If the cost of raising chickens has gotten you down, maybe you want to take on a new challenge: how to feed your chickens for free. You might be surprised by all the things you can feed your chickens that won’t cost you any money.
And while it is true that chickens need a balanced diet, you can easily supply that without the expensive, commercial pelleted feed. Keep reading if you want to find out 40 ways to feed your chickens for free.
|Free Range||Kitchen Scraps|
|Grocery store waste||Butchering Waste|
|Farmer’s market leftovers||Leftovers from cheesemaking|
|Leftovers from canning||Maggot Bucket|
|Black Soldier fly Larvae||Japanese Beetle Trap|
|Restaurant Scraps||Compost Pile|
|Yard Waste||Garden Rejects|
|Leftover Pumpkins||Growing Fodder|
|Homegrown Sunflower Seeds||Raise Mealworms|
|Garden Clean-Up||Chicken Garden|
|Feed Back Their Eggshells||Ask the feed store for damaged packages|
|Ask a farmer for leftover grains||Grow Winter Squash|
|Start a Grazing Box||Garden Bugs|
|Berry Bushes||Fruit Trees|
|Fishing Waste||Dig Worms|
|Road Kill||Predator Carcasses|
|Giblets and Poultry Carcasses||Raise guppies or feeder goldfish|
|Raise Crickets||Let them play in the mulch|
|Feed your cover crops||Grow Your Own Chicken Feed|
Do You Absolutely Have to Buy Commercial Feed for Your Chickens?
Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of benefits to feeding your backyard chickens commercial chicken feed, whether that’s pellets, crumbles, or mash.
Commercial feed has everything your chickens need, specially formulated for a healthy diet with no extra thought on your part.
It has the right ratios of carbohydrates, protein, and fats, along with other vitamins and minerals (like calcium and fiber) for productive laying. If you want to maximize egg production or enhance the growth of your meat chickens, this should be the staple in your birds’ diets.
However, you don’t have to solely feed that – and if you’re okay with slower growth or a dip in egg production, you may want to consider supplementing with these low-cost or free methods of feeding your chickens instead.
And know that some things you might be buying for your chickens, like oyster shells or grit, aren’t really necessary at all.
If you free-range your chickens, they’ll get the grit they need from sand and rocks on the ground. You can substitute crushed-up eggshells for oyster shells to save money, too.
And chicken scratch? Definitely not a must-have. In fact, it’s a source of empty calories for your birds.
Chickens are omnivorous creatures, meaning that they can survive on a diet of both plants and animals. In the wild, chickens will forage for food, eating anything from insects to small mammals.
However, most domesticated chickens are raised on a diet of commercial chicken feed. This feed is typically made from a mixture of corn, soybeans, and other grains.
While chicken feed is not necessary for survival, it can help chickens to grow larger and lay more eggs. In addition, chicken feed often contains vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health.
For these reasons, most chicken farmers will continue to provide their flock with chicken feed, even if they are allowed to free-range. But you don’t have to!
Here are some alternatives…
1. Free Range
The easiest way to give your chickens a free, balanced diet is to let them free-range for their food. Most breeds of chickens will do just fine foraging for their own food.
They’ll get their mix of protein from bugs, small rodents, and even frogs. They’ll find grasses, weeds, and other vegetation growing around your yard.
There are obvious risks to free-ranging your hens -that is, the potential for losing some chickens to predators. A good rooster or livestock guardian dog will help prevent that.
Keep in mind that even allowing your chickens to free range a few hours per day will cut down on your feed bill, so if you are worried about predators, just let your chickens out for a few hours in the afternoon when you’re around to keep a close watch.
Everything they eat out of your yard is free! And when it gets dark they’ll find their way back to the coop so you don’t have to worry about chasing them down and putting them back in their pen.
How Do I Get My Chickens to Free Range?
Getting chickens to free range can be a challenge, as they may be afraid of predators or simply accustomed to being confined. One way to encourage chickens to free range is to provide them with a safe space, such as a fenced-in yard or chicken coop with a secure run.
The first step is to make sure they have enough space. Chickens need at least 10 square feet of space per bird, so if you have a flock of 50 birds, they will need a minimum of 500 square feet to free range.
Once you have enough space, you can let your chickens out into the yard and they will start exploring on their own.
And as long as they have a safe place to return to, they will be more likely to venture out into the open.
Another way to encourage chickens to free range is to provide them with food and water in different areas of the yard so that they have an incentive to explore their surroundings. With a little patience and effort, most chickens can be trained to free range.
2. Kitchen Scraps
Chickens are omnivores – they eat both meat and vegetables. So you can feed your chickens with confidence, knowing that most of what you eat is just fine for them, too.
