Feeding Backyard Chickens Homemade Food
My backyard flock are full-grown now and I’ve transitioned them from organic prepacked food to a blend of whole grains. You may wonder what the benefits of feeding chickens whole grains are or how to make nutritionally balanced food for your chickens. In my case, I wanted the flock to eat a more diverse diet and I wanted to limit the amount of corn and soy they eat. If you’re looking for information on how to feed your backyard chickens homemade food blends, this is for you. I’ll share what I’ve learned about buying grains, storing the food, catering to picky chickens and more.
If you are going to add chickens, you need to start by checking the local zoning laws. Make sure it’s legal to have chickens where you live and what requirements there are. Please thoroughly research how to care for chickens, their probable lifespans, their needs, etc. Chickens are very long-lived, so they are not an appropriate choice if you aren’t ready to commit to years of caring for them.
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What do backyard chickens eat?
If they free-range, even a little, then the answer is “whatever they want”, including the tomato you were going to pick for dinner and the leaves off the baby trees you planted. But really, chickens eat insects and worms, leaves and grass and fruit and vegetables. My flock adore tomatoes, so I have to fence them out of the tomato beds. Chickens that get some of their food this way already have a more natural and diverse diet and the feed you give them will be part of a larger nutritional profile.
For chickens who get little to no free ranging, they should eat mostly high protein grains, like wheat, and complex carbs, like oats or corn. Most commercial feed is a combo of these, with some fillers and binders. If you’re feeding chickens homemade food, it will need to have the same nutritional complexity of commercial feed.
What grains should backyard chickens eat?
Ingredients in homemade chicken food
Backyard chickens need a carefully balanced diet. The most important component of a backyard chicken’s diet is protein. When the birds are growing, protein should be 24% of their diet. Once they’re adults, it should be 16-18%, especially when they are laying or molting. Wheat berries, both red and white, have a lot of protein, as do peas and lentils. Chickens should absolutely not eat raw or undercooked beans, but peas and lentils are perfectly safe for them. Oats, rye, barley, spelt, quinoa, millet and other whole grains or seeds are great choices, too.
The mixture of grains should proportionally meet the protein requirement, even if an individual grain is lower in protein.
For example, my girls love oats. That’s their favorite part of their feed mix. But oats don’t have quite enough protein on their own, so I keep the proportion of their feed that is oats on the low side. Lentils and wheat are both much higher in protein, so I put more of those into the feed mix.
The variety of grains or seeds you choose to feed your flock will depend on how readily available certain grains are or what you flock is willing to eat. Expect some trial and error, and to tweak your food blend.
How to mix and store grain for chickens
I buy my grains in bulk, more on that below. Chickens need a carefully formulated combination of grains to make sure they’re getting enough protein and other vital nutrients. I mix a batch of food each week, and store it in a container in the kitchen. From that container, it’s easy to pour out their daily allotment.
For information on chicken nutrition and creating a grain mix for your flock, see the link to Garden Betty’s Chicken Feed Calculator at the end of the post. It’s an amazing resource for learning how to mix up nutritionally balanced chicken food.
Feeding Backyard Chickens Homemade Food – Troubleshooting
For some chicken keepers, this is as easy as filling up the feeder with the grain mix.
But alas, chickens are just like us. They like some foods and they don’t like others, and it doesn’t matter how healthy those foods are. No matter how often I explain to my flock that the need to eat their lentils and peas, they refuse. The flock will pick the oats, wheat and sunflower seeds out of the food bowl and leave the peas and lentils behind. It would be funny if their health wasn’t on the line! So what’s to be done about picky chickens?
Feeding Picky Chickens
There are three basic options. Option one is simply remove the grains the girls don’t care for. There’s a downside to this, though, and that’s both decreased diversity of diet and increased cost. Lentils and peas are both very cheap, compared to wheat or other grains, and both are very high in protein. For the sake of economy, I want my flock to eat at least some lentils and peas.
