Save Money on Chicken Feed

How can you save money on chicken feed? Here are a few time-tested methods.

Can My Chickens Find All Their Feed Themselves?

Not really. In the old days, farms and kitchens were so wasteful, with so much grain spilled by the horses and milk cows, and so much garbage thrown out the back door (or, in town, the front door), that flocks of skinny chickens could survive without further attention.

With an increase in our understanding of sanitation and nutrition, opportunities for self-feeding flocks are few and far between.

And because we know about nutrition now, my theme today is:

Start with a balanced chicken feed. Then supplement with other, lower-cost feedstuffs to keep the costs down.

The Two-Feeder “Grain-and-Mash” System

Here’s an old trick that not everyone knows about: If you feed your chickens out of two feeders, one full of grain and the oTwo feeders are better than onether one full of chicken feed, you save money.

Why? Because chickens have a reasonably accurate appetite for calories, protein, and other things, and will mix and match the two feeds in a way that’s ideal for their needs of the moment. For example, a hen laying an egg a day needs a lot more protein than a hen that isn’t laying at all. The non-laying hen will not only eat less total food, but most of what little she eats will come out of the feeder of cheap grain, not the expensive balanced chicken feed.

And it works not only with grain, but with other inexpensive feeds, including some you can get for free.

How Much Can You Save?

Feed intrudes into every aspect of life. Here's me sharing my VW van with half a ton of feed.
Feed intrudes into every aspect of life. Here’s me sharing my VW van with half a ton of feed.

This has been a standard feeding technique for 100 years, and has been studied six ways from Sunday.

Rules of Thumb:

  • Laying hens given access to a balanced 16% layer ration in one feeder and corn or wheat in another feeder will eat about 2/3 layer ration and 1/3 grain, and will do exactly as well as hens that eat nothing but the balanced ration.
  • If you use a 20% layer ration, the hens will eat 1/2 grain and 1/2 layer ration.

For example, I just looked up the price of Purina 16% Layena pellets at Tractor Supply: $13.00 for 50 lbs. A 20% feed, Purina Flock Raiser, is $17.99. Cracked corn from the same source is only $9.89.

So let’s run the numbers, and come up with an average price per 50 pounds if we try various combinations:

  • Flock Raiser alone: $17.99
  • Flock Raiser + grain: $13.94
  • Layena alone: $13.99
  • Layena + grain: $12.62
  • Grain alone: Don’t try it.

So you can save some money just by buying a different mix of feed at the feed store.

Does it Work?

It does! This has always rather annoyed poultry nutritionists, because their job is to find the right feed for the whole flock, as if all its hens were the same. And of course they aren’t. The key seems to be that only the high-producing hens need the full 16% protein, while the ones who aren’t laying much anyway don’t need all that protein—and don’t crave it.

This feed plus grain method best if the chickens are given clear choices: a high-protein feed and a high-energy feed. The grain is the high-energy feed.

Traditionally, there are two kinds of layer ration: a 16% ration and a 20% ration. With the 20% ration, the hens will eat about half grain, half 20% ration. Such rations are formulated for use with supplemental grain, so they contain extra calcium and such.

For broilers, you simply use the same broiler ration as ever, but with supplemental grain in a second feeder. If you used to use a finisher ration, try using the starter or grower ration plus grain. The results will probably be the same as ever, but the cost will be less.

Corn and wheat are the grains of choice here. They can be tolerated by chickens of any age. Use whichever is cheapest. Baby chicks can’t handle oats or barley very well. Even quite young chicks (a week old or so) can handle whole wheat. They can handle whole corn once they’re about half-grown.

To summarize:

  • For baby chicks, go for whole wheat or cracked corn.
  • For older chickens, go for whole corn, whole wheat, whole oats, or whole barley.

Whole Grains are Best

As soon as you crack or grind grain, it starts to spoil. Whole grains are best for this reason. You can keep whole grain for a year or more without trouble, while you should use up other chicken feed within a month or so.

