I used to sell my chickens for almost exactly the same price I paid for feed. And the story for the eggs was pretty much the same. This is not sustainable. So I started exploring ways to cut feed costs and ended up on techniques that not only eliminate feed costs, but also provides a far higher quality of feed! My goal was to cut my chicken feed bill by 80% or more.
When I was first trying to figure out a better solution, I was thinking about growing all the stuff that comes in a bag of feed. Grain mostly. So then I was thinking that I would harvest it, store it and feed it to the chickens later. Wow, a lot of work. And I’m a lazy bastard. So what can I do to be lazier? Can I get the chickens to maybe harvest some of it? I’ll plant the grain and put the chickens where the grain is and they will figure out how to get it? I see other birds doing that.
In time my plans grew bigger and bigger. After all, if you let the chickens into the garden, they will eat damn near everything. While that leaves less garden for me, that also makes for less chicken feed bill.
So then I got the idea of planting a lot of perennial stuff that chickens like. And how about stuff that is annual, but manages to reseed itself? And fruit trees? Berry canes?
This whole path became richer and richer and richer. And now …. ladies and gentlemen, I present to you …. a system where I spend absolutely zero on chicken feed. And the chickens eat a far richer diet than moldy, dried up, commercial “chicken feed.”
Wanting something that the chickens can harvest themselves, I considered two angles: 1) most chicken food per acre per year, and 2) most chicken food per acre in January. Imagine an area for the chickens which has an enormous mulberry tree dropping fruit throughout June, July and August. There is a plethora of clover, alfalfa, grains, sunflowers, buckwheat, peas and lentils in the more open areas. Fruit and nut trees are surrounded by siberian pea shrubs, chickweed, comfrey, dandelion, amaranth, nettles and sunchokes. Maybe some raspberries and blueberries are in the mix too. Assuming it is summer, why would a chicken eat dried up “chicken feed” with this bounty at hand?
Generally I have alot more chickens in the summer time, before many get moved to the freezer, but I still need winter chicken feed. What, specifically, to grow depends on a lot of factors. How much room do you have; how cold does it get; what is your soil like; how much does it rain …. Some plants produce more food per acre per year than other plants. And some produce food for a just a week and others produce food for six months. The best producers appear to be mulberry trees (lots of fruit dropped constantly over three months) and wheat (when grown with the Fukuoka-Bonfils winter wheat method). Sepp Holzer pushes a perennial rye and sunchokes as the core chicken/pig feeds. I advocate using the chicken paddock shift system. And along with that, I think that the lion’s share of the people food should be grown in those same paddocks. A lot of the stuff we eat is great chicken food! And the chickens clean up anything we drop and anything we leave behind. Less waste.
So, my top 10 list of the best perennial chicken feed is a work in progress, but mulberry trees definitely makes my #1 spot. They are perennial and are heavy producers of feed all summer. And, they actually contain protein! They sound rather dreamy for chicken feed!
Other crops I’m experimenting with:
· Siberian pea shrub
· Raspberries (they will take the low berries and will leave the high berries)
· Fall field peas/lentils that dried and are still sitting out there at chicken head level
· Winter keeper apples that are still falling off the tree
· Other fruit? Brazilian cherry, peaches, sea buckthorn, figs, honey locust seeds?
· Grasses, clover
· Grains such as amaranth, quinoa and wheat
Chickens are omnivores and will eat meat protein. I’ve actually seen a chicken catch and eat a mouse. Don’t believe me?
The protein source for chickens is typically insects. In the winter, a little extra protein makes an ENORMOUS difference in laying quantity. I experimented with leaving some meal worms in some chicken feed for a few weeks and it pretty much translated into low protein chicken feed converting itself into high protein chicken feed with very little effort. It seems like a big winner and pretty cost effective. Along this line, why not use maggots for chicken feed? Turn leftover meat waste, road kill, sickly critters, (not-so-pleasant things) into nutritious food for the chicken by feeding them the maggots that arise from fly eggs. The chickens love them!
And if you are really enthusiastic, chickens have been trained to eat slugs!