Years ago, as the cost of commercial chicken feed skyrocketed, I found myself in search of a more creative option.
At the time, I experimented with rotating the flock on pasture and successfully cut my feed cost in half.
After that, I experimented with free ranging and cut my costs by 90%!
Finally, I ended up with a compost feeding system that cut my chicken feed bill by 100% and gave me three cubic yards of compost a week!
My fascination with more natural (and much less expensive) feeds continues to grow and my list of creative food sources expands.
In this article, I’ll share with you many alternative food sources for your flock that will dramatically (if not completely) reduce your dependency on commercial grain.
Once you’re ready to implement one or more of these ideas you can download my free printable worksheet at the end of the article.
Before we explore the list of creative food sources, we should look at some basic principles to reduce our need for food in the first place.
Ways to Reduce Your Need for Chicken Feed:
- Keep only the chickens that are efficiently meeting your needs. If you just want eggs, then make sure you have a lightweight, egg-producing breed like the White Leghorn. If you have a lot of access for foraging, be sure to get pure breeds that are naturally active and on the hunt for food.
- Cull inefficient and unnecessary flock members. This means you’ll need to butcher, sell or give away excess roosters, old hens (older than 2.5 years) or those that are genetically undesirable (low production, susceptible to disease, aggressive, etc.) to minimize your input while maximizing yields.
- Think small. What’s the minimum amount of chickens to meet your needs? The smaller your flock, the easier it will be to maintain from creative resources.
- Ration. Believe it or not, your chickens can eat too much! This isn’t just a problem for the budget; it can actually decrease egg production. I encourage experimentation with your chickens. You can stop serving their food “free choice” (free choice means all day access to their feed) . Start rationing out ⅓ of a pound a day per chicken. Begin cutting back slightly every day until you notice a drop in egg production. At that point, return to the amount of feed that didn’t affect egg production and go from there. I wouldn’t ration their feed as they are growing. Once they start consuming more than 1/3 pound of feed a day, then you know it’s time to ration.
Don’t believe me that they can get too fat? It happened to me. Watch my vlog episode, “Puting This Fat Hen Out Of Her Misery”.
Creative Feed #1: Soil-Building Plants/Herbs
Why not feed our chickens and the soil at the same time?
Comfrey and stinging nettle are two classic builders that many consider weeds.
These plants can certainly be invasive, but if you turn that “problem” into food (and medicine) for you and your flock, then the “problem” becomes a solution.
Comfrey is a must have plant for the sustainable homestead.
Like the chicken, Comfrey has many beneficial uses.
It’s edible, medicinal, is a great nitrogen source for the compost pile, and it’s a low fiber, high protein feed for chickens and other livestock.
Comfrey is easy to grow (it can be planted any time of the year that you can work the soil), and it will stay alive in extreme cold and heat (grows in US hardiness zones 3-9).
Also, comfrey contains high levels of Vitamin A and B12 that can contribute to those deep yellow eggs we all desire.
Here’s how to grow Comfrey:
- Acquire the root or crown cuttings. I buy my comfrey from a fellow permaculturalist, Coe’s Comfrey.
- Coe’s suggests you plant Comfrey in “‘fertile holes” to get established, and it will thrive through the hottest summer or coldest winter. Comfrey needs three foot spacing for proper root development and the highest yields. Strong, mature plants on a three-foot grid will have the larger outside leaves touching the adjacent plants after four to five weeks growth.
- Harvest the plant up to eight times a year by cutting down to two inches from the ground.
What many might call a noxious weed, I consider an abundant and consistent food source. This “invasive” plant is medicinal, edible and when it’s dried it’s up to 40% protein and is a most excellent nitrogen source for mulching or compost.
Nettle grows well in US hardiness zones 3-9. For more info on this plant click here.
Here’s how to grow Stinging Nettles:
Chances are you already have it. In that case, find it and transplant it to where you want it.
Collect the mature seed heads and drop them anywhere you want nettles to grow.
If you don’t already have the plant, you can easily buy the seeds.
As you can see, comfrey and nettle are two great resources for the homestead.
