Saturday, June 4, 2022

Feeding the chickens

I have a cyber-friend in Maine who has a small flock of chickens. "How do we feed chickens if no commercial food is available?" she asked. "I've been doing some research on it, but I'm discouraged as I don't grown grain or corn."

I thought this was a legitimate concern, and one that could become increasingly pressing as threats of grain shortages loom.

I'm big on providing chickens with "biota" – insects, worms, grubs, and other goodies via compost piles where they can scratch to their heart's content.

However in northern climates (such as Maine), compost piles aren't a practical source of biota for the six months of the year when snow is on the ground.

Kitchen scraps, garden scraps, hard-boiled eggs, stale bread crumbs, and even meat scraps are all popular choices to feed the ladies. Garden produce such as squashes, cabbage, and lettuce are also common. Mangel beets (which can grow huge – more than 20 lbs.) were a frequent choice to feed chickens a century ago. Another common method was to boil up a mishmash of fruits and veggies such as small potatoes, apples, turnips, carrots, beets, parsnips, beans, peas, squashes, pumpkins, celery tops, etc., then mash the results and feed it to the birds.

In short, in years past people often fed the chickens anything they had on hand, in a manner that was digestible. The best combination is grains, greens, and proteins. Ground-up eggshells are also used as a calcium source. Additionally, chickens are more carnivorous than most people give them credit for.

During warmer months, free-range chickens which have access to a compost pile often do quite well on this kind of diet, but it takes some planning for winter months. A future project I'd like to try is raising larvae – black soldier flies or mealworms – for chicken treats and a protein source, but this requires an indoor setup (at least during the winter) and I'm not sure we have the room.

Anyway, I thought this would be an interesting topic to open up for discussion. What advice, experience, or recommendations do you have for feeding chickens (in both summer and winter conditions) without commercial feed?

31 comments:

  1. A friend in the Seattle area has a huge worm composter setup inside her horse barn. It's basically a huge wood box with an earth floor. The worms survive the cold just fine. Granted Seattle is warmer then Maine, but the idea could still be used to grow worms for the flock.
    SJ in Vancouver BC Canada

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  2. Our chickens will eat just about anything, including frogs.

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  3. This is something I’ve been concerned with also. I’ve gone a month and a half or more and not been able to get chicken feed. When I do find it, I stock up. However, I’m concerned that the day will come that it’s no longer available.

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    1. I failed to change the name before I published this.

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  4. Ours get the carcasses remaining after I make stock from what's left after we eat a roast chicken (cannibalistic little beasts). They also get leftover or dirty eggs, vegetable scraps, and anything damaged by insects in the garden. And lots and lots of mulberries. They love it when the mulberries fall off the trees. It stains their eggs purple, too. Weird.
    XaLynn

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  5. I kept chickens for 9 years and never fed them commercial food. My methods might work in severe shortages.
    1--I collected food every time I ate out. I went to three lunches for seniors. I took home scraps from others' plates. The only thing I turned down was bread. I know too much sodium is bad for chickens, so tried to get leftover salads or tomato slices left. I even collected from restaurants and KFC. I rarely went out to commercial restaurants.
    2--a local fruit stand gave me banana boxes of items they did not want for fear of getting a fruit fly infestation. I was able to get all the tomatoes and bananas for myself from the box. Chickens can only eat so much. Chickens got fruits, vegetables, green items. My friend who sorted took home fruits and vegetables, too. My chickens were so happy to get blueberries, mango, and raspberries.
    3--My own scraps which included raw meat scraps I trimmed, the ends and cores of apples, banana peels.
    4--weeds from my yard. Chickens will eat most weeds thrown in for them. However, if you let them free range, they will not eat those same weeds. I watched to determine which weeds they preferred and picked handsful of those before going out to feed them.
    5--Quaker oats. If all else failed, I would take a cup of oats to them. It filled out their nutritional needs.
    6--Cracked corn for dinner if the temperature would fall to 20F. In the South this rarely happens, so this might not be good information for others.
    6--Egg shells. My mother grew up during the Depression and they raised hens. She said they cooked the egg shells so chickens would not recognize egg shells in the nest. By toasting the egg shells, the chickens did not become egg eaters.
    I called a PhD in Poultry Science at Auburn University and described my feeding. I was being hounded by people saying my hens were not getting proper nutrition. He assured me that my hens had a very healthy diet, healthier than they would eating commercial feed.

