Providing Natural Poultry Feed

Save money and build a healthier flock. Give your birds homegrown, all-natural poultry feed.

poultry feed - Chickens in compost

Using natural poultry feed has follow-on benefits. For example, when chickens scratch through a compost pile searching for insects, worms, and other food they turn the compost, helping it mature more quickly.


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In a time of economic constriction, a home poultry flock can contribute to food security — if you’re not totally dependent on purchasing poultry feed to keep it producing. The home flock that makes you more food-independent is the one that is fed, at least partly, from your homestead’s own resources. Fortunately, the natural feeds you can produce in your backyard are what chickens would eat in the wild: green plants, wild seeds, and animal foods, such as earthworms and insects — all fresher and more nutritious than anything you can buy in a bag.

Imagine feeding as a spectrum: On one end is a completely confined flock, eating exclusively what we offer them. Rigidly “scientifically balanced” feed is necessary, because the birds have no way to make up any deficiencies on their own. At the other end of the spectrum is a flock eating solely what it finds on its own in a completely natural setting — feeds that naturally balance its dietary needs. Of course, few of us have the land and time resources to provide our flocks with natural foods sufficient to sustain them completely. So, your feeding program will likely be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Pasturing the Flock

It’s possible for free-range flocks of poultry to feed themselves — if they have access to enough biologically diverse ground and protection from predators. My grandmother’s flock fed itself, ranging freely over a 100-acre farm. Geese can subsist exclusively on good grass after they’re a couple months old. Turkeys collect their own feed if allowed to glean ticks, wild persimmons, and acorns from wooded areas.

Pasturing our flocks during the growing season is the closest to complete free-ranging most of us can come. A pastured flock helps with pasture management: Grazing the turf means less mowing for us; eating wild seeds limits the “seed bank” for weeds; and potentially destructive leaf eaters, such as grasshoppers, don’t have a chance to multiply. Plus, the birds’ droppings boost soil fertility. Before concluding that pasturing your flock is not an option for you, remember that many small flock owners pasture their flocks on their lawns.

Conventional Grain and Legume Feeds for Chickens

Most grains in commercial feed for poultry (corn, legumes, and small grains such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley) are easy for the homesteader to grow. I grow ‘Hickory King,’ a vigorous, large-ear feed corn. After the ears dry on the stalks, I husk and store them in large trash bins, and hand-shell daily for the birds during winter.

Chickens with access to grit (sand or pebbles necessary for grinding feed in their gizzards, as chickens don’t have teeth) will have no problem processing whole kernel corn. I am skeptical that any actual difference in feed efficiency is worth the additional expense and effort to grind homegrown corn. If you grind corn, feed it within a few days, because the more perishable nutrients begin to break down as soon as the seed coat has been ruptured. Whole kernel corn is not appropriate for chicks.

Other easy-to-grow seed crops include millet, sorghum, and sunflowers. Simply throw the whole seed heads to your chickens.

Garden Cover Crops, Insects and Weeds

Many common garden cover crops — alfalfa, clover, annual rye, kale (and its close relative, rape), turnips, mustard, buckwheat, and grain grasses — provide abundant feed for poultry. All can be cut and carried to the chickens, or the chickens can graze these crops.

The biggest challenge with conventional feed grains is not growing them, but harvesting and threshing (which are labor-intensive), plus finding the space to store them. You can eliminate these issues by growing grains as cover crops and allowing them to mature before sending in the chickens. Cowpeas and buckwheat are similar double-duty cover crops with nutritious seeds for chickens.

While eating these high-quality feeds, chickens till in the cover crops, improving the soil with both plant residues and their droppings.

Electrified net fences (available through Premier 1 and Kencove) and natural feeding strategies intersect in the garden, as well as the pasture. A net can surround the winter squash patch and enclose a few guineas to provide 100 percent control of squash bugs. Fencing chickens (and/or ducks) in the garden before the planting season largely eliminates the slug population for months. “Weeder” geese rid certain crops (corn, grapes, onions, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and asparagus) of weeds.