Be sure to stay on top of your management to keep them at bay.
Even if you don’t need all of it’s natural bounty during the growing season for feed, you could certainly use it in the compost pile, or even cut it and dry it out for hay!
Creative Feed #2: Animal Carcasses
Whether it be killed predators or fresh road kill, this can be a creative means of providing high-quality protein to your birds in one of two ways:
- You must cut the carcass open with a hatchet or something similar so the chickens can easily access the insides.
- You may consider removing the carcass after a couple of days to prevent disease.
- You’ll get more protein for your “buck” if you don’t feed your carcass directly to your chickens, but rather feed your chickens the maggots that develop from the carcass! The flies will utilize much more of the carcass than the chickens.
- Drill dozens of ⅜ inch holes in a food grade bucket and suspend it in the air where your chickens will have access to it.
- The flies will do their thing, and pretty soon maggots will be in search of some ground. As a result, they will crawl out of the holes and drop right into your chicken run.
In my vlog, “Maggot Dispenser = Free Chicken Feed”, I show how to build one of these things and explain how it works.
Just be sure to use fresh carcasses to help prevent Clostridium botulinum that can cause a deadly disease in your chickens called limberneck.
In his book Small-Scale Poultry Flock author Harvey Ussery emphasizes not to include chicken slaughter waste that might include grain from their crops as this can be a likely source of Clostridium botulinum growth.
More info here.
Creative Feed #3: Cover Crops
Cover crops are plants used to prevent soil erosion, add nitrogen to the soil, improve/maintain soil quality, hold moisture, prevent weeds and repel pests and diseases.
Cover crops are a great garden strategy for the soil they can be food for our chickens as well.
Here’s how to do it …
Cover crops to overwinter your garden:
- Plant cereal rye before your first frost date.
- This will “die” back over the winter and come back in the spring.
- In the spring, graze your chickens over the patch with a mobile coop and electric net or cut and carry to your flock.
Cover crops in the spring before you plant a garden bed:
- Try planting yellow mustard, red clover, grain grasses, crucifers, alfalfa, and cold-hardy peas.
- A couple of weeks before you need the bed, allow the chickens in to eat, till, spread, and fertilize.
- Once they’re done, plant your seeds.
- If your chickens didn’t have time to complete the job, just finish it by hand by loosening the soil with a broad fork and pulling up the cover crop and laying it down in place as a mulch.
Cover crops in the garden between crops, during the growing season:
- Use a fast growing cover crop like Buckwheat as it can mature within six weeks.
- Once you need it tilled, bring on the chickens!
Cover crops for the plot after harvesting the main crop:
- Instead of the traditional cover crops, try edible cover crops like fall crucifers, mustards, raab, kale, rape, and turnips.
- Harvest the crops throughout the fall and early winter for you and the chickens, or allow the chickens directly in the garden for a time.
Cover crops while a crop is still going (under-sowing):
- This is especially useful if you won’t have time to plant after your garden crop is done.
- Wait until your garden crop is ⅓ of the way through it’s growing cycle, then “under-sow” a cover crop.
- Try any of the clovers (white, sweet, or red). White dutch clover is especially hardy as a living mulch that can even be walked on!
- Once you’re done with this garden, cut and carry the produce and cover crops to your chickens or give them direct access.
Creative Feed #4: Weeds
What we’ve come to understand as “weeds” can also be a surprisingly good food, and even a medicinal for both humans and chickens. Dandelion, lamb’s quarter, stinging nettle, burdock, and yellow dock are some of the many weeds that can creatively feed you and your flock.
How to do it:
Step #1: Search and identify some common edible weeds:
Step #2: Uproot with a potato fork or similar by driving the tool into the ground and loosening the soil around the roots (just enough to pull out the weeds).
Step #3: Clean them off and pitch to the chickens, roots and all. You can also put them through a grinder or cut up if desired.
Creative Feed #5: Garden
The garden doesn’t just have to be food for you; it can sustain your flock as well.
Consider some of the following ideas:
- Toss your garden trimmings to your chickens.
