Feeding chickens without “chicken feed”

Chicken feed

Urban homesteader Todd Allen of Chicago explains how they feed their chickens without any purchased feeds.

My wife and I are urban chicken keepers.  For the past four years we have not fed commercial feed and our flock of nine hens is healthy and productive.  We hardly buy them any food at all.  It was not our plan when we started keeping chickens.  We did not know it was possible. 

We knew given sufficient land, chickens can survive mostly on forage and scraps.  We also believed the common “wisdom”:  without feeding a complete and balanced chicken feed formulated for layers, hens can’t sustain high rates of laying and their health is likely to suffer.

Feeding chickens in the beginning

The Allen's chickens enjoy their dinner.
The Allen’s chickens enjoy their dinner.

We have been gardeners for decades and do it intensively year round with a hoop house, extensive trellising and many other elements in an effort to maximize productivity.  We started out with our chicks penned eating commercial feed, giving them treats from the garden and short supervised periods on the lawn and in our compost area.

We transitioned to free ranging using the green version of plastic snow fencing on poles of conduit to control where they roam.  We expanded our flock from 3 to 6.  By our second summer we wondered if we were endangering their health because they weren’t eating enough feed. 

They picked out fragments of grain but weren’t eating the powdery bits with the supplemental vitamins, minerals and other things we believed they needed.  But the eggs were great.  The more they foraged our lawn and compost piles and the more they got from our garden the better the eggs looked and tasted.  And the hens looked good too.

Wasting feed

But the areas our hens had regular access to were severely overgrazed and when harvest season ended we expected to be feeding mostly layer ration.  We had tried several varieties, even premium organic brands but the hens were increasingly fussy. 

We tried a variety of feeders as the hens would dump what they could on the ground and scratch it into the dirt.  And we dumped a lot of picked over feed from the feeders into the compost.  It bothered us to be wasting so much purchased feed.  Expensive feed with full sales tax as opposed to the much lower tax one pays here for people food.

Brew grain

A chicken keeping friend clued us into spent brew grain, a free waste product from breweries.  The growth of small craft breweries provides easy access to an unlimited supply.  Chickens like the moist cooked grains and when stirred into layer ration it combined with the powdery bits greatly reducing our wasted feed.

Cost became less of an issue but I wondered how I might provide year round more of the fruits and vegetables our hens craved.  I got tips from friends.  We got bruised produce from a couple vendors at a local farmer’s market.  We learned of fruit trees with unwanted dropped fruit. We learned of another that was never harvested.  We canned enough that our chickens would have apples, pears and peaches all winter to supplement their feed and brew grain.

Dumpster diving

A bucket of chicken feed Todd picked up from city dumpsters
A bucket of chicken feed Todd picked up from city dumpsters

I was telling a friend about our adventures to feed our chickens.  He told me he regularly goes dumpstering and sees a lot of produce which he mostly leaves behind and asked if I’d like to join him.  He gave me rules: be discrete, pick up spilled trash before diving, never make a mess, and don’t take from dumpsters utilized by others, especially in areas with homeless or disadvantaged people.

I started out joining him once every three weeks for a midnight run in his pickup truck.  He would usually get a case or two of cheeses and cured meats and we would fill the rest of the truck with produce for the chickens.

I also went dumpstering alone with bicycle and trailer.  My wife joined me, and we did bigger trips in her car.  Dumpstering provides us with tremendous variety.  I started out getting produce but soon expanded to whole grain breads, seeds and nuts, grains, meats and fish.  We were using very little chicken feed and our last bag lasted for months.  When it ran out we didn’t get more.

A complete diet

I read a lot about how and how not to feed chickens.  But we did not follow advice for formulations or supplements.  We feed what we have, much of which is what we select from dumpsters.  Every day our hens get a mix of fruit and vegetables.  In the evening they get a scratch mix of grains, seeds and nuts.  We cook up large batches of “chicken stuffing” and freeze it in daily serving sized portions. 

Common ingredients are tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cookable greens (mostly brassicas), chopped meats, fish and eggs all mixed with a binder typically a dense whole grain bread so the end result is not sloppy or gooey but a nice texture for the chickens.  We prefer to start with minimally processed ingredients but use modest amounts of cured meats such as ham, bacon, barbequed ribs, etc. without apparent harm.

Feeding perishable food is more work, but evolving the process, getting better and more efficient, has been satisfying.  And I enjoy feeding our chickens.  They are so enthusiastic at every meal.  I take as much pleasure watching our happy old hens eat as I do in watching the new chicks run and squeal with delight when getting their first bug.

To read Todd Allen’s first post about his chickens, read How the Worst Chicken Ever Became the Best Chicken Ever.

chickens eating

30 thoughts on “Feeding chickens without “chicken feed””

  1. This is an awesome story. It reminds me of in the “old days” when people didn’t have access to the fancy foods we have now. I agree with you. We use commercial feed right now, but, we are going to be transitioning soon. Maybe not so much as dumpster diving since we have a garden that will be growing food soon enough. Thanks so much for sharing

    Reply
    • Hi Julia. We got our first laying hens in the spring. I did the starter for the recommended time, put them on grower and am going to be done with finisher in a couple weeks.
      All this time, however, I have been supplementing with a variety of food… mainly the vegetable scraps. When they were new chicks I would cut their “treats” into sizes they could handle. MTC

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  2. Love this! Just been trying to figure out how to cut our costs feeding the chickens. Organic feed is really expensive. We are starting to raise meat chickens as well and they really put the food away! Thanks for your great ideas!