Even better if you stick to a whole food diet of mostly lean protein, fresh veggies, and other healthy foods and avoid lots of processed stuff.
Justin Rhodes states in one of his YouTube videos that you can feed chickens on approximately a half pound of kitchen scraps per chicken per day, so an average family can feed a few chickens just on their leftovers.
If you don’t have enough, consider asking friends and family to save you their leftovers. My friends get a kick out of feeding the chickens and often will throw some leftovers in the freezer until they plan to come over for a visit. It’s better for the environment (no rotting food in the landfills) and saves you money.
You don’t want to feed your chickens moldy or spoiled food, but anything that is still technically safe but no longer appetizing is fair game such as wilted lettuce, stale Cheerios, freezer-burned meats, and bread heels.
3. Restaurant Scraps
Another idea to garner free chook food is to make a visit to any small, local restaurants and ask them for their leftovers from their salad bars and buffets. If they can’t save it to serve the following day, they have to throw it out. You’ll be doing them a favor by saving on their dumpster costs.
4. Compost Pile
Some savvy chicken keepers have figured out that you can safely feed your chickens from the compost pile, especially if you put one right in your chicken pen. Yard waste, vegetable scraps, and anything else you routinely compost can go right on the pile.
Not only can the chickens eat up the edible morsels, but the pile will also attract worms and insects that will be a feast for your feathered friends. In turn, they will fertilize it, scratch it, and turn it for you so you won’t have to do the work.
In the spring, just put the compost in your garden like you normally would and start a new pile in the pen.
5. Extra Eggs
If you have a large flock, what do you do with all those extra eggs? Or the eggs that are too dirty to eat or sell? Feed them back to your hens, of course!
Scrambled, poached, or hard-boiled, they aren’t picky at all. This will give them some extra protein which will boost feather production, especially during molting season.
You may despise all those weeds popping up in your garden and flower beds, but your hens will enjoy them. Things like dandelions, purslane, crabgrass, stinging nettles, thistles, and even plantain are delectable to your birds.
Instead of tossing them in the compost pile or the local waste collection, feed them to your chickens. It’s free and sustainable.
7. Yard Waste
Yard waste, like grass, leaves, and bush clippings, is often collected and taken to municipal sites. Skip this step and drop it into your chicken pen. It’s a great source of vegetable matter and home to lots of creepy crawlies that your hens will love to munch.
If you have a compost pile in your chicken pen, just toss it there. If you don’t have yard waste of your own, chat with your neighbor or your township to see where you can get some.
8. Garden Rejects
Murano Chicken farms tells us to send those home-grown veggies that don’t make the cut right to your chickens.
Funny-shaped veggies, split tomatoes, hard peas, and beans, or even better, crawling with worms are perfect to use as chicken feed. See what else Murano Chicken Farms has to say, here.
9. Leftover Pumpkins
Our local pumpkin patch has oodles of pumpkins adorning their fields when Halloween is over and done. Since they just turn them back into the soil for next year’s crop, they are more than happy to let us fill up our trunk with the leftover pumpkins.
If you keep them in a cool place that doesn’t freeze, they are likely to last a few months so you can feed them as needed throughout the winter. As a bonus, the kids love smashing a pumpkin or two in the chicken pen for them to devour.
10. Growing Fodder
Fodder is a cheap / free source of fresh food for your chickens that you can grow all winter long. Fodder is basically sprouted grains that you feed to your animals.
You can use wheat berries, sunflower seeds, oats, and even barley. Sprout it in big trays without soil, and when the sprouts get about three inches tall you can use them as feed.
You could spend thousands of dollars setting up an extensive fodder system or you could just items that you have laying around the house. The Prairie Homestead shares how they built a fodder system for their livestock here.
11. Cage droppings
Don’t let the thought gross you out too much. My chickens love to scratch through the ground under the rabbit pens and wherever we’ve dumped out the guinea pig waste or manure.
Yeah, it’s gross. But they’ll eat the leftover feed and any bugs or delectable bits that are mixed in with the waste.
12. Homegrown Sunflower Seeds
Put your sunflowers to good use! If you grow them but don’t eat the seeds, save them for your chickens.
Allow the heads to dry by putting them in a paper bag and then put the whole dried sunflower head right in the chicken pen to serve as a meal and entertainment.
13. Raise Mealworms
Mealworms are easy to raise. They multiply quickly and are an easy and abundant source of protein. A simple Tupperware container with a mesh lid makes an adequate home and they rarely escape like crickets do.