- Offer your flock what’s left of your produce. Cut and carry the goods or allow them access to the finished garden beds.
- Grow produce, especially for your flock. Mangal and chard beet are great feeds, as well as salad bars, squash, and crucifers.
- Cooked (not raw) potatoes could serve as a staple for your chickens.
- Consider growing winter squashes as they store extremely well and can be used as winter feeds.
- Since I have my wood stove heating my house during the winter, I cook hard foods like potatoes, broccoli stems, carrots, onion, etc., as I heat my house!
Creative Feed #6: Wild Seeds and Fruits
Wild seeds and fruits can serve the “grain” needs of your chickens better than store bought grain.
Gather wild seed or fruits (like berries) and plant to share the bounty with your birds.
Every summer we could easily harvest gallons upon gallons of wild autumn berries, blackberries, and wineberries.
Creative Feed #7: Forage and Grain Crops
It’s relatively easy to plant grain crops yourself if you select varieties like dent corn, sunflowers, sorghum or Amaranth. Follow the planting guides for any of these grain crops you choose.
You could also grow great forage crops like Arrowroot, Chicory, Bok Choy, Buckwheat, Clover, Cocksfoot, Linseed, Lucerne, Millet, Forage Plantain, silverbeet, Alfalfa, Peas, Lentils, Chickweed, Comfrey, Dandelion, Nettles, Sunchokes, Berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc.) and shrubs (Siberian pea shrub, etc.).
Choose a variety of these and plan a special patch for you and your birds!
Creative Feed #8: Nut Trees
Gathering wild nuts, planting your trees, or giving them access to the forest can provide a significant amount of protein and fat for your chickens.
Forage or plant: oaks, beeches, black walnuts, pecans, and hickories.
Nuts from these trees are obviously not digestible whole.
I suggest one of two things, depending on the size of your flock or harvest: if it’s a small harvest, just wrap your nuts in some old jeans or durable cloth and smash with a small sledge hammer.
For larger jobs, consider running them through a feed grinder.
Creative Feed #9: Fruit Trees
Gather wild fruit or plant your own. Consider high-yield and easy-to-maintain trees like the persimmon, mulberry, paw paw and of course all your favorite apples, pears, peaches, bananas, etc. Harvest the produce for your chickens or give them access to the fallen fruit.
Creative Feed #10: Capturing Garden Pests
Garden pests like Japanese beetles and slugs are an amazing feed source for your flock.
How to catch and feed garden pests:
- Go out in the morning with a bucket of water while the bugs are lethargic.
- Locate the bugs and hold your bucket underneath them while you flick or shake the bugs off of the plant and into the bucket of water.
- Throw the bug to your chickens, water and all.
- Or, buy non chemical japanese bettle trap <<<< no lie, I just bought that one and I’m gonna give it a try. (yes, it’s an affiliate link).
How to debug the garden with the chickens:
- Allow your chickens supervised time in the garden.
- Allow your chickens in the garden for a limited time towards evening. They will naturally go home at dark, and won’t have time to turn their attention from the bugs to your produce.
- Chickens like bugs more than they like produce, so with timed grazing. Most of your veggies should be safe.
- It’s almost guaranteed that your chickens will get some of your produce with this method. In my experience, the debugging has been well worth the cost of a few veggies.
- If your garden is small enough, you could protect your produce with chicken wire or similar and allow the chickens constant access for bug control! Lisa, from Fresh Eggs Daily, does this beautifully.
Creative Feed #11: Pond
You can use a pond to grow both fish and aquatic plants to sustain your flock.
In return, your chickens provide fertilizer for the pond.
Duckweed is an aquatic plant that is easy to grow and can provide as much as 40% protein content for your flock (if dried).
How to use Duckweed:
- Acquire duckweed specimen from another pond or order online.
- If acquiring specimen from a farm, you might want to ease its transition before setting it out in the “wild”. Duck Weed Gardening put out a great resource on transitioning duckweed here.
- Fertilize the pond with some chicken manure and stock the pond with fish (carnivorous).
