This post was most recently updated on March 23rd, 2020
If you are keeping laying chickens in your backyard, you might like to look at some ways to feed your chickens for less money. Raising chickens can become expensive, but follow these tips for cheaper ways to feed your hens.
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What do chickens eat?
In the wild, chickens are scavengers. They live in the bottom of the forests in south-east Asia, scratching and digging for whatever they can find. They eat young shoots, roots and bugs.
Since the development of commercial egg production, we have now developed lines of chickens that need quite specific feed, and have made a high protein, cheap food source using seeds and grains.
When you get your chickens, you will have to decide if you want to feed your hens the commercial formulas, do you want to avoid corn, or soy, or GMO’s, do you mind conventionally grown mash or would you prefer organic? There are benefits and downsides to both – the biggest of which is cost.
Buying commercially produced, organic, soy-free, corn-free feed is super expensive, and while the health benefits might be worth it for you, there are ways you can make your chicken feed go further and to reduce your chicken feed bill.
How to feed chickens without buying feed
Back during the Great Depression in the 1930’s most families raised a few hens in the backyard for eggs and a few rabbits for meat. When money is tight, the last thing you want to do if pay huge amounts for chicken feed. Most families back then raised the chickens solely on free scraps from the garden and kitchen.
There are many things that you might have available that you can use to feed your chickens for free.
There are so many weeds that chickens love to eat. You can let them out to free range to pick their own, or you can pick them and take them to your hens. Fat hen, chickweed, grass and dandelion are all firm favourites.
2. Lawn Clippings
If you collect up your lawn clippings you can throw them fresh to your chickens. Our hens love to scratch through and eat what they like from them.
3. Spare Vegetables
If you garden, you will know about vegetable glut. You wait for ages for food to grow, then suddenly it is all ripe at once. There is only so long that leafy greens will wait for you to pick them before they choose to go to seed.
Throw your excess veggies to the chickens. Most vegetables they will eat raw, potatoes and carrots are best cooked.
4. Food Scraps
Chickens LOVE food scraps. As kids we would save all the scraps over the day and mum would boil them up for the hens in the evening and we would feed them to them in the morning.
The benefit of boiling them is that you can add potato, carrot and meat and know that they will be fine for the chickens to eat.
RELATED POST: Feeding chickens
Chickens naturally go hunting for bugs. If you have a cockroach issue, or catch slugs in the garden, throw them to the hens! If you have a worm farm that is reproducing well, throw a handful of worms to the hens once and a while, the will fight over them!
Chickens are tiny dinosaurs, and are actually quite good hunters. There are videos on YouTube of chickens catching and eating whole mice, even one that steals it off of a cat!
We catch mice using traps in the house, shed and tunnel house and throw the dead mice to the chickens – sounds gross but they love them.
There are some people that have perfected the art of raising chickens solely on compost. While this takes some knowledge and a large input of food and manure scraps, there is no reason why you cannot do it at home on a smaller scale.
You might keep a compost bin in your hen house, or do what Geoff Lawton does and move the chickens along building compost as you go.
8. Road kill
There is no need to let fresh roadkill go to waste. If you happen to spot it, and can fit it in your car then you can feed it to your chickens.
They prefer their meat cooked as they dont have teeth to chew it, and cooked meat pulls apart easier than raw. If you have the stomach for it, cut up the meat and cook it for your hens.
9. Homekill Scraps/Offal
If you are processing animals at home, keep the guts and throw them to the chickens. Small animals like rabbits can have their guts thrown in whole, larger animals you are better off cutting up the offal for the chickens, or cooking it so that they can pull it apart easier.
If you are prone to a little fishing, or have a local fishery nearby, you can feed your chickens all the scraps from the fish.
11. Eggs and Shells
If you have too many eggs to keep up with, you can cook some of the eggs and throw them back to the hens. Feeding chickens their shells is a great way to increase their calcium intake for free. Just be sure to crush the shells so they don’t recognise them as eggs or you will have egg eaters on your hands!
12. Windfall Fruit
Chickens are brilliant in an orchard where they will eat the pests, manure the ground and eat the windfall fruit.
13. Scraps from a Restaurant
It is worth asking local cafes, restaurants and bars if they have spare food scraps that they regularly want taken away. We get scraps from a turkish place and the hens love it.
14. Lupin beans
If lupins grow wild where you are, take the kids lupin bean gathering, they can be fed to chickens as they are without cooking.
Gross but true, chickens eat maggots and larvae. Make one of these buckets for freeeeeee feed.
