html
Growing fodder for your chickens: http://www.fresheggsdaily.com/2014/02/growing-sprouted-fodder-for-your.html
And some of our older posts on feeding:
There’s a lot of ways you can use to save some money when feeding your flock. Let us know what’s worked for your flock.