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Backyard chickens have become increasingly popular for both homesteaders and urban hobby farmers. They provide eggs, meat, bug control, and are simply just fun to watch! They are tiny dinosaurs with wings! However, organic poultry crumbles can sell for as much as $25 per 50 lb bag. And at 1/3 to 1/4 lb per chicken per day, the costs can add up quickly! To help lower your chicken feed bill, I’ve collected the 13 most creative ways I stretch our poultry budget!
1. Thin the Herd
I wanted to address probably the most difficult topic first. For a lot of us, our ladies are our pets. However, hens will slow down their egg production as they get older – making it not economical to continue to feed them.
If each hen eats 1/4 lb of feed a day, a young hen will take that 1/4 lb and turn it into an egg a day. An older hen will still continue to eat that 1/4 lb a day, but only give you an egg every few days. See more in my post How Many Eggs Will My Backyard Chickens Lay?
So when should you cut them off? Like most things, it depends. Most heritage chickens breeds will lay less eggs a year, but will lay consistently for 3-4 years. Hybrid breeds will likely produce a TON of eggs, but only for the first 2 years.
I just picked up some Isa Browns (a hybrid breed) that can produce 300 eggs a year, but probably only for the first year or two of their egg-laying life.
Culling the older members of your flock ensures that the feed you are using results in the best production possible.
2. Identify Your Perfect Flock Size
If you’ve been around chickens at all, you’ve heard of “chicken math”. Basically, more chickens = more happiness. However, as Justin Rhodes from Abundant Permaculture says chickens (and especially those adorable baby chicks) are pigs with wings.
If your family only goes through 10 eggs a week, you only need 3 or 4 hens of egg-laying age. If you want to sell eggs or baby chicks as a source of side income, you may need more. I keep extra hens to give away eggs to a local food bank, but I understand that the money I spend on feed gets transformed into a donation, and I’m comfortable with that.
If you only have the number of hens you need, you’re feeding the minimum amount to support your family’s needs.
3. Measure Out Your Chicken Feed
Chickens will eat as much as you let them. In fact, backyard chickens will often become overweight which can lead to Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome. In a nutshell, Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome is where the liver becomes too fatty and bleeds, leading to death.
Generally this only happens when flocks are given too much fatty foods like table scraps. However, it’s a good example of how chickens will eat to excess.
Each hen should eat no more than 1/4-1/3 lb of feed per day. To find the sweet spot for your flock, cut down to measuring out 1/4 lb per hen per day for a week to see if it affects egg production. If it does, up it to 1/3 lb per hen per day and see what happens.
4. Ferment Your Chicken Feed
Whether you’re using store-bought feed or a homemade mix, fermentation can actually create new vitamins for your flock – specifically B vitamins and Vitamin K2.
In addition to creating new vitamins, soaked grains will plump up in size and make your hens feel fuller for longer.
Fermenting your feed is super simple. I have a large metal trashcan next to the coop that I put feed in and then simply add water. Make sure your feed is covered by a few inches of water to ensure your feed ferments instead of molds. Simply continue to add more feed and more water and scoop out what you need for the day with a slotted spoon.
5. Sprout Seeds and Legumes
In addition to your store-bought feed, you can add a portion of sprouted seeds and legumes. Sprouting seeds increases protein digestibility by up to 30% and unlocks additional vitamin, mineral and enzymes.
Wheat and barley are the two most common grains for chickens, but you can sprout oats, sunflower seeds, alfalfa, lentils, clover, mung beans, soybeans, etc.
Having nutritionally dense foods means you can feed less of it.
To sprout your seeds, soak them for 24 hours and the pour out the water. Rinse your seeds every 24 hours until they have sprouted, generally in 1-4 days.
6. Forage For Your Chickens
Whether your chickens are kept in a run 24-7, or you free range them, you can always go out and forage weeds for your chickens. If you’re already weeding garden beds, or walkways, or simply want to give the kids something to do, forage dandelion, burdock, lamb’s quarter, stinging nettle, clover, etc. to give to your girls.
If you don’t have a ton of weeds (luck you!), you can always forage wild nuts and seeds like acorns, or berries like blackberries.
7. Cover Crops
Similar to foraging, if you’re already growing a cover crop, grow something that can feed your flock after it’s done covering your garden.
Winter wheat would be a great cover crop to collect the seeds from and sprout, or simply cut down and throw it in the coop with them.
Between our hop rows, we’ve laid down a crop of clover to add additional nitrogen to the soil. Once the clover is tall enough, we run the chickens over it in a chicken tractor. Anything they miss, I then harvest the clover flowers, dehydrate them and make medicinal remedies with it! I love anything on the homestead that can serve three or four different jobs!
8. Grow Groceries For Your Chickens
If you have the space and inclination, you can grow crops specifically for your flock. Herbal medicine allies such as comfrey and stinging nettle are both nitrogen-fixing as well – while growing they supply nitrogen to your soil, harvested they can feed your flock and double as herbal remedies. Again – three different jobs!
