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14 February 2012

Reducing the cost of chicken feed

Backyard chickens will remain in good health if you give them a variety of good food but it's also worthwhile to see if you can reduce the cost of chicken feed while still providing healthy food for your flock. To get a good supply of eggs, chickens need to eat high protein food. Most people feed commercial poultry food, either pellets or mash, but if you can add green leaves, table scraps, grains, stale bread or toast, and give them access to insects and worms you'll keep them happy and healthy while reducing the cost of keeping them fed. A good way to provide insects is to leave a couple of logs or tree branches around - untreated and unpainted. Keep them moist just by spraying them with the hose and over the months, as they start to decompose, they'll attract all sorts of bugs. Turn the logs over for the chooks every so often and watch them search for tasty morsels.

This is the feeder we have for our chickens. When they stand on the step, it lowers and at the same time, opens the lid revealing the food. The chickens soon learn how to use it and although it's supposed to keep rats away from the food, the rats learn how to use it too. 

One of the easiest things to do is to have your chickens free ranging on grass that has not been sprayed or fertilised. The chicken droppings over the course of the day, and rain fall, will add to the fertility of the soil and the richness of the grass. Grass contains Omega 3 oils and if your chickens eat grass, there will be Omega 3 in the eggs you eat. Omega enriched eggs are very expensive at the supermarket so creating them in this natural way will save you money and give you healthier food. It will also reduce your feed bill.

As a general guide, fully grown chickens need about 120 - 150 grams of food a day. Larger breeds need 150 grams, smaller hens eat less. There will be instructions and guidelines on the side of the feed bag so be guided by that. I find that some chickens are hungry eaters and some are not. Our newly acquired New Hampshire and Barnevelders fight for food, even though they have the same access to food all day. If we give meat scraps to our girls, those four chickens run in and out of the others, scanning the ground for food and will peck it out of another chooks' beaks if they can.
Hanno asked for the bread crusts and ends when we were at the Bunya Festival the other day. He brought them home and mixed them up with a bit of milk. The chickens love this kind of food, it adds more protein to their diet and it keeps feed costs down.

Small chicks need starter mash, they don't eat the same food as the laying hens. If you're buying chicks, ask the breeder what to feed them and if they need "starter crumbs" that is found at the local produce store. Small chicks can eat any of the supplementary leaves and porridge I've mentioned.

If you have a vegie garden, pop in a few more plants that will suit the chooks. They love green leafy vegetables like silverbeet/chard, lettuce, cabbage, kale, spinach and all the Chinese greens like bok choy, wombok and tatsoi.  They also love radish tops and turnip greens. If you have a large parcel of land, grain and seed crops include corn, amaranth, sorghum, millet, wheat, oats and sunflowers. If you're in a warm area, pigeon pea is good too and best to pick it when it's green. They will eat the peas and the foliage.

Don't feed your chooks raw eggs because it may give them a taste for those lovely eggs sitting in the nest. But they can have boiled or poached eggs and they will love you for giving them milk, whey, yoghurt or cheese - you can mix all these in with bread, toast, oats, rice etc. Make sure the cheese is not mouldy but stale or dry cheese is fine. In winter, we feed our chickens warm porridge with milk. They love this, it warms them up on a cold winter's morning and it will help keep their protein levels up to keep you in eggs during the colder months.

Chickens always need fresh water. They will die without it. Give them fresh water every day and make sure they can access the water whenever they need it. Chickens graze and drink all through the day, they don't have set meal times like dogs and cats, so make sure their food is freely available to them and they'll return to it when they need a top up.

If your chooks are a bit sick or have diarrhoea, separate them from the flock and give them some real raspberry cordial, made according to the directions on the bottle. This will provide a good pick-me-up. Red cordial will not do; it must be cordial with real raspberry juice. If you can't find genuine raspberry cordial, here is a recipe for homemade: 

Raspberry Cordial recipe
2 cups crushed fresh or frozen raspberries
Juice of one lemon
1½ cups sugar syrup
8 cups of water
Bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes. Cool, then decant to clean bottles. Store in the fridge for up to two months or freeze in a plastic bottle.

To a bucket of water, add about two tablespoons.

