Before we got our chickens we did a lot of research and on internet forums everywhere it seemed like people freaked out whenever someone mentioned raising chickens with their own blend of feed or not buying layer pellets. Responses ranged from
OMGZ UR CHICKS WILL DIE!
It’s too difficult to make your own mixed feed. Pellets are properly blended to contain the right mix of nutrients…blah…blah…blah…scientifically proven to maximize growth…blah…blah…
But honestly, humans have raised chickens for hundreds and thousands of years without doing anything more than letting them roam freely around their homes and feeding them kitchen scraps. As for bagged pellets being the perfect mix of nutrition for gains of body mass and egg production, I’m just going to point out that fast food and frozen dinners are the perfect mix for body mass gain for humans, but nobody’s going to claim that living on processed crap is good for your health.
The advice in this post assumes that you’re raising a heritage breed or at the very least not some franken-chicken like CornishXs or Freedom Rangers or Hy-line layers. In these cases I would recommend using commercial feed.
Out of eight chicks that arrived in December, we only lost one to coccidiosis. The others all grew up healthy and the pullets started laying right on schedule in May. We butchered the cockerels once they started crowing. Pretty good odds for a first time chicken owner!
Our girls lay gorgeous eggs with thick shells and rich orange yolks either every day or every other day. Our cockerels were tender, juicy, and delicious with none of the large yellow fat deposits we saw in other people’s pictures. At the end of five months, our chickens (Silkie bantams) all weighed 29 oz. – 33 oz., which is within breed standards and similar to what a chicken raised on commercial feed would weigh. In addition to our 3 Silkies we are also raising 7 white Leghorn chicks.
So for all the naysayers, I have to say that it is possible to raise healthy chickens without commercial chicken feed and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. We’ve certainly done it, and we’re still living in an apartment too!
How do we feed our chickens?
Chickens need protein, calcium, and a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals with the rest of their caloric intake met by carbohydrates.
Since chickens are kinda like teenagers, they’ll happily fill up on junk food like grains and corn over healthy food. Since we’re not using a pellet where everything is homogenized, we front load their breakfast with the most nutritionally dense food. This means that their breakfast is high in protein and nutritionally dense veggies. Our hens’ breakfast mix varies depending on what we have on hand, but it is usually a mix of:
- Mealworms (which we raise)
- Crickets (which we raise)
- Black soldier fly larvae
- Kale (which we grow)
- Mustard greens (which we grow)
- Sweet potato leaves (which we grow)
- Leftover meat from soup bones and such
- Plain yogurt
We don’t regulate how much they eat and adjust the amount we give them by observation. We like to give them enough so that there’s a bit leftover after everybody’s lost interest. This ensures that the lowest girl in the pecking order doesn’t go hungry.
After breakfast, they have free choice of veggies and grains for the rest of the day until they go to sleep. We scatter grains around their run (aka our patio) and keep several dishes in their indoor play area and scatter the veggies around for them to peck at.
For veggies we give them:
- Wheat grass fodder everyday (which we grow)
- Sunflower sprouts everyday (which we grow)
- Carrots everyday
- Cabbage everyday
- Pumpkin (when in season)
- Sweet potatoes
- Tomatoes (when in season)
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
To meet their need for calcium and other trace minerals we give them a mix of:
- Crushed egg shells
- Crushed seafood shells from whatever we’ve been eating (mussels, lobster, shrimp)
- 1 calcium tablet (dissolved) and 1 multivitamin (dissolved) mixed into their grains
- Nutritional yeast
And that’s really all we give them! The foods vary depending on seasonality and what we can buy on sale and grow, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what they eat everyday.
But this must cost a fortune! Not at all. Since we grow so much of what they eat and buy the rest when it’s on sale, we buy less than $6 of veggies for them each month.
How we save money on feeding our chickens
The first feeder insects we experimented with were crickets. We bought a tiny box from PetSmart (25 crickets for $1.99) in December and after getting rid of all the males except for a few, we let them breed and lay eggs. Six months later we are on our third generation of crickets and have several hundred.
We keep them in a plastic salad tub with air holes poked into the lid. They have egg carton pieces to hide in and we use the original container from PetSmart as a container for the egg-laying medium when each generation matures to breeding age.
To keep costs down, we feed them whatever’s left over after the chickens are finished eating. We also feed them vegetable scraps that even our chickens won’t touch. This includes the tough ends of vegetables like asparagus, carrot, lettuce, and cabbage. These are the perfect vegetables since they don’t grow mold or attract fruit flies. The insects feed on the vegetables for moisture and after they are consumed we’re left with a dried husk which I can just toss. I do cut the asparagus ends in half lengthwise like a hotdog bun since they’re too tough on the outside for the bugs to chew through.
For protein, I feed them meat trimmings which I place on a yogurt lid. If there’s any left over meat after 24 hours–there usually isn’t–I can throw it away neatly without rotting meat juice getting everywhere.
To keep the crickets warm and growing rapidly, I keep the salad container on top of my indoor garden’s LED shop light.
Cost for initial population: $2.13 (incl. tax)
Cost to feed and house crickets: $0. Everything’s reused or recycled waste.
After our crickets, we wanted another source of protein for our chickens. A lot of people buy dried mealworms since they’re so cheap and easily available. We did too, until we learned that almost all of the dried mealworms sold in the US are raised in China. Different companies repackage and rebrand them in the US, but it’s all Chinese! The domestic mealworm producers cater to the live mealworm market. Mealworms are their favorite insects by far so we knew we had to raise a large colony fast. We started with 2000 worms from Rainbow Mealworms.
