We’ve loved having chickens in our backyard. But we’ve wondered about their diets and if we could take things to the next level – while also giving our chickens a much more natural and sustainable way to eat. How can you raise chickens without using feed – and is it better?
Chickens don’t require feed, provided they have a good balance of nutrients, options, a healthy dose of protein, and sufficient space and ability to forage. Use overall fowl health and egg production to help gauge the quality of the feed-free diet to raise happy, healthy birds.
Ready to read more about raising chickens on a natural, feed-free diet? Keep reading to read all about my research, experience, and caveats about going off of the formulaic feed from the store.
How to Raise Chickens Without Feed
Going feed-free doesn’t have to be a hassle. In fact, if you follow these few simple steps, you can skip commercial feeds entirely.
You could even raise your chickens from hatching without buying bags of feed, though I’d only recommend that if you’ve already got hens who can help and teach the chicks how to eat safely. Even then, the chicks could probably figure things out. It’s more the human error I’m worried about!
So if you’d rather not worry about your chicks and natural feed, make sure that you’ve either already got chickens or go ahead and use the starter, chick feed for now. You can always transition them to a more natural, feed-free diet once they’re older and you’re ready for it.
In any case, it’s time to talk about how to raise chickens without buying feed – complete with a step-by-step guide.
1. Do your research into fowl nutrition.
There are a lot of ways to make sure your flock has a healthy diet without feed. However, you need to know what kind of nutrition to feed your birds. And the most important thing to note about fowl nutrition is this fact: you can’t just throw them table scraps or let them forage a small area and call that good.
Now, you don’t need to memorize any percentages or recipes. You don’t need to memorize how many carbs to give your hens or how much protein each piece and type of grain has. Instead, you need to remember these five basic principles of chicken nutrition.
- Chickens are pretty good about eating various foods – if they have enough quantity in the variety.
- Protein is important. Growing and molting chickens may need a diet higher in protein than at other stages during their life – including while laying. Studies show it’s the most important macronutrient for chickens, even if it’s not what they need to eat most.
- Treats aren’t for every day. They’re for rare or special occasions. Chickens would rather eat treats than a balanced diet (just like people would!). Keep your focus on a healthy, balanced diet for your flock, and then don’t worry about occasional treats.
- Chickens will overeat non-protein foods if you let them. You either need to ration their non-protein feed or create a system that will ration it for you (and the chickens). However, studies show that chickens will eat to get the protein they need with protein-based foods, even if the food is always available.
- An imbalanced diet affects chicken health. Chickens will eat what’s available, but it will affect their overall health if the macronutrient balance gets off. And the first part of a chicken’s health to be affected is egg production (here are 17 things that affect overall egg production). That’s right: egg production will go down if the macronutrient balance isn’t right.
So if you’re going to raise your chickens without feed, you’re going to need to know a whole lot more about chicken nutrition than if you just pick up a bag of feed every few weeks. In fact, the only thing you need to remember with commercial feed is to buy it – and then fill up your feeder when it’s low.
But by foregoing the commercial feed, you’re choosing to take an active role in managing your flock’s health and diet. And that leads me to my first caveat about raising chickens without feed: you cannot raise chickens on table scraps or periodic foraging and expect them to thrive. Survive? Sure. Thrive? Nope.
“But wait,” you may be thinking. “Didn’t raising chickens on table scraps work in the old days?”
No. It didn’t work then and it won’t work today.
Your chickens can survive on table scraps, but they won’t thrive. In fact, egg production will most likely drop dramatically. That’ll be your first clue that things aren’t working.
Based on my research, part of the reason that commercial feeds developed (back in the 1920s) was to help improve egg production. Back then, you were pretty lucky to get maybe 90 eggs per year from a chicken. That’s a far cry from today’s 200-300 eggs a chicken lays. The main difference is in what the chickens eat. And some of that is genetic, sure. Commercial feed arose at the same time that chickens were being bred to maximize egg-laying.
Today’s chickens have not only been bred to maximize egg production, but they’re also fed a whole lot better. The most important of those macronutrients has to do with the amount of protein a chicken consumes.
- Chickens who don’t get enough protein lay fewer eggs and may look less healthy than those chickens who consume enough protein.
- Chickens who eat too much protein aren’t usually a thing to worry about unless all you’re feeding them is protein-rich foods. Most chickens are smart enough (and in tune enough with their body) to go eat something else before they turn into whatever the chicken equivalent of a bodybuilder on a keto diet would be. (Not that bodybuilders or keto diets aren’t cool. They just aren’t for chickens.) Give your chickens a variety of foods and this isn’t an issue.
So as you’re deciding what natural type of diet to give your chickens, remember that (no matter what you end up feeding them), your chickens will need a healthy variety and balance of macronutrients.
And they’re going to need enough protein. Just for reference, here’s how much protein your chickens would get with commercial feed.
