Natural Chicken Food

A young hen finds natural chicken food in the form of plant roots.

Natural chicken food is just about everywhere because chickens are for the most part omnivorous - there are only a few things they don't eat. If you're wondering about specifically what chickens eat, I can shed a bit of light on that subject.

Chickens do well on commercial feed, but having natural food for your flock is also very important. You'll find that eggs and meat will taste better simply because your birds are eating naturally.

Let's look at various types of natural food for chickens. Some of it your flock will find on its own, and other types of food you'll need to provide for them. Either way, natural food should be a part of their diet.

I want to focus on five types of natural food for your flock. Although natural, some of this might seem a bit odd. Let's ease into this by first talking about forage.

Forage - natures food for chickens

Chickens will do well foraging for themselves. If you don't have free range chickens, you'll have to provide them with forage material in their enclosure.

Plain grass pasture is a great natural chicken food, and it's easy to grow yourself.

Grass is a fine forage material for chickens. It's something that they eat naturally. Whether you provide them with cut or pulled grass, they will enjoy it.

Another natural forage for chickens is weeds. Hack down a bunch of weeds and toss them in with your chickens. They will peck at them until they wind up as just a bunch of stems. Pig weed and Amaranth are common weeds that chickens love.

Leaves are natural food for chickens too.

Leaves of plants are another natural chicken food. One plant in particular that my chickens love is Lamb's Ear. It's has long velvet looking leaves and sports tall stalks with small flowers that the bumble bees love. If I let my chickens loose, my lamb's ear plants would be gone in a matter of a day or two.

Other items that chickens love to forage for include bugs and worms. Whether it's a green worm or an earth worm, chickens are usually game to give it a try. If they can scratch it up out of the earth, chances are they'll eat it.

Worms - more natural chicken food

Worms are a natural chicken food, and perhaps one of their favorites.

I think there is something to be said for raising worms for the garden, the occasional fishing trip, and a flock of laying hens. Worms are tremendous producers of more worms, so they make a good complement to the rodent and rabbit population explosion out here at Best of Both Worlds in Cheyenne, Wyoming. My preference is the red wiggler.

The first worm bed I built for my flock was a large culvert, turned upright and sunken deep into the earth. It's well over 6 feet deep and filled with a mixture of soil, horse manure, peat most, straw and hay. The top of the culvert sticks well above grade level, so it can be periodically filled with more manure, scrap straw and hay, and whatever we'd like to compost.

A large and deep worm bed provides natural chicken food that the flock can access as they're like.

Our flock of layers are allowed to scratch around in the worm bed and eat whatever they'd like. There is no top on the bed, so it's accessible at any time of the day the chickens would like to find what's lurking in the compost. I don't have an abundance of worms, but I am finding cocoons that contain worm eggs, so I know the worms I placed inside are multiplying. It's just a matter of time before the worm population catches up with the needs of my layers.

The photo above gives you an idea of the size of the worm bed as the chicken shown is a fully grown Black Australorp, one of the larger breeds of chickens. You can see how she and others have done a great job of scratching around looking for natural chicken food among the manure, hay, straw, paper waste and kitchen scraps.

Also note the height of the sides. This allows for adding much more natural chicken food to the worm bed as it doubles as our compost pile, with the little wigglers inside it helping to compost many natural waste products.

Natural chicken food in our worm bed made of a discarded culvert.

Food scraps are tossed into the worm bed and there the chickens can take what they want. What's left feeds the worms.

Worms are a natural chicken food. If you doubt this, just dig around in your chicken yard with a shovel and watch your chickens come right over to scratch in the freshly disturbed soil. Even if you see no evidence of worms, your flock will find them with peak efficiency.

Horse manure is a natural chicken food, and the bugs and worms it contains are as well.

The main ingredient for the worm bed is horse manure...the breakfast of champions. Red wigglers are the worm I'm raising, and they're also known as a manure worm. And you guessed it, they like manure. Mixed in with the manure is a healthy amount of hay and animal bedding, so it's a mixed bag as they this case, a mixed bed.

If you provide horse manure to your flock, they'll recognize it as natural chicken food, filled with grubs, insects, and other crap (sorry, I just had to).

I'm building a third chicken yard, attached to the other two, and before I fence it in I'm creating an even larger worm bed. This large bed will provide about 180 cubic feet of material that will serve as a home for worms. The top of the bed will provide about 30 square feet of surface area for the chickens to scratch around and find a wiggly meal.

Worms in the grass or soil won't last long when chickens are around.

One of the items that chickens need is protein, and worms are a natural chicken food that provides plenty of that. They also provide my flock with a little game of hide and go seek. My approach to raising chickens includes ample opportunity for my flock to have worms as a natural supplement to other forms of chicken food.

Part of my drive for natural chicken food is good nutrition for my flock, and another is saving money. I'm not inclined to pay for commercial feed products when I can just as easily use that same money to pay for the eggs that I'm trying to produce. With a focus on natural chicken food, I'm getting much better eggs for less money.

Maggots - a unique chicken food

Flies create maggots, and however disgusting, they're natural chicken food.

Okay, now we're going to venture into the bizarre, so hold onto your hats while we consider this unusual natural chicken food.

If you have a source of dead animals or carcasses from butchered animals, you can provide your chickens with maggots, the larvae of flies. They'll eat them much like they will worms.

The technique is relatively simple and it requires these 7 steps.

