You got backyard chickens to become more self-reliant – because isn’t growing your own food supposed to save you money? Unfortunately, those backyard chickens can quickly become an expensive hobby. Plus, if you’re relying on store-bought feed to keep your little egg farm running, then you’re still tied to mainstream supply chains.
You might be surprised by all the things you can feed your chickens that won’t cost you a cent and come directly from your own property or community. And, while chickens definitely need a balanced diet, you can easily supply that without the expensive commercial pellets. Here are some of the best ways to feed your backyard chickens for free.
Let your chickens eat weeds
Plants that are commonly classed as “weeds” can also be surprisingly good food for both humans and chickens, and may even have health benefits. Weeds such as dandelion, lamb’s quarter, stinging nettle, burdock, and yellow dock are some of the many valuable plants that can creatively feed you and your flock. Comfrey, for example, contains high levels of Vitamin A and B12 that can contribute to those deep yellow yolks, while stinging nettle is high in protein and important minerals.
All you need to do is locate your weeds, uproot them, clean them off, and hand them over to the chickens.
Grow free feed for your chickens
The garden doesn’t just have to feed your family – it can sustain your flock as well. Since seeds are cheap and plentiful, you’ll be able to provide thousands of pounds of food for your chickens with very little expense. This is especially true if you learn how to save seeds from your garden.
You could grow 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, and shrubs. Winter squash is also easy to grow and stores well over the winter.
Let chickens clear up your scraps
If growing food specifically for your chickens seems like too much work, you can let them do the cleanup. Toss your kitchen scraps and garden trimmings to your chickens or let them in to do cleanup duty in your garden after you’ve finished harvesting what you want to eat.
Chickens are omnivores – they eat both meat and vegetables – so your kitchen scraps are mostly safe, especially if you stick to a whole food diet focusing on lean protein, fresh veggies, and other healthy foods. An average family can feed a few chickens just on their leftovers. Anything that is still technically safe but no longer appetizing is fair game, such as wilted lettuce, stale Cheerios, and that end slice of the bread that no one wants to eat.
Did you know that you can achieve a double-whammy with chicken feed and compost by putting your compost pile right in your chicken pen? Yard waste, vegetable scraps, and anything else you routinely compost can go right on the pile. The chickens will enjoy feasting on the scraps, and the pile will attract worms and insects that provide a good source of protein. In turn, they will fertilize it and turn your compost pile, saving you lots of hard work. In the spring, just put the compost on your garden like you normally would, and start a new pile in the pen.
Find local sources of free food
Chances are, there are multiple sources of free chicken food right in your neighborhood. Ask neighbors or friends for their kitchen scraps or yard scraps, or see if local restaurants are willing to contribute their leftovers. Grocery stores, butcher shops, fishmongers and farmers or orchardists may also have unwanted products that are past their prime or would normally go to waste – these make great fodder for your chickens.
Grow fruit trees
If you have space for fruit trees on your property, the fruit that falls to the ground is a great free food for your chickens. Often the fallen fruit goes to waste anyway, so your chickens get to enjoy a feast while you get to keep whatever is left on the tree. Apple trees are ideal since the fruit on the ground will attract worms, giving your hens both fresh fruit and protein.
Mealworms can be kept in a simple Tupperware container with a mesh lid, where they will multiply quickly and serve as an abundant source of protein. You can keep about 1000 worms in a 10-gallon container. A layer of oats or bran in the bottom makes great bedding and feed, too. Add some veggie scraps to feed the worms, and your chickens can easily enjoy a handful or so of protein-rich worms each day.
Let your chickens free-range
The easiest way to give your chickens a balanced diet without spending a fortune is to let them free range for their food. Most breeds of chickens will do just fine foraging for their own food. If you are worried about predators, just let your chickens out for a few hours in the afternoon when you’re around to keep a close watch.
This could help control pests in the garden as well, just limit their grazing time, so they only eat the bugs and don’t move on to your veggies.
If you don’t want to let your chickens into your garden, grow them a separate, fenced patch. Be sure to give the plants a little time to get established before letting the chickens in.
Avoid these foods for chickens
Some foods are unhealthy for chickens, such as uncooked potatoes, avocados, onions, chocolate, dairy, and nightshades. If you make sure your chickens have enough to eat, they will naturally avoid the foods that are not healthy for them.
Since chickens have such a wide-ranging diet, it’s easy to keep them nourished and happy without needing to spend much on commercial chicken feed. Why not set yourself a challenge to see how much you can cut your chicken feed budget this season.