- Layer feed is usually 16% protein.
- Pullet feed tends to be 16-20% protein (usually 20%).
So you need a good bit of protein. But you also need the other macro and micronutrients. So don’t forget the veggies. Chickens love fruits and veggies – and they’re a great source of nutrition for your flock.
Most researchers and homesteading sources agree that your chickens need a good mix of foods. We’ll cover exactly what to feed your chickens later on in this article, though. For now, let’s go back to how to do it – we’re at step two now.
2. Decide how much work you’re willing to invest in feeding your flock.
Now that you know more about poultry nutrition, it’s time for you to decide how much work, time, and money you’re willing to put into feeding your flock a commercial-feed free diet.
There are multiple ways to invest in feeding your flock – and they each require different amounts of input. Which one you pick will depend on your resources and priorities. Some methods are time-intensive but pretty cheap. Other methods are dang expensive but don’t cost much (if any) time. And others are work-intensive. Most options can be adjusted (with some creativity) to change which input type is the biggest. You just have to be willing to get creative.
Here are some of the ways to source a commercial feed-free diet for your flock. These can be done singly or in tandem (mixed and matched together).
- Grow your own food for the flock. Feed that (and any weeds you pull) to your flock. You can grow vegetables, cover crops, perennials, or whatever else works for you and your flock. Just make sure you’re sticking to growing chicken-safe foods. Sunflowers and herbs are great options!
- Buy feed ingredients and mix your own homemade feed. You can buy the various grains and feed ingredients in bulk. It’ll save you a lot over commercial feeds – and you’ll know exactly what’s in it, too.
- Collect free or low-cost food from other sources to feed your flock. This could be done via dumpster diving or working with a grocery store to collect any grocery produce that can’t be sold – and would otherwise become trash.
- Buy and feed your flock a commercially-mixed feed. Yes, I know that this article is about how to skip doing this. But this is still a valid method to feed and raise your flock. And it’s one of the least-work-intensive options. So it’s worth mentioning. Simply buy the right formula for your flock (read the bag or ask an employee) and put it in a feeder. Really simple. Just don’t forget to get another bag before you run out of the current one.
- Use sprouting, soaked, and fermented grains. Use any or all of these methods to feed your chickens a variety of foods that would otherwise go to waste. Sprouted grains are full of nutrition. Soaked mash won’t blow away in the wind, which means less waste (and more food). Fermented grains and feeds can unlock extra nutrition for your flock when done correctly.
- Supplement with scraps and leftovers – from either your own and/or others’ (including from stores and butchering). Get creative – ask farmer’s markets, stores, neighbors, or whoever else for leftovers and scraps. Dairy leftovers can actually be just fine for your chickens.
- Create a bug farm (or a worm farm) and let your chickens have the extras. Mealworms can be a great option, as chickens love them. Other bug options could include fly larvae, maggots, and beetles. This is a great way to create a renewable protein source for your chickens.
- Let your chickens free-range and be your pest control. You can decide how much space to let your chickens have. But free-ranging chickens can give you free tilling, aerating, and pest control.
- Use compost to your advantage. Chickens love to peck, scratch, and eat their way through compost. Not only do they eat the leftover food, but they’ll also eat the bugs and till the compost. This means better, faster compost for you and food for them.
There’s not going to be a “wrong” or a “right” answer for the best way you can feed your flock. Instead, it’s more of a which way is right for you. And what’s right for you and your flock may not work for another chicken owner.
For example, I’ve read several accounts where chicken owners used once-a-month dumpster diving to collect enough discarded produce (and even some deli meat) to get enough produce to feed their flock until the next time they did some neighborhood recycling.
Could that be a great option for some people? Definitely. Just make sure that you dumpster dive responsibly. Apparently, there are some rules and etiquette to follow. So make sure you know and follow those.
Other people (like me) won’t want to use dumpster diving to collect enough free food for their flock. If that’s the case, you could ask neighbors for scraps. Or go to the farmer’s market and collect produce that would otherwise be thrown away.
Again, there isn’t a right or wrong answer here. It’s what works for you. And if what works for you is several of the above methods? That’s awesome. Feel free to stack or mix and match to find the right balance for your flock and backyard homestead. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves and into step three. So let’s do that next.
3. Decide what kind of natural or feed-free diet you want your flock to have.
Now that you have a better idea on fowl nutrition and how much work you’re willing to invest, it’s time to pick your path forward. What’s awesome, though, is that you don’t have to stick to a single option. Nor do you have to pick what your neighbor picked.
What’s right for you and your backyard flock will be different than even what your neighbor picks. That’s okay. In fact, that’s both normal and good! Everyone has different scheduling demands, resources, and everything else. So find what’s right for you, your family, and your chickens.