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  3. We call our chickens little raptors. My other half went to remove the foam insulation we had up during the winter months a while ago and we had mice living on it. As soon as the mice fell into their run the chickens went crazy and chased them and ate them. I didn’t know they did that but I learned they do as well as snakes and small birds. Nothing is safe around them especially toes….. LOL!

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    • I was out raking leaves near our coop and the chickens were free ranging close by since anytime I’m raking leaves or especially pulling weeds the chickens come running to see what bugs they can grab as I’m working. Anyway just happened to rake back a few leaves to find a baby gardener snake. I barely realize what the snake was when one of my chickens came running at a fast trot and grabbed that baby snake before I could say or do anything and off the chicken went with about a 10”-1 foot baby snake in it’s mouth with another 15-18 chickens chasing right behind the chicken with the snake in its mouth that we’re trying to get a taste of the snake too! They ran around the coop and by the time they came around the other side there was no snake in sight anywhere! LOL

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      • We’ve seen similar things! We even found a dead rat in a chicken tractor one day. He had obviously been pecked to death.

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  4. This is so interesting! Our birds (mixed poultry) already have access to a large yard and compost pile, and I throw all my kitchen and garden waste to them. Sounds like we could do a little more to save money on feed. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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  5. Very interesting. I tend to think that as long as you have ‘healthy’ garden and kitchen scraps, you can for sure reduce your feed bill. Add in some supervised free range so they can get the protein they need from the bugs they find and grass they eat, plus some seeds, and grains and I think you have a very complete chicken diet. Sharing on my Facebook page.

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  6. What about when they go through the moult, do you have problems with soft eggs? For my girls, I do a diy mixed grain feed at 16-18% protein, they free range in a large garden for about 6 hours a day, they also have kitchen scraps, have access to calcium & crushed egg shells & when they go through a moult, they have soft shelled eggs, so I am thinking of going back to a commercial feed, albeit I really don’t want to, have you any advice?

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    • Chick starter works great,my girls started growing their feathers back quickly. I’ve tried many things from commercial molting feeds to natural remedies, but the chick starter has worked the best. Love your article.

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  7. I’m wondering how you keep the flies at bay if your feeding the chicken scrapes. I’ve been feeding my chickens scrapes as well and since then the flies have become a problem. We been keeping the coop clean as possible but nothing seems to help. We’ve also tried the fly bags and those just stink like a dead animal.

    Reply
    • This was a guest post, so I’m not sure what he does, but when we feed scraps, we don’t put out more than what they can eat in an hour or so.

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  8. I feed dried spent brewers 2 to 1 with our own corn we get the brewers for tthe other stock and dry enough for our 10 hens get 7 eggs a day for practically nothing I do mix in a little trace mineral salt

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  9. My hens get household scraps in addition to their “regular” feed. Family members will also save scraps for them with the instructions to freeze it to keep it fresher and to never include anything they would not themselves eat. I remind them that what what goes into that bag comes back to them in eggs.

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      • Chickens eat things humans wouldn’t all the time. We don’t eat bugs or grass or other things they will readily eat. Those things are not bad for them just different.

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        • I think the previous posters are talking about not feeding chickens food that is spoiled. Chickens can get sick if you feed them food that is moldy or too old.

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  10. I’ve recently found an organic scratch that my hens love – and with free ranging in our yard half of the day, they eat very little chicken feed – also excellent quality but not as much delight as scratch and ranging! With the quality of eggs shells and deep orange yolks, stand up whites, they sure are getting all they need and sharing it with me!

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  11. Nice for you city slickers 🙂 but in a rural town of 2000 there are only three stores. Can’t find much but I’m going to ask the owners…

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    • I know people in our small towns who get discarded produce from the stores. It’s really sad how much produce is discarded from ALL stores. I have not done this myself, but I know a lot of farmers who do.

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    • I was thinking the same thing, we are in an even smaller town (514), and no grocery stores. So, gotta search out other options 😛

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  12. I really enjoyed the post, my husband refuses to dumpster dive, lol. I may hit the clearance aisle in the produce area and bread area. I ferment their food for a day or two with water and a little acv, they run for the bowl when I come out. We leave feed in their coop for just in case, but they free range and do the fermented feed 99%. I will be giving from the garden when I can, usually the bug eaten or older leaves from plants.

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  13. These tips are all great. I do fermented grain & also freeze kitchen scraps & vegetable cooking water for the hot months. Can you tell me where to get brewers grains ?

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    • If there is a craft beer brewery near you, just give them a call and let them know you would be happy to pick up some of their spent brew grain. Most of them are happy to give it away because otherwise they have to pay to have it hauled away in a dumpster.

      Reply

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