If you want to selectively target smaller garden areas, park a chicken tractor on individual beds. Adjacent beds are protected from the chickens.

Regulations governing certified-organic production specify a waiting period of 120 days between the application of raw manure and the harvest of crops in contact with the soil — 90 days in the case of tall crops, such as corn and trellised pole beans, where there is no direct soil contact with the harvested part. I personally think the droppings of a well-managed home flock are unlikely to be a vector for pathogens. It is my standard practice to replant a bed immediately after it has been worked by the chickens, and to harvest the resulting crop without regard to any waiting period.

Comfrey and Other Feed Crops

Comfrey, rich in protein and minerals, is a sturdy perennial that can be cut and fed to the birds, or a moveable pen can be rotated over a comfrey patch so the birds can harvest the plants themselves. Geese and ducks especially love comfrey. Questions have been raised about the potential for long-term liver toxicity due to the alkaloids in comfrey. If you want to explore the subject further, search for “pyrrolizidine” online. My research has convinced me that whole comfrey leaves do not present health risks to livestock.

Certain “people-food” crops also can be used as poultry feed: potatoes, pumpkins, winter squashes, sweet potatoes, plus mangel or fodder beets. All these crops store well in the proper conditions.

Dandelions and yellow dock stay green into winter. As long as I can push a spading fork into the ground, I dig these highly nutritious plants and throw them to my winter flock by the bucketful. Geese are especially fond of wild chicory. And how do you suppose chickweed got its name?

Orchards, Forests and Tree Crops

Poultry fenced in the orchard consume a lot of protein as they help control damaging insects. They also help control diseases by cleaning up dropped fruit. Geese are particularly diligent at gleaning dropped apples and pears.

Historically, farmers allowed flocks of turkeys to range in wooded areas to fatten on windfalls of acorns, beechnuts, and persimmons. I feed my flocks wild hickory nuts and black walnuts after smashing the nuts on a rock with a hammer.

Mulberry trees in the pastures provide shade and dropped fruit in abundance. Chestnut trees provide shade for chickens, and the chickens garner protein by eating chestnut weevils at various stages of development, breaking the life cycle of the weevils and protecting the trees.

Composter Chickens

The typical static chicken run — bare of green cover and dotted with poop — should be anathema to everyone concerned about flock health and avoiding runoff pollution. I recommend using a thick cover of organic duff on the run to absorb droppings, prevent runoff and retain fertility for garden applications. Fall leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, old hay or straw make great bedding for the run. As this organic debris field becomes more biologically active, it proliferates with feed for your chickens: insects, earthworms, fungal strands, and health-promoting metabolites of microbes.

This strategy works in winter and summer. In winter, pasturing is usually not a possibility because dormant pasture sod will be destroyed by the chickens. Releasing the flock onto a heavily mulched winter yard is vastly better than confinement. If the mulch is heavy enough, the ground won’t freeze and the chickens will have access to live animal foods (worms, slugs and pill bugs). In the summer, those who cannot pasture their flocks will find that a run covered with deep, mixed organic matter is the best possible alternative to the bare chicken run.

Making Alliances with ‘Recomposers’

Organic wastes can be turned into resources through use of decomposer organisms, which I like to call “recomposers.” Bins of cultivated red worms convert kitchen castoffs, garden residues, and manure to a valuable soil amendment (worm castings), and you can harvest the worms as feed for the flock.

The black soldier fly, native in the United States in Zone 6 and warmer, is an especially fascinating ally. I began managing a colony of soldier grubs (the larval stage of this insect) last year, feeding them dense, succulent wastes such as food scraps, manure, and culled fruits and vegetables. The grubs are high in feed value (42 percent protein and 35 percent fat, dry weight). The chickens and ducks love them.

Surplus Foods, Dairy Products and Eggs

Most culled fruits and vegetables make good feed for the flock. People who have extra space in a greenhouse can grow cut-and-come-again grain grasses, rape, turnips, and other fodder crops for the winter flock. If I have an abundance of Japanese beetles, I shake off clusters of them (in the cool of the morning and evening, when they are less apt to fly) into a 5-gallon bucket with a gallon of water . Imagine the feeding frenzy when I give them to the chickens!