This means that, if you have a place to store it, you can buy whole grain by the pickup load, the tote, or the ton even when you’re buying other feed a few couple of sacks at a time.

Should I Mix Feeds?

Always feed in separate feeders: chicken feed in one feeder, grain in another, oystershell in a third. Why? Because every time you mix two things together, the chickens waste the one they want least, tossing it aside to get at the one they want more. By mixing feed, you’re wasting both your time and the feed.

The main reason to mix feed is to slip in ingredients that chickens don’t like, forcing them to eat stuff that’s unpalatable or even harmful. Don’t do that.

You Can Feed Almost Anything

The two-feeder system works great for grain products and similar feeds. You can feed the following as if they were grain:

  • Bakery byproducts: expired bread, waste flour, etc.
  • Potatoes (whole potatoes need to be at least slightly cooked to make the skins edible).
  • Expired high-carb foods of all kinds: pasta, cereal, pastries, chips—you name it.
  • Grain-based feed originally intended for other critters: oats, cob, birdseed.

In fact, you can feed just about anything, even feedstuffs with little resemblance to grain:

  • Other (non-medicated) feeds: cat food, dog food, pig feed, etc.
  • Fruits and vegetables.
  • Meat, dairy, fish (fresh or processed).
  • Imitation meat and dairy like milk replacer and tofu.

How to Feed “Mystery Feeds”

The main thing is to remember this:

If the chickens have access to a feeder full of chicken feed, they’re really good at avoiding other feeds that are bad for them. They will balance their own diets by eating a little of this and a little of that better than any but the best poultry nutritionists can.

Some tips about feeding random feedstuffs:

  • Don’t get invested. Offer it to the chickens, and if they spurn it, take it away again.
  • Don’t feed so much that it’s likely to go bad, or even stale.
  • Feed troughs are your friend here, since they can handle a wider variety of materials than other feeders. Feed pans are less good because the chickens will stand in them.


Feeds to Avoid

Still, be careful with the following:

  • Feeds that will rot before they can be eaten. Think twice before accepting a hundred pounds of fish on behalf of your chickens!
  • Feeds that will put an off-flavor in the eggs: Garlic and onions (in large quantities) have this reputation.
  • Feeds that are messy in some ghastly way. For example, if you set out a pan of pancake syrup and end up with sticky chickens, I’m not sure what your next move is!
  • Rotten or contaminated feed. Yes, chickens have “nutritional wisdom,” but don’t try to fool them with horrible awful stuff. You might succeed!

How About Three Feeders? Or Four?

A three-feeder system is even better, with oystershell in the third feeder. Hens have a definite calcium appetite. If they have to eat chicken feed for its oystershell content, even if they don’t want the calories, well, a hen’s gotta do what a hen’s gotta do. But they’ll go straight for the oystershell if they can, which means they’ll eat less chicken feed, and save you money.

According to Leeson and Summers’ Commercial Poultry Nutrition, feeding oystershell on the side can give total feed savings of 6%-7%.

Finding Your Local Low-Cost Supplier

To get the maximum feed savings, you need to find your local provider of low-priced grain. Usually there’s a local vendor who is selling it at a much lower price than the feed store. Here in the Corvallis area, we have Venell Feed and Corvallis Feed and Seed.

At one time, they were selling whole corn at $6.00 a sack, while at Kropf Feed (now CHS Nutrition) it was $10.20 a sack. This is typical. So you could save save over 40% on grain simply by going to a different store.

And that’s the price for individual sacks. There are more discounts where that came from, if you buy a ton of bagged feed at a time.

Can’t I Just Feed My Chickens Less?

You can, but there’s an old farming proverb:

You can’t starve profit into a cow.

It applies to chickens as well.

The fact is, you have no idea how much your chickens “should” be eating. You’re guessing. But your chickens have an accurate appetite. They know when they’re hungry and know when they’re full. You don’t. Leave it to them.

