Feeding Chickens Sustainably

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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In olden days, wealthy people were the ones raising chickens while cows and goats belonged to the poor. Why? A ruminant animal could always be fed by tethering it in common ground while poultry required buying grain. Today, however, many people are feeding chickens  and other poultry in a sustainable way. Let’s look at how this can be done.

Free-Range Advantages 

Chickens are omnivores, and they thrive when outdoors if their pasture has a great variety of plants in addition to insects and reptiles. Yes, chickens do eat snakes and frogs! The realities that make free-ranging poultry difficult are predators, winter weather and lack of outdoor space. Therefore, even if you are the rare individual who has plenty of land in which your chickens can roam, you will need to safe-guard them at night from predators. Additionally you will probably need to supplement their free-range food during coldest weather.

Commercial Chicken Food

Most people with poultry will buy at least some commercial food in pre-mixed, bagged form. Your first choice will be between crumbles, pellets and ground form. Except for baby chicks that use ground food, the crumbles are best to use because there is less waste and they stay fresher longer. I choose away from feeds that have antibiotics or animal products. The latter is used to boost protein, but can carry disease.

Your poultry can stay healthy with bagged food if you take a few other precautions. First, don’t buy the cheapest food. Cheap poultry food is more likely to contain non-nutritious fillers and poor quality grains. Although the mixture is required to label what category of ingredients are in it, it doesn’t say what “grain products” or “plant protein” are used. Cheap food results in unhealthy birds, and that’s not sustainable!

I like “Hubbard” poultry food not only because it has quality ingredients but because I can purchase it from our small feed store within a couple weeks of when it was ground and bagged. Getting grains to your chickens within two to four weeks of when it was ground is extremely important both for its nutritional content and to keep it from going rancid and depressing the birds’ appetites. For these reasons, don’t feed mixed-food more than six weeks after it was bagged.

If the dates are so important, you’d think they’d be easy to find on the bags’ labels, but this isn’t true. The producer is required to include the date on the label, but almost all use a code for the processing date. Insist that your store manager talk to the company’s representative and decode the dates for you!

Supplementing the Nutrition in Commercial Foods

Although I attempt to buy fresh, good quality commercial foods I find it necessary to supplement with garden produce in the winter. I actually had plump hens die when fed only commercial food, but discovered that sharing some of our canned garden tomatoes saved their lives. I now also feed garden greens that I’ve put in the freezer for our own soups and stews. These greens include parsley, kale and celery leaves. An occasional treat gives the chickens a break from winter boredom as well as a nutritional boost.

What you don’t want to do is add minerals directly to commercial food. These foods are already balanced for their needs. For example, if I want hens to have more calcium, I will put it in a separate container as “free-choice.” Likewise, if I want to use steam-crimped oats as their “treat,” I realize this could over-load them with phosphate (all grains are high in phosphate) and could drain calcium from their bodies. Therefore, the free-choice calcium becomes essential.

Mixing your Own Chicken Feed

It would be ideal if we could grind and mix our own chicken feed to insure its quality and freshness. This isn’t a reality for most people because it takes a lot of time to locate and fetch all the ingredients. You also need the space to store it and equipment to grind it. We have to travel more than two hours to buy organic corn. Until we can purchase it closer to home, we don’t yet do this for all our poultry. The clock doesn’t start ticking on the freshness of the corn until we have it ground, so for now we only have food mixed for the chicks and Narragansett turkeys. The mix we use is recommended by Jeff Mattocks in his “Feeding Pasture-Raised Poultry” book. You can find it through Fertrell’s website at www.fertrell.com.

The ingredients we use are: organic corn, organic soybean meal, steam-crimped oats (not ground), ground alfalfa bits, Fertrell’s Poultry Nutrient Balancer and calcium. When we want to boost the protein for heritage-breed chicks, we add fish meal. We don’t consider this mix “organic,” because it’s ground and mixed at our local feed store which also processes non-organic food. We store the ingredients in a rodent-free room and then have only small amounts processed each time.


Free-ranging supplemented with our own mixed poultry food may be ideal for raising chickens, but I encourage people to not wait until they can optimize poultry food to begin raising poultry. Match the number of chickens you have to the space where they can free-range. Buy the best quality and freshest commercial poultry food that you can find. Especially during the winter months, supplement your chicken feed with garden produce. Both your poultry and your own diet will benefit from this regime.

Mary Lou Shaw homesteads with her husband on a small Ohio farm where they grow most the food they eat. Her book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through MOTHER EARTH NEWS books.

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