Similar to our crickets, our mealworms are kept in old veggie containers. We use oatmeal for their bedding and feed them the same vegetable scraps as the crickets.
Cost for initial population: $16 (incl. taxes and shipping)
Cost to feed and house mealworms: $0.10 (the oatmeal’s the only thing that’s not recycled)
Sunflower Sprouts and Wheatgrass fodder
We realized very quickly that buying all the vegetables our chooks eat was going to get expensive even if we only bought them on sale.
As it turned out, our chickens are picky eaters. They simply refuse to eat BOSS (black oil sunflower seeds) in their scratch mix. We don’t know if it’s really because they’re picky or if it’s because their little bantam mouths can’t handle it, but in any case we decided to try sprouting them instead of letting all those seeds go to waste.
They love the sprouts.
We soak the BOSS for an hour and then let them sprout inside old tomato containers. We rinse them out once in the morning and once at night before we go to bed.
During the first 3 days the sprouts do not need any sunlight, so we keep them stacked together in a shelf below our indoor garden. On day 3 and afterwards, we put them either under our grow lights, on our windowsill, or on top of our patio wall. The sprouts are ready to serve on day 5.
We get multiple pounds of sprouts for each pound of seed so a little goes a long way. Sprouts are nutritious and filling and we actually have to be careful with how much we give the chickens as they’ll fill up on the sprouts and leave all the other vegetables untouched.
Cost for sunflower seeds: $0.50 per pound (it comes as part of their millet/sunflower seed bird food). One pound of dried seeds turns into 6 pounds of sprouts so it ends up costing $0.083 per pound of sprouts.
Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)
We decided to grow wheat grass for our chickens after I stumbled across this thread on BYC. If the claims on the thread are correct that each pound of seed yields six pounds of fodder, then we’re well on our way to cutting down our feed costs.
We weren’t sure if the girls would like the wheat grass or if they would turn up their little beaks so we got a small (26 lb.) tub from Walmart to try it out. The bucket cost $16, which is okay for wheat berries, but not the cheapest. In the future, if they like the wheat grass, we plan on getting the wheat berries from a feed store which should be even cheaper.
They love picking at their little mat of grass.
We give them about 8 oz. of wheat grass a day and they eat it all up by late afternoon.
Cost for wheat berries: $0.60 per pound. One pound of dried seeds turns into 6 pounds of sprouts so it ends up costing $0.10 per pound of sprouts.
Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)
Sweet Potato Leaves
Besides all the sprouts, this is the next easiest and fastest growing vegetable. We save all the ends we cut from our sweet potatoes and just bury them in the dirt. We keep them on our patio wall where we get full light in the morning and indirect light in the afternoon. It’s that easy. Leaves start poking out within a week and within two weeks you can start harvesting them.
Sweet potato leaves are perfectly safe to eat unlike potato leaves, and are tender and delicious stir-fried with a bit of oil and garlic.
Cost for sweet potato ends: $0 (the ends of sweet potatoes are fibrous, usually dried out, and not very edible…)
Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)
So these are the major ways we’ve slashed our feed budget. What about the foods that we buy from the store?
- Oatmeal: $8.99 for 10 lbs from Costco. Oatmeal’s not their favorite food, I think they’ve only gone through 8 ounces in 6 months…my mother ends up eating most of it!
- Cabbage: $1 for 3 lbs when it’s on sale at Marketon. Three pounds of cabbage will last almost a month and a half.
- Birdfood: $17 for 40 lbs from Costco. We LOVE this birdfood. It’s just a mix of millet and sunflower seeds, no fillers like corn or sorghum! Millet’s their favorite grain so we make sure we have plenty on hand for them. One bag of birdfood lasts 4 months.
- Carrots: $4.79 for 10 lbs from Costco. Carrots are their favorite vegetables after sunflower sprouts. They eat half of the bag and we eat the other half. We buy a bag every month.
- Black soldier fly larvae: $55 for 10 lbs from Tasty Grubs. This is the most expensive food we buy for our chickens. If I had my own yard I would farm these myself. Since I don’t think my upstairs neighbor would appreciate flies everywhere or the yummy smell of decomposition, we buy these online. These grubs are not their favorite bugs, but they’re high in calcium so we add them to their breakfast everyday. They go through eight ounces every month.
- Yogurt: $1 for 32 oz when on markdown at Savemart. We stock up and freeze the leftovers whenever we find yogurt on sale.
- Nutritional Yeast: $8.90 for 10 oz. I sprinkle some yeast on top of their food every other day and we go through a 10 oz. tub in 4 months.
- Calcium and vitamins: $7 for 500 tablets each. We buy these on sale at Costco whenever they have their buy 2 for $7 each deal. Each day we dissolve one of each and coat their grains in the liquid. If I had my own house (and a garage!) I could use something cheaper like limestone for a source of calcium, but at the moment this is the most convenient option.
We still have more than half of our wheat berries, oatmeal, birdseed, and grubs, so for 3 laying hens (Silkie bantams) and 2-month old leghorn chicks and 5 2-week old leghorn chicks, it costs about $20 per month to keep them fed, healthy, and laying regularly. That’s $0.67 per day and less than $0.07 per bird per day. Even though our chickens are bantams, that’s still really really really cheap! I’m sure the savings would be similarly massive for a standard breed.