Beyond that, foods aren’t just a single thing. Grains aren’t just carbs. Whole grains are also full of protein. Just be aware that each different type of grain has a different protein profile than other grains do. And, depending on if they’re whole, cracked, sprouted, fermented, or soaked, that the nutrients inside may become more easily digested by your flock of hungry chickens.
However, listing the exact nutritional content of every potential type of food would make this article into a chicken’s version of a cookbook. Or a whole other website. So we’ll save that for another article another time.
For now, start by picking one (or a few) ideas. Then, start testing. Even without knowing the exact nutritional makeup of a grain of rolled oat mash, we can still figure out several important things. But testing is part of our next step, so let’s dive into that next.
4. Create an environment and systems to facilitate feeding your flock.
Once you’ve picked out what you’ll be feeding your flock, it’s time to create an environment and/or systems to make things easier.
For example, if you’re going to use a bug farm (like mealworms) to help feed your flock, then you’re going to need to build that up to a sustainable level. You’ll also want to make it as easy-to-maintain as possible. You need a bug farm system.
When I use the word “system,” I don’t have anything in particular. By “system,” I mean you’re going to need an area, equipment, a method, and a repeatable process for whatever you’re talking about. Let’s use the bug farm example.
- You’re going to need an area for your bug farm. Perhaps you need to dedicate a few feet of your backyard to the farm. Maybe you want a huge bug farm that requires a lot more space. Then, decide where to put your bug farm system. You can keep it next to your coop or even by your compost pile. No matter where it goes, it needs space.
- Systems may need equipment for the bug farm. Equipment needed will depend on the bug farm. It’s possible to have a worm farm with only a five-gallon bucket. Or maybe you want a vermicompost system for housing your worms. Then, you can feed the extras to your hens. However you decide to do it, decide on which equipment you may (or may not) need.
- Create a method to the madness. Seriously. This step will take some time to figure it all out. But create a method. You can refine it in the next step. But first, make things doable.
- Systems use reliable, repeatable processes to get the job done. So once you’ve got things set up, make it easily repeatable. Make things so easy that your five-year-old (or my five-year-old) could follow the process. That way, it’ll be sustainable even if your neighbors have to help out for a day or two while you’re on vacation.
Well, I guess you don’t have to make it easier with systems. You are welcome to do it however you want to! I just happen to recommend making things as easy as possible so that it’s more sustainable – and so that my kids can help with the homestead lifestyle.
As you’re building your systems and any necessary equipment, though, I’d recommend that you use these questions to help guide your efforts. After all, if these questions aren’t addressed, then the whole system is doomed to end poorly. So make sure you address these.
- Do your chickens like the new diet and setup?
- Will they reliably eat the food?
- Will this current (and commercial feed-free) diet meet your chicken’s nutritional needs?
- How do your chickens look? Do they look healthy and happy?
- How is egg production? Has it changed since introducing the dietary changes?
- Is this a sustainable practice for both you and your flock?
So this is where you pick one (or several) options and start putting things together and testing. See what works. See which methods you like using – and which you don’t.
This step won’t and can’t be done in a few minutes. It’s going to take some time. It may take several weeks, months, or even years depending on how many learning experiences you run into. They aren’t failures if you find something that doesn’t work – merely learning experiences in your quest to find what does work.
5. Get creative and find new ways to feed your flock.
Once you’ve got your feeding systems into place, it’s time to add back in some creativity.
For example, let’s say that you’re using home grown vegetables, bulk-purchased grains, and a mealworm farm to feed your chickens. That’s a viable, sustainable, and awesome option, by the way. Good on you!
Now, let’s say that it’s the end of the growing season. Feel free to get creative. Let your chickens roam the garden. They can pick over any leftover foods, till your garden for free, and drop some what-will-be-compost-by-next-growing-season while they’re roaming. Plus, they’ll eat any bugs they find, too!
Or during the winter (when it’s snowing and super cold) let your chickens roam your goat shack or even the barn. They can pick through the muck to eat any tasty-to-chicken bugs they find. Sure, it’ll make a mess. But the goat shack is going to need mucking in the spring anyway. So you may want to consider letting your chickens forage in the meantime.
Another way to get creative is to give your chickens the food scraps that aren’t safe to compost. Many forums I’ve read have backyard homesteaders and farmers feeding chickens meat scraps, leftover eggs (just make sure they’re smashed and unrecognizable, or your chickens will start breaking and eating eggs), and bones. Those aren’t compost-safe things.
But instead of throwing them away, you could feed them to your chickens. A chicken safety note, though: chickens eat things whole. So be careful of what size bones you’re feeding them, as that could get painful and/or dangerous for them quickly.
One last creative idea is one that I’ve seen on forums and tried in our backyard homestead. Chickens love to eat grass! Our chickens come running any time they see us get the lawnmower out. They’ll pick and eat grass on their own, but they go absolutely bonkers when there’s freshly-mowed grass already cut and ready to eat. Just make sure grass isn’t their main dietary intake, because it’s grass.
