If you are interested in feeding your chickens for free, Jonathan Engels has 9 innovative ways for you to try in this poultry permaculture-focused Feature Article.
About 50 million years ago, long before there were sacks of cracked corn or even farmers to distribute the grains, chickens were wild birds that inhabited the jungles of Southeast Asia. These birds, like all wild animals, foraged and fed themselves without a corn kernel or food pellet in sight. Then, about 10,000 years ago, people domesticated the birds, and our simultaneous evolution has steadily made them more dependent on humans for food.
Good for Industry, Bad for Birds
Or has it? Truth be known, there are feral, free-range chickens, many of which never get fed pellets or corn, running around in most countries. They scratch, scavenge, and search for their meals, and are probably healthier for both the activity and varied nutrition. The problem with industrialized chickens is that, much like industrialized people, a number of their basic instincts have been scrapped and replaced with food delivery services. It’s good for industry, but bad for birds (and humans).
What Chickens Eat
Relying primarily on bags of chicken feed might make for plump birds, but it’s not the ideal scenario for good health. Instead, chickens should have a diverse diet that includes a mix of insects, worms, greens, fruits, seeds, and vegetables that they acquire via an active lifestyle. With that in mind, here are 9 innovative ways to get a wide variety of free food for your chickens rather than constantly buying commercial chicken feed.
1. Kitchen Scraps
Some people worry about feeding chickens kitchen scraps, but if the kitchen uses an assortment of healthy, whole foods, the chickens will benefit from leftovers. The scraps that shouldn’t end up in the henhouse are mostly the same ones that humans generally do better without, such as saturated fats and highly processed foods. Avocado skins and pits, chocolate, garlic, and onions shouldn’t be given to your chickens as they contain chemicals which can harm them. For instance, avocado pits and skins contain persin, which can cause heart and respiratory problems in your birds if they eat too much. However, most produce is perfectly healthy. Chickens are omnivores who can and will eat meat (and enjoy it).
2. Garden Seconds
Just as kitchen scraps can be fed to chickens, garden scraps are also great for chicken fodder. Pulled weeds, pruning leftovers, slightly spoiled fruits and vegetables are all delicious and free fodder for your fowl. Leafy greens and other vegetables from the cruciferous family will be a hit with your flock as will members of the squash/pumpkin clan. But do be aware of plants that are toxic for the birds (and humans). Plants (not fruits) from the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, rhubarb, and peppers, are poisonous and shouldn’t be used as chicken feed. Raw or dried legumes contain phytohaemagglutinin, which is fatal to chickens in quite small doses. However, beans that have been soaked for several hours and then boiled are safe for your birds.
3. Dumpster Dives
Even for those who aren’t into gardening or eating vegetables (Your mama says shame on you!), it’s easy to acquire heaps of healthy vegetable scraps from grocery stores, produce stands, and restaurants. The local farmers market can sometimes be a good source, though vendors are more likely to have a use for the scraps on their own farms. The point is that lots of healthy foods, such as wilted greens and bruised pumpkins, are out there for the taking. This can also be piled into compost to add to their feed quality and diversity. Rescuing produce from a fate in the landfill is good in all sorts of ways.
For extra ideas on Dumpster diving, check out this video: Raising chickens without grains
4. Orchard Windfalls
Orchard windfalls can help feed your chickens in a couple of different ways: you can gather up the windfalls and put them into the chicken run or you can let your chickens loose around the trees. The type of orchard you have or have access to may dictate how your chickens interact with the trees. For instance, if you have a monoculture apple orchard, your chickens can root around the base of the trees, gobbling up both the bruised fruits and the bugs they attract. They’ll reduce the number of grubs and other undesirable pests in your orchard as well as depositing a bit of manure.
On permaculture sites and some homesteads, mixed orchards, or food forests, are a key part of the design. Mixed orchards typically include several different types of fruit and nut trees. Squirrels will help crack open the nuts, or you can crush some to give your chickens easy access. Food forests have more plants at ground level that you may not want the chickens to disturb, so windfalls can be gathered and shared with the chickens away from the orchard. Chickens can roam through the orchard, eating a wider variety of fruits and protein-rich nut meats. Both the orchards and the chickens will benefit from their interaction, and your chicken food costs will be reduced.
5. Living Fences
For chicken runs with static fencing, forage plants can be placed just outside (or protected within) fence lines to grow up and through them. This works particularly well with winter squash and cucumber vines. The plants will grow up the fencing, providing habitat for insects that the birds can eat. Then, as the fruits ripen, they’ll yield more food, including protein-rich seeds, for the chickens. Blackberries and raspberries, which are hardy and weedlike, work particularly well for this, too. Even better, they’re perennial plants that won’t require annual cultivation. Grape vines are great for covering small runs and lending a little shade and protection, as well as snacks.