  1. Drill a couple dozen half inch holes on the bottom and lower sides of a bucket that has a bail attached.
  2. Create a way to hang the bucket about 2 feet above the ground in your chicken yard.
  3. Place carrion in the bucket and put a top on it. Either use the original bucket top or make one to prevent animals from getting inside.
  4. Hang the bucket in the chicken yard.
  5. Watch the chickens eat the maggots that drop out of the bottom and sides of the bucket.
  6. Discard remains after the carcass has no more flesh remaining to attract flies that produce maggots.
  7. Refill with more carrion.

I don't know about you, but maggots give me the creeps. They are tough little squiggly buggers that are disgusting, but chickens love them.

Buckets for making a maggot-maker are cheap if you seek out used ones at bakeries.

Buckets for maggot production come in many sizes and can be obtained at little or no cost. Just inquire at a bakery and I think you'll find there are three sizes that frosting and decorative icings come in. If you can't get a few at no charge, the cost will be minimum, perhaps $1 or $2 a piece. That's really a good bargain when you consider how useful they are and how long they last, even in the blazing sun.

My dad once said that he thought chickens had no sense of taste. Well, if they can hang around a bucket of rotting flesh with maggots crawling all over it, then I suppose they have no sense of smell either.

In any event, maggots can be natural chicken food, and supplying them to your flock doesn't have to cost much time, effort or money. Here in Wyoming we have at least three seasons that will support an abundance of flies and therefore their offspring, the creepy maggot.

Mice - the other white meat

Small mice are another natural chicken food.

If you've never seen a chicken catch a mouse, you're in for quite an experience in predator versus prey. Once I was around in the late afternoon while my chickens were strolling about. I moved an item on the ground, and a small mouse darted out from underneath it. A hungry chicken seized the opportunity for a special meal.

Within two steps and two seconds the mouse was history. The chicken struck the mouse with its beak with pinpoint accuracy, tore it apart by holding it down with it's strong toes, and then swallowed the thing in one gulp.

It was all over before I could say, "Hey, look at this."

In light of this experience, why couldn't we create a little home for mice in the middle of our chicken yards? When mice venture out across the yard for food, they could become lunch or dinner for the chickens. Our flocks would soon realize that this rodent delicacy resides within their kingdom.

It seems to me that one of the advantages of this is simply that mice are prolific, and you're going to have them in your chicken yard anyway - they're there for the chicken feed. Several drawers of my tool boxes in the shop are filled with "scratch grains" that I was feeding to my chickens nearby. The mice have been making regular runs into the chicken yard to retrieve grain and store it in my toolboxes.

Mice are largely nocturnal, so they're out when your chickens are in.

The big drawback to this plan is that mice are active during the night, and chickens are inactive at night, so the chance of them crossing paths is rather limited. That's why so much grain was easily stolen from the chicken yard near the shop and tucked away in the drawers that are supposed to hold my tools.

In any event, chickens will eat mice, and I can't think of any small animal that is as prolific a producer of offspring than mice, so it's worth a bit more thought.

Garden Greens - grow your own natural chicken food

Excess vegetable make a great natural chicken food.

I keep my chickens out of my garden simply because they scratch up the soil and peck at nearly everything. They recognize natural chicken food when they see it. Instead of letting them destroy my garden, I toss vegetable scraps and whole vegetable plants in with my flock, especially when I harvest, during times when I'm making changes to the planting arrangements, and when its clear that we have an abundance of produce that we know we aren't going to eat, give away or process and preserve.

Vegetables are a type of forage for them, except they're not foraging for it, they're waiting for me to toss it in.

So, as I see it, there are a couple of options. First, you can grow a garden and toss produce in with your flock. This allows you to carefully select which plants and fruit you're going to serve up to your chickens.

Scraps and portions of vegetables that we don't care to consume are excellent sources of natural chicken food.

Photo right is kohlrabi in the garden. The leaves are edible, but largely we go for the swollen stem as a source of food. Why not simply toss the leaves in with the chickens? They probably won't eat the stems, but they'll enjoy the leaves.

The second options is to create a garden as part of their yard, so they have free access to what's growing in the garden. Of course, this wouldn't be a garden that you're hoping to harvest from, it would be something planted specifically for your chickens.

I'm using both approaches.

My plan is to grow an abundance of vegetables outside the chicken yard as natural chicken food. I can toss in fresh lettuce, lettuce plants that have bolted, and leafy portions of plants that we don't normally consume, like broccoli. I'm also going to close off portions of the chicken yards so I can get grasses and vegetables up and running to the point where rotating the flock between the  yards will provide them with ready access to forage and vegetables, yet allow the yards time to recover between the onslaught of pecking beaks and scratching feet.

Wrapping it Up

The main point is that there is natural chicken food out there, we just need to be imaginative about how we might go about creating it and providing it to our flock.

Just because there's a bag in the store that's labeled chicken food doesn't mean we have to rely on that alone to keep our flock fed. My plan for frugal living includes creating renewable sources of natural chicken food that will be better for my birds and easier on my wallet.

Done with Natural Chicken Food, back to Backyard Chickens

Promoting natural food for your chickens will help provide you with rich eggs and healthy birds. If there is a decided lack of natural food for your flock, then create it. I suggest trying to grow vegetables in bulk as a primary source of food for your birds.

Here are some resources that might help you create a source of natural food for your chickens.