What Did People Feed Their Chickens Before Commercial Chicken Feed?

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Chickens are a common first step for people looking to take control of their food supply and get into homesteading. They can be a great source of entertainment for children, as well as a worthwhile lesson in raising your own food. However, they are also an added responsibility, and between supply chain issues and severe inflation, you may be wondering how to feed them this upcoming year. How did people feed chickens before commercial chicken feed?

Personally, I try to keep at least a month’s food on hand for all livestock. That gives me time in the event of a SHTF situation to answer two questions: Do I need to process animals? Or can I wait till things settle down?

However, it’s good to be aware of chickens’ nutritional needs in the event of longer-term SHTF events if you are unwilling to process. Or if you have too many birds and lack the storage space for processed birds.  

People got by without commercially mixed chicken feeds for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you can feed chickens whatever and still expect them to grow and lay well. You can be flexible, but there must still be structure.

before commercial chicken feed

Chickens are graminivorous. 

They prefer to eat mostly grains and seeds, and many breeds will get fat if you let them. A common practice in the days of backyard flocks, where the birds went into a house at night but ran all over the place during the day, was to toss them a handful of “scratch grains” (usually a mixture of corn, wheat, barley, oats, or whatever was available) in the morning, then turn them loose. During the summertime, chickens will get protein from insects, and if they have healthy pastures to graze upon, they can get many nutrients from green, growing grass. 

During the wintertime, people would toss them meat once a week or so to provide the needed protein.

(In case you are wondering, if you buy vegetarian feed for your hens, or you buy “vegetarian fed” eggs from the store, that kind of feed consists of large amounts of soy meal.)

Chickens are not naturally vegetarian. I have seen mine chase mice as well as smaller birds. I haven’t seen them catch mice, but I did see them eat a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. They can and will eat meat, given the chance.  

(And unless you want to have to resort to eating baby birds during the Holodomor, you better read our free QUICKSTART Guide to home canning!)

Chickens will also eat scrap vegetables, which are quite good for them. Just like ourselves, if you give your birds a good mixture of vegetable odds and ends in a variety of colors, not only will they benefit from the vitamins, but they will also benefit from the stimulation of pecking different textures.

This may sound silly, but it isn’t.

Keeping your flock happy when confined is essential.

Right now, another bird flu has already killed millions of birds. In my state, the Extension Service has been regularly emailing flock owners with updates, encouraging us to prevent contact with any wild birds. I used to free-range many birds, though right now, I only have ten. They do have a nice coop with a big outdoor run, but there are times (like during snowstorms) when they need to stay inside.

At those times, it’s nice to give the birds something different to peck. I usually just toss in vegetables and alfalfa, but I have a friend who runs a string through heads of cabbages and then suspends them from the ceiling. She says it keeps her birds entertained when they can’t play outside. And it’s funny for her to watch, too.

If you’re looking for specific feeding routines, there are a lot out there. My books on the subject are:

Some themes are common throughout all these books. Birds need some kind of grain, protein, and high-vitamin green vegetables such as seaweed and alfalfa.  

Unless you grow grain yourself, you will have to buy grain for your birds.

But organic whole grain (wheat, oats, barley) chicken scratch currently costs $715 per ton. The organic layer ration is $910; the grower ration is $995. Scratch plus whatever was lying around the homestead was what most birds subsisted on for a long time.

So, what’s lying around your homestead? If you have a variety of homesteading projects, you may be able to switch to cheaper scratch without ill effect.    

Think about what you have available.

If you buy your meat directly from the farmer (which you really, really should be researching if you aren’t already), ask the butcher to throw in the organ meats. If you don’t want to eat them, you can add them to scratch grains occasionally for your birds because they contain so many minerals. The birds would need ordinary cuts of meat more regularly for the protein, but a combination of ordinary cuts as well as organs provides a great deal of protein and minerals.