Consider growing things like sunflowers, squash, salad greens, cabbage, etc. for your chickens or feed them the crops that turn out a funny shape or rot before you have a chance to harvest them. (Note here: never feed your girls anything moldy. But an overripe tomato, for example, is perfect).
Grow nut trees for both yourself and your chickens – oaks, beech, black walnut, pecans, hickories, etc. Most of these nuts, however, are pretty tough and will have to be broken open before your backyard chickens can eat them. Wrap them in a towel and go at them with a hammer.
In addition to cover crops, vegetables, seeds and nuts, consider growing fruit for them too. Again, any fruit that falls to the ground before you have a chance to harvest it, or gets bug-eaten, etc. is perfect food for your girls.
9. Feeding Your Chickens Compost
If you’re cooking a lot from scratch or gardening, you’re going to have a LOT to compost. Everything from cut grass, to veggie trimmings, to leaves, weeds, manure, etc. Chickens are garbage disposals with wings. Make sure you chickens can access your compost area and let them eat what they will.
Justin Rhoades dumps his compost directly on a fallow part of his garden and lets his chickens scratch and peck and eat and spread his compost for him! That seems a little too messy for me, but what a fabulous homestead hack! Make your chickens do your work for you!
10. Feeding Chickens Animal Carcasses
I often cook a whole chicken in the crockpot. It’s a fast, easy way to serve at least three meals to my family. After I’ve picked the carcass clean, I’ll add water to the crock pot and make bone broth and can it. After THAT I throw the leftover carcass in the run with the chickens. They do amazing work at picking all the rest clean, and after simmering in the crockpot for 24 hours, the bones are nice and soft and easy for them to break open.
Once every few months I clean the run and compost the woodchips (what I use for bedding), manure and whatever food scraps, including bones happens to be in the run.
It may feel strange at first to feed chicken…to your chickens. But remember, chickens are just feathery dinosaurs, and dinosaurs don’t discriminate.
Justin Rhoades recommends building something called a maggot bucket. It’s nothing more than a simple 5 gallon bucket from, say, Home Depot, with holes drilled in the bottom. You throw whatever fresh animals parts you have in the bucket, which attracts the flies, which then lay the eggs, which turn into maggots, which fall out of the holes and into your chickens’ mouths.
I haven’t tried that method yet, but our neighbor goes through a lot of pigs, so I may ask him for his leftovers soon and try it out!
You can also make a carcass soup and serve the meat and liquids to your chickens. Boiling helps extract marrow and other nutritious bits and make it more available for your chickens.
Don’t forget your leftover fish carcasses!
11. Grow Meal Worms For Your Chickens
Bugs are a concentrated source of protein. Meal worms are the larvae form of a beetle and growing them is super easy. A female adult Darkling beetle can lay 500 eggs in only a few months.
All you need is dark container like an aquarium or Tupperware container. You’ll need about 2-3 inches of feed for the meal worms to live in – usually wheat bran. If you can’t get your hands on wheat bran, then rolled oats, chicken mash, or cereal crumbs will work as well.
You can buy your worms either online or at a local pet store, but make sure you know what they’ve been fed and ensure they have not been given a growth hormone.
12. Grow Red Worms For Your Chickens
If you’ve been on the fence about vermicomposting, now might be a good time to start! Like the meal worms, all you need is a dark container, food for them to live in, and the starting worm community.
If you vermicompost long enough, your worms will be happy and reproduce. If you don’t remove some, they’ll overcrowd and become not happy anymore. So to maintain your vermiculture, you need to remove some anyway – feed them to your chickens!
In fact, many people have made a living doing vermiculture! You can sell the worm casings for organic gardens, and even selling extra red wigglers as bait! For more ways to make money on your homestead, check out my post 28 ways to make money off your homestead.
13. Rotational Grazing
This is possibly my favorite one. We don’t have other livestock, yet, but plan on doing rotational grazing next year. If you have other livestock on grass, you can keep your cows, horses, llamas, pigs, etc. on a specific piece of land until they eat it down. When you move them to the next plot of pasture, run your chickens (in a chicken tractor), over the spent land.
Not only will they be able to eat and spread the manure, but they’ll eat the bugs that the manure attracts, and any grasses or grass seeds, leftover. We’re planning on running our pigs in our hop yard next year. We have fairly compacted, clay-y soil that does not drain water well at all. The pigs will turn over the soil, and add organic material (their poop), which will help the soil drain better.
We’ll run the chickens after the pigs to spread the manure, eat the bugs the manure attracts, and add their own nitrogen-rich manure to the now exposed soil. It’s a win-win-win-win!
If you’re just looking into getting chickens, and are thinking about raising them from chicks, don’t miss my 9 Things You Need BEFORE You Get Baby Chicks post! Learn from my mistakes and be prepared!
And if you’re looking to raise baby chicks to be meat birds, check out The Grow Network’s Raising Meat Chickens video:
Have I missed any?? If I have, please leave a comment and let me know so I can add it!