Enliven Your Chickens’ Winter Diet With Food Scraps

Reader Contribution by Rebecca Harrold
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Living in a northern climate means we cannot have our chickens foraging outside year round. Come the blustery winter weather, the birds don’t even want to venture beyond the door of their enclosed outdoor run. At this time of year the majority of their diet is purchased feed. They also receive all of our kitchen scraps and some sunflower seeds and scratch. On rare occasions they get a handful of dried mealworms or some canned cat food when the weather is extra cold. But all that feed and the special extras are expensive and difficult to justify when the hens are in winter mode and laying fewer eggs. So what to do? Go collect food scraps to provide some variety to their diet and reduce your feed bills!

We devised a simple system of collecting food scraps from willing acquaintances. We gave each household a 3 gallon bucket with a lid and asked them to toss in any scraps they generated from their meal prep. Our aim was to collect compostable, “natural” food for our birds rather than the leftovers of highly processed food-like substances. Now, once a week we collect the filled buckets and exchange them with clean ones.

What started as a solution for lack of fresh food in the winter became a year-round supply of food, cutting our feed costs and diverting valuable food waste from the landfill. When our birds are on pasture, the majority of their food is obtained by foraging, with commercial feed and food scraps taking on a supplemental role rather than being the main source of their nourishment. In winter, however, when commercial feed is their main source of food, the food scraps provide a welcome relief from the monotony of feed pellets.

In the cooler weather we store the full buckets in our barn until we are ready to feed them to the flock, but come the warmth of spring and the heat of summer, that doesn’t work anymore. Fortunately, we have an external temperature controller attached to a chest freezer that allows us to set it at fridge temperature and keep the buckets cool until we are ready to feed them to the chickens. Speaking of which, our laying flock of 100 hens makes quick work of their daily ration of food scraps. We actually keep the hens in two separate flocks, so it’s about a bucket per flock each day.

We do our best to spread out the food scraps to ensure each bird has access to the tasty morsels. In winter, we pour the food scraps into rubber feed bowls placed in the outdoor run. The next day, we tip over the buckets and whatever the hens chose not to eat is dumped into the bedding carpeting their outdoor run and, over time, gets churned into compost with the rest of the bedding and manure. We aren’t too picky about not giving specific food scraps to our birds; in our experience, they have enough sense to pass over what could be detrimental to them. Given a choice, they’ll select the best and leave the mediocre and potentially harmful. When the weather warms up, and the hens are out in mobile coops on pasture, we still pour the contents into the feed bowls. Whatever they leave behind we rake up and toss onto a compost pile.

Collecting Food Scraps

The food scrap collection has several points in its favour that make it a worthwhile scheme. For one, it keeps food waste out of the landfill and in the ecological system. Rather than rotting among discarded plastic, wood or metal, the food waste continues to nourish life. It feeds our chickens and, when they are done with it, their manure returns the nutrients to the earth for the next plants to absorb and use. Other benefits are the reduced feed costs and the worry about “what exactly is in this bag of feed”? Another benefit is that our children are able to feed the scraps, and therefore, contribute to our homestead. And lastly, if we needed to, all those food scraps can be diverted from the chickens and added to a compost heap or vermicomposting system. Abundant Permaculture even outlines an ingenious method of using four compost piles on a rotating basis to feed a flock of chickens.

Our food scraps for chickens system does have two big cons against it, however, which we are trying to minimize. The first is the process of collecting the buckets. Yes, we do have to drive to collect our food scraps, but we go into town at least once a week as it is and make our bucket collection part of one of those trips. Secondly, having food left out does attract some nocturnal predators, such as raccoon, skunk or possum, but after several years, these varmints have not broken into our mobile roosts. For these predators the chickens are the real draw and any leftover food scraps are a bonus. In essence, they will show up regardless of the food scraps. So, we do our best to remain vigilant about keeping the chickens safe at night and removing the feed bowls. But during the day, the chickens enjoy transforming one person’s waste into another person’s treasure: eggs!

Photo credit photo frompexels.com.Francesco Ungaro.

Rebecca Harroldhomesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Homeand onInstagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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