Can chickens live off the land, and if they can, will they still lay a worthwhile amount of eggs, or gain enough weight for the table?
If you give chickens enough land, they’ll manage to survive on foraged food and hunted food. But surviving isn’t the same as thriving. If you want a productive flock, you’ll need to provide supplemental chicken feed or create a feed rich habitat.
Unlike most livestock, chickens can’t digest grass very well, so pasture can’t be their main food source. Chickens living off the land also need protein and calories from bugs and grubs, small mammals, and reptiles, and nuts and seeds.
Whether chickens can live off the land and survive without purchased chicken feed depends on:
- How much land is available to them.
- What food resources that land provides.
- The local wildlife your chickens can eat.
- The local wildlife that wants to eat your chickens.
- Climate & seasonality.
- The type of chickens in your flock.
- How much effort you want to put in.
Feed costs are shooting up (along with the cost of everything else) and for thrifty homesteaders, it makes sense to look at ways to lower our feed costs by figuring out other ways to feed our chickens.
But for most of us, raising a productive flock means purchasing at least some of their food.
Can Chickens Live Off The Land? Not Really!
Other livestock animals live off the land just fine (for part of the year at least) and wild animals and birds live off the land all year round.
So why can’t chickens? After all, they’re such small animals, and small animals don’t need huge amounts of food. Or do they?
Well, based on body weight, chickens actually eat a lot, consuming around 5% of their body weight in concentrated feed every day.
If you’ve got a 2 kilo (4.4 pound) laying hen, she needs to eat at least 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of grain-based feed each day. An 80 kilo (176 pound) human eating the same 5% body weight ratio would need to eat 4 kilos, or 8.8 pounds of food a day. That’s twice as much as an average person gets through.
If you compare the calories chickens consume with the recommended calorie intake for an adult woman, the high intake really stands out.
An adult woman weighs around 60 kilos (134 pounds) and consumes 2000 calories a day. An egg laying chicken weighing 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) consumes 300 calories a day.
If the chicken weighed the same as the woman, it would need to eat a massive 9000 calories a day.
So even though chickens are small, they burn a ton of calories. And those calories are easy to get from grain, but more difficult to source from the foraged and hunted food they find on the land.
Grains Are Nutrient Dense Food For Chickens
It’s true that chickens eat a fairly small quantity of food when we feed them grains, but those grains are powerhouse food sources packed with calories, protein, and minerals.
There’s really no other type of vegetation that provides the energy and nutrients chickens get from grains
As an example, the most calorie dense food we can grow in our vegetable gardens is the potato. Potatoes provide far more calories than any leafy vegetation growing on your land.
If we compare the nutritional values of potatoes compared to wheat berries, we get a better idea of just how energy dense grains really are.
These figures are from the USDA and as you can see, wheat wins hands down.
|Nutrients||Potato 100g||Wheat 100g|
Wheat – https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168890/nutrients
Potato – https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170026/nutrients
How Many Calories Do Egg Laying Chickens Need Every Day?
Egg laying chickens need roughly 300 calories a day. As you can see from the table above, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of wheat berries will provide all the calories an egg laying chicken needs (although wheat by itself doesn’t contain enough protein).
Besides calories, your layer flock also needs protein, calcium, fat phosphorus, lysine, methionine, and a range of vitamins and minerals.
When you allow your chickens to roam around and eat lots of plants, they will easily meet their own needs for vitamins and trace minerals, but unless they can find plenty of bugs, critters, and seeds to eat, they won’t get enough calories, protein, or calcium.
Chickens Can’t Live On Grass
The reason chickens aren’t well suited to living off the land is they can’t break down cellulose to fully digest grass like ruminants (goats, sheep, cattle, etc.) can.
If you put your chickens out on lush pasture, that’s mostly grass, they’ll peck at the grass and maybe get a few calories from it. Put a few goats or sheep on the same pasture, and that grass will fill their bellies and ultimately turn into meat and milk.
Instead of eating the grass, chickens will scratch around looking for bugs and other small critters. As I mentioned earlier, if they’ve got enough land to roam around on, chickens will find a good amount of food (depending on the time of year).
But I’ve Seen My Chickens Eating Grass, I Hear You Cry!
Yes, you’re right. Your chickens will eat grass, mine do too, but they can’t digest it properly because they don’t have the right digestive system for tough roughage.