A layer of oats or bran in the bottom makes great bedding and feed, too. Some homesteaders have mentioned raising their mealworms right in the chicken feed, although I’ve never tried this myself.
14. Garden Clean-Up
When your garden is done for the season, let your chickens in! They’ll find lots of leftover produce, bugs, edible blossoms, and weeds to munch. They’ll turn the soil and take care of the weeds, getting it ready for next year.
If you have a chicken tractor, you can move it right into your garden for the winter. Dump in some mulch and they’ll even spread it for you. They’ll get free food and you’ll get free labor.
15. Chicken Garden
If you don’t like the idea of letting the chickens into your garden, grow one just for them. Take your leftover seeds and plant them right in the chicken pen or adjacent area.
You may want to block off access until your chicken garden gets established or they’ll eat up the tender little shoots. Once the garden starts producing, let your birds have access to the feast.
16. Feed Back Their Eggshells
Don’t spend money on extra calcium for your hens. Instead, dry out your eggshells and crush them up. It’s easy and saves all those shells from going into the landfill. See what Fresh Eggs Daily has to say about feeding eggshells here.
17. Ask the feed store for damaged packages.
When a feed store receives packages that are damaged or become damaged in the store, they may sell the broken bags at a deep discount or just throw them away.
Speak up and ask if they have any damaged bags of chicken feed that you can have (it helps if you are a regular customer).
18. Ask a farmer for leftover grains.
If you have any local farmer friends, they may let you scoop up the bits of corn or grain lying in the bottom of their bins. Bring it home and store it in clean metal trash cans so rodents can’t get to it.
19. Grow Winter Squash
Grow a few extra winter squash plants if you have the space in your garden. Think of butternut, acorn, hubbard, and even some pumpkins or any type of winter squash that you grow for yourself.
Winter squash stores well due to its thick rind. There is no need to spend time and energy to cook them, though, your chickens will gladly eat them raw if you slice them in half.
20. Start a Grazing Box
A grazing box is a great way to use up your leftover seeds. A grazing box is a small raised bed with chicken wire stretched over top. The plants grow up through the chicken wire.
Your chickens can snack on leaves and shoots and vegetables without digging up the soil or the root systems. This works especially well with lettuces, kale, and spinach that will regrow from the stems.
21. Grocery store waste.
Grocery stores often have to throw away wilted lettuce, old produce, and even meat products past their sell-by date. Rather than have to throw them in the dumpster, ask a manager if you can take the trash food home.
Make sure they know it’s going to your chickens and not to you, or they may not let you have it. You’ll have the best luck with small-town grocery stores rather than large chain stores, but it never hurts to ask.
22. Butchering Waste
If you butcher your own animals, whether they are chickens, hogs, or deer, you can save the wasted bits to feed your chickens.
Throw all those little bits of fat, meat, or food scraps into a big stock pot and cook it up. From there, you can feed it to your birds after it cools or freeze it to serve a little bit at a time.
23. Farmer’s market leftovers.
Hit up the farmer’s markets at the end of the weekend, and you’ll find some of the vendors tossing their wares so they don’t have to take them home.
It helps if you frequent the farmer’s market and they know you are a valued customer, but don’t be afraid to ask if you can take home the leftover bread and produce. You might even say thanks by sharing a few of your eggs.
24. Leftovers from cheesemaking.
Do you make your own cheese? Soak your stale cereal or bread in the byproducts, like whey, and give it right to your birds.
You can also feed leftovers from making your own yogurt, too…
25. Leftovers from canning.
If you make preserves, jellies, or can other delicious fresh foods, you can give all the leftover bits and pieces to your chickens. Strawberry tops from strawberry jam, slightly mushy peaches, and apple peels are great chicken foods.
26. Maggot Bucket
If you find the very thought of maggots repulsing, have no fear. Your chickens will love them and you won’t have to touch them at all. All it takes is a simple five-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom.
Suspend the bucket a few feet over the chicken pen, and put something in it like roadkill, deceased livestock pieces, or raw butchering leftovers. The rotting carcass will attract flies that lay eggs that turn into maggots.
The maggots will fall out of the holes in the bucket and feed your chickens. Gross, but effective. See Justin Rhodes’ version here:
28. Black Soldier fly Larvae
These are different from your ordinary maggots. They also don’t carry diseases, don’t bite, and don’t sting. They take a little work to raise, but if you simply love to treat your chickens, it’s worth the effort for the free treats.
Thefrugalchicken.com provides step-by-step directions on why they’re great for chickens, how to raise them, and where to get them to start your farm. Check it out here.
28. Japanese Beetle Trap
If you have Japanese Beetle Traps that don’t use poison or toxic bait, you can feed the live beetles to your chickens for a free source of protein.