Cooking Chicken Dinner
That brings me to option 2. If the peas and lentils, and to a lesser extend the wheat berries, are at least partially cooked the chickens will eat them. So, yes, I cook my flock dinner sometimes. I put the day’s food, by volume (about 1/4 pound per chicken), into a pan, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until the grains are as soft as you wish. Then the heat off, cover the pan, allow to cool, then strain. The girls love their “chicken dinner” and it’s more filling, so they eat less.
I generally serve this to them in a large, flat pan. If they’re getting any fruit or vegetables from our kitchen, those get mixed in after cooking. The sunflower seeds don’t get cooked, I just dump those into the mash. My flock adores their sunflower seeds and generally eat those first. By mixing them in, I help ensure the girls eat more of their dinner. The chicken’s dinner pan gets washed every day.
The obvious downside is….cooking dinner for your chickens every day. Who has time for that? If I didn’t work from home, I wouldn’t. But you can cook a huge batch of their grains and then portion out some each day. It holds up very well in the fridge. Is it as easy as just filling a tube feeder once a week? No, but if you’re interested in feeding your flock something besides commercial feed, this is one way to get the job done.
Fermenting Grains for Chickens
Fermenting food for your backyard chickens has multiple health benefits for the flock. They eat less food because they’re more satiated from fermented grains. The food is more nutritious because it provides beneficial probiotics. It’s easier than cooking grain, too. So how do you ferment food for your chickens?
It’s so easy to ferment chicken food. Measure out the correct portion, put it into a container with a lid and add enough water to completely cover the food. Let it sit for 24-36 hours at room temperature. You’ll know it’s fermenting when bubbles form on the surface. Due to the fermentation, you will likely need to pop the lid open to release excess gas. Once the feed is fermented, just give it to the flock and watch them devour it.
Fermented food has to be refrigerated or it will just keep fermenting. That’s not a big deal if you’re only fermenting a couple of days worth of food. But if you’re doing the whole week’s worth, keeping it cold will be necessary.
Setting up a food fermentation system for your chickens
I said fermenting chicken food was easy, and it is. But you do need some sort of system for managing the fermentation. There are a couple ways to do this. One way is to ferment a large batch of food, say a week’s worth. Put the food into a large container, cover with water, seal, and let ferment. Then strain the food, store it in the refrigerator and give the flock their daily portion.
Another option is to portion each day’s food into a small, lidded container, and ferment each container. That’s what I do, because I don’t have room to store a huge container of fermented feed. I use four cup plastic food storage containers because I have tons of them and they hold just enough food for the flock per day. I portion out a week’s worth of food, add water and let it all ferment for 48 hours. Then I store the containers in the fridge until dinner time. Just before feeding, I strain the food.
The fermentation process softens up those peas and lentils and the chickens love them. I alternate between fermenting their food and cooking it.
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Where to find whole grains and chicken food cheaply
Getting my flock the best food possible is my priority. But buying whole grains and seeds is also more economical than most organic, non-gmo commercial feed.
It is quite a bit cheaper to buy bulk quantities of wheat, oats, rye, barley, or whatever grain you like. My favorite way to buy organic, non-gmo whole grain chicken food is from Azure Standard. Azure is an small, family owned food co-op and delivery service. Learn more about ordering from Azure in my Review of Azure Standard.
Please note that if you use my link to set up your own order with Azure, I’ll receive a referral credit, which helps me offset the cost of producing content. The quality of Azure’s food and their customer service is excellent, so you won’t regret ordering both chicken food and your own groceries from them. Click MY LINK to set up your account and place your order. And if you have any questions, shoot me an email or leave a comment.
So what does it cost to feed chickens whole grains?
Prices for food depend on the season and location, of course. But here’s the rundown of the grains I ordered from Azure. I ordered in bulk to save money and also to ensure I have at least a six month supply of food for the chickens. If you don’t have the space, you can order smaller quantities, of course. For more information on storing bulk food, check out How Much Space Do you Need to Store Food?
