The U.S. farm economy revolves around the price of corn, and since the price of corn has doubled in recent years, it puts the squeeze on everyone, including poultry keepers and even the chickens themselves, when their owners try to save money on feed in inappropriate ways. Yes, you can save money on chicken feed, but you have to do it right.
The oldest and worst method of saving money on chicken feed is to not feed your chickens, and expect them to forage for all their feed. In the old days, this was plausible, since people threw their garbage out the back door for the livestock to eat, and the horses and cows wasted a lot of feed that the chickens would clean up. There are two problems with this method. First, most of us just don't create that kind of waste anymore, especially this late in the year. Second, such sources of feed tend to be low in protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can keep a few hens going through the winter this way, but they won't lay. Raising young chickens takes a lot more green forage and yummy bugs, which in most places are in pretty short supply at this time of year!
The most reliable method is to feed your chickens the highest-protein chicken feed you can get your hands on, and backfill with the least-expensive calorie source you can find. For hens, you can find 20-percent layer pellets just about everywhere. These are formulated with the expectation that you'll supplement them with roughly equal amounts of grain in one form or another. You can often find locally produced grain at prices closer to commodity prices than feed-store prices, which can mean getting it at half price or even less. This will mean that 50 pounds of 20-percent layer pellets and 50 pounds of grain will cost considerably less than 100 pounds of 16 percent to 17 percent layer pellets.
Other grain products can be used instead of actual grain, such as stale bread and pastries, waste flour, and miscellaneous unusable stuff from bakeries and such. Chickens can also handle miscellaneous livestock feed products like C.O.B (corn, oats, and barley). Non-medicated hog feed and dog kibble isn't all that different from chicken feed, and I wouldn't hesitate to use it as a grain substitute, though I'd have to look at the nutritional tag closely to see if I'd be willing to replace the 20-percent layer pellets with it (probably not).
The main things to keep in mind are:
- Don't feed chickens anything that's noticeably moldy, spoiled, or rancid.
- Always keep those 20-percent layer pellets (or, for chickens that aren't laying, a high-protein, lower-calcium ration) in front of the chickens. Never let it run out. If they don't like the other feeds you're offering them, they'll turn up their beaks at it, and they're right to do so! So don't starve them into eating something they don't want.
- Chickens have a limited appetite for most things, so if they eat less than you expected, they may eat just as much tomorrow, and that's okay.
- Some feeds will go bad faster than other feeds, Try to feed no more than the chickens will eat that day, and pick up what they leave behind.
- Be prepared to throw out some stuff. Feeding gleaned and surplus feedstutffs inevitably involves more waste than purpose-made feeds.
- Keep your labor investment and mileage in mind. You wouldn't want to drive an hour for a loaf of bread!
In addition to grain products, chickens love fall treats like windfall apples, old pumpkins, and every kind of cool-season vegetable. Most of these have a very low caloric density, meaning that they still need their chicken feed, but every little bit helps.
Chickens like potatoes, but the skins are toxic, so you need to cook them at least a little to render the skins harmless. You don't have to cook them all the way through.