- Harvest as needed, but try to maintain 1.5 to 2 pounds per square yard on the entire surface. If there’s not enough, algae could grow and suppress it, and if there’s too much, it will be self mulch.
- Dry out the duckweed, as it’s 95% water. What’s left is up to 40% protein!
How to use fish:
- Stock fish for yourself and be sure to give them all your leftovers and butchering “wastes”.
- Fertilize the pond by throwing in chicken manure. If you want to get extremely efficient, you could arrange your chicken house (with a slotted floor) and allow your chicken manure and any spilled feed to fall directly into the pond.
- Grow fish specifically for your chickens. Harvest, cut them up for easier access and serve them to your chickens fresh (raw or cooked).
- Great pond fish include catfish, bluegill, carp, bass, etc. If you’re going to have duckweed and fish, be sure not to have too many fish, or they’ll eat your duckweed faster than the plant can grow.
Creative Feed #12: Soldier Flies
Soldier flies look more like black wasps that fly, but they have an interesting life cycle that can create a protein rich source of food for our flock.
You can grow your soldier fly grubs (up to 40% protein) out of kitchen wastes and get a high protein feed for your flock and rich compost in just a matter of days.
Here’s how it works:
- Soldier flies are naturally found in US hardiness zones seven and higher, but can be introduced in cooler regions as well.
- The female sets out in search of a nice place to lay her eggs. Her ideal location is rotting vegetables or manure.
- The eggs hatch as soon as four days, but no more than three weeks.
- These fat larvae immediately begin to consume the vegetables and turn it into soil.
- Before these grubs turn into flies (about ten days) they search for higher ground outside of their feeding ground.
- As adults, their sole purpose is to breed and then lay eggs. They don’t have much time, as they’ll only live 2-8 days! They don’t even have mouths and will not eat during this period.
- They die, and the cycle starts over again.
- You can build or purchase soldier fly bins that hold your vegetable matter, attracting female soldier flies. Many designs even include a ramp which the grubs naturally climb, then fall into a collecting container…brilliant!
How to do it:
- Buy a BioPod. According to their website, “this can easily handle the daily food scraps produced by a large family – up to 5 lbs per day. It can even digest pet feces and most kinds of manure. For every 100 lbs of kitchen scraps, you will get 5 lbs of friable compost, a few quarts of nutritious compost tea, and approx. 15-20 lbs of self-harvesting grubs – which are the freshest fish, herp, and bird food.”
- Build one yourself from plans on the internet. Here’s a relatively large bin, that looks reasonable.
In my vlog, “Bring on The Soldier Flies”, I show how I put mine together:
Creative Feed #13: Sprouting
By simply sprouting the grains/legumes you’re already feeding your chickens, you can increase protein digestibility up to 30%.
Not only do you increase protein, you up the vitamin, mineral and enzyme levels!
You can sprout seeds within 2-4 days using a bucket or bowl method or let them go a bit longer if you want some green material.
How to do the bucket or bowl method:
- Purchase your grains/legumes like peas, corn, oats, wheat, etc., whole instead of ground.
- Soak the desired amount of seeds for 24 hours in a food grade bucket or bowl.
- Pour out the seeds through a strainer or a bucket filled with holes and rinse thoroughly.
- Set your newly rinsed seeds in another bucket and bowl and leave for another 24 hours. If it’s warm enough (60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), they will have already begun to sprout.
- Try to use a fairly warm room like a spot near the furnace in the basement. The colder it is, the longer the seeds will take to sprout.
- Rinse your seeds every 24 hours until all of your seeds have sprouted. This shouldn’t take more than four days.
- For a continual supply, use four buckets in a rotation – one for soaking and the other three for the rinsed seeds.
How to do the greening method:
- Soak the desired amount of seeds for at least 24 hours.
- Spread over a tray in a thin layer.
- Cover with some organic matter like straw, dry leaves, etc., to prevent the seeds from drying out.
- Water every day and harvest when they’ve reached the desired length.
Creative Feed #14: Compost
This has got to be one of my favorite creative feed sources.
Just last summer, I cut my commercial feed cost 100% through an amazing compost system.