The chickens we got from Julie in December are growing very well and are still in excellent health. I expect one of the New Hampshires to start laying in the next week or so, her sister should follow soon after that. I know that because their combs and wattles have grown in the past few weeks and they're now red - a sure sign of fertility. We've had to buy eggs recently because the old girls haven't laid much during the hotter months and the new girls are not ready yet. When they start up again, we'll have more eggs than we can eat and we can give some away. Feast or famine. If you keep chickens, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.


  1. A very good post. I have a whole bag of bread under my desk from here at work that are going home with me today for the chickens, ducks and pheasant (the quail do not seem to like bread).

  2. Thanks for the excellent tips, Rhonda! I've been researching this topic for quite some time as a way to keep our feed costs down as well, especially during the winter when the ground is completely covered in snow! Ours love bread soaked in warm milk, too. Pumpkins are also something I've started giving them. I recently read about giving ground up eggshells to the chickens (some say they don't grind them - just give them to the chickens whole). Do you have any thoughts on this?

  3. During the year when we have an excess of eggs, I hard boil them and then can them in a pickling mixture. Then during the year when there are only a few a day we can continue to enjoy fresh cooked eggs and the pickled eggs can go in potato salad, tuna salad, three bean salad, or just about any way one would use a hard boiled egg. Most men like to eat them right out of the jar!

  4. Good work, Becky. Gathering food from workplaces or friends will help keep your costs down.

    Hi Jaime, I dry out the shells and grind them up, then add it to their porridge or milk and bread. I don't like the idea of the chooks recognising shells as food. It gives them ideas they shouldn't have.

    Great idea on the pickled eggs, Renee. Can you share your recipe? I'd be interested in trying that when we have an excess.

  5. Thanks for all the tips! I sometimes give my chickens treats, but I haven't made as much of a point to do it as I should. This time of year (winter in the US) I have a lot of empty spots in my vegetable garden. If I had been thinking, I would have grown some extra greens and root vegetables specifically for the chickens! You've inspired me to do so in the future!

  6. Hi Rhonda

    The Raspberry cordial trick works for children too. Mum always gave us raspberry cordial if we had diarrhea but it had to be the 'Anchor' brand for some reason. I think it was because it contained 'Cochineal' and not just artificial red colouring. Cochineal is made from a scale insect found living on cactus in Mexico.

  7. I love your posts! We feed our chickens normal feed but also like you we give them lots of scraps, they especially like stale bread soaked in milk. We tend to get have extra from our milk goats from time to time.

  8. We are in the process of getting chooks and your post has valuable information that I did not find in any books I have researched. Thanks Rhonda - I just love your blog

  9. We had one of those lulls between the older hens' decreased production and the younger hens not yet producing. A lull that required buying eggs, though we held out as long as we could.

    A wonderful, informative article. I love the log/branch tip you shared - must try that.

  10. Rasberrie Cordial - well i never!! I wish i had known that before. Thanks for all the tips - thats great!

  11. I enjoyed your post so much & Had to laugh about the way that our girls 'enriched" their diet this winter.

    DH is an avid deer hunter. He always works up his own meats. I always give him grief about leaving the skeletons laying around because I am a vegetarian & it grieves me to see it.

    He always says that he leaved them around his building for the dogs to "party" on & he is right about that.

    But, this year I learned a lesson - I discovered that the chickens were eating as much meat off of the bones as the dogs were -And- to top that off I walked up one day & noticed something right up inside the ribs & it was going to town plucking that nice juicy meat up in there that the others had missed.

    I stooped to ask it it was good & the most beautiful Cooper's Hawk about rolled over backwards getting out of his "bone prison" that we both almost fell over each other! LOL It was very funny.

    I guess that is why there are "compromises" in each marriage & lessons for all of us.

  12. Hi Rhonda, some great ideas in this post. Good point about growing extra for the chickens, I always put in a few silverbeet and lettuce plants for chicken treats! We don't feed our chicks "crumble" as it contains antibiotics, which I don't think are necessary. We feed the chicks on the same milled grain that we feed to our cattle. As long as its finely milled, they have no trouble with it. After a few weeks they can try some mixed grain and lots of greens. Cheers, Liz (eight acres)

  13. In the winter when there is little or no wild green food around I sprout wheat and grow carrot, parsnip and swede(rutabaga) tops to feed the chickens- they love them and they're free!
    If you didn't do it as a child, cut the top off the carrot when preparing and stand in a shallow saucer of water somewhere light; the leaves will grow.

