It can be done. We did it. We do it every day. And the number one question I get is what in the world do I feed them.
So are you ready for the secret? You may be disappointed.
It is not an exact science.
Really it isn’t.
Two factors keep us constantly evaluating and adjusting our feed – the health of the flock, and the cost of the ingredients. For example, if we have primarily pullets and no roosters, then we stop buying safflower seeds because they are too hard and don’t get eaten. If we discover the bottom of the feeder full of flax, then we stop adding it in. If an ingredient sky rockets in price, we switch to an alternative. This means paying especially close attention to the care of your chickens. This is not the same as a prepackaged feed that you can just toss on the ground for your hens. It takes some extra maintenance. Quite frankly some people are not going to be a fan of that. And that’s ok. Not everyone needs a grain free chicken.
Find Some Local Help
We lucked out and there happens to be a sort-of near me feed store run by a young guy with a ton of education and experience. Here in Northern California, mom and pop style feed stores are becoming more and more scarce thanks to Tractor Supply which is the Walmart of farming. Even the few old school feed stores near me don’t have the resources to answer questions beyond produce description. Enter Curt of Wilbur’s Feed.
Curt is entirely amazing. He is one of those people who is not afraid of saying “I don’t know”, but always follows it up with “I will find out”. That was exactly what I needed when I was trying to piece together a grain free plan. And finding someone who can explain to you the difference between sorghum and milo is pretty darn handy when you have already spent a dozen hours trying to find out on the internet. If you haven’t already noticed, there is not a lot of information out there on a grain free chicken feed.
Get to know your closest real feed store owner. They most likely didn’t just inherit a feed store, and have some significant investment in healthy animals. In Curt’s case, he stopped short of being a veterinarian because he figured if he could help with animal nutrition then he could help prevent the problems he was seeing. See?? I love that stuff.
Most feed store owners do not hold the additional certification needed to actually make a mix and call it feed. But they are going to be super valuable for helping you to mix your own. And sourcing the ingredients locally will help keep your overall feed costs down.
The Base Recipe
Without further ado, here is the base recipe that we started with. This is not a feed for chicks. Chicks have additional feed needs. (stay tuned for that post.) This we have used once they are out of the brooder and fully feathered, at about 12 weeks old.
This recipe is for chickens on pasture and getting lots of bug time and supplemental greens. This recipe is not ‘complete’. Our hens also get free choice oyster shell. And a whole lot of kitchen scraps. This protein content works well if you have chickens that are on quality pasture, otherwise you will need to increase your protein percentage for most heritage breeds to at least 20%. We are finding that some breeds will need even more.
This 100 pounds of feed lasted us 2-3 months with 6 hens in suburbia. 10-15 birds on plenty of pasture meant it lasted 3 months. And it has changed proportionately as we have increased our flock. Its actually been cheaper than the corn and soy free bagged feed we started our chicks on.
It’s O.K. To Mix It Up
We always keep sunflower seed pieces or black oil sunflower seeds in the mix because they are so high in protein and a favorite of the hens. We also use milo. We have tried peas and lentils. They don’t like the lentils and only eat the peas if they are yellow. I have no idea what that is all about. We have also tried buckwheat and that was a flop. It is way too hard and really only beneficial to add if you sprout it first. An important part of mixing your own feed is being in tune with the needs of your flock, and periodically adjusting.
Our first backyard flock was 6 hens in about 1000 square feet on a suburban lot. We threw them a lot of scraps, supplemented with alfalfa (which they did indeed eat) and let them run the rest of the yard for bug patrol every once in awhile. We averaged 4 eggs a day and were more than happy.
Overall our chickens have been low maintenance and healthy. Our birds are 100% pastured and this feed is entirely supplemental. The bigger our flock, the more supplemental feed they go through and so the more they cost. More chickens need more space in order to keep costs down.
In addition, we have certainly made some learning mistakes. I have found that problems with this feed result from two things:
problem 1- Attempting it with hybrid chickens.
This is just generally not a good idea. If you want to depend on your flock eating primarily bugs and worms then you are going to need a heritage breed that remembers how to scratch and doesn’t mind the work. We are finishing up our Freedom Ranger experiment. Those chickens are insanely close to the Cornish Cross and not designed for this type of feed. Read more HERE for information on choosing the right breeds for your flock. The breeds we currently have include Buckeye, Delaware, Dominique, Favorolles, Red Laced Wyandottes, and Austrolopes.
problem 2 – Not feeding enough protein.
Our flock is currently comprised of about 40 laying hens, one skinny little Cream Brabanter rooster named Lenny, and about 50 meat chickens on approximately 1 acre of pasture. The 50 meat birds pushed our capacity over the top and our hens are no longer getting enough protein or greens. (more to come on our Freedom Ranger experiment) In response we added free choice kelp to increase protein and vitamin amounts, and compensate for the lack of good greens in the pasture. It hasn’t been enough. Chickens are omnivores, and while a hybrid may be bred to survive on higher amounts of carbohydrates and plant matter, a heritage chicken needs a much higher amount of animal protein.
The proper solution for this problem is going to depend on your individual situation: flock size, location, budget, breed, amount of pasture. etc. It would easily be remedied by having the right pasture to chicken ratio. What that exact ratio is will depend entirely on your own situation. I personally believe the area we have should be more than enough for 100 chickens if it was quality pasture that we kept green and growing. We blew it by throwing some meat hybrids in with our layers, and are now fixing the mess.
Other ideas for supplemental protein include red worms, meal worms, or black soldier fly larvae. Some grasses are higher in protein and you could grow fodder in your pasture. Some people run their hens with other farm animals. Some feed fishmeal. Some use whey. There is a pretty big list of options, many of which I will cover in future posts! Be sure to sign up by email so that you don’t miss them.
I’m curious what landed you here and why you might be considering grain free chickens! Would you share with me below?
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