If you have your own milk cow (or goat), chickens thrive on milk. And raw milk that has started to sour a little bit can be given to chickens. They actually love it. In the Herbal Handbook referenced above, Levy writes that the French, known for pampering their laying hens, would regularly give them curds. When you let raw milk sit, it separates into curds (chunky stuff) and whey (watery stuff). 

Chickens love both.

If you garden, you can toss your chickens any extra odds and ends. For example, if a few tomatoes get worms, you can toss them to the chickens, and they’ll love the worms along with the tomatoes. Occasionally, we’ll get a bunch of hornworms in our garden. We just pick them off and give them to the birds. Vegetable ends that you might otherwise toss in the compost can go to chickens.

Your birds will need leafy green material.

If your birds free range on healthy pastures, they will figure out what they need on their own. If you have to keep your birds confined, tossing in a bale of alfalfa once in a while is probably easiest for most of us.  

Another option would be to grow the green material yourself. Comfrey, nettles, and dandelion are all known for being high in minerals and trace nutrients.  

Though a warning if you plan to go yanking all the dandelions out of your neighbor’s lawns for your chickens: The deep roots that make these plants so nutritious are the same deep roots that will absorb all sorts of pollutants. If you plan to scavenge food for your birds, find out whether or not it’s been sprayed. It’s probably best to talk to neighbors and friends that don’t spray.

And this can turn into a bartering exchange.  

Organic Prepper has written about this before, and I believe we’ll only see more of it as inflation and supply chain issues persist. If you have a neighbor that owns land with nettles (harvest those with gloves!) or dandelions, offer eggs occasionally. If you’re an urban or suburban flock owner, you have limited options for growing your own animal feed, so you’ll need to look to expand your relationships.  

I have to say this…

A final word about attempting to come up with your own chicken feed: I really, really strongly recommend purchasing a veterinary guide first, such as Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook. Nutritional deficiencies can wreak havoc with a bird’s health. People pay a premium for properly mixed feed for a reason. It can be easy to screw up if you aren’t paying attention.  

If you decide to change your bird’s diet, keep an eye on them. Pay attention to any changes in laying frequency or egg condition. Look at your bird’s coloring and how they breathe. 

If you have a good variety of foods to give them, they may be just fine. Again, people raised chickens without premixed feed for a long time. But if something does go wrong, a good veterinary guide will help guide you to find the healthiest mix for your birds.  

What are your thoughts? Are there other tricks to keeping your chickens well-fed without commercial feed you know of that I didn’t mention above? Tell me about it in the comments below.

About Marie Hawthorne

A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.

What Did People Feed Their Chickens Before Commercial Chicken Feed?
Marie Hawthorne

Marie Hawthorne

A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.

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  • Our chickens love most things. That turkey carcass from Thanksgiving… picked clean in minutes.

    They love when we toss them grass or blow in the cuttings when mowing. An old school reel mower would work for this in a grid down situation.

    Unfortunately our chickens get along with mice and rats, my friend’s chickens free range and will eat anything they can peck at. Mice and rats don’t last.

  • My grandma used to keep chickens, and she fed them all the things you mention, except meat. I’m pretty sure she didn’t give them meat. She grew up in the sort of village where meat was a treat for humans, chicken was what you had for weddings and a family would kill a pig and that would be all the meat they ate during the whole winter, salted and kept in different ways. She’d never dream of giving meat to chickens, meat was for dogs, and they were supposed to hunt for most of it. But there would have been plenty of insects for the chickens, and I have no idea if they were catching mice. And they always looked healthy.

  • Gross as it will sound, you can make what I call a maggot bucket to feed your chickens fresh larvae.

    Take a 5 gal bucket, drill some 1/2″ holes in the bottom, throw in some road kill or other dead animal, and hang it where the chickens can get to the ground under it. Flies will enter the bucket and lay eggs, and the maggots will fall through the holes as they move around.

    I’ve not built one as I’ve stuck with feed, but if times get tough or feed becomes unavailable or too expensive, there’s plenty of road kill and I have buckets.

  • Anyone who thinks pigs can’t fly has never kept chickens! They will eat just about ANYTHING.