Soft White Wheat Berries – 25lb bag – $13.64
Hard Red Wheat Berries – 50 lb bag – $30.53
Brown Lentils – 25 lb bag $24.56
Rye – 25 lb bag – $16.23
Split Peas – 25lb bag – $18.38
Rolled Oats – 25 lb bag – $16.84
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds – 25 lb bag $42.85*
Hulled Millet – 5lb bag – $6
205 pounds of organic, non-gmo grain for $169.03. A full-grown chicken eats about 1/4 lb of food each day, meaning a flock of five birds will eat around 456 pounds of food a year. Of course that doesn’t take into account anything they free range and it also doesn’t account for wasted and spilled food. But you can see that I have around 5 months of food, assuming I’m just giving them dry, uncooked grains. By cooking or fermenting the grains, I’m making them go further, and they also get table scraps and food they free range. All told, this is easily six month supply of chicken food.
But let’s take the worst case scenario and say this is a five month food supply, full-stop. That comes out to $33 per month for organic, non-gmo food that doesn’t have any fillers and isn’t full of corn. There’s nothing wrong with corn, but there are more protein and nutrient-rich grains I’d rather give the flock, even taking gmos out of the equation. I do give them some cracked corn in cold weather because their bodies work fast to digest the carbs and that helps them stay warmer.
*I put an asterisk on the sunflower seeds and here’s why – the Azure price is for hulled, organic sunflower seeds. I actually just give my flock high quality black oil sunflower seeds from the local pet store. They are much cheaper, and I’m willing to skim on hulled and organic for this one item. The actual cost for the sunflower seeds I give my flock (and my backyard birds) is $22, so my monthly cost is a bit cheaper.
Other Considerations about Feeding Chickens with Homemade Food
Is making chicken food at home worth it?
Straight up, it’s neither the cheapest nor the easiest option. If you’re looking for minimal effort, buy a big sack of organic, non-gmo chicken food and a large capacity feeder. There’s nothing wrong with that, your birds will eat a healthy and nutritionally appropriate diet.
If cost is a factor, there are 25lb sacks of chicken food for as little as $15. These are not organic and they’re mostly corn and soy. Since I’m raising these chickens for eggs, I want to feed them a diet that is as rich and nutritious as possible. So for me, the ultra cheap chicken food isn’t the best option.
There is extra work in buying and storing bulk grain. And there is an initial cost in buying food grade buckets. You also need at least a small area to store the grains, which may not be possible for everyone. My house has a large basement, so I have room for seven 5 gallon buckets without too much difficulty. Read more about the supplies you need to Store Food Long Term.
Because I have the storage space and don’t mind spending a few minutes each week prepping the food (whether I’m fermenting it or cooking it), it’s worth it to me. The food is cheaper (compared to organic, non-gmo feed) and I can make sure the flock is eating a varied diet. I can also easily tailor it to their seasonal needs. For example, laying hens should eat rye but it’s not recommended otherwise. So I can add that in during the spring and summer. I add cracked corn in the winter to help the girls stay warmer.
Other Advantages to Making Chicken Food at Home
One other advantage of buying whole grains and seeds to feed backyard chickens is that those seeds and grains can be sprouted. While sprouting chicken fodder is a topic for another day, my buckets of grains make it easy to grow the flock some cereal grass easily. That gives me another way to feed them and vary their diet, which is especially important in the winter.
Finally, the grains I buy for the chickens are high-quality, food safe ingredients. The chickens aren’t keen on lentils, but my husband and I are! So in addition to have food on hand for the flock, I’ve also got food stored for us. I’m not ready to buy a grain mill and make my own flour yet, but that is my goal for next year. That will be one more benefit to buying wheat and other grains whole. So to me, there are a lot of benefits to feeding my backyard chickens whole grains and homemade chicken food. And my flock seems to be thriving, too.
I’m indebted to Garden Betty and her amazing Chicken Feed Calculator. It’s the best resource I’ve found for creating nutritionally balanced food for backyard chickens. For excellent information on chicken nutrition and formulating chicken food, check her site out. My goal in creating this post was to offer some insight into the logistics of creating, serving and buying chicken food rather than covering ground already well-worked.