Animal feed is so expensive that feeding even a moderately-sized flock of poultry can quickly become cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, there’s another option: using kitchen scraps and wild insects as free animal feed. Read on to learn more!
Start Thinking Like a Chicken
If you’re choosing healthier, organic, GMO-free feed for your flock, the price of store-bought feed doubles. Furthermore, if your birds are relying on store-bought feed for all of their nutritional needs, you’ll soon find it’s better to buy eggs from a local farmer. Even if your birds are free-ranging for part of the day, costs will pile up quickly if they’re relying on chicken food for most of their needs.
So what’s a frugal farmer to do?
Chickens and ducks aren’t like us: they’re not picky eaters. They really don’t care if the food they eat is a high-end mixture of organic grains, or just some maggots they found in the manure pile. In fact, given the choice, your chickens would rather just scratch around in the dirt for food. Remember that people have been keeping poultry for thousands of years. Long before feed stores lined their shelves with fifty-pound bags of multi-flock pellets.
So what did long-ago farmers feed their flocks? Most of the time, they fed them a small amount of mixed grains. Peas, corn, seeds, and barley made up the majority of old-world “chicken scratch”. In fact, the flock’s primary source of nutrients came from foraging.
People turned their chickens loose in their pastures, and the birds devoured ticks, worms, grasses, and grasshoppers. Chickens fed on this nutrient-dense, wild food were hardier and more flavorful than our corn-fed birds today. Best of all, this food is completely free!
But, I Don’t Have Acres of Pasture
Pasture space for free-ranging poultry is scarce these days. Most people don’t have acres of wild land to let their animals forage on. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that you can feed your birds for free on a small-scale homestead.
Just keep in mind that the less space you have to work with, the more you may have to supplement your free feed with a consistent grain mixture. If you’re really determined to free yourself from the feed store, try mixing up your own healthy poultry food as well.
Free Animal Feed Options
Ready to get started? There are a few ways to go about providing free sustenance to your birds, from gathering scraps to growing fodder. Let’s start with the most basic options first, and work our way up to full-on homesteading.
Yep. That’s it! Just gather up all the vegetarian leftovers and bring them out to the birds. Everything from bagel ends to broccoli stalks. Ducks and chickens adore strawberry hulls and watermelon rinds, but most of your kitchen scraps will feed them easily and safely.
Even though chickens aren’t vegetarians, and they will eat meat products, it’s best to avoid them. Don’t give leftover chicken salad or burger meat to your birds: stick to the vegetarian options here.
The exception to this is dairy: soured milk and moldy cheese are great additions to the scrap bucket. You can even use your old milk to soak grains before giving them to your birds.
There’s mixed advice about feeding chickens crushed eggshells. Mixing eggshells into their feed is a great source of calcium, but raw eggshells can give your hens a taste for eggs. Egg-eating chickens are a disaster!
The best way to fee crushed eggshells to your hens it by toasting them first. Collect all your crushed shells, scatter them on a baking sheet, and toast them in the oven at about 200 degrees for 20-30 minutes. You can keep them in a jar to sprinkle on scraps, or mix them into the birds’ scratch feed.
Similar to kitchen scrapes, gardening scraps will thrill your poultry. Furthermore, they’re a great way to get plenty of greens into your birds. Ducks and geese love weeds, so just pull up the tall grasses and plantain leaves you don’t want and toss them into the duck pen.
Chickens and turkeys will devour anything green. Put a chicken tractor on a patch of brambles, and in just a couple days they’ll have trampled and devoured all those invasive plants.
Some garden scraps are toxic! NEVER give your birds (especially ducks and geese) plants from the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The leaves will cause the birds to sicken and die. I once lost three ducks because they broke into my tomato garden and devoured the plants.
They spent the afternoon laying in the yard, eyes glazed, breathing hard. A few of the larger ducks recovered, but most did not.
The Compost Pile
We built a big compost pile out of pallets. When it’s all full, we can pen the chickens on top of the pile and let them scratch around. In addition to eating all sorts of composting veggies, they’re devouring worms, maggots, larvae, and other tasty tidbits.
The compost pile is a great way to give your flock a boost. If you don’t think yours are getting enough variety in their diet, plop them down on the compost for a few days! Not only is this free animal feed, it’s also a great way to cut down on the insect population.
If you have a bit more space and time, consider planting a grazing garden for your birds. A 20’ x 20’ would be ideal to keep a small flock fed through the summer. Plant it with nutrient-dense, hardy herbs like nettle, comfrey, and chickweed. Sow some alfalfa and peas in for bulk, and add a few sunflowers as a treat.
The best part about growing a grazing garden is that the birds have consistent access to both veggies and the insects that eat them. Their nutrition can be naturally balanced with any need for supplementation.
If you have a small yard, but you still want to give your birds the benefits of a grazing garden, you can grow interchangeable grazing boxes. Make them big enough to last a while, but small enough to be easily moved.
Keep one or two growing while one is in the chicken yard. Your birds will appreciate the variety, and you’ll appreciate the drop in your feed bill!
Have you noticed a trend? Most of my ideas are limited to the growing season. Apart from kitchen scraps, you won’t have much luck with free animal feed options in the winter, unless you plan ahead.
You can grow food for your birds in the summer that will feed them in over winter. Try growing peas and kale late in the fall to give your birds a boost before the cold weather comes. You can even bring the kale indoors, or keep it going in a cold frame if your winters are more moderate.
Additionally, winter squashes are an ideal option because they store so well. Beets and carrots work well too. Keep these long-lasting crops in the root cellar, slice them in half and let the birds devour them: seeds, skin, and all.
Growing Fodder for Winter Feed
“Fodder” isn’t just a fancy word for food. It’s a specific kind of food: a natural, easy-to-digest, living grain. Now, technically, fodder isn’t free animal feed, because you will have to buy the grain somewhere. But in comparison to buying layer pellets for your birds, fodder is an amazing deal.
Fodder is also a multi-animal solution for animals other than birds. If you’re hoping to stretch your feed budget with pigs, for example, fodder is a great way to bulk up your pork without buying tons of grain.
Usually, growing fodder is like getting a “buy one, get two free” deal at the feed store. One 50-pound bag of barley will grow into 150 lbs of fodder.
How to Grow Fodder
There are a lot of different ways to grow your own fodder at home. The most basic way to get started is by filling a quart-sized jar with grain (barley or peas are great for poultry). Add a splash of apple cider vinegar to keep the grain from molding, and then fill the jar with warm water.
Leave the jars covered (I use cheesecloth for this) and out of the way for about 24 hours (12 hours if it’s very warm). After 24 hours, drain any remaining water through the cheesecloth and rinse the seeds. Then, put them in a plastic storage tote. Spread them out in one flat layer at the bottom of the tote.
Rinse the grain lightly twice a day. It’s easiest if you punch holes in the bottom of your storage totes so the rinse water can just drain out. By the third day, you’ll see little sprouts forming. By day 6 or 7, you’ll have a lovely little bed of fodder.
Just toss the whole bed into the coop—your birds will scratch it up and pick it apart.
Sample the Savings
There are so many ways to reduce your feed budget by supplementing your flock’s feed. Best of all, your birds actually prefer to eat the grubs, ticks, and dandelions out in the wild. So don’t feel bad about penning them up on top of the compost heap or dumping your table scraps into the coop.
Spend the growing season feeding your flock for free on garden forage, and the winter supplementing with scraps and fodder. Your poultry will be happier, healthier, and more productive when you do.