Ruminants (goats, sheep, etc.) have 4-chambered stomachs allowing them to ferment grass and other fibrous plants to extract the energy and nutrients from it.
Chickens, on the other hand, have one stomach which can’t ferment grass, so it’s of little benefit to them aside from the dietary fiber it provides.
Problems With Feeding Chickens From Your Land
If you’ve got acreage, chickens can find a surprising amount of food for themselves. But if you’ve only got a large backyard to work with, your chickens will soon get hungry if you don’t feed them.
And no matter how much land you’ve got for your chickens, you’ll still run into some problems.
- Less food is available to forage in the winter months.
- You’ll lose unprotected free ranging chickens to predators.
- There’s a big difference between surviving and thriving. Thriving chickens will provide eggs and meat. Surviving chickens won’t give you much of anything.
- Free ranging chickens can wander off and get lost.
- Hens often choose to lay eggs in undergrowth where you’ll never find them.
When it comes to feeding chickens, expecting them to live entirely off the land isn’t realistic or practical for most homestead situations.
Unlike fowl living in the wild, domesticated fowl like chickens are production birds. We’ve bred them far beyond their natural capabilities, and if you want meat or eggs from your chickens, they need more than survival rations of food.
Why Reduce Your Reliance On Purchased Chicken Feed?
Raising chickens for food is a fantastic way to become more self sufficient.
But when you’re relying on the feed store for your chicken food, all you’ve done is switch some of your spending.
Instead of buying eggs, you’re buying scratch grains and layer feed. And instead of buying a roasting chicken or chicken portions, you’re loading up on grower feed and finisher for your broilers.
Raising chickens in the modern/conventional way doesn’t really give us free or low-cost food, although we definitely get much higher quality food.
When we add in the cost of coops, runs, and chicken tractors, our chickens can get expensive.
Once we consider the cost of relying on purchased chicken feed, it’s only natural to wonder if chickens can live off the land or if there’s a way to produce our own lower cost chicken feed.
I’m not a fan of spending silly amounts of money on anything. And if I can get a satisfactory result without spending too much money, then as far as I’m concerned, that’s the best option.
Unlearning What We Think We know About Feeding Chickens
Much, if not most, of the information we rely on about feeding chickens is based on the nutritional data supplied by commercial feed producers. That information in turn is aimed at commercial poultry operations.
Both feed producers and poultry producers want 2 things. Low input costs and profits.
As such, the whole feed equation is boiled down to percentages of this or that macro and micro nutrient. And you might be surprised to find out that those feed pellets you buy can contain fat, bone meal, and feather meal from rendered animal carcasses as well as the ever present (and problematic) soy.
None of which would be part of a chicken’s natural diet.
Now, it’s pretty obvious why the poultry industry feeds the way they do. They need to maximize laying rates. But that doesn’t mean we need to follow their lead when we feed our flocks.
As homesteaders, our layers, and broilers can access a wider range of food sources.
- Our chickens can busy themselves foraging on pasture.
- They can scratch around under the fruit trees and bushes in our orchards.
- Chickens love to dig through compost heaps.
- They gobble down kitchen scraps and feast on produce from our vegetable gardens.
- Chickens will recycle commercial food waste.
All of these food sources provide nutritious feed for a small flock of chickens.
And that’s why the chicken feed discussion based around commercial feeds doesn’t serve us small scale homesteaders very well.
We can provide a lot of the feed our flocks need from our own resources, but because of the “conventional wisdom” on feeding chickens, most of us never even think to try this way of being more self-sufficient.
How Homestead Chickens Used to Be Fed
For many of us, our chickens are the only livestock we raise for food or labor, but in days gone by, homesteads and small farms had horses and mules for transportation and plowing, and they would probably keep a milk cow or a few goats, and a pig at the very least.
The chickens would fit in around the other animals. They didn’t have special hen houses and protected runs. Instead, they roosted in the barn or cowshed at night, and during the day had the run of pasture, woodland, stream, and barnyard.
These chickens weren’t the calm gentle breeds we tend to favor today, either. They were the feisty game breeds like the Old English chicken. Tough flocks with roosters capable of putting up a fight against a predator.
In the barnyard, soiled straw bedding and muck from the other animals made a large manure heap providing a rich buffet of bugs and grubs for the chickens.
