From Scratch-Home Made chicken food- an easy, healthy alternative to commercial feed

Since moving to the farm three years ago, I’ve completely changed the way my family eats.  Gone are packaged, processed foods, chips, and anything junk like.  We eat a lot more fruits and vegetables, whole foods, only local and in season, raise our own eggs, chickens, turkeys and pig for meat.   So why is it that it was only a few months ago that I noticed the long list of ingredients on the bag of processed chicken food that I’ve been using?? Lots of recognizable ingredients, and many not, all crunched up and magically glued together into pellet form. I started wondering if that was really the best I could do for my poultry, and decided it probably wasn’t.  I set about researching poultry dietary needs, looking for recipes and trying to find information on home made vs. commercial feed. I only found bits and pieces, not solid pros or cons, and many recipes, each one different from the next, and none of them very clear or easy to follow.  Feeling overwhelmed and unsure, I spent months reading everything I could find.  When I was down to my last bag of commercial feed, I set my self doubt aside and just jumped right into choosing ingredients, measuring and mixing, watching what the chickens liked and how they reacted (quality of poop, egg production, general appearance, signs of hunger or health issues).  We’ve been using this new whole feed for 5 weeks now and I am finally confident enough to share the results and the recipe with you!

The first thing I considered is that back in the day, there weren’t feed stores all over town for people to buy their “complete” feed.  These were people who depended on their chickens for food, not just as backyard pets, so clearly there are alternatives to feed pellets, that have been around forever.  I was really disappointed in the scholarly literature that I read. Almost always, they cautioned against experimenting with feed and just sticking to the “complete and tested” commercial feeds.

My best, first break came in Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia Of Country Living.  She encouraged readers to grow their own animal feed and poo pooed the idea that commercial feed is the only way to go!  She didn’t provide a recipe, so much as a blue print of what chickens need. For proper growth and egg production, a chicken’s diet needs to be 17-20% protein. Traditional feed contains corn and soy, which have their own issues (GMO) and corn is high fat and low protein. So why feed it to the chickens at all? I decided to eliminate both corn and soy from the mix. This way, I can buy conventionally grown ingredients and not have to worry about Franken foods. (I choose not to go organic because it’s cost prohibitive for my operation. I don’t want to sell $8 a dozen eggs, I want to offer affordable, fresh and healthy eggs.)

Protein comes in SO many forms and ideally you can offer the chickens a variety of sources. Wheat, Oats, Barley, rye, sunflower seeds, milk products (expired milk or yogurt), eggs, meat, worms and bugs all offer good protein.  Another source is fish meal. Hard to come by and very expensive, I decided against this. I really wanted the fish meal used for gardening to be the same thing, and from what I learned, it is, except that the way they process it isn’t fit for chickens AND they risk exposure to heavy metals. If you know a fisherman, getting their cuttings would be a score!  I’ve read that chickens need animal protein and that they don’t. I know how mine love to go after little mice and frogs, which leads me to believe that they’re into it, but I think they can be healthy without adding animal protein to their feed. (ps- bugs and worms count as meat) Because my chickens don’t get out into fresh pasture, often, I do think they would benefit from more bugs, so I’ll soon be breeding Black Soldier Fly larvae as a supplement for them. Yup, maggot farming. Mmmm.  We also give the chickens everything left over when we eat crab, as well as the entire chicken carcass after we make stock. THEY EAT THE ENTIRE THING!  Legumes, if you can find them in bulk, are a great source of protein. It’s not cost effective for me with 50 chickens, but if you have just a few in your backyard, it’s totally worthwhile to feed them dried lentils or peas (fresh peas, and their leaves and pods, too). You can cook them first, but it isn’t needed.

Greens need to be a part of the chickens daily diet. This is a hard one to mix into the dry formula, but if they are ranging around, or you give them plenty of weeds or kitchen scraps, they should be ok. I also put a flake of alfalfa into their coops every few days.