How to Transition from Feed to Feed-Free
If you’ve been using a commercially-produced chicken feed but you’re ready to transition to a feed-free chicken feed, you’re in luck. I’ve got some ideas, insights, and research-based information for you. All you have to do is keep reading!
1. Prepare for the transition to feed-free
While you could make the transition cold-turkey (cold-chicken?), I don’t recommend it. Making a huge dietary change for your chickens can put a huge shock on their bodies. Not only will this have an impact on egg production, but it’s also a lot harder on you as their chicken tender. 😉
So instead, get ready to make the transition by getting ready to go feed-free before you’ve run out of commercial chicken feed. I’d recommend starting with at least a couple of weeks’ worth of feed left on hand. For us and our 12 chickens, that would mean starting the transition when I still have a single, 40-pound bag of commercial feed on hand.
During this preparation phase, not only do you need to make sure that you’ve still got your backup feed on hand, but you’ll also need to review the above sections.
You’ll also want to track feed quantity and how it affects your chicken. So keep reading this whole article because I’ve got a free tracker system for newsletter subscribers (if you have to skip ahead, the information about it is near the end of the article).
Even so, let’s briefly re-list those for convenience.
- Make sure you know your fowl nutrition. Know which macronutrients your chickens will need – and how important protein is to a chicken’s dietary intake.
- Decide how much time, money, and effort you’re willing to invest in feeding your flock.
- Decide what kind of natural or feed-free diet you want your flock to have. Pick from grains, veggies, fruits, bugs, and more.
- Set up your environment, systems, processes, and whatever else is required to make feed-free work.
- Get creative and make things more efficient!
You will definitely want to scroll up and review each of these steps from above. So make sure you do that as the first part of your preparation.
The preparation steps should take you at least a few hours, if you’re a super-decisive and already know what you want type. Or it can take a few days or even weeks, if you’re the type who prefers to be overly prepared. This is why we have some backup feed on hand. That way, you don’t have to stress about feeding your flock. But if you do take some time to finish your plans, still make sure you’ve got some feed left for the next steps.
2. Use feed as the supplement instead of the main course
Now, the great thing about getting ready to transition means that we’ve got time to make the transition as easy, painless, and egg-rich as possible. But now that we’re ready with all of our plans and aspirations, it’s time to get going on transition.
This step has two parts.
- First, change how you give your chickens their commercial feed.
- Second, make the natural food the main course.
While there are a lot of ways to give your chickens their feed, if it’s out in a trough or an easily-accessed bucket, then your chickens are going to go for that. After all, it’s easy! So change how you present their feed so that it’s not the first thing they see.
I recommend you set up a waste-minimizing option that requires an action to release the food. That way, it’s a little bit harder for the chicken to get it. Sure, they can still access the food in the 5-gallon bucket by pecking the dowel-rod that’s hanging down.
But when you combine the harder-to-get-feed with a trough full of fresh food? The chickens are going to go for the fresh food rations first! Then, if they’re still feeling peckish, they can go for the feed.
By first making the feed into a backup, you’re giving your chickens time to transition, which will prevent tons of health and digestion issues. It’ll also prevent the chickens on the top of the pecking order from bullying bottom-of-the-order chickens out of any meals. Because those chickens can go get the feed if they absolutely have to.
3. Slowly increase and introduce new natural foods
Now, the first few days I’d recommend that you only introduce a few new foods as the main meal. After a few days, add another food.
This is so that you can gauge how your chickens react to that food – and if it’s going to be a good staple to their diets. After all, you don’t want to plan on using fly larvae as your chicken’s new protein source only to discover that your chickens won’t eat it! Now, that’s just an example. I’ve never seen chickens turn their beaks up at some bugs.
But I don’t want you to go from one food source to another and discover that your chicken is the exception to the rule. Because then you have hungry, no-eggs-being-laid chickens. Better safe than sorry!
One more note: make sure that you have a sufficient spread for the food. If you’ve got 12 chickens, having a single, small trough won’t be enough space to feed all 12 chickens. You’re going to need several small troughs or a longer one.
Then, depending on what kind of food you’re feeding them, you’ll also need to consider the feeding frequency.
Some people opt to feed their chickens once per day. But some people like to feed them twice a day. If you opt for the twice-a-day routine, it usually looks like this:
- Fruits and vegetables in the morning.
- Protein-rich foods and grains in the evening.
That’s not a hard-set rule – it’s just a common trend I’ve seen across the internet and forums.
How often you choose to feed your chickens will depend on the foods you pick as their diet, your time availability, and other factors.
4. Allow for foraging and roaming
If you can, make sure that your flock has time to forage and roam. Not only will your chickens love getting to find and eat their own food, but it’ll help them stay occupied, too. That way, they won’t become bored and destructive.
