In the world where the pace of life is getting faster and faster and money tighter and tighter, being a free ranging poultry farmer is not always easy. Buying pellet feed for our chickens is a quick feeding solution but it’s expensive and won’t necessarily give your birds all the nutrients they need. So what’s the alternative? Why not try a more natural, home-based, self-reliant feeding methodology? Putting it simply, we could try growing our own chicken feed. And to do this we have to start by identifying the natural foods in our own backyard’s that we can give our birds access to. So what would a chicken eat in an ideal world? Well, ultimately it would eat green growing plants, wild seeds, and animal foods such as earthworms and insects. In other words, it will eat live foods. Whatever the touted virtues of mass-produced, ultra-processed chicken feeds, they are anything but alive and so the benefits will be lessened. Growing the food for our chickens could well be the key to both flock health and contentment and to making the homestead or farm more self-sufficient and ecologically sound. Joel Salatin, of pastured poultry fame, said that a chicken’s diet could consist of as much as 30 percent from pasture grasses and legumes. And both humans and chickens benefit from a 12% to 18% protein diet. We both appreciate variety. But just what can you grow in the garden to keep a small flock of hens happy, healthy, and highly productive.
- Grains: feed corn, sorghum, amaranth, and sunflowers. All are beautiful, boost insect diversity and support pollinators, and ripen nutritious seeds.
- Cover crops: small grains, buckwheat, and cowpeas.
- Chard and mangels: Chard (Swiss chard) and mangels (fodder beets) are simply variants of garden beets, Beta vulgaris.
- Potatoes: must be cooked
- Comfrey: high-mineral, high-nitrogen leaves
- Dairy byproducts: If you milk a cow or goat and make butter or cheese, skimmed or soured milk and whey are good poultry feeds.
- Cultivated Earthworms and Soldier Grubs
- Decomposers as live protein feeds: earthworms, black soldier flies, and carrion flies
You can use kitchen scraps of course. We’ve been feeding them cucumber peels, tomato cores, onion ends and stale bread. We’ve found that putting the table scraps through a blender in the evening and then putting the food out for the birds the following morning, and they demolish it.
And finally, guano can tell you a lot about the health of your birds! Learn what the poop from a healthy bird with an efficient digestive system looks like. If you make a change and start getting a lot of smeary, off-color, smelly poops—back off and try again!