My free-range laying flock has 24/7 access to chicken feed and grain, plus all the pasture forage they want. Do they get fat? No, not at all.

In the 120 years since poultry scientists have kept track of such things, they’ve never had luck at increasing egg profitability by withholding feed from the hens. The winning strategy is always to give them all the feed they want.

So the rule of thumb is:

If you can’t afford your feed bill, reduce the size of your flock.

It’s different with broilers. If you keep them past butchering age, they’ll get really fat. But the solution here is “don’t do that.” It’s not a feed issue.

Learn More About Poultry Nutrition

<a href="" target="_blank">Feeding Poultry</a> by G. F. HeuserThe best thing about the two-feeder system is that you don’t have to be a poultry nutritionist. As long as you have that feeder of balanced chicken feed, your chickens will do fine.

But there’s plenty more to learn, and plenty more you can do once you’ve learned it. That’s why I’ve republished G. F. Heuser’s monumental Feeding Poultry under my Norton Creek Press label. It has everything. It even has a chapter on the nutritional value of green feed and free range.

The Cure for Culling Male Chicks?

beth_and_baby_chicks_smIn a world where egg-type chickens such as White Leghorns are valued only for their egg production, and there are very few people who want a White Leghorn cockerel for Sunday dinner, what happens to all the male baby chicks? An article in The New Food Economy called The Cure for Culling explains both the problem and a promising new cure: in-shell sexing.

One of the authors, Harry DiPrinzio, contacted me for my take on the issues here, and in particular a spiffy new technology that can tell the gender of a chicken embryo fairly early in its development.

I won’t recap the details here, since the article does a fine job of this. I want to talk about why this is revolutionary in other ways.

Sexing day-old chicks in the 1950s. (From Poultry Production by Leslie E. Card, p. 128.)
Sexing day-old chicks in the 1950s. (From Poultry Production by Leslie E. Card, p. 128.)

Increased Hatchery Capacity

Today, all eggs in the incubator are hatched, unless candling shows them to be infertile or otherwise bad. The in-shell chick-sexing technology is kinda-sorta like candling on steroids, allowing the egg to be analyzed more than ever before. You can tell whether it’s developing at all, and, if so, what gender it is, and perhaps more things besides. If any of these aren’t up to standard, the egg is removed.

This opens up space that you can fill with … more eggs. Since the incubation period is 21 days, and about half the eggs will be removed after nine days, you can hatch about 40% more eggs with the same facilities as before.

In terms of production efficiency, this may be the biggest single advance in hatchery technology since the introduction of controlled-humidity, controlled-temperature, room-sized incubators almost 100 years ago!


What a US Grade A chicken used to look like.
What a US Grade A chicken looked like in the 1940s. Modern consumers are unenthusiastic about such chickens.

A big push behind this effort is that no one likes culling the male chicks, but hardly anyone is willing to buy them. Egg-type chickens (and dual-purpose chickens, for that matter) grow slowly, never get very meaty, and look exactly like a rubber chicken when butchered.

Our own experience is that such fryers have, at best, a sharply limited demand. We’ve tried it, and we figure we’d be lucky to sell one such cockerel for every fifty hybrid broilers. Customers don’t like them. The ones who give them a try don’t come back for more. And there are six billion laying hens in the world, meaning that we’re talking about similar numbers of cockerels.

Yes, there’s a certain ethnic demand and a certain gourmet demand. It doesn’t add up to billions of chickens, though.

How Did All This Happen?

In the old days, eggs were the most important poultry product: a highly nutritious protein source with good keeping qualities and surrounded by a tamper-proof shell. They were expensive, though. Poultry meat was essentially a byproduct of the egg industry, and was also expensive, and the demand was always greater than the supply. Young male chickens? These cockerels are “spring chickens” and sold for high prices. Hens past their egg-producing prime? Stewing hens for Sunday dinner. Old roosters? Somebody will pay even for those. Most of the money was in the eggs, but the meat was profitable, too.