Vitamins and supplements. A really important thing to remember is that chickens don’t have teeth. They have a hard gizzard, against which they grind their food to digest it. For this to work, they need to be eating little pebbles, sand, or other grit.  If you’re feeding whole grains, you should assume that they can’t get enough grit in their foraging, and should give them some. Because they also need selenium and minerals, I chose a grit with minerals that’s readily available at the feed store. I started out mixing it into the feed, but it was heavy and didn’t mix in well. Now I just throw handfuls of it into the run every other day or so. Same goes for Oyster Shells, which act as grit and also give them the calcium that they need to produce hard egg shells. I put some in the feed, too. You can mix these 2 together and have a dish always available for them, but my chickens always spill it, so I just avoid the middle man.  I also use Flax seed. It has lots of Omega 3 and makes their feathers gloriously shiny!  Kelp is another one. Super expensive ($84 for a 50# bag) but used sparingly, so it’s ok. Kelp is full of minerals. I use just a little to top dress their food. They go nuts for it! Oh, and don’t forget vitamin D (which is added to feed!). Chickens need a little sun every day.

Here’s the recipe that I came up with. Note that it changes and flexibility is good. If, for example, one grain price suddenly goes sky high, just drop it until it comes down. Variety is the spice of life, anyway, right? All ingredients should be purchased whole, not cracked, crimped  or rolled. Once the shell is broken, they start to go rancid and lose nutritional value.

-3 pounds Rye (this is grass seed to normal folks-but get it at the feed store, for quality assurance)

9 pound Barley

9 pounds Oats

9 pounds Wheat (winter red is best, if available)

4 pounds black oiled sunflower seeds (sold as bird seed)

3 pounds Flax

2 pounds Oyster Shell

mix everything together in a plastic bin or feed sack, until well distributed.

Prices vary from area to area, so I’m not including very detailed costs here. 50 pound grain bags are about $15-20 here, 20 pounds of Flax is $22, 50# rye is $36, 30# sunflower seeds are $25, oyster shell is $10 for 50#, grits about the same.  I believe I’m paying slightly more than I was for the commercial pellets, plus I get to eliminate corn and soy, and all the other ingredients I don’t want. My egg production DOUBLED in these 5 weeks, even during a bitter cold snap that lasted a week. Before some hens were missing feathers and looking ragged. Now they have full, bright and shiny coats! Also, I’m using less feed than I used to. Consider the difference in humans, between eating processed food, and whole food that our bodies have to work on for a while…same goes for chickens. Where I was going through three 50 pound bags a week, I now use about 5o pounds of whole food per week. I’m using this food for the chickens, turkeys and geese, all with great results!

As I mentioned, I’m going to be farming BSF larvae to supplement their diets. I’ve also started making fodder, which is a genius way to increase their nutrition and reduce your feed bill. All you do is sprout some of the grains (takes about a week for them to become a solid mass of roots, seed and grass), then feed them.  The conversion is crazy, something like 2 pounds of grain becomes 13 pounds of fodder. This method is literally saving some cow farms in the midwest!  I’ll have more info and pictures on this soon… For more information on alternative, natural chicken keeping, I highly recommend THIS BOOK.

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20 Responses to From Scratch-Home Made chicken food- an easy, healthy alternative to commercial feed

  1. Emily says:

    Excellent post, thank you!

    The link at the end of the post does not work, could you repost it. I would love to know which book you are referring to.

  2. I applaud you for giving this a go. Fortunately, poultry are very forgiving diet-wise, unlike some other species.

    Perhaps due to my professional background, I don’t think all commercial feeds are necessarily bad. All feed sold in the United States has to meet minimum AAFCO nutrition standards. This ensures that certain nutrients are present in sufficient quantity (lysine for poultry, or taurine for cats for example), and in a bioavailable form.

    I do agree that it’s difficult to source quality, organic, non-GMO, soy-free poultry diets, that don’t break the bank. But formulating balanced diets isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem, especially when pushing growth, or egg production.

    For formulating your own, I recommend checking out the NRC nutrition series, if you haven’t already. This is a link to the poultry edition:

    http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=2114

    I use these books professionally, and just went through the process of formulating our dairy goat rations. Not only do the NRC reference texts provide nutrition tables, for various species/lifestages, but they also show you how to calculate whether or not a diet is meeting basic nutrition and metabolic requirements. You’d be surprised how sometimes you THINK you’re meeting needs, when in actual fact you’re not, or perhaps one component in the diet is interfering with the uptake of another nutrient.