Free-ranging and roaming chickens will eat bugs, foliage, grass, seeds, rodents, and whatever else they can catch and swallow. If you’ve got a garden, you may want to consider letting them roam in the garden.
If you do, just be careful to protect the plants and areas you don’t want to be eaten by a chicken. Or, you can keep the garden off-limits during growing season and then open the gate during the off-season.
That’s what we do. We let the chickens till things up and eat whatever’s left once we’ve finished harvesting our garden for the season. I can’t let them in during the growing season, or the chickens would eat every single raspberry they could! And since I want the raspberries, too, that’s not going to happen.
Don’t worry, though. I do save the chickens a few berries. They particularly love getting to eat the wormy or bug-ridden ones.
If you can’t let your chickens forage or roam too much, then do what you can. And consider using either a deep litter method or putting a bit of the compost pile in their area. That way, they can scratch through that and still get a healthy number of bugs to eat.
5. Be patient with yourself and your flock during this adjustment period
Change isn’t easy. But it can be worth it. So during this time of transition, be patient with yourself and your hens.
Give them time to adjust to the new dietary norms. And give yourself some time to adjust to your new chicken-feeding schedule.
And, most importantly, keep an eye on their health during this transition. If you find that your chickens are laying a lot fewer eggs, then you’ll need to adjust their diet intake and increase their protein. Just be sure to balance all that protein with plenty of produce, too.
The goal is a balanced and sustainable diet, after all. So be patient while you all work together to get there. It may take anywhere from days to weeks to find the right balance for your backyard flock. That’s okay. Keep working at it and you’ll find it.
What to Feed Your Chickens (besides commercial feed)
Now that we’ve talked about the how and steps, let’s talk about what to feed your chickens now that commercial feed isn’t the focus.
Chickens need the same macronutrients that we do. However, they don’t need them in the same ratios as humans. What they need are these micro and macronutrients.
- Fats (lipids)
- Vitamins and minerals
- Grit (only required if your chickens don’t have access to natural grit sources)
Now, the exact ratio or amounts will vary by if you have a broiler (meat) flock or a laying flock.
And before we dive into the exact types of foods, please make sure that you double-check any specific foods as safe for chickens before you feed it to them. In most cases, the foods will be safe. However, you do want to be careful with even some safe foods – like onions and garlic. They can be safe but ought to be used sparingly as they can affect egg flavor.
Studies I’ve read indicate that protein is the most important nutrient to worry about. Chickens who don’t eat enough protein will be underweight and underperform (produce fewer eggs).
One study I read indicated that the following amounts of protein had the best results.
- Broiler (meat) chickens did best with 280 grams per kilogram of protein.
- Laying chickens did best with 225 grams per kilogram of protein.
Here are a few ideas for protein sources.
- Bugs and insects. These can found via forage, free-ranged, or farmed.
- Meat and meat products can be a good source of protein. This can include meat, meat products (deli meats – but in small quantities), and meat byproducts (like bones).
- Grains do have some protein in them. However, they’re also a rich source of carbohydrates, so they need to be managed carefully.
- Scratch grains are usually more protein-rich as they include nuts and seeds with the grain.
- Dairy and egg products can be a great way to source protein. Have some eggs you aren’t sure about? Scramble or hard boil them and feed them to your flock. Just make sure they aren’t easily associated with eggs – or your chickens will peck open their own eggs for the “good stuff” inside. It’s a great way to dispose of extra hard-boiled eggs that you just don’t want to store in any other way (or read this to see how to store boiled eggs).
- Other protein-rich food scraps can also be offered.
- Nuts and seeds are a great choice for protein. Plus, they have lots of other macro and micronutrients, so they can really help keep your chickens happy and healthy.
Again, watch your flock’s behavior and egg production to help you titrate their protein intake. Based on studies I’ve read and my own experience, chickens won’t overeat this particular macronutrient. They’ll eat what they need and then move on to the other stuff.
Carbohydrates are delicious to both humans and chickens. This is one macronutrient that you will want to watch and ration. In my experience (and research), chickens who had to choose between grain and other food sources almost always go for the grain – even if it meant they didn’t consume enough protein for their needs.
Now, as long as your chickens are getting enough protein, then it’s not as vital to differentiate between carbs and fat. In one study I read, chickens who had a low-carb or low-fat diet, however, usually did just fine as long as they got enough calories and other important macronutrients.
Plus, let’s think about this in terms of our own biology. What happens to us when we eat too many carbs? Our bodies store that energy as fat. Chickens have different physiology, but the principle basically transfers across species.
So here are some ideas for carbohydrate sources.
- Vegetables are the best source of carbohydrates, fiber, and other essential vitamins and minerals. I find that I don’t have to worry about rationing vegetables with the flock.
- Fruits are a fantastic source of many micro and macronutrients. However, it’s easy to overeat fruit as it’s so yummy. These must be rationed.