    And thanks for the raspberry tip (Chicken and human!) I'd never heard of that before.

  14. I'm a bit mean in respect of food for my chicks...they get their standard layers pellets/mash in the morning only, greenery and other veggies in the afternoon and their grain ration just before bed.

    I find my chooks eat the good stuff and treat food in preference to the high protein food if I put it in too early and it puts them off the lay.

    In the winter I buy good quality high protein (>35%) beef or lamb cat food (not the cheapy supermarket stuff which only has 4% 'meat derivatives') and give them that once a week as a treat. However if it snows heavily, they get some of that every morning heated up and mixed in with their pellets to give them something hot in their tummies. It rarely snows badly for more than a few day and it seems to give them a bit of a pep in their step.

  15. Hi Rhonda

    I forgot to mention in my last comment that it isn't a good idea to feed them cat food too regularly because too much protein can be cause health problems in a chicken.

    Once a week is probably more than enough and it should be good quality stuff as the cheap stuff is far too highly processed to be good for them.

    I have five chickens and they get about 40g each a week mixed in with their pellets/mash, plus everyday mixed grain and corn, maize stems, sunflower seeds, a small palmful of peanuts, and veggies. Very occassionally bread, some rice or chopped up pasta.

  16. We're feeding all organic food to our chickens, and of course this only comes in mash form! We noticed that the chickens were billing out a lot of food--so there was a *lot* of waste! I bit the bullet and began wetting the mash with organic kefir, apple cider vinegar, and water, and feeding *that* as the main ration. It's unbelievable how much less waste there is now. In fact, we're spending, I think, *less* on food now than we were when we fed pellets--even though the organic food demands a premium price!

    The next stage will be to make our own food; after that, since we have the space, we'll start growing our own. One book I'd strongly recommend is Harvey Ussery's new one: The Small Scale Poultry Flock. Full of great information!

  17. Thanks for another excellent post, Rhonda. The idea about the logs is a good one, and now I know about raspberry cordial too.

  18. Just saw you on The Morning Show and I immediately searched for your blog online! Thanks for such excellent tips and ideas - we are moving to a farm soon and I will need to learn a lot that's for sure!

  19. this was a great read! We have been trying to live more frugally for about a year now, and athough we have had some successes we have also had many failures, chickens being one of them. The problem was we are on a semi-rural property, and the area is very well known for stick-fast-flea and other types of fleas. As soon as the warm weather hits, you cannot avoid it, the chooks become totally infested with matter what you do. You have to buy certain flea-treatments that dont work first time (you have to re-treat them) and so you end up spending alot of money on treatments. And the natural alternatives dont work. Since we have dogs, it also means they get fleas, and then you must spend money on treating them too, and those who have dogs would know, treating three dogs, three times every summer for fleas, is expensive! It ended up costing us more to keep the chooks than to just buy eggs and we had to give them away. a bit sad as we really enjoyed them, but, that was the price to pay for living in our area. and dont even get me started on the stable flies. ugh. We are moving so hopefully we can do chickens again one day if we move away from the area!

  20. Stupidly it is technically illegal to feed kitchen scraps to hens in the UK according to Defra rules.

    Love the idea about the damp logs, will incorporate that into my plans this summer.

  21. I use the eggshells in my garden. I save them in an icecream container and when it is full, crush them up with the potato masher and sprinkle them in the veggie garden. Good source of calcium and the worms love them.

  22. I heard a good viewers tip on Gardening Australia re eggshells. Leaving white eggshell halves in the vege garden is supposed to deter cabbage white butterfly - they think the white eggshells are competition.

  23. Has anyone heard of sprinkling a little bit of cayenne pepper in the chicken food to make them have a better laying production, especially when they molt?

  24. Thank you for all the great information. I am raising my first chickens. I have a question about the recipe. What is sugar syrup? Do you mean corn syrup? I would be very hesitant about giving that to my chickens.

    1. Marsha, I mean sugar syrup. It isn't a product. You make ordinary sugar syrup by adding equal amounts of water to sugar eg 1 cup sugar + 1 cup water or 5 cups sugar + 5 cups water. Mix in a saucepan over heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. That is sugar syrup.

  25. Thank you for the information. I live in Melbourne, Australia. We have had chickens for several years now and usually have an overabundance of eggs. You're right about feeding whole eggs to the chooks...mine have developed a habit of pecking into the ones in the nest!!!


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