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Chickens are a common first step for people looking to take control of their food supply and get into homesteading. They can be a great source of entertainment for children, as well as a worthwhile lesson in raising your own food. However, they are also an added responsibility, and between supply chain issues and severe inflation, you may be wondering how to feed them this upcoming year. How did people feed chickens before commercial chicken feed?

Personally, I try to keep at least a month’s food on hand for all livestock. That gives me time in the event of a SHTF situation to answer two questions: Do I need to process animals? Or can I wait till things settle down?

However, it’s good to be aware of chickens’ nutritional needs in the event of longer-term SHTF events if you are unwilling to process. Or if you have too many birds and lack the storage space for processed birds.  

People got by without commercially mixed chicken feeds for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you can feed chickens whatever and still expect them to grow and lay well. You can be flexible, but there must still be structure.

Chickens are graminivorous. 

They prefer to eat mostly grains and seeds, and many breeds will get fat if you let them. A common practice in the days of backyard flocks, where the birds went into a house at night but ran all over the place during the day, was to toss them a handful of “scratch grains” (usually a mixture of corn, wheat, barley, oats, or whatever was available) in the morning, then turn them loose. During the summertime, chickens will get protein from insects, and if they have healthy pastures to graze upon, they can get many nutrients from green, growing grass. 

During the wintertime, people would toss them meat once a week or so to provide the needed protein.

(In case you are wondering, if you buy vegetarian feed for your hens, or you buy “vegetarian fed” eggs from the store, that kind of feed consists of large amounts of soy meal.)

Chickens are not naturally vegetarian. I have seen mine chase mice as well as smaller birds. I haven’t seen them catch mice, but I did see them eat a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. They can and will eat meat, given the chance.  

(And unless you want to have to resort to eating baby birds during the Holodomor, you better read our free QUICKSTART Guide to home canning!)

Chickens will also eat scrap vegetables, which are quite good for them. Just like ourselves, if you give your birds a good mixture of vegetable odds and ends in a variety of colors, not only will they benefit from the vitamins, but they will also benefit from the stimulation of pecking different textures.

This may sound silly, but it isn’t.

Keeping your flock happy when confined is essential.

Right now, another bird flu has already killed millions of birds. In my state, the Extension Service has been regularly emailing flock owners with updates, encouraging us to prevent contact with any wild birds. I used to free-range many birds, though right now, I only have ten. They do have a nice coop with a big outdoor run, but there are times (like during snowstorms) when they need to stay inside.

At those times, it’s nice to give the birds something different to peck. I usually just toss in vegetables and alfalfa, but I have a friend who runs a string through heads of cabbages and then suspends them from the ceiling. She says it keeps her birds entertained when they can’t play outside. And it’s funny for her to watch, too.

If you’re looking for specific feeding routines, there are a lot out there. My books on the subject are:

Some themes are common throughout all these books. Birds need some kind of grain, protein, and high-vitamin green vegetables such as seaweed and alfalfa.  

Unless you grow grain yourself, you will have to buy grain for your birds.

But organic whole grain (wheat, oats, barley) chicken scratch currently costs $715 per ton. The organic layer ration is $910; the grower ration is $995. Scratch plus whatever was lying around the homestead was what most birds subsisted on for a long time.

So, what’s lying around your homestead? If you have a variety of homesteading projects, you may be able to switch to cheaper scratch without ill effect.    

Think about what you have available.

If you buy your meat directly from the farmer (which you really, really should be researching if you aren’t already), ask the butcher to throw in the organ meats. If you don’t want to eat them, you can add them to scratch grains occasionally for your birds because they contain so many minerals. The birds would need ordinary cuts of meat more regularly for the protein, but a combination of ordinary cuts as well as organs provides a great deal of protein and minerals.

If you have your own milk cow (or goat), chickens thrive on milk. And raw milk that has started to sour a little bit can be given to chickens. They actually love it. In the Herbal Handbook referenced above, Levy writes that the French, known for pampering their laying hens, would regularly give them curds. When you let raw milk sit, it separates into curds (chunky stuff) and whey (watery stuff). 

Chickens love both.

If you garden, you can toss your chickens any extra odds and ends. For example, if a few tomatoes get worms, you can toss them to the chickens, and they’ll love the worms along with the tomatoes. Occasionally, we’ll get a bunch of hornworms in our garden. We just pick them off and give them to the birds. Vegetable ends that you might otherwise toss in the compost can go to chickens.

Your birds will need leafy green material.

If your birds free range on healthy pastures, they will figure out what they need on their own. If you have to keep your birds confined, tossing in a bale of alfalfa once in a while is probably easiest for most of us.  

Another option would be to grow the green material yourself. Comfrey, nettles, and dandelion are all known for being high in minerals and trace nutrients.  

Though a warning if you plan to go yanking all the dandelions out of your neighbor’s lawns for your chickens: The deep roots that make these plants so nutritious are the same deep roots that will absorb all sorts of pollutants. If you plan to scavenge food for your birds, find out whether or not it’s been sprayed. It’s probably best to talk to neighbors and friends that don’t spray.

Organic Prepper has written about this before, and I believe we’ll only see more of it as inflation and supply chain issues persist. If you have a neighbor that owns land with nettles (harvest those with gloves!) or dandelions, offer eggs occasionally. If you’re an urban or suburban flock owner, you have limited options for growing your own animal feed, so you’ll need to look to expand your relationships.  

I have to say this…

A final word about attempting to come up with your own chicken feed: I really, really strongly recommend purchasing a veterinary guide first, such as Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook. Nutritional deficiencies can wreak havoc with a bird’s health. People pay a premium for properly mixed feed for a reason. It can be easy to screw up if you aren’t paying attention.  

If you decide to change your bird’s diet, keep an eye on them. Pay attention to any changes in laying frequency or egg condition. Look at your bird’s coloring and how they breathe. 

If you have a good variety of foods to give them, they may be just fine. Again, people raised chickens without premixed feed for a long time. But if something does go wrong, a good veterinary guide will help guide you to find the healthiest mix for your birds.  

What are your thoughts? Are there other tricks to keeping your chickens well-fed without commercial feed you know of that I didn’t mention above? Tell me about it in the comments below.

About Marie Hawthorne

A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.

What Did People Feed Their Chickens Before Commercial Chicken Feed?