Sprouting the seeds you feed (purchased or homegrown) boosts nutritional value (enzymes, vitamins, and protein). Sprouting is an especially useful strategy in winter, when fresh foods are scarce.

Excess milk and dairy byproducts, such as skimmed milk and whey, make excellent feed for the flock. Fermenting the milk using live cultures such as kefir makes it even more beneficial.

If you have them, cracked or dirty eggs make excellent feed, especially for growing birds with higher protein needs. Just boil the eggs, crush by hand, and feed — shells and all. Feeding eggs in this way will not encourage your chickens to eat raw eggs.

Finally, one of the best strategies for achieving greater independence from commercial feeds may be to reduce flock size. The fewer birds you support, the greater the share per bird of feed resources you’re able to offer. As I get more serious about feeding from home resources, I’m trying to find the ideal compromise between reducing the flock to a more supportable size and producing the amounts of eggs, dressed poultry, broth, and rendered cooking fats we need.

Most chickens want to forage natural feeds if given the opportunity. But how can you know whether your hens are getting enough to eat, and how much you should supplement with commercial feeds or those you formulate yourself? If your flock is ranging an area with plenty of natural feeding opportunities, don’t be afraid to “push” your birds to maximize their foraging by being a bit stingy with the prepared feeds you offer.

What Do You Feed Your Flock?

Have you experimented with ways to produce more of your flock’s feeds from your own resources? Do you have ideas to share? If so, please post a comment below. If you advocate growing particular crops for home feeds, please specify the types (e.g. single-head sunflowers with large seeds, or multi-headed types with smaller seeds) and/or varieties you have worked with.

Certain strategies are so obvious and commonly used (feed kitchen scraps to the flock), they don’t need to be mentioned. But your unique twist on such ideas could be useful, for example: “I’ve arranged with a nearby sandwich shop to save their food scraps for me.”

Remember to include your location and (if you know) your climate (plant hardiness) zone.

For more information on raising poultry, see these other articles by Harvey UsseryAnyone Can Raise Chickens and Incredible Homestead Chickens.

patty bass
7/22/2012 7:32:43 PM

I enjoyed this article. I feel much better about feeding my hens less commercial feed now. THey have free range in day and coop by night. I mention that these hens LOVE the horse barn! They clean up after the horses eat in mre ways than one. Any grain bits they can scavenge and whatever bugs come tothe droppings as well as any grain particles. I think they help keep down the fly population.

cj tucker
6/9/2011 1:39:30 PM

I have weeds in my backyard that serve as supplemental feed. I simply pull off all of the leaves and cut them into dime sized pieces with sheers or scissors. I also cut the stems into 1/4 inch length and toss them all into the coop. The chickens can't seem to get enough of it and weeds are in abundance on my yard!

3/9/2011 10:41:20 PM

I was given a link to poisonous plants for chickens. Many of the things you are talking about planting may be "toxic" how do you decide what to plant, and what to worry about that maybe indiginous to your area? I worry about free ranging the chickens and having them eat something that makes them sick, or worse, kills them.

suzanne hachey
3/3/2011 4:15:21 AM

We plant native species like apple trees, dogwood, cherry, and rasberries. Our flock of 20+ chickens are fenced in the "front yard" with these shade and food providing plants along with lilacs. The natural cover also keeps them safe from hawks and owls! We mulch the plants heavily to provide food and exercise. Working on plans to use "greenhouse" set-up to continue winter browsing! Here in Central Maine, zone 5, we also raise turkeys in the same fashion but they have a tent rather than a coop. It is a portable canopy set-up on shorter "leggs" and single space the rafters pieces for added stregnth. It is anchored with large dog tie-out's, the metal corkscrew style. Keeps the bird's tent safe all summer! Before winter, we take off the top, leaving the frame. The turkeys roost on pallets under their tent. My boys do "poop-patrol" every other day during the summer to keep the area clean.

