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 other 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?
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.
- 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
The 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.