Learn how to feed chickens without buying chicken feed. It will take some work on your part and a little time for the whole system to be in place and functioning but your chickens will eat better which means so will you!
Chickens were born to scratch. I remember years ago buying two Speckled Sussex hens and a rooster from a man who had raised them in a pen that was elevated above the ground about 4 feet.
He had hatched them out in his incubator so that is all they had known. Their feet had never been on the ground!
When we got them back to the farm and put them in their yard, they didn’t care about anything but scratching up a dust bath. For over 30 minutes they scratched and dusted and clucked sweet contentment to one another.
Scratching is something that is in the DNA of a chicken. They can scratch up your favorite flower bed or dig up your garden plants.
They will turn a green chicken run into something resembling a barren moonscape dust bowl all in a matter of weeks.
When we work with nature, we can use that scratching drive in a chicken to great advantage!
How to Feed Chickens Without Buying Chicken Feed
In some of my articles, I have referred to chickens and gardens being a match made in Heaven. They do complement each other better than anything else on the farm.
Since compost is such a big part of soil health what you are about to read will reinforce the idea that chickens and gardens make the perfect pair.
Chickens and Compost
Chickens love to scratch and compost needs to be turned over as it breaks down organic matter into usable plant foods.
What can take a compost pile around 6 Months to do on its own, a flock of chickens can help it do in a couple of weeks!
Chickens also get exercise and stay away from boredom as they scratch through the compost pile.
They’re looking for the high-protein bugs, weed seeds, and nutritious microbes that reward them for following the natural desire to scratch up a storm.
Many people have used compost to drastically lower their chicken feed bill. Some have lowered it all the way to Zero!
It may take you a few months and a couple of tweaks, but you can eliminate your chicken feed bill completely no matter if you have 10 or 100 chickens in your flock.
A Pallet Compost Bin
If you want to lower your feed bill right away start a pallet compost bin in or near your existing chicken coop or yard like the one we built here.
- Start with 2-3 feet of high carbon material, such as hay, straw, or leaves.
- Then simply add kitchen and garden scraps to the pile daily.
Your whole flock will stay closer to the coop becoming harder for predators to get ahold of while making free compost for great produce.
A Chicken Tractor Rotation System
- Build or purchase chicken coops that you can move once a week. We started out with this system.
- Create a portable poultry wire fence for a small run that can move with the chicken tractor.
- When the chickens have turned over and eaten the things they want in a particular area, move the chicken tractor forward to the next spot.
- You can start a compost pile in the area they cleaned up by adding hay, staw, leaves, and kitchen and garden scraps.
- Turn it a couple of times to incorporate their manure and let it rest. You will have a nice compost pile to bring them back to when you’re ready.
The Ultimate Chicken Compost Setup
This is the ultimate setup for us to feed chickens without buying chicken feed. It may be something you can do as well depending on your homestead setup.
- First you need 3 compost piles in different locations
- The first pile should be beside the main chicken yard and coop. On our farm, the best location is near where the breeding yards are located.
- The second compost pile is by the main garden area which makes it easy to add garden scraps directly to it.
- The third one is next to the the compost tumbler and worm beds. It’s far enough away from the other two to not be noticed by our free-ranging chickens.
- Ideally, all three compost piles have a covering like a pole barn or carport to keep the compost nutrients from being washed away by rain or getting too wet. This also helps keep the chickens out of the weather while they scratch away making compost and finding all the food they need.
- After you have all three compost piles established, begin feeding the pile you will move the flock to next.
- The piles will grow over time so if you have a larger flock, you may want to make sure that the open-ended sheds or barns are tall enough to get your front loader or tractor bucket in and out. This will make delivering organic matter to the pile and moving finished compost out easier.
We have one large portable coop that houses 50-60 birds that we move from pile to pile. We turn them out to free-range around the pile. Some people just free-range their chickens and let them find their own way to any pile.