Advances in agricultural science brought the volume and quality up (and prices down). The market was flooded with high-grade product, so the lower grades had no takers anymore. Chicken and eggs went from luxury products to everyday fare, even for the poor. This process was essentially complete by 1960.

As I said, the low-grade products vanished. Grade “B” eggs used to be considered worth buying for home use: no one will touch them anymore. There was even a grade “C” that was considered vaguely suitable for human consumption. Today? Not a chance. And it’s just the same for the male chicks and the old chickens.

Public Relations and Humane Considerations

So what happens to the male chicks? As you probably feared all along, they’re killed as soon at they’re identified, right after hatching. No one is happy about this. At all. Everyone hates it.

Some activists, who seem to imagine that every problem has a political solution, want to make culling illegal. If successful, egg-type chickens will vanish from the marketplace. All that will be left commercially are broiler chickens, which don’t lay very well and would (by my guess) result in egg prices tripling or even more. (So much for eggs as a nutritious food that even poor people can afford.) Or maybe eggs will become illegal. I don’t know. Not in the US, though: it’s a Europe thing.

Farmer’s organizations, who imagine that every problem has an engineering solution, are working on in-shell sexing. By identifying and discarding the male embryos before they have developed enough of a nervous system to feel more distress than, say, a stalk of celery, the problem will be solved by just about anyone’s standards.

Temperatures and Your Hens [Infographic]

What temperatures are right for your hens? What happens when temperatures are too high? What happens when they’re too low? This infographic shows you the effect of air temperatures on laying hens.

Temperature and Your Hens, from Poultry Production by Leslie E Card, published by Norton Creek Press.

Leslie E Card, Poultry Breeding and Management. Norton Creek PressThis infographic comes from Poultry Production: The Practice and Science of Chickens by Leslie E. Card, which I have reprinted under my Norton Creek Press label. It has hundreds and hundreds of pages of useful information like this. Like most of the really useful poultry books, this one was first published a while ago, in 1961. But it’s a gold mine in spite of (because of?) this.


Better Than Chicken Tractors: Hoop Coops for Free Range Chickens

“A chicken house should either be small enough that you can reach into any part of it from outside, or big enough to walk around in.”
— Traditional poultry maxim

hoophouse chicken coop
The Mark I hoop coop, designed and built by Karen Black. The house is pulled by hand downhill to a new patch of grass, once or twice per day. The Mark II hoop coop (not shown) has the open end facing the direction of travel so the operator can see inside while moving the pen. This reduces the number of broilers that get run over by the back wall. A 2×4 ridge pole to supports the top of the hoop, which otherwise can collapse under snow loads or buckle under the weight of heavy hanging feeders.

My wife, Karen Black, invented these simple chicken houses in the Nineties, when she decided she wanted a pen she could walk around in, rather than the standard Salatin-style pens that are only two feet high. This is in keeping with a old-time poultry maxim: “A chicken house should be small enough that you can reach into any part of it from outside, or big enough to walk around in.”

If you don’t do this, you create a chicken house that is inaccessible, which leads to fuss and bother, which  in turn leads to chickens that are less well-kept than they should be, and chicken poop on your hands and knees.

Trouble with the Andy Lee “Chicken Tractor”

We tried an Andy Lee-style “chicken tractor,” which was built by the book and was trhee feet tall, three feet wide, and eight feet long.

(By the way, I dislike the term “chicken tractor.” Scratching and pooping doesn’t resemble plowing at all.. I generally call them pasture pens.)

Some takeaways:

  • Three feet tall is too tall. Everything in the pen is out of reach and you need a step stool to get into the pen. Two feet is a practical upper limit, and maybe 18″ is better. At least one side of the pen needs to be that low.
  • Outdoor chicken coops should be wider than they are tall, to resist blowing over, and even then they need to be staked down if winds are in the offing.
  • The pen is impossible to move because it’s not built on skids.
  • The pen crushes the legs of the chickens inside when you move it because it’s not build on skids.