I detailed the entire process and outlined how to do it here.
Creative Feed #15: Vermicomposting
Vermicomposting is the process of using worms to create compost.
Worms can be grown all year and they’re a great source of protein and compost.
Depending on the size of your flock and your ambition you can practically grow as much as you like.
General instructions on how to vermicompost:
- Get a bin. DIY from plans online or purchase one. You can use wood, plastic bins or similar.
- Make sure the bin is ventilated. If you’re using plastic or rubber, drill ⅛” holes throughout.
- Estimate one pound of worms per square foot (surface area).
- Use a cover for the bin as the worms don’t like light and it keeps your moisture level regulated.
- Place the worm bin in a cool, shaded area.
- Temperatures should be maintained from 30 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit for optimization
- Keep at least four inches of moist material in the bin at all times.
- Establish bedding for the worms of shredded cardboard, paper, straw and something similar, then sprinkle with dirt and moisten.
- Make sure you don’t add much (if any) carbon to the mix, as you don’t want your material to heat up.
- You’re pile should remain as moist as a wet sponge. If you were to grab it, you should be able to squeeze out a few drops of water.
- Get your worms! Red Wrigglers work best and can be purchased online.
- Add food scraps all at once, or at least once a week. Mix it in with your bedding if possible. The worms will continually break this down. Don’t use too much citrus, meat, dairy, or pet poop as it will be difficult to break down or toxic (in the case of the poo).
- If your bin starts to smell, ease off the material for a bit and let the worms catch up.
- After 3-6 months it’s time to harvest both the compost and the worms. Scrape the newer, unfinished material out of the way and dig out the compost. You can sift out your worms from the compost and send them on their way (to the chickens), or you could throw it all to the chickens (especially if your chickens are in an area like a garden bed or pasture that could benefit from the compost).
How I do it:
- I dig a large pit my basement that is 4 x 8 feet and 16 inches deep.
- I lay cinder blocks around the edges as an edge.
- I use a nonpressure treated 4/8 piece of plywood for the cover.
- On one side of the pit, I lay manure and food scraps and water as I go.
- Given our one pound per square foot surface area, I could put in as much as 16 pounds!
- I put cardboard over this and dampen, then close the lid and regularly check to add moisture as needed.
- When the worms are finished (3 – 6 months), I fill up the other side of the bin and the worms naturally migrate.
- Once the population of worms has grown enough for a worm harvest, I’ll harvest the unfinished material (about half way).
- Since my chickens are always on future garden beds, pasture, or compost I can throw them all of the material (worms and compost).
The finished good ends up being the BEST soil in the world. Here, take a look at my vlog, “Something’s Wrong With My Garden” where I use vermicompost to try and save the garden.
Creative Feed #16: Solar Cooker
Take advantage of the sun to cook harder-to-consume feeds like squash, pumpkins, potatoes, etc.
How to do it:
- Build your own or purchase your cooker. Wiki how has three promising design options here and a quick search on Amazon revealed several cookers starting at about $100.
- Get a recipe for what you want to cook. Solar Cooker has several that include corn on the cob, eggs, potatoes, and even bacon!
- Cooking times will vary depending on your setup, sun exposure, temperature, and the amount you’re trying to cook. I suggest small and learning as you go.
Creative Feed #17: Food Scraps
This has got to be my second most favorite feeding method as it’s one of the easiest.
We eat a lot of whole foods, so we have tons of food wastes.
We keep a five gallon, food grade bucket in the kitchen at all times for our food wastes.
How to do it:
- Source, a food grade container, appropriate in size for your food wastes. This could be as simple as a jar, food grade bucket, or as elaborate as a store bought option.
- Feed the scraps to your chickens everyday!
- What not to feed? I believe chickens have a sense of what they shouldn’t eat. I encourage experimentation here. Offer it to them and see what happens. Obviously, too much of any one thing is a bad idea, if it’s their only source of feed. If they have other options, they’ll just leave the excess of what they don’t need.
Creative Feed #18: Grass
Just having access to fresh grass can be 15-20% of a chicken’s entire diet.