- Grains are a fantastic source of both carbohydrates, some protein, and other essential vitamins and minerals. This is a favorite chicken treat, though, so it must absolutely be managed or rationed.
- Scratch grains can be a mix of grains and nuts. This can be a great way to treat your chickens to the grains while making sure they get other seeds and nuts to up the protein content.
Many carbohydrates will need to be monitored, as chickens will overeat them. So be careful. However, chickens go crazy for them, so it’s a lot of fun to feed them!
Fats are a macronutrient that are essential to life. However, too much fat accumulation can be life-threatening for chickens. Most fat accumulation, however, doesn’t come from consuming fats. It typically comes from consuming too many carbohydrates.
Even so, if you’re feeding your chickens fried foods, then they will accumulate too much body fat too quickly. So let’s go ahead and say that fried foods are a no-go for chicken food.
Here are some healthy, sustainable, and delicious fat sources for chickens.
- Seeds and nuts are really the best options for chickens. Just take it easy on canola-based products, or your eggs will develop a nasty, fishy taste.
- Grains have some fats in them, but they aren’t a great main source of fats simply because chickens will overeat them if they can.
- Animal-based products, including meat, eggs, dairy, and bones are a great source of fats for chickens.
Again, fats aren’t a macronutrient that I’m too worried about, simply based on reading so many studies about chicken nutrition. Chickens will generally consume a balanced amount of fats as long as they can’t gorge themselves on seeds or grains.
Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)
Generally speaking, micronutrients are another thing not to stress about too much for chickens. This is especially true if your chickens are getting a good range of vegetables, seeds, nuts, bugs, and other natural foods.
A balanced, varied diet will quite naturally supply all of the necessary chicken micronutrients needed.
The only exception may be calcium – calcium is required for a strong eggshell. However, you can offset this in one of two ways.
- Add dairy to your chicken’s diet.
- Give your chicken some oyster shell grit (we’ll talk about this option in the next section).
However, if you aren’t able to supply a balanced diet, then you may either want to consider chicken electrolytes (added to their water) or having some supplemental feed for on-demand feeding. That way, you can guarantee that your chickens have access to the right micronutrients.
Technically, grit isn’t a required part of any chicken’s diet. However, it is required to help your chickens digest their food. That’s why I’m listing it here.
Supplying grit will only depend on where you house and forage your chickens. As long as your chickens have access to dirt or sand, you don’t need to supply any grit.
However, if you’re at all in doubt about your chicken’s ability to find dirt, then go ahead and supply some grit.
Our chickens have a covered run with a dirt and sand floor. They’ve got plenty of access to dirt. However, they still really enjoy having smashed oyster-shell grit on demand. So, we supply it for them. It’s a very cheap option (we buy it in bulk at the feed store) that also makes sure they have enough calcium for strong eggshells.
How Much to Feed Your Chickens
Chickens can overeat. It can cause bloating, obesity, and tons of other issues. So it’s important that you don’t overfeed your chickens. You may also need to ration what foods you feed them.
Thankfully, you can simply experiment with or “titrate” their feed, using their egg production as the guideline. Here’s how you do that with grown, egg-laying chickens.
- Feed your chickens what you think will be a normal amount. Some resources I’ve seen recommend starting with about 115-150 grams (1/4 to 1/3 pound) of food per day per chicken.
- Get a baseline of egg production on the new, commercial feed-free diet.
- If this amount gives you a lowered egg production, go up on the amount of feed-free diet offered until you reach their previous egg-laying baseline.
- The odds of needing to up the feed past 1/3 pound (150 grams) are pretty low for egg-laying chickens. Most chicken owners agree that the 115-150 gram (1/4 pound to 1/3 pound) recommendation will be sufficient – unless you’re raising a monster-sized broiler chicken. And in case you’re wondering if meat chickens have to be female, here’s your answer.
- Then, go ahead and continue through these steps.
- Cut back on the food ration slightly (by a few grams or a fraction of a cup) every few days. It would be best to give them a few days (or even a week) to acclimate to the new food amount.
- Continue to scale back on food quantity until there is a drop in egg production or the flock’s behavior.
- Once you notice the drop, go back to the amount of food from before the egg production drop.
- See if egg production returns to the normal level at this food.
- If it does, stop here. This is how much food to feed your chickens.
- If it doesn’t, go back up one more step on the “how much food” scale. Repeat the last two steps to see if this is the appropriate amount of food for your flock.
- Remember that egg production may not immediately be affected by food. It can take between one and several days. So give your chickens time to adjust.
The secret to titrating chicken feed is to document what you’re doing. That way, you aren’t guessing. And to make things easier, I’d love to give you access to a free chicken feed log. It’s part of the members-only area of this website. But guess what? It’s totally free for newsletter subscribers.
So not only can you get this log for free by subscribing to the newsletter, but I’ll also send you cool information and behind-the-scenes stuff via the newsletter. Read more about the newsletter (and subscribe) right here.