Trouble with Joel Salatin Pasture Pens

We built a few pasture pens to Joel Salatin’s specifications, though ours were smaller. They were almost as unsatisfactory as the chicken tractor. Yes, they’re lower, so you can get into them (and then crawl around on hands and kness—helloooo, chicken poop!). Yes, they’re lots wider than they are tall, so they don’t blow over as easily. But they still aren’t built on skids, so they’re still impossible to move without a dolly, and their low roof not only makes it hard to do things, it’s hard to see what’s going on in the back (which is where sick chickens tend to hang out).

They also require twelve diagonal braces and a diagonal cable at ground level due to ludicrously weak aluminum siding, which provides no stiffness.

If you have to build a low, square pasture pen, I recommend my modified pasture pen, which is easy to build and uses skids, so a child can move it without a dolly.

Goodbye Trouble: Cattle-Panel Hoop Coops

Karen’s hoop-coop pens are made from with lightweight cattle panels bent into a semicircle, attached to a wooden bottom frame, and covered with a tarp. The ends are framed with wood, with a door or hatch in the front end.

Note: Some of my pictures are from before our latest improvements, so read the text carefully!

Lightweight stock panels are made out of heavily galvanized wire and are 16 feet long and about 4 1/2 feet high. They cost between $12 and $17 at local farm stores. We use two-panel houses to make a roughly 8’x9′ house with a ridge height of about six feet. This is good for between 50 and 75 broilers if you butcher them all at once. We butcher them over a period of two weeks, always choosing the largest birds, and in this case the house is good for up to 100 broilers, with care.

The panels are attached to the wooden frame with fence staples. We use 2×4 lumber for the bottom frame and 1×4 lumber for the end framing. Diagonal bracing on the bottom frame, not yet attached in the photo, is important to prevent the house from racking itself to pieces.

how to build hoop coop chicken coops
A partially framed Mark II hooophouse, with the bottom frame and back wall framing in place, but no diagonal bracing,  doorframe, or ridgepole yet. Note that the bottom frame consists of two skids (in contact with the ground) and two sills (on top of the skids). This particular house suffers from excessive amounts of sag in the sills, which should have been installed on edge.

The back end is covered with a tarp up almost to the top. A gap is left at the top of the rear wall to allow roof ventilation. The front is kept entirely open, covered only with chicken wire. This should be heavy-duty 1″ chicken wire, preferably Red Brand. 2″ turkey wire doesn’t last. Neither do cheap brands of netting. The easiest method of attaching the chicken wire is to use plastic tie wraps.

It’s best to use chicken wire on all four sides, going at least 2′ high on the sides and 4′ on the front and rear. If you are going to raise turkeys in these pens, then the wire should go all the way to the top on the front and rear, and 4′ up on the sides. Additional 1×4’s should be added front and rear as well, to provide crash barriers to prevent the turkeys from working the netting loose by jumping against it.

The door can be arranged as a lift-out hatch rather than hinged. It is our experience that doors can get ripped off their hinges by weather and other accidents. If you do use doors, they should be arranged so that if the front wall of the house warps &emdash; which it will, since it’s not very rigid &emdash; the door won’t stick.

The tarps can be attached to the wood framing with a staple gun and to the panels with plastic tie wraps.

The house needs to be mounted on skids. That is, only two walls should be in contact with the ground. The others should be at least 1 1/2″ off the ground. 3 1/2″ is better. If the front and rear walls drag on the ground, the house is very difficult to move and quickly becomes damaged. Also, broilers who are caught by the back wall tend to be crushed if the wall is dragging on the ground, but pop through unharmed to the outside if it is elevated a few inches. Flaps on the two elevated walls, made from old feed sacks, lengths of tarp, or (ideally) black rubber floor-mat material, will close off the gap and help keep predators out and broilers in.