    We do feed organic, in part as an assurance that the feed components are non-GMO. Yes, we could save money if we mixed our own, but honestly, trying to source non-GMO feed components alone is not easy. I’m exhausted just doing this for the goats ;) You should see some of the looks I’ve gotten at local feed stores recently! Maybe once we expand the farm though, I’ll make my own poultry feed too! Looking forward to seeing how this works out for you, good luck!

    • I don’t think all commercial feeds are bad, at all. I think there are perfectly healthy chickens everywhere using it as their main food source. Making my own just fits better with my idealistic self. When my kids were babes, I went through a handful of pediatricians, all criticizing and warning me because I chose to make my own baby formula. They kept saying that Enfamil etc were perfectly balanced and I could get them for free. They completely missed the point. (it was an Adelle Davis recipe, for the record, and it rocked my kids health!) :-) Thanks for the NRC reference, I’ll be sure to check that one out! I worry about meeting their needs and am always looking for signs that they are deficient in anything, so I can adjust the formula. So far so good. Yay you for making the goat feed!!

  3. Emilie says:

    How many birds do you feed in all? I’m wondering how long this would last my small flock.

  4. Great post! There is a feed mill near me that mixes something a little similar. I thought my tiny flock would love it. I bought it once and my spoiled little Cochins only picked out the stuff they liked and left the rest. I probably need a bigger flock where it is survival of the fittest. However, I am still going to try your recipe, just reduce the amounts to sample size. Thanks for the recipe.

  5. Momma Mary P says:

    Thanks so much Pam! I’ve been trying to dig through so many articles on chicken feed and I just got overwhelmed! I’m here in La Selva too, what feed store do you get the ingredients?

    Also, I still owe you an email about the chicken freezer bags (I’ll send it today!)

    -mary

    • Hi Miss Mary! I got most of the ingredients at Hansen’s, but he didn’t have everything in stock and his price on kelp wasn’t as good as Mountain Feed, where I got that. Whatever he didn’t have (because I like to patronize him first) I was able to pick up at General Feed and Seed. The initial buy in trip was about $300, but some of those ingredients are still being used after 6 weeks. I was totally overwhelmed looking at recipes etc, too! Glad I was able to make it easier for you!

  6. Emily says:

    The Small Scale Poultry Flock is SUCH a great book. I would venture to say the best book on poultry that I have ever read. I am glad that you are promoting it.

  7. I agree with the other responses on the quality of Ussery’s book. #1 chicken book that all flock keepers should read.

  8. I would like to know about your fodder growing system.

    • I had planned to write all about it, but then a friend, who is also growing fodder, did. I use the same method that she does. The key to making it work is to keep the grain damp, but with good drainage so it doesn’t mold. Check out her post at

    • My fodder growing is super simple, low tech. I use the nursery flats that have tiny drainage hole, so the grain won’t fall through. I only use Barley, as it has the highest protein and nutrient content (a friend had hers tested and it was 17%). Soak the grain overnight, then rinse well (dust and dirt can promote mold, which ruins the whole batch). You want to put the barley about 1/2″ thick in the tray, again, to discourage mold. No soil added. Just spread it evenly and keep it moist, but not soaking wet. I keep mine in the greenhouse (or you can cover with one of those tray sized plastic domes) because it’s still a little chilly here. I water the tray with the watering can, 3 times a day, or as I see it drying out. It takes about a week to be ready. You’ll be able to lift the whole thing out, just like a hunk of sod. For more info, heck out Dog Island Farm’s post about it:

  9. Wonderful sharing about homemade chick food. I think I need to read the book “The Small Scale poultry Flock”. Thank you.

  10. Dayna says:

    Thank you for this! We have been wanting to switch to seeds and grain from the mill and have been looking for a good ratio. :)

    • You’re so welcome! Also, you can adjust the ratios as you see what your chickens eat first and leave behind. Mine will gobble up all the sunflower seeds, then try to act like they aren’t interested in the rest. So now I use less sunflower seeds to force them to eat the other grains.

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