29. Garden Bugs
Early in the morning, you’ll find squash bugs, tomato bugs, and caterpillars prowling your plants for their breakfast. Just flick them into a bucket with a little water in the bottom. You’ll save your veggies and feed your hens.
30. Berry Bushes
My property is edged with wild raspberries, which are delicious to humans and hens alike. If you don’t have any berries growing wild, ask a friend who has berry bushes if you can take a few cuttings to cultivate your own (for free!).
Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries all work well. You’ll get hours of entertainment watching your chickens jump up for those just-out-of-reach berries.
31. Fruit Trees
If you have fruit trees growing on your property, or you would like to, the fruit that falls to the ground is a great free food for your chickens.
Mulberry trees will drop berries for about 3 months, and while they are messy. If you grow one over your chicken pen, they’ll be able to eat any of the berries that fall to the ground and the rest on the tree are for you.
Other fruit trees work just as well – apples that fall to the ground will attract worms, giving your hens both fresh fruit and protein.
32. Fishing Waste
Do you have an avid fisherman in your life? Feed your chickens for free with the leftover fish parts, fishy heads and all. If you’re feeding a whole fish you’ll want to slice it open first so they get to the good stuff inside.
33. Dig Worms
If you dig worms for fishing, you can dig them for your chickens. Or wait until after a good rainstorm and just pick them up off the driveway.
34. Road Kill
In some areas, it isn’t uncommon to pick up fresh road kill and dress it for dinner, especially deer. You can cut open a fresh carcass and feed it to your chickens.
You’ll want to remove any leftovers after a couple of days to make sure there isn’t any unsafe food. Better yet, drop it into your maggot bucket to keep the free feedings flowing.
35. Predator Carcasses
You may think foxes are especially cute until you watch one carry off your prized rooster. Don’t get mad, make it chicken food! After you have made sure your predator is deceased, you can cut it open and feed it to your chickens.
36. Giblets and Poultry Carcasses
Make Thanksgiving Day a good one for your chickens. After you’ve picked all the good stuff off your turkey bones, toss the carcass in the chicken pen.
They’ll clean off any leftover bits and leave the bones behind. You can do this with the Thanksgiving turkey, rotisserie chicken, or other fowl.
37. Raise guppies or feeder goldfish.
On the hot summer days, you’ll want to entice your hens to stay cool and eat some protein. Have no worries! Raise some guppies or feeder fish for your chickens. Release them into a baby pool with a few inches of water and watch the hilarious feast begin.
38. Raise Crickets
If your kids raise crickets for their pet lizards, you’re already in business. Raising crickets is fairly easy and chickens will get some exercise and entertainment by chasing them around.
If you need help starting your cricket farm, Kathryn Lin tells you how to get it going for less than $3.00. See her post here.
39. Let them play in the mulch.
If you are going to spread mulch in the garden when there aren’t any plants growing, why not let the chickens do the work? Dump your mulch in a large pile, and let the chickens go to town.
They’ll scratch through it looking for bugs and other tasty morsels while doing the bulk of the mulching for you.
40. Feed your cover crops.
Do you grow any cover crops in the fall and winter? Cover crops such as alfalfa, clover, buckwheat, and other grasses can be fed to your chickens.
You can cut some down and carry it to their pen, or better yet, if you have a chicken tractor, just move it right where the cover crops are. The chickens can forage for their food from the crops and leave behind rich fertilizer for the next year’s plants.
One More Option – Grow Your Own Chicken Feed
If you’re extra motivated, you might also consider growing the grain crops you need to create your own balanced chicken feed.
Typically, this includes things like corn, wheat, barley, sorghum, soybeans, and amaranth. Check the label on your preferred package of chicken feed and then consider growing your own feed. It’s a great way to save money!
What Shouldn’t Chickens Eat?
If you’re worried about feeding your hens the wrong thing, you can see the separate list we put together here. Things like potato peels, avocado skins, and green tomatoes just aren’t good for your girls and should be avoided.
Other table scraps to avoid include:
- Alcohol or caffeine
- Anything with lots of added sugar
Of course, you’ll want to use good judgment when feeding your chickens. Don’t give them food that is moldy, spoiled, or has been tainted with chemicals or poisonous substances.
Certain things, like baked goods, won’t necessarily harm your chickens, but it won’t give them the nutrients, minerals, and vitamins they need.
Remember that if you’re going to eat the eggs or the chickens themselves, anything that goes into the chicken eventually gets consumed by you. But with a little effort and some creative thinking, you’ll be able to find ways to feed your chickens for free.