Very Cheap Chicken Food Ideas
These food ideas do involve some cost and some effort, but you will end up with a lot more food at the end for the small amount of money that you put in!
16. Sunflower seeds
If you have some space, why not grow some sunflowers for their seeds. Once dried, you can simply put the flower head in the coop and let your hens go at it.
Growing fodder is a good way of turning 1lb of grain into 3 or 4lb of feed. There are so many fodder growing systems now, just search on youtube for some inspiration.
My daughter has a bearded dragon (a lizard) so we are now also the proud owners of a mealworm farm. These creepy gross bugs are super easy to raise, don’t smell and live happily off oats or bran and some carrot now and again. They are a great source of protein and the hens eat both the worms and the beatles.
19. Chicken Garden
If you have some spare land, you might want to start a chicken garden – simply grow spare crops to feed the hens. Cut and come again greens like chard/silverbeet and kale are great options. As are starchy veggies that you can cook for the hens – beets, pumpkin, parsnip, carrots, potatoes etc.
20. Fermented Feed
Fermenting what chicken feed that you do buy can decrease the amount you use by about 30%. Fermenting grain makes it more nutritious – read how to ferment grains here.
Chickens love to eat sprouts. Most vegetable seeds can be sprouted – some favourites are sunflower, beet, alfalfa, barley, corn, peas, lentils and rye.
22. Homegrown Grain
You can grow some of your own grain as cover crops in your vegetable garden – amaranth and buckwheat are both options, and oats and peas are common choices too.
Chicken Food Ideas Near You
Some food is only available locally, and while they are a scrap byproduct, they are sold to farmers and backyard homesteaders for a reasonable price. Hunt around and get creative, you might have some of these things available near you.
23. Cottonseed Meal
Cottonseed meal is what is left after the cotton has been ginned and the seeds have had all of the oil extracted out of them. The resulting cake is fairly high in protein.
24. Rapeseed Meal/canola
Like cottonseed meal, rapeseed is used to make canola oil, and the resulting cake is fed to animals as a protein source.
25. Brewery Mash
After the barley has had it’s malt extracted, the resulting fermented mash is brilliant feed for both chickens and pigs.
26. Grain-house or Mill Floor Sweepings
If you have a local mill or grain house – we have several places that process oats into oatmeal/porridge and they sell floor sweepings for cheap.
27. Peanut Meal
Peanut meal is actually a hard thing to get your hands on as it is often snapped up by pig farmers, but if you are lucky enough to then you might want to consider using it for your hens.
28. Safflower Meal
Safflower meal is very similar to cottonseed meal. Basically, when they’ve gotten everything out of the plant, they take what is left and grind it into a fine powder or meal.
29. Sesame Seed Meal
Sesame seed meal is very similar to cottonseed meal. Basically, when they’ve gotten everything out of the plant, they take what is left and grind it into a fine powder or meal.
30. Blood and Bone
As a waste product of the meat processing plants, blood and bone is often used as a fertilizer for gardens. High in nutrition and protein it makes a good addition to other less nutritious feed.
Common Questions about What Chickens Can Eat
Can chickens eat bananas?
Yes! Chickens love bananas, both the flesh and the skins. If you peel the bananas, or at least open them a little, they will eat them better. They are high in sugar and starch, so it is wise to limit their banana consumption as too much sugar in the crop can cause sour crop where they get a bacterial overgrowth and this can make chickens very sick.
Can chickens eat tomatoes?
Yes, chickens enjoy eating tomatoes, and they don’t mind if they are overripe or a little rotten. Tomato plants/leaves are not good to feed chickens as they are toxic in large doses.
Can chickens eat pineapple?
Pineapples are not poisonous for chickens, but they are quite acidic and chickens don’t seem to like to eat them very much.
Can chickens eat strawberries?
Chickens enjoy eating both the berries and the leaves of strawberry plants. It is best to keep the chickens away from your strawberry plants if you want to harvest any berries for yourself!
Can chickens eat apples?
Yes, chickens enjoy eating apples. Windfall apples from an orchard can be a free or very cheap addition to your chicken feed.
Can chickens eat grapes?
Chickens can eat grapes and they make lovely cold treats on a hot summer day. They are high in sugar though so should be limited.
Can chickens eat bread?
Chickens can eat bread, however it can get stuck in their crop and cause sour crop. It is best to soak it overnight and feed it in small volumes.
Raising chickens does not have to be expensive if you follow these tips for sourcing free or cheap chicken feed.
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