Can You Raise Chickens without Feed?
You can absolutely raise chickens without a commercial feed! Chickens can grow, develop, live, and lay abundant quantities of eggs on a natural, feed-free diet.
So far, this article has talked about how to raise and keep chickens on a natural diet as adults. So make sure you read the rest of this article – I’ve packed it full of amazing tidbits for you so that you know exactly how to feed your flock. However, if you’re wanting to raise chickens from hatching on a natural, feed-free diet, that’s also possible. I haven’t mentioned these next few tips about chicks and pullets, though, so let’s go into those now.
It will be much easier if they have an adult chicken to show them what to do, but even chicks will generally figure out how to eat. You may want to make sure that all of their food is cut into smaller pieces – particularly any large fruits or vegetables. You may also want to be careful with larger seeds or grains.
Growing chicks and pullets also need more protein than do fully-grown chickens. After all, growing up and developing feathers requires a lot of energy and protein! So make sure that the younger chicks, pullets, and still-growing chickens get about 1/5 (20%) of their caloric intake as protein.
Once fully grown, then your chickens will do fine with about 16% of their diet coming from protein, unless they’re molting. Then, your chickens will appreciate a bump in protein to help them re-feather.
Chickens Should Free Range (with or without feed)
Chickens need to be able to forage and have time to free range. This is true whether you decide to go with a natural and sustainable diet or to use a commercially-formulated feed.
Chickens who can forage and free-range will be able to augment their diet with as many insects or rodents as they want to – provided they can catch them!
Most chickens can catch quite a few bugs with relative ease. It’s the rodents that can be harder to catch, though it’s very much still possible. And just in case you’re wondering if chickens eat mice, the short answer is yes. For the long answer, make sure you read my article on chickens eating rodents.
Free-ranging time not only makes sure that your chickens can have more protein, but it also gives them something to do. Bored chickens get destructive. So let your chickens forage and free-range.
If you are limited in how much space your chickens can forage or free-range, then you’ll want to provide safe enrichment activities for them. Thankfully, you’re here reading about providing a natural, feed-free diet for your chickens. And this type of feeding totally counts as a type of enrichment activity.
But if and when you can, open up your garden gate (perhaps after growing and harvest season, like we do) and let your chickens forage a little bit. It’s what they evolved to do, so they need time to forage and free range – no matter what they usually eat.
How Long Can Chickens Go Without Feed?
If a chicken has enough natural food to eat and live, then they don’t need any feed – ever. You can avoid feed for the whole of a chicken’s life if that’s your goal.
However, if you’re actually asking how long a chicken can go without any food (or feed) before there’s an issue, that’s a different question. In that scenario, the answer is going to depend on how your chicken is housed.
For example, some of our family members bought a house with an existing chicken coop and run. However, the run and coop had a handful of long-dead chickens in it when our family members moved into their new home. In fact, the chickens had been long-dead before that – back when our family members had been house shopping!
The best guess is this: the chickens had been locked in their run without sufficient feed or water. We don’t know by whom, nor will we guess. In any case, the chickens had some room to forage, but it wasn’t enough space to sustain them. I don’t know how long those chickens lasted, but without water, I’d imagine it was no more than a few days at most.
Even without the water issue, though, those chickens were left insufficient food or space to forage for their own. If they’d had enough water, they maybe could have lasted a few days to a couple of weeks at most.
I know – it’s a very sad scenario. On a happier note, our family members are renovating the area so that they can have chickens again one day. But they’re going to be smart about things. And yes, I’m helping them out when and where I can!
Before we move on, though, I want to cover one more twist on this question: how long can chickens go without feed – in case I forgot to buy more food for today?
If the store’s already closed and you don’t have enough feed (or fresh foods) for your chickens, they’ll probably be okay for a single day. They’ll do better if they’ve been able to forage, or if you’ve given them some scraps. Give them what you can. Then, get your flock some proper food as soon as you can.
Chickens aren’t a terribly large bird. They have some reserves, but skipping food for a day or so will immediately lower egg production. After that, they’re going to get skinnier and skinnier. So let’s keep our flocks healthy, happy, and laying eggs.
If you can’t get your chickens some fresh food immediately, get creative. Go buy some feed if you have to – it sure beats starving chickens. Ask neighbors for scraps – or if they’d like some pest control for their gardens. Or, in the absolute worst-case scenario of no longer being able to feed your flock, please look into rehoming them or using them to feed your own family, if that’s something you can stomach.
No matter the option, though, please don’t ever experiment on your chickens to see how long they can go without food. Animal cruelty isn’t cool.
Why Going Feed-Free is Better
Look, there are those who can eat the same burritos every day for lunch or the same protein bar every morning for breakfast. But that’s a very different experience than enjoying a variety of fresh, natural, and healthy foods that energize both the body and soul.