Chickens were/are also adept at catching rodents, small lizards, frogs, snakes, crickets, and other insects and bugs. All rich sources of protein and vital nutrients.
Whey, the byproduct of the farm or homestead dairy, was another food fed to chickens. When milk is turned into butter and cheese, protein rich whey is left over. While you can certainly make good use of whey yourself (adding it to bread recipes, soups, or smoothies for example) our ancestors routinely fed it to their chickens and pigs.
Spent grain was another waste product fed to chickens, as our forebears often brewed their own beer and ale.
Throw in kitchen scraps, along with produce from the vegetable garden and orchard, and the chickens hanging around the yard had some rich pickings.
These chickens didn’t cost much to feed and they provided eggs and meat.
Scratch grains thrown out to the chickens kept them tame.
All in all, the chickens of yesteryear were foragers and opportunistic feeders, and they were a good way to recycle waste into food, albeit less food than we expect our flocks to produce today.
The more we revive those practices with our flocks, the more self-sufficient we’ll become. Our chickens will have a more varied, more natural, and more nutritious diet too.
Sounds great doesn’t it?
But the big catch in all of this is predators. No matter where you live, something wants to eat your chickens.
The Predator Problem
When chickens are living off the land, they’re vulnerable to predators.
Predators could be loose dogs, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, weasels, or whatever carnivores live in your environment.
While it’s true that chickens in an open area can run away, they can’t run faster than a fox!
Foxes can sprint at speeds of 40 miles per hour. Unless a chicken can jump up and flap itself into a tree to get away, it’s going to be dinner for a hungry fox.
So how did roaming chickens survive in the old days?
The chickens our ancestors kept are not like the docile chickens we keep today. Those old time game chickens had a lot more fight in them.
Roosters were on high alert as they guarded their hens, and the smarter flocks stayed close to farm buildings. And, of course, people were out working in the fields and woodlands every day, which also deterred predators.
Even so, losses to predators were a fact of life.
One advantage free ranging chickens had in the past that we don’t have today in many areas is the predator control that went on as part of the local hunting and trapping economy.
Without predator control, if you let your chickens roam free, you’ll undoubtedly lose some of them.
Chickens love to forage in and around the edges of overgrown areas. These spots have all kinds of tasty insects and grubs, and weeds and seeds.
Unfortunately, the brush and brambles make it easy for a predator to sneak up without your chickens noticing. Then when the killer is within striking range, it pounces.
We had multiple run-ins with foxes this past spring.
The thigh-high flowering turnip crop our farmer neighbor grew to regenerate his soil over winter provided perfect cover for stealthy foxes.
They could sneak up to the fence line undetected, then rush through the barbed wire fencing.
Thankfully, the chickens were in chicken tractors working over planting beds for us and the foxes couldn’t get them (although they damaged the runs trying to get at the birds). But if they’d been out free ranging, we would have lost some, without a doubt.
Even when you fence off areas to give chickens protection, predators will sometimes still get in, but if chickens are out in the open, they’re even more vulnerable.
The feed cost savings soon disappear if your chickens get eaten by a hungry fox.
How Can You Feed Chickens From Your Land Safely?
Leaving your chickens to roam freely isn’t the only way they can live off your land.
- Grow food for your chickens
- Use mobile chicken runs (chicken tractors)
- Harvest slugs and snails
- Build compost piles
- Feed kitchen scraps and expired food to your flock
How To Feed Chickens From Your Land
First things first.
What type of land and resources have you got?
A homestead with a pasture or meadow, some overgrown brush, woodland, and a fruit and nut orchard will offer chickens more feed opportunities than pasture alone.
And a grass pasture is less ideal than a pasture full of perennial weeds like plantain, dandelion, fat hen, clover, nettles, cleavers, chickweed, wood sorrel, and claytonia, to name just a few forage plants for chickens.
Chickens can’t digest grass very well, but even so, they can scratch around and peck up the insects crawling around down there.
Your orchard will be a source of fallen or insect damaged fruit in late summer and fall, and the many insects that fruit attracts. If you grow nut crops, those will store over the winter months and provide protein rich, calorie dense chicken food. We make use of an abundance of chestnuts and walnuts as supplemental chicken food in the winter.
A woodlot with a rich leaf litter floor is the perfect place for chickens to find bugs to eat.