This obviously works for some but our farm isn’t large enough to space them out over acres. By moving the coop, they find food, water, and their home so they don’t wander too far. Of course, there’s always the loner who wanders all over the place but in general, they stay pretty close to the compost pile.
Because their coop is there, they go right up at the end of the day. At night we simply make a headcount and shut the door. When it’s time to move the coop, we usually do it in the early morning before they rise or just after they are up.
Once we’ve moved the coop and given them a minute to settle down, we let them out to free range. They’ve learned the routine and head straight for the compost pile.
They have the compost, water, and laying boxes so at the end of the day, they go right back home to roost and be secure for the night.
If you don’t move them while they are in the coop in the early morning, they will tend to find a tree or some other place to roost because they are confused. This makes them more likely to be dinner for night predators.
Here’s a video to help you understand a little more about this system.
Harvesting the compost
When we harvest the compost from the chickens scratched piles sometimes we use it right away on a spot in the garden or in the greenhouse or high tunnel hoop houses.
Depending on the need, we may move the compost to a compost finishing area. Here we can add it to our worm beds or let it tumble in a composter for another week or two.
When it’s finished, we will store what we don’t need right away under a pole barn or tarp where it will be protected from the elements for use at a later time.
FAQ About Compost and Chickens
Will chickens eat foods that will make them sick?
In my 40+ years of experience, if they have access to good food they will naturally avoid what will harm them. They aren’t especially smart about it, they will peck at anything to see what it is.
We talked about this in a podcast on what not to feed your chickens. You have to decide what you want to put in your compost and do what you think is right for you and your chickens.
What should I not put in my compost pile to feed my chickens?
There are a few things that should not be put into any compost pile.
- Meat scraps of any kind
- Dairy products, used oils, fats
- Wood products treated with chemical preservatives
- Plants or weeds treated with pesticides or herbicides
- Any part of the Black Walnut Tree
- Any plant that is diseased
- Dog or cat poop
- A compost pile for chickens should NEVER have avocados in it. They contain a substance called persin which is highly toxic to chickens.
Your chickens will enjoy meat scraps and dairy products.
We put these near the coop where they can find them, and trust me they do, but not near or in the compost pile itself.
What if I don’t have a large enough garden to build my compost piles?
It may be some people don’t have much kitchen waste or a large enough garden to produce enough to feed multiple compost piles.
I have read that 97% of the 350 million tons of food waste generated in 2010 was thrown into landfills even though most of it could have been used for livestock feed or been composted.
That should give us an idea of what we can collect from friends and neighbors to use in our compost piles.
I know one lady who collects grass clippings and leaves from her neighbors. She has also formed relationships with farmers at the local farmer’s market who give her produce at the end of the day or any that is not sellable.
You can contact local restaurants and make arrangements to collect their unused produce. Local fruit and vegetable stands, local farmers who don’t have chickens or who don’t feed theirs using this method are also ideas you could try.
If you are organic, as we are, you’ll have to be aware of how the produce or any clippings you are picking up have been raised or treated. Again, this is something you have to decide for yourself and your flock.
Composting with chickens is less work, takes less money, and from what I have experienced produces healthier happier chickens. It increases egg production, the eggs even taste healthier, and you’ll have fewer diseases in your flock.
In the generations of the past, people didn’t have any waste. They recycled everything through pigs and chickens back into the soil for the greatest symbiotic relationship the homestead has ever seen.
Remember, produce is only as healthy and nutritious as the soil it is grown in. When it comes to Brix levels, it does not matter if it’s organically grown. Brix levels indicate how many nutrients the plants have been able to get from the soil it was grown in.
We all eat fruits and vegetables, but do we consider that not all tomatoes are grown in the same kind of soil? Soil that lacks certain minerals will at best only produce tomatoes that lack those vitamins or minerals they are supposed to contain.
Composting with chickens is a symbiotic way to feed chickens without buying chicken feed and provide nutrient-rich compost for soil enrichment for the plants we grow.
As always, we’re here to help.