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    1. 7--I was a very eager dumpster diver. My hens ate much of the food. I ate lots, too. There were the individual containers of cut watermelon, boxes of blueberries, strawberries, everything the grocery carried.
      8--My friend worked at Sam's. He brought me apples, usually one at a time, sometimes half a dozen, that had fallen out of someone's bag and rolled around on asphalt. They were dinged, but hens don't care.
      9--Every year I collected pumpkins and gourd put on the street for trash day. One business gave me their decorations. These pumpkins were uncut, so they lasted a while.
      10--I went to a corn field and gleaned. The hens loved the bugs and worms on the corn.
      11--At the Farmer's Market where vendors brought their wares, I collected in a five-gallon bucket things being tossed.

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    2. 12--When my mower filled the bagger when mowing, I had her empty the bag into the chicke pen. The hens jumped on the stacks from the bagger and spent the day finding bugs. Happy Hens!

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    3. Okay, by gleaning in corn fields, did you pick up everything that had been dropped? Or are there parts to discard before bringing it back to the hens?

      -Mycenae

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  6. I feed the hens pellet feed and noticed that each bag will have a bunch of powder that also ends up in their feeder. They of course do not eat the powder and I thought this was a total waste. So I save the powder every time I open the 50# bag. In it I will mix anything I can get my hands on. My son while he worked at a restaurant brought home a large bag of ham trims, I chopped it and put in in individual snack zip bags and froze them. I will use one for the mix. We also get a banana box of produce that our local grocery store has to toss, you would be amazed what is tossed, a crying shame but not for us and the chickens. This food is divided in separate buckets so they don't get it all at once. I have also gone to many estate sales and quite frequently you will find food in the pantry, spices, herbs and so on. Some may be a bit past their date. I will add oatmeal from these finds along with dried herbs. I have also found that some people get rid of "prepper " buckets of wheat due to age, I will always take all. Usually they are only a few bucks, the oldest ones are the ones that the chickens will get. I also got some rice and beans that was not properly packed and over 10 years old. They get that too, the beans however have to be cooked. surprisingly the rice had no bugs or any signs of infestation, go figure. I will also add any canned goods that are also past their prime. The mixture then gets water, enough to make it like a paste. You would have thought they were eating caviar the way they act, it is gone within an hour. They will eat it even without additions. I also worry about what I will feed the chickens should feed not be available but with the concotions I make and free ranging I hope it will be covered, but it only works in the good weather, when it is snowing, that's when the wheat buckets and grocery tossings feed them.

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  7. Raising BSL is a good idea. Inside a barn or greenhouse would be good, and also a potential heat source. I saw an article years ago where someone was raising worms in his greenhouse. He had created a big trench right down the middle and lidded it with wood lids. This could be adapted well for BSL. I might use old tin to make lids with instead.
    This past year I noticed that when cold weather moved in and the larvae died out, ( mine are all outside), red worms were bountiful. My chickens got red worms during the winter .
    This is the South, but heat from the compost never entirely went away. The red worms and larvae lived there together until cold weather too so they are very compatible. Worms can live up to 7 years and if it gets too cold they just burrow deeper.
    In the same vein as bugs liking things warm, I've seen one really nifty barn set up with an old wood burning stove. There was a huge hearth and no combustables anywhere near.
    In lieu of a barn, a lean to greenhouse along a sunny wall of an outbuilding could help provide heat both inside the greenhouse and the outbuilding. Also if it we're sunken and bermed heat would be easier to capture and store.
    Anyway, I love black soldier flies. When warm weather comes, other flies break out first. But when the black soldier flies start multiplying, the other flies disappear. I think the BSL larvae grow so much bigger and possibly eat the fly larvae or eggs. This is just my supposition, but something happens to end the bad flies. Whatever it is, I love that it happens without poisons or any effort from me!
    Gosh, it feels like I'm beating a dead horse, but there is an amino acid essential to chicken health that can only be found in BSL. Most chicken feed contains a man made facsimile, not the real thing.
    My opinion is that everyone should raise BSLs as part of their chicken feeding plan.

