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In some places, “chicken feed” is an old slang term meaning “cheap.” That certainly isn’t true today—especially for those of you who feed an organic, soy-free, and corn-free formula to your precious flock. While working for chicken feed may not seem like a good trade-off for you, starting small is the best way to know if growing your own feed is right for you and your flock.
This does not mean becoming a grain farmer. Forget about rows of waving grain, harvesting, threshing, and storing. Do it the easy way: Do it one step at a time and set up systems that require minimal labor.
Plant Seeds of Change
If you are using cover crops in your garden, you can actually save work and money—just by choosing seed that is chicken friendly. Many gardeners and homesteaders prefer to keep the flock out of the garden most of the time. But, when winter cover crops are ready to be tilled in (or mowed down for no-till cultivation), the chickens can process that ground for you.
They love doing this work because they eat like little kings and queens! They will also clean up any pests. Any permanent plantings or crops that are still in the ground can be protected from the chickens with row cover or bird netting. So, while the chickens clean and manure the garden, they are getting fresh grains, legumes, greens, and protein.
When planting time comes, just rake the area smooth, add a layer of finished compost, and you are ready to plant. The layer of finished compost covers the raw manure just enough to keep it from splashing up onto the spring crops and keeps any manure just below the top surface where microbes can process it into nutrients for the plants. This system mimics nature and optimizes the health of your garden ecosystem.
Feeding a Grain Diet? Read This: “Ferment Your Feed for Healthier and Happier Chickens”
Improving Your Pasture (or Run)
While your chickens are busy preparing the vegetable garden for spring planting, you can start another tasty surprise for them in their pasture or in the greenhouse. A chicken pasture can be created from any unused lawn area or weedy meadow. If you don’t have the extra space to create a chicken pasture, an ordinary chicken run can be improved using these same techniques.
First, cover the area with any organic material you can find—cover all exposed ground with wood chips, hay, spent crops, etc. This layer of organic material keeps bare ground covered and creates a base for recycling manure. Keeping the surface moist as it breaks down attracts more insects for the chickens to eat, and preserves beneficial microbes and nutrients in the finished compost.
A mulched surface is healthier for the flock, is better to walk on for people tending the chickens, and prevents valuable manure from drying out and blowing away. Consider, too, that a barren, empty chicken run is a haven for neurotic behavior in the flock. Busy chickens are happy chickens, and when there are bugs to catch or prize morsels to scratch up, pecking a hole in a neighbor’s head becomes a lot less interesting—it’s simple chicken nature.
Growing Chicken Feed
Create small patches of seeded forage, protected by a length of fencing that is wired into a circle. Remove the fence when the plants are ready for use as fodder. A height of 4 to 6 inches of growth is optimal for maximum health benefits.
The seed mix you use can be varied according to the season. This system is perfect for small flocks, because the fodder will be consumed before it becomes overly mature. This system is also helpful for those with a large pasture, because you can test different seed before you commit to planting your entire pasture with it—which can be costly.
If your chickens are as silly as mine are, a test is always a good idea.
Growing Chicken Feed Indoors
If you have a greenhouse or a cold frame, flats of fresh fodder can be started every two weeks for a steady supply of fresh greens any time of year.
Garden centers have begun to sell small trays of chicken fodder as treats for pampered backyard chickens in urban areas. But if you germinate your own seeds to make starts for the vegetable garden, a chicken smorgasbord is cheap and easy.
You need seeds, some trays, and some ordinary potting soil or just your own compost. Germinate the seeds and add a mild liquid fertilizer when the fodder reaches about 2 inches tall. At 4 to 6 inches, carry the tray out to the chickens and watch those little rascals party!
Plants for Chicken Runs
If a chicken run is the only space available, grow sunflowers along the fence line. Seed for black oilseed sunflowers is inexpensive when purchased in bulk. Protect the young plants with chicken wire, or plant them on the other side of the fence. When they mature, store the heads and use them to treat the chickens throughout the year. The natural seed heads are feed and container in one!
Sunflowers are the perfect fodder crop where space is limited, because they have such a small footprint. In urban areas, sunflowers are considered attractive even by neighbors who object to the appearance of food crops like corn and squash.
If you have children to entertain, try planting a sunflower circle with a spiral tail for an entrance in your yard. It makes a wonderfully shady clubhouse during the summer months. When the sunflower heads are harvested and the stalks are cut off at ground level, it completely disappears—though the memories live forever for your little ones.
Include Your Orchard
Homesteaders love to run their chickens through the orchard to collect insects and eat dropped fruit, but what if the orchard was planted with the chickens’ arrival in mind?
My orchard is kept heavily mulched and is regularly planted with seasonal crops. When winter greens are spent, the chickens are happy to help with the cleanup. During the hottest part of summer, the orchard becomes a shady place to hunt grasshoppers and gobble up tired bean plants.
If your orchard is covered with grass, consider planting chicken fodder instead. The diversity will improve the environment for the trees and keep the soil from compacting. Each plant adds a benefit to the soil and the overall ecosystem of the orchard.
I always plant winter squash in the orchard. The large roots of squash travel far and wide, so after the plants are harvested the roots break down and leave organic material available for the fruit trees’ roots. The soil’s water retention is improved as well. The nice big pumpkins store all winter, so the chickens have access to fresh, living food when there isn’t much growing in the pasture. You get all that, just for planting two or three seeds.
Recommended Plants for Chicken Feed
The following list of plants should help you get started. These plants are chosen because they provide valuable nutrition to the chickens, allowing you to cut down the feed bill. Experiment with other plants that are good for chickens and grow well in your area.
Cover Crops Red clover Rye grass Millet Alfalfa Mustard Daikon radish Sunflowers
Orchard & Pasture Red clover Swiss chard Rye grass Millet Sorghum (Milo) Alfalfa Oats Popcorn Pumpkin Flax Amaranth Chicory Beets Quinoa Sunflowers
Forage Circles & Seed Flats Red clover Swiss chard Rye grass Millet Sorghum Alfalfa Oats Popcorn Pumpkin Flax Amaranth Nasturtium Cucumber Beets Spinach Broccoli Turnip Mustard Kale Quinoa Daikon radish Sunflowers
Better Food Equals Better Nutrition
Regular consumption of fresh greens will raise the omega-3 content of eggs and improve the rich orange color of the yolks. That bright color is from the xanthophylls lutein and zeaxanthin. So, the nutritional value of the eggs is greatly enhanced, with higher levels of vitamins A, D, E, and more.
It is easy to see the cascade of benefits that can be realized from getting involved in your chicken’s diet. These benefits include reduced feed cost, vastly improved health for the flock, maximized egg quality, conservation of labor in the garden and orchard, and improved diversity of the garden environment.
The start-up commitment for all of these benefits is so small that it is easy to incorporate this into even the smallest garden and the smallest flock. Your chickens might thank you—or they might be way too busy.