The top of the roof needs to be 100% waterproof. Away from the top, as the slope of the sides increases, the water has less tendency to drip though even if there is a hole. Thus a high-quality silver top covering the top third of the roof, plus a cheap top covering the rest, will work almost as well as the more expensive option of a silver tarp over everything.

The tarps will flutter and flap against the cattle panels and will wear themselves out in the course of a season or two. Using two layers of tarp will help, and of course snugging them down well also helps.

We use these houses for broilers because they can be moved by hand every day to a fresh patch of grass, since otherwise the floor becomes a solid layer of chicken poop. Broilers don’t forage much even if you leave the doors open, which we don’t do, since when they’re young, they’re too dumb to come in out of the rain, and they also tend to sleep outside, where the hawks and owls can get them. Some people arrange their schedules so they always, without fail, are on hand to shoo the chickens inside and close the doors at dusk, but we decided to have a life instead!

We don’t use these houses for hens. Our hen-houses are heavier and we move them with a tractor a few times a year. The difference is due to several factors:

  • Hens hardly eat anything compared to broilers, so their manure production isn’t so overwhelming. The floor in a well-ventilated henhouse can stay dry even without litter.
  • Hens spend their time in the houses on roosts, so they stay clean even over a wet floor (which, even in rainy Oregon winters, is not a problem for us).
  • Hens know to come in out of the rain and (mostly) to sleep indoors, so it’s okay to let them come and go as they please. Since they’re unconfined, they can find grass and other forage under their own power. It doesn’t have to be right there in the house.

Click here for a detailed description of a Mark II hoop coop (PDF format).

First Published: April 27, 2003

Aquamagic/Sani-Touch Egg Washer [Videos]

This advertisement ran in the January, 1960 issue of Pacific Poultryman. I have been using my own Aquamagic Model 60 egg cleaner since 1997. It’s a model very similar to the one shown above, though with a fancier candler. These water-spray-plus-brush cleaners are great. I’ve used two different kinds of immersion washers, and they don’t get the eggs very clean, and of course the eggs are still wet after washing. By combining candling, washing, drying, and grading into a single machine, the Aquamagic makes egg processing fast and convenient.

Videos of Aquamagic/Sani-Touch Egg Washers in Action

This is a Model 5 candler/washer/dryer/grader. It’s hard to see the water spray in the first brush section (the washer section), but it’s there:

Here’s an older Model 5. This one doesn’t have a grader section, just a big output tray for the washed eggs:

And here’s a fancy new Sani-Touch Model 10 with all the trimmings:


Different Models

Over the years, there are different models of different speeds and sizes, and with different options. Some don’t have the egg grader, for instance. Mine, like the one shown in the ad at the top of the page, is something like sixteen feet long. There are also smaller models that fit in less space, run more slowly but have all the features. With two people, we run ours at about one-third of its rated speed, but the candler section is broken and we’re candling by hand. Apparently two people with a fully loaded machine can run it at about 75% of its rated speed (or 225-325 dozen per hour) without too much trouble.

How Do I Get an Aquamagic/Sani-Touch Egg Washer?

These machines are still being made by the National Poultry Equipment Company, so you can buy one new. (They’ve changed the name from “Aquamagic” to “Sani-Touch,” but they are fundamentally the same machines.

And since these egg washers have been in production for over 50 years, and are extremely rugged, you can also find them used from time to time. Sometimes they’ve been sitting in a barn for so long that the owner has no idea what the machine is, so keep your eyes open for a bargain!

An Aquamagic in poor shape can be quite a restoration project, so you might want to do your homework about replacement part prices, etc. before making an offer on one that’s in sad shape.

Parts are still available for almost everything, and the folks at National Poultry Equipment provide seemingly unlimited phone support.

Contact Information:

National Poultry Equipment Company
3290 Lancer Ave.
Osage, Iowa 50461

Phone:     641-732-1460
Fax:         641-732-1470
Web Page: www://