I’m not saying you need to hire a personal chef for your flock (or your family). I am saying that it’s better for your flock (and our families) if we eat a healthy, balanced, and varied diet. Plus, a healthy diet means no supplements are required!
Plus, it’s so much more fun to eat natural foods – and the variety of tastes, textures, and flavors are exciting and, well, fun. That’s why going feed-free with a healthy diet is so much better – for all of us (chickens included).
Okay, so your chickens aren’t going to be able to express their delight (or exasperation) at the tastes or textures. Not only can they not talk, but they also swallow chunks of food. Sure, they have tongues and taste buds. But they can’t tell us if they hate bell peppers – they just won’t touch the things they don’t like.
Even so, having fresh foods gives your flock something to do and enjoy. And occupied birds won’t get bored. Because bored chickens can get destructive.
Beaks and claws are sharp! They can peck and scratch each other, your yard, or things in the yard into oblivion. So let’s avoid bored, destructive birds who turn on each other or anything else.
Sure, you could use other types of enrichment activities to keep your chickens active. But, in my experience, chickens only like “toys” if it involves perching or eating. So why not use healthy foods to keep your birds “playing” and occupied? Seriously – chickens love eating. And by giving them a varied diet that covers all of their nutritional needs? You’re keeping them happy, healthy, and from going so stir-crazy that they fly the coop.
This means there will be far less destruction in your coops, runs, or wherever you let your birds roam. It’ll also mean far fewer fights among your chickens.
Plus, watching chickens eat and forage is just fun. 🙂 They’re such funny creatures!
I’m really not trying to rag on commercially-formulated feeds.
- They are a fantastic option for those who don’t have the time, means, and/or ability to manage a more natural diet for their flock.
- A commercial feed can also be a great thing to have on hand as a backup food source for emergencies.
- Or it can be an on-demand kind of food for when your chickens turn their beaks up at the food you did bring them.
However, chickens really do a ton better if they’re also getting at least some fresh foods. So even if you can’t go to a 100% natural, food-based diet for your chickens at this time, that’s okay. Start small. Start by taking out some chicken-safe food scraps to entertain and feed your flock.
Then, as you have the time, means, and ability to do so, keep upping your game. Add in more fresh foods. And don’t feel like you have to buy, grow, or make it all yourself.
Feel free to get creative! I’ve read plenty of accounts of creative chicken owners who dumpster dive, collect leftover produce from farmer’s markets, gather expired produce from grocery stores, or get garden leftovers from neighbors to feed their chickens.
Feeding your flock a healthy, balanced, and natural diet doesn’t have to cost money. You could do it for $0 – if you’re willing to put in the time to collect the food from various sources instead.
And in case you’re wondering what we do? We try to feed our flock as much natural food as we can. We currently augment with an organic, natural feed mixed by a local feed store. Why? Well, we just added homeschooling into the mix, and I didn’t want our chicken’s health to suffer while I’ve got so much on my plate. We’ll readdress our chicken’s diet once I’ve gotten better adjusted to the current status quo.
So do what you can. And know that seasons do change. So keep adjusting, keep gardening, and keep enjoying your backyard homestead. Happy homesteading, friends!
How Loud Are Chickens? Chickens are usually quieter than a normal conversation, though they can get loud after laying an egg or while crowing. Louder chicken noises are on par with the sounds of happy children playing outside. Read my article on chicken noises for more information and examples.
Can Chickens Live with Goats? Chickens and goats can cohabitate a shared pasture space as long as the chicken feed is kept where goats can’t get it. Each species will also need access to clean water. Read my article on keeping goats with chickens for other important health considerations.
Can You Compost Cooked Veggies? Cooked veggies that are free of oils and fats can be composted or fed to chickens. For all the details and considerations for composting cooked vegetables (and which to feed your chickens), make sure you read my article on composting cooked vegetables.
Cite this article as: “How to Raise Chickens Without Feed (And Why it’s Better!).” Backyard Homestead HQ, 26 October 2020, backyardhomesteadhq.com/how-to-raise-chickens-without-feed-and-why-its-better/.
It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders. 🙂
- Malheiros, Ramon D, et al. Dietary Macronutrients, Endocrine Functioning and Intermediary Metabolism in Broiler Chickens: Pair Wise Substitutions between Protein, Fat and Carbohydrate. 23 Apr. 2003, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271531703000228.
- Shariatmadari, F, and J.M. Forbes. “Growth and Food Intake Responses to Diets of Different Protein Contents and a Choice between Diets Containing Two Concentrations of Protein in Broiler and Layer Strains of Chicken.” Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00071669308417656.
- Swennen, Q., et al. Effects of Substitution between Fat and Protein on Feed Intake and Its Regulatory Mechanisms in Broiler Chickens: Endocrine Functioning and Intermediary Metabolism. 11 Dec. 2019, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0032579119446373.