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    1. Mealworms don't have anything near the nutritional value of BSL which are loaded with fats and calories.
      I don't let my chickens near the piles I want to focus on growing BSL The chickens will devour every new baby BSL. In not too many days that baby bug will be 10 times the size. Plus some will become flies and lay about 800 eggs and die. So many more larvae are available for chicken food this way. I just take a container and trowel to the pile and scoop them out then throw the contents out as a treat. Keep your pile moist, and if you cover a section with a large pot or piece of cardboard to keep it cool underneath they will congregate there for easy scooping.

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  8. What a great discussion. I don't have anything to add, but wanted to say I appreciate your bringing up this topic. So many good ideas here.

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  9. I have a poultry management book written in the 50s and the principal diet of poultry was alfalfa mash made from either hay or fresh alfalfa and discard milk.
    of course if you get it from a Dairy farm it can't be treated (antibiotic) milk if it's being fed to layers, but meat birds not within 3o days if slaughter would be OK.

    any drastic changes in diet need to be gradual because of gut bacteria.
    so experimentation and transition should be kept in mind when introducing a new feed source, instead of drastic all at once.
    iow, if your running low, start rationing by mixing existing feed with a new source if commercial feed won't be acquired for awhile.
    keeping a few bags of scratch grains on hand might be a good idea too.

    as well as knowledge on how to butcher.



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    1. My chickens love alfalfa. I buy the bags for bunnies, chop it up coarsely with scissors while watching TV, then soak it in warm water the next day and let them at it. They even love the water it was soaked in. I've read that farmers used to feed silage to livestock in winter with a dressing of diluted molasses. I haven't tried this yet, but have put some diluted molasses on their feed in hot weather and they love it. It's full of potassium and other goodies that help beat the heat. They also LOVE melons.
      I've thought of growing mangels before. Time may have come to do it.

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  10. Replies
    1. Black Fly Larvae

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    2. Sorry! Black Soldier Larvae, I meant!

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  11. I have seen my hens chase down and eat mice. They are serious meat eaters.

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    1. Whenever I find a nest of "pinkies" (tiny, pink baby mice) I toss them to the chickens. They love 'em!

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  12. A grain shortage and we are converting millions of tons of corn into alcohol to mix with gasoline which decreases milage and can destroy engines. You would think that someone in the administration would get ahead of this food shortage and stop burning food.

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    1. This food shortage is PLANNED.

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  13. Our girls love seafood. Salmon skin and shrimp shells are a favorite

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  14. https://www.communitychickens.com/build-black-soldier-fly-larvae-farm-zw0z2005zols/

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  15. I've been experimenting with fermenting my layer feed to make it stretch further. It seems that they eat about half as much when I ferment it first! It's a bit more work, but worth it for the cost savings and also because it's getting more and more difficult to find feed when I need it.

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  16. I read a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder once. Apparently she was a world class keeper of chickens. Who knew? Her ladies were know to lay eggs 12 months a year. Apparently her secret was adding oatmeal to their feed and making oatmeal the bulk of their food in the winter. Apparently, the oils in the oatmeal are good for chickens.

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  17. Nothing to add, but thank you for this article as we are just ready to "loose" our new chickens into the outdoors. Good info on different types of food the little critters will eat.

    Thanks again.

    m

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  18. I follow a guy on Telegram that grows duckweed in his pond. He even made a pond in his basement and grows it there. It grows very fast and is edible for humans as well. Duckweed is high in protein as well. His name is William Wallace Welker. He also teaches growing your own mushrooms and sprouts.

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  19. My friend feeds her chickens bird seed.

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  20. My neighbor has fed her chickens cat food and dog food before, small kibble. Mine turned their "beaks" up and said no thanks. The protein is about right and most pet foods have grain in them. But it's made for other animals so I wouldn't do this much.

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