c j johnson
3/3/2011 12:03:37 AM

I have a deal with a local farmer who grows a large watermelon crop -- he gives me watermelon that are not good enough for selling to his customers. In return, I keep him well stocked with farm fresh eggs. Last year, we had whole weeks of 100+ degree temperatures. During that time, those watermelon kept my chickens about as cool and comfortable as they could be under the circumstances. I also feed them less than perfect tomatoes and squash out of my own garden, plus fresh grass clippings from the yard, and weeds I pull out of the garden.

brett barkley
3/2/2011 1:34:37 PM

Hello there fellow "chicken Lovers", My name is Brett Barkley and I live in the bio-diverse Oregon Coastal Mountain range (Alsea River Region).I have a few tips to offer that have been successful in helping my flocks remain "Happy and Healthy" in the less naturally productive Winter seasons over the years. My bird-friends really seem to love most of all the constant supply of "organic" wheat sprouts I provide them with. I keep them well stocked with the infant sprouts, (just as they are forming the first "hair-roots"). Also, I let a generous portion of the sprouts mature into wheat grass in 2'X 2' flats (this takes only about 15-20 days) I leave the flats in their shelters until my friends have eaten the tops off the grass and then I replace them with fresh flats, alowing the grass to re-grow to a desireable height (about 6" or so), at wich point I again rotate these flats into their shelters. After about 3 months of rotating these flats in and out of the flocks, I then feed the "mini-crops" to the ever hungry red worm populations who, in turn, gift us all with a great abundance of Organic fertilizer in the form of castings to add to my Organic gardens throughout the year. These voracious little friends multiply at such an amazing rate that once a week I remove a few pounds of the wigglers and sacrifice them to the chickens who eagerly await their weekly "treats".This symbiotic circle of life assures us that we all have a constant supply of fresh healthy food all year long.

3/9/2010 9:11:18 PM

I keep my chickens (9 hens and a rooster) in a 25x25 pen attached to the coop. I would love to free-range them over our 4 acres, but I'm afraid we'd just become a fast-food restaurant for the coyotes. Someday I'll build a tractor to move them around, but until then, I'm constantly bringing them green stuff from around the ranch. One of the many things we grow is about a dozen varieties of bamboo. The birds just love it! I'll put a culm or two in the pen in the morning, and by evening the leaves are picked clean! Interestingly enough, they seem to like some varieties more than others! We have an unending supply of bamboo, so my happy birds will continue to give us wonderfully amazing eggs!

2/26/2010 8:11:23 PM

I have 8 RIR hens and a rooster and I can relate to this article. In NW Florida I let the chickens loose all day among various beds and gardens. They definitely prefer to be out and about in the yard as opposed to a run. I could not get the egg productionjust by letting them scrounge up their meals or working it myself. I feed them Flockraiser which is a higher protein turkey pellet and when I am able, I mix it with water as a treat. They still forage as if they were starved. I get alot of eggs and the birds lay right through the molt. I put down ryegrass and buckwheat and various cover crops in my fenced in garden beds. The chickens make short work of it when I let them in. It is true they do damage the dormant sod. Especially as it has been so cold down here this winter.

2/19/2010 6:38:27 PM

My small flock (10-12 hens) has a 12'x 20' fenced in yard outside of their coop, which is in our hangar. We've had times when we just let the hens free range all over our property, but they were getting into the vegetable garden and kicking the mulch from around the trees, so these days I tend to let them out just in the late afternoon for foraging. They don't seem to have enough time to get into trouble before they head back to the coop to roost. We have attached several clamps (black plastic, used to hold wood together, like a big spring loaded plyer) to the posts in the chicken pen. I dig dandelions and put them in bunches into the clamps. Having the plants stationary helps the hens eat every bit of the leaves. I do the same with bunches of lettuce leaves that I can sometimes get from our organic grocery store. (They pull off the outer leaves from heads of lettuce to improve the display.) At the same organic grocery store, I ask the folks in the juice bar for the veggie pulp that's left over from making juice drinks. It's usually mostly carrot, and the birds like that as well. I've been growing comfrey for years, but my hens don't seem to like it. I set up a Japanese beetle trap in the chicken pen, but it didn't work to just let the beetles drop. My hens are maybe too old or too well-fed--they weren't getting every beetle before it could fly away. I kept the bag on the trap and just dumped some on the ground from time to time.