The first thing to do when you’re wondering how to cut down your chicken feed bill, is take a walk around and see what’s growing where.
The next thing you need to do is figure out how to let your chickens range around safely.
What predators are around? What time of day are they active?
Using chicken tractors keeps your chickens safe and they get to go over fresh ground every day, or twice a day if you want to move them more often.
Electronet fencing hooked up to a battery is another option.
Permanent fencing can work, and we’ve fenced several areas for our chickens, but predators can dig and they can jump. Foxes can jump over fences 2 meters high, for example. Fencing is a deterrent, it’s not always going to provide absolute safety.
One hybrid solution you can try if you’re at home a lot, is to let the chickens onto an area to forage while you supervise them or busy yourself with other chores nearby. Then, rattle a handful of grain in a bucket to entice them back into the chicken tractor when you need to go off and do other things.
Perennial Forage Plants For Chickens
You may already have well established perennial forage plants growing on your land. Most people call them weeds! Sow perennials or plant root cuttings to establish new forage crops for your chickens.
Let your chickens forage these plants on their own, or cut foliage to feed to chickens kept in runs or chickens tractors.
Harvesting Slugs And Snails For Your Chickens
It might seem a bit brutal to gather up slugs and snails to feed to your chickens, but if your birds were free ranging, they would find them and eat them just the same.
They’re really easy to harvest too. All you need are a few planks of wood and a bucket.
Snails and slugs seek out daytime hiding places where they feel protected, and a damp plank of wood is an ideal spot as far as they’re concerned.
If you set planks of wood on the ground, you’ll get some free food for your flock. Set the planks around your vegetable beds, and you’ll get the extra benefit of removing the slugs and snails who would otherwise feast on your seedlings and leafy greens.
To harvest the slugs and snails, just turn the planks over each morning, pluck the slimy treats off the wood, and drop them into your feed bucket.
Compost Piles For Chickens
Building a compost pile system for your chickens is a great way to turn waste into feed and as a bonus you get compost for your garden.
A shallow composting system for chickens is fairly low effort because chickens do most of the work.
Use wooden planks or straw bales to make a low border for your compost area, otherwise your chickens will fling food scraps everywhere as they scratch through the compost.
Divide the composting area into 3 sections.
Add food waste, weeds, coop litter, and grass clippings to your compost bay. After a week or so, when your chickens have worked through the pile, use a spade or fork to move the material into the next bay, turning it over as you go.
This helps chickens find insects buried in the pile and makes room to add fresh waste.
Keep moving the pile along and eventually, the chickens will have eaten the edible food waste and the bugs it attracted, enriched the pile with their droppings, and produced compost for your garden.
The more food waste you can get your hands on, the more food the compost pile will provide for your flock.
Ask people you know to save their food waste for you, and contact local restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and farmer’s markets to find out if you can take food waste off their hands.
Some people even go dumpster diving to get free food for their chickens. Given the amount of bread, dairy and meat, grocery stores throw away, if you’ve got access to a dumpster, you’ll be able to dramatically reduce (or even eliminate) your feed costs.
What Crops Can you Grow for Chickens?
If you’ve got room, grow your chickens some calorie dense crops in your vegetable garden.
Potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, beets, pumpkin, and winter squash are all excellent foods for chickens and store well for winter feeding (leave peas and corn to dry on the plants).
Pumpkins and winter squash are particularly good because the seeds are high in protein.
How Can You Tell If Chickens Are Getting Enough To Eat from Your Land?
An easy way to determine if your chickens are finding enough food is to feed them their grain supplement in the evening when they return to the coop.
Hungry hens will devour the feed, but well-fed birds won’t eat it all.
Feeding later in the day also forces your chickens to get to work finding food to eat during the day.
As you develop your homegrown feed sources, your hens will need less and less grain.
You’ll know when your chickens aren’t getting enough to eat because egg production will slow down. If you usually get 60 eggs a week when your hens eat a full grain ration, and you only get 30 eggs with reduced grain input, then the chickens aren’t foraging enough food.
Feeding Chickens Without Grain Is Possible But It Takes Some Work
Your land will always provide some food sources for your chickens, but they won’t be a productive flock if the only food they get is forage from pasture.
To feed chickens without grain or with less grain, build some compost piles, plant a fruit orchard, grow food crops for chickens, and collect as much food waste as you can get your hands on.