Throw in access to wild seeds, bugs, and worms and you could sustain your flock entirely on pasture/yard if your flock is small enough and you have enough pasture/yard to rotate them on.
How to do it:
- One option is to totally free range, but you’ll have to consider your predator threats, neighbors, and having chicken poop everywhere. I once grew Black Australorps for 16 weeks to consume as meat grown on free-range (I only fed the 25 birds two 50 Ibs. bags of feed over the first eight weeks of their lives). The free ranging birds thrived and weighed out more than others I had grain fed free choice the entire time.
- It’s best if you can rotate your chickens over pasture or yard to new ground every day, or at least every week. You can use a chicken tractor for this or mobile pasture system with an electric net. I pastured 15 birds one summer enclosed in a 1,700 square foot electric net that I moved daily. I was able to get their feed consumption down to less than a 1/10 of a pound of commercial feed before the lack of feed affected their egg production.
- It’s even better if you can rotate your birds three days behind livestock. Flies will lay their eggs in the manure and at about the three-day mark, you’ll have larvae for your chickens to consume. Not only have you provided chicken food at this point, the chickens naturally spread the manure by scratching through it, and they help control the fly population for the livestock.
- If your chickens can’t have access to grass, bring it to them in the form of lawn clippings (if it hasn’t been treated).
- You can also cut and store hay for winter feeding. Mother Earth News published a nice article about how to cut hay by “hand”. You can see it here.
Creative Feed #19: Other Farm Products
You can certainly feed other farm products like cow’s milk and excess eggs.
I personally make an effort to feed our chickens milk from our family cow during the winter when “live” protein foods are harder to come buy.
During the early spring, when egg production kicks back in but the greens and bugs haven’t returned yet, I feed those eggs to the birds.
Farm product ideas:
- Milk from anything (cows, goats, etc.).
- Offal from farm slaughter (things you might not want to consume like beef tongue, heart, liver, etc.). Check with your butcher and see if they’ll provide “pet food” packaging of the less desirable products that are edible.
- Bones from farm slaughter. They won’t eat the bones themselves, but they’ll pick them clean of their meat. Make sure you ask the butcher for the bones (they might not give them to you automatically). You could also make bone broth over your wood stove or with a slow cooker. You could then feed this to your flock in a feed pan or pour it over some bread to soak in.
- Eggs from your chickens or other poultry. I scramble mine and throw it directly on the ground, but you could certainly feed it raw in a feed pan.
- Offer feathers from your slaughters as the chickens may consume them to improve gut function.
Just soaking feed for a day can break down the antinutrients (natural compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients) and will make your food more digestible, therefore making it a more efficient feed.
Alex Lewin, in his book, Real Food Fermentation says, “the process of fermentation can actually create new vitamins, specifically B vitamins and Vitamin K2, as well as some types of enzymes.”
How to do it:
- Put 2 – 3 days worth of feed in an adequately sized, food grade container.
- Add water until you have at least two inches above the feed. You should check back in an hour to make sure your grain hasn’t soaked it up. You’ll ultimately need at least an inch above the grain. It’s important to have the water layer as fermenting is an anaerobic process, which means it doesn’t need oxygen. Oxygen could cause mold growth.
- If you want, throw in a starter or add some pickle juice or similar to speed up the process.
- Cover your container loosely with a towel or lid.
- Just 24 hours of soaking will break down anti-nutrient properties, making them more digestible, but you’ll start to get the full effect of fermentation within three days.
- You can start harvesting your grain with a strainer daily. As long as you add dry grain and water to replace it you’ll have a continual flow.
- The fermented feed should smell sour, but never moldy. If it gets moldy you’ll need to throw it out and start a new.
That concludes my list of creative ways to feed your chickens on something other than commercial feeds, but I’m sure there’s more!
Some of these food sources mentioned can single-handedly eliminate your food bill forever. I suggest starting small, then implementing as many of these as possible to create lots of redundancy in your operation.
Ready to get started?
Download my printable worksheet on how to do each of these alternative feed methods.
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