Thanks to the record-breaking drought in western North America last year, and some
international shenanigans I don’t even want to think about, we are all facing high grain prices in 2022. Poultry feed is mainly grain - barley, corn, wheat, soy etc. Even though grain is not the natural diet of chickens, that’s how we have been feeding them since the first grain mills opened. So we are forewarned: feed is going to get expensive this year.
The cost of growing your own eggs and chicken meat in going to go up. So – should you give up on chickens? Remember, the commercial producers are in the same boat - their feed costs are going up, too. You will not be able to buy eggs and chicken at 2021 prices in the store.
Very few foods will not go up sharply in price - all grain-fed meats, all grain-based meat
substitutes, all vegetarian protein foods. Are we all hooped?
Ta dah! Chickens can come to your rescue! Chickens can live well and be very productive with
little or no grain-based feed, by feasting on their natural diet items, which you can provide
cheaply with a little ingenuity.
#1 HEAT If you are in a cold area, remember that grain = carbohydrates = energy. When your birds are cold they have to burn carbs to generate more heat for themselves. Many studies have shown that it is cheaper to give them more heat (electrical or gas) and better insulation from the cold than to feed them more carbs. (But don’t forget, they need good ventilation, too.)
#2 GRIT Most small flock birds are short of grit and therefore can’t digest all the carbs and good stuff in their feed. Up to a third of the feed they eat may go straight through them. What a waste of money! Make sure your birds have a good supply of granite or silica grit. Do not buy limestone that is being sold as grit - it is too soft to grind well, and the calcium in it is not
bioavailable, despite what they tell you at the feed store. Get the #2 size pieces for chickens over 3 lbs. Good grit doesn’t always come in bags - your property may have spots with good pebbles, a pile of extra road mulch, etc. Look around.
#3 FORAGE Most chicken runs are barren, sour spots, inches deep in chicken poop, and provide no nourishment whatsoever. Most lawns are also barren of digestible greenery, and even many pastures offer chickens little plant-based food. (Cow poop? Yum! Grass? Bleh) So if you have to contain your birds inside fences or tractors plant stuff out there that they can eat and get nourishment from. If you can buy seed look for clover, forage chicory, amaranth, brassicas, vetch, lettuces, comfry, radishes, etc. The more diversity the better. You can buy great seed blends designed to feed deer. If you can’t buy seed you can at least collect dandelion puffs, let some kale and cabbages go to seed, and nurture the local ‘weeds’ that are nutritious (chickory, plantain, alfalfa, etc.) Try dividing your run in half and let one side grow while the chickens use the other side; then switch. Build frames of 2x4s covered with ½ inch hardware cloth and sow greens under it - the birds will get lots to eat and can’t destroy the roots. Corn is a great crop to grow in a poopy chicken run - it gets tall and provides shade and cover, and it can be interplanted with all sorts of yummy greens, squash and pumpkins!
#4 HOME GROWN FEED There are a lot of plants that you can grow as a row in the garden or a patch over to one side, that are nutritious and easily harvested without a combine.
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds - harvest mature heads and let the chooks pull the seeds out.
Comfrey - Harvest the leaves and let the chickens pick them to pieces; excellent food.
Amaranth - get the grain type, harvest the sprays of seed and let the birds pick away.
Kale - can be amazingly productive and you can keep cutting it almost all winter.
Duckweed - Have a little pond? Duckweed is very nutritious! Scoop and feed.
Grains - Don’t thresh & winnow, just tie bundles of stems and let the chickens play
Pumpkins - choose long keeping varieties, and collect strays after Halloween.
Vetch - a legume that is high in protein. Cut and come again.
#5 STORE FOOD RECYCLING If you can’t get in to a LOOP program try approaching your
local grocery stores and companies that produce food. These places generate a tremendous
amount of ‘waste’ food, and you can relieve them of the bother of taking it to the transfer station. Much of it won’t be organic or even very clean but with some washing and picking through you can find marvellous food for your chickens (and other animals). Also check bakeries, cheese makers, fast food restaurants that have to clear the decks every night, food sorting and storage facilities... Chickens eat pineapples and dragon fruit, and my cow loves bananas. Who knew?