2/17/2010 2:57:57 PM

I read a book by the Contrary Farmer. ( good books) He suggested ( if I have this right) that if you grow feed for your own beasts or flocks, you do not need to harvest, thresh and store it yourself. It is possible to leave it drying in place and just cut whole stocks and throw them to the birds or beasts. THey can do the work for you. I was planning on growing several feed crops for my chickens this year. If all goes well, I will leave the grains and corn standing and do as he suggested. Nest year, I will post how it went. WEndy

2/17/2010 10:03:44 AM

We have fenced off the back yard into 2 separate areas. Currently the chickens, their coop, rabbits, hutch, along with the compost live in the right half. I cleared the garden this fall and raked the leaves, placed all the residue into the right side. Right now the ground is covered with 2-3 ft of snow but under the rabbit hutch and chicken coop is dry and the hens like to get out of the coop and scratch around under there. I keep the litter in the coop very thick and in the spring will clean it out into the compost. As I can I will use finished compost on the garden and keep building as the year progresses. The left side will be plowed up early-if the snow ever melts-and buckwheat planted, I should have done that in the fall but never got around to it. Once the buckwheat is established I will let the chickens back into that area to eat and till then when it is time to plant corn, sunflowers and beans I will put the hens back into the right side and plant the left. When the corn is establish and safe from the hens I will let them in the right side occasionally to harvest the bugs and weeds, but they will live on the right this summer and only move to the left after the harvest when they will eat up all the weed seeds and bugs, till in the residue etc. I will then plant the left side with buckwheat to prepare it for the next growing season. hopefully I cut down on feed, increase fertility, decrease bugs and disease.

2/17/2010 9:05:03 AM

I live in Albuquerque. This year I am sowing chickpeas and sainfoin in areas around my property for my free-range chickens as they like to wander and scratch in various parts. Planting these serve not only as fodder for my chickens but also will help keep weeds down and add color to those areas.

anna hess and mark hamilton
2/5/2010 2:55:22 PM

I'm on a bit of a quest for homegrown chicken feed this year. I plan to start small --- first I did some research into the formulation of conventional chicken feeds (which you can read about on my chicken blog at I do hope to start trying to grow some grain this year, probably hulless oats, wheat, and buckwheat. But then I want to start thinking outside the box, toward black soldier flies, duckweed, mealworms, and/or Japanese beetles. If you haven't seen it, you should check out this cool Japanese Beetle trap --- I'm pondering if I can do something like that, but without buying the pheremones every year. Wouldn't it be great if my chickens had food falling from the sky all summer?

tami mcclung_1
2/4/2010 12:45:07 PM

I've experimented with native and naturalized plants on our mini-farm in Georgia. My chickens LOVE a common "weed", Bitter Dock. Its a perennial that grows extremely deep - taproots up to 2' long! It readily seeds and grows in the poorest of soils through drought. I let it grow where it likes in the garden, as its deep roots don't compete with my garden crops, and in fact, does a great job of mining minerals. Its easy to keep tidy, picking the larger leaves for the chickens as it grows. I suspend the leaves, tied in a bundle, with baling twine, in the chicken coop. The hens strip the stems clean. Bitter Dock continues to grow through the winter. And its a favorite forage in the winter garden when I move the porta-coop around for the chickens to till, control weeds and fertilize for the coming year. The hens pace back and forth waiting for me to move the pen so they can get to it! And best of all, because of its deep roots, it usually grows back, even when the hens have eradicated most everything else.

1/26/2010 7:10:01 PM

Duckweed is a great 'grow-at-home' food source for chickens. It's very high in protein and they love it! You can give it fresh or dry it out. Keep a small duck weed pond outside in the summer and scoop half out every second day - to easy! Grows back super quick. You can also grow it indoors in the winter to keep up some fresh food. I've read - but not tried - that the siberian pea bush has edible seeds, so that may be a good bush to plant around their roaming area. This plant is invasive in some areas though.