6. Chicken Gardens and Pastured Chickens
Chicken gardens can provide a good lot of greens and insects for the birds to enjoy. Rather than planting seed packets, pay attention to the weeds growing in the area. Many weeds are perfect chicken fodder, and most are good for human consumption as well. It pays to cultivate a spot with nutrient-rich plants like comfrey, lamb’s quarter, dandelions, and chickweed. When the time is right, sunflowers and other seed producers are a great addition to this and will likely replant themselves. You can use movable fencing to limit chicken access, allowing some parts of the garden to mature and other parts to recover. Many of the plants that chickens love also attract pollinators that will help keep the whole system healthy.
If you are pasture-raising your chickens, scatter seeds or plant cover crops that the chickens can eat to provide both good cover for the pasture and nutrition for your chickens. Lettuces, sorrel, cowpeas, mustards, clover, sorghum, chicory, and dandelions will provide a nutritious feast for your flock. You can also seed your pastures with low growing cover crops, such as New Zealand clover, oats, and rye, that will feed your birds and provide some protection. Just like foraging in the orchard, the chickens will also eat up insects and other pests as well as adding their manure to the whole system.
7. Rotational Grazing
Whether you are using a chicken garden, your yard, or several pastures, you’ll want to rotate the area where your chickens graze. If your birds are housed in a chicken tractor with an open floor, you can move the tractor around a property. The chickens will graze on the grass and soil organisms in one area for a short time, and then you can relocate them to a new patch before the damage to the land becomes severe.
If you don’t want to or can’t move a chicken tractor, you can have several fenced grazing areas attached to one coop. Allow the birds access to one paddock for a few days before moving them to the next. This will allow each pasture some time to recover. Remember that chickens have big feet and they love to scratch. They will scrape a patch bare if permitted to stay too long. It’s recommended to move tractors every day or two. For fenced paddocks, the rotation will depend on the size of the paddock and number of chickens. You’ll figure out what works for you.
If you keep larger pastured livestock, you can put the birds in rotation with them. The chickens will eat seeds and different greens as well as the fly larvae they find in cow, pig, or sheep manure. And, as they scratch through the manure, they’ll spread it around, allowing it to decompose more readily. All of the critters will benefit from the varied nutrition as will your pocketbook.
8. Chicken Composting
Using chickens to produce quick composts is another great way to feed your birds for free and get good quality compost. Chickens love scratching through piles of compost to find healthy snacks, such as grubs and worms and seeds and leaves, all the while adding a bit of nitrogen-rich manure to the mix. You can use the compost in your own gardens, or, if your chickens help make enough, you can sell the high-quality product. In this way, the chickens are not just getting free meals, but are actually helping to pay for their upkeep.
9. Soldier Fly Bins
While most people think of composting worms when getting help with processing kitchen scraps, black soldier fly larvae (Hermetia illucens) are actually even more efficient eaters of organic refuse. What’s better is they are seriously good chicken food and multiply like crazy. Black soldier fly larvae (in their pre-pupa stage) will work their way out of the compost bin. You can attach a plastic bucket to an opening of the compost bin and the black larvae will essentially cull themselves. Keep the plastic bin dry and the larvae won’t be able to climb the sides and escape. Before they are ready to leave the compost bin, the larvae will convert vegetable scraps into compost for the garden. Another added bonus is that black soldier flies, which are pretty non-offensive, get rid of other flies and mosquitoes. If you want to learn the specifics of operating a larvae bin, watch How to Start a Black Soldier Fly Larvae Composting Bin.
A Well-Balanced Diet
Undoubtedly, chickens kept in confined spaces will need store-bought feeds. Good mixes have been designed to provide adequate nutrition for cage-bound birds with inadequate lives. But, for those of us looking for something a little different, there is real potential to provide most, if not all, of our chicken feed from free, natural sources. What’s even more notable is that the self-reliant birds will likely lead healthier lives because of it. Their diets will be better balanced, and their lifestyles, once again focused on providing for themselves, will be more active.
As suggested by the recent resurgence of edible landscaping and backyard chickens, many humans have come to recognize the same benefits for people getting back to lifestyles and diets that come from our own efforts to cultivate food at home. If we can see the good it would do us, then surely, we recognize the difference it would make for our flocks. Plus, it’s a much less expensive way to get your omelets.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he’s lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.