#6 DAIRY Speaking of my cow - around the world the best food security investment anyone can make is to own a dairy animal. It doesn’t have to be a Holstein, a tiny Alpine goat will do. Milk, fresh or fermented, is highly nutritious for chickens (and everyone else), and yes they can digest it and no they are not lactose intolerant (I don’t know why chickens produce lactase, but they do). Raw milk is the perfect first drink for baby chicks, and milk mixed with low grade plant foods can enhance the meal brilliantly. Chickens love yogurt, curds & whey, and cheese of all sorts.
#7 WORM FARMS Two types. Red wigglers only want and need cellulose to thrive, and
cellulose is everywhere and free. Newspaper is perfect, cardboard if you can shred it up a bit,
pulp cartons, soiled sawdust from a chicken coop, fall leaves, etc. Pile it up, mixed and shredded if possible to keep it from packing down airless, add water and worms, and check on it at least once a week. It takes about 6 months for the first harvest, but after that it’s a regular thing. A Rubbermaid tote can produce a pound of worms a week if well managed. And worms are an ideal food for chickens.
Meal worms are not really worms, they are the larvae of a flour beetle, but to chickens they are very delicious. You can grow a colony of them in a small Rubbermaid tote with some bran and oats in the bottom and a piece of potato or something similar as a water source. It takes about 2 months to go through the first lifecycle and then you can start harvesting the larvae.
#8 FISH Although the CFIA does not sanction feeding meat to livestock, you may feed them
fish, including the innards that you remove when cleaning the fish. You may be able to get free
fish trim from a fish store (the backbones, heads and tails) or you might know a fisherman.
Chickens generally won’t eat a whole raw fish if you give it to them, but if you chop it up a bit
they will be happy to eat it. Fish, like dairy foods and worms, are perfect and balanced food for chickens.
#9 MULTI-SPECIES COVER CROPS This last suggestion, is the invention of Gene Covert of
Covert Farms in Oliver, BC. It is suited for raising meat birds. While this may be beyond the
means of most small flock holders, I think it is inspirational if you have the land and equipment
to do it. It is scaled for 200 Mistral Gris and 3 acres of land. The land is sown with a 10 species mix of cover crop varieties, including warm and cool broadleaf and grass species. This is done in mid-May, and might need irrigation to get growing. The chicks are hatched in June and spend their first 6 weeks in a brooder on commercial feed. Then they are turned out on one acre of the cover crop which has grown thick and tall. The birds stay on each acre for two weeks and then move on to the next. They finish at target time at target weight with no purchased feed after leaving the brooder. This program not only grows fabulous quality meat, but also enhances the soil they are on. Poultry Centred Regenerative Agriculture at its best!
#10 CHEAP SEED You can buy excellent forage seed in bulk at low prices if you look beyond
the seed packet display. Big box stores that sell big bags of wild bird seed in the winter put those bags for sale at a deep discount in February, and the smaller bags go on clearance in March. ‘Wild bird seed’ is still more expensive by the pound that poultry feed but it is about 3 times more nutritious: more protein, more fat, and a diversity of species. You can feed it directly to the chickens - much better for them than scratch feed - but the best use is to sprout it or sow it for them. Make sure the seed has not been irradiated to prevent it from sprouting. This is excellent seed to grow in your run or under frames. Bulk Barn has bins of bird seed that is usually cheaper than the bagged stuff, and also small grains in the people food section of the store that are pretty cheap. Most of these things will sprout and grow nicely. There may be a farm store in your area that sells seed from bulk bins. Look for canary seed, millet, black oil sunflower, vetch, clover, brassicas...
Left on their own in a natural habitat - a forest floor or dense shrubbery - chickens will hunt for
‘animal protein’ (i.e. anything they can catch), dig for worms and small critters in the duff, eat
seeds, fruit and tender greens. On a diet like that they would not need the Poultry Pre-Mix
(vitamin and mineral additive that is added to commercial feed), but if your property has limited choice and seasonal shortages it is a good idea to add some pre-Mix to their food regularly. You can buy Pre-Mix from many feed stores, vets or grain mills.