    We free range ours. We give them a scoop or so of layer mash, but for the most part they just forage all day. We keep a “compost bucket” in the garage, which is just off the kitchen in our place. Any green scraps rendered from food prep end up in that bucket. A few times a week we take the bucket out and dump it at the base of our compost heap. The chickens have at it. Whatever they won’t eat gets rolled into the compost heap. We’ll also give them cooked meat that has gone over to the dark side in the fridge.
    For the record, I HAVE seen a hen catch a mouse and eat it. Any mice I trap also go to the hens. I’ve also seen them jump about four feet straight up to snag junebugs out of the air!

  • In a SHTF Situation I was studying covert gardening. I was also thinking about protecting my chickens from 2 and 4 legged predators, and covert grazing. I have 3 small dogs that alert very well. Before I had dogs I used a battery operated drive way alarm that senses heat and movement. For 12 bucks it works real well. I will build a small dog house in the run for night protection if batteries become impossible to find. For covert grazing I could use my dog carriers and the portable dog pen to take them out to wild places to graze or tie a cord around their leg and peg them to a small footage area. I could also plant for the chickens in the covert gardening at all the locations the wheel chair can manage. That way I can harvest while the chickens feed. Free to share my ideas.

  • One thing my free range hens absolutely love is pumpkins. They went into my patch and pecked a hole into the pumpkins and completely gutted them. The only thing they left was a hollow shell. I have found very few things that they won’t eat. We had a nuisance woodchuck digging into our garage that had to be put down. When I came zipping by on the lawn mower, I forgot it was there and literally mowed it over. The sound was awful but it was like ringing the dinner bell. The girls came running and cleaned that mess right up. They get all of the fridge scraps and all of the kitchen parings. They clean up the seeds behind the hay bales. They forage the yard and surrounding woods and venture out into the hay field. And the braver hens clean up the ants when we split firewood.

  • Run your chickens behind livestock as you rotational graze, they scratch apart the manure piles, eat the parasites and any flies that come for the poop. It’s a perfect solution to 2 problems, flies and internal parasites! Some breeds are better foragers than others, as well. Research those breeds and, as mentioned above, maggot buckets are great for free food. Cultivate a soldier fly bucket also, or instead, to provide mealworms! Let your chickens till your garden for you in the winter. They’ll eat the weeds, any harmful bugs overwintering and spread your compost for you. Chickens are amazing!

    • I do the same, also guinea hens are good at eating ticks another pig problem for cattle. An added side benefit was I used to encounter one or two scorpians a week in the house. After letting the chickens free range, not a one was left. The girls hovered them up, they even ate the snake that I beheaded after finding it lurking in my wood pile. I would give them corn on occasion, that I grew on the farm, but they preferred instects and the natural growth from the pasture and barely touched the additional feed.

  • Yes- chickens love chicken! And mine do hunt mice, and love hot dogs….I feed my chickens and ducks dog food that has been soaked in boiling water, especially in winter time. My chickens even tried to eat an injured duck before I whisked her away to safety!

    I had no idea how much meat chickens actually ate before I started raising my own. I used to think they were herbivores…wow was I naieve!

  • Wow…some good ideas there…
    We grind our own chicken feed…chicken wheat, alfalfa pellets, fields peas, corn, black oil sunflower seeds, oats, barley, butter mild powder,kelp, poultry neutral balance (organic supplement). They like it a lot. We use an old fashioned grinder and store it in big buckets.

  • Thanks for the good information Marie and the comments have some great help too.
    I’m seriously considering getting chickens and weighing how I’ll feed them as the supply chain goes down hill.
    This has helped a lot on how to proceed if I do get some for eggs and meat.

  • I’ve seen my chickens chase my cat ,who had caught a mouse and steal it from her and run off with it. Chickens will eat a mouse

  • Chickens, like all birds, are related to a familiar type of dinosaur: theropods. At least, theropods should be familiar to those who have watched the Jurassic Park movies. Examples include the velociraptor and the iconic T Rex. They definitely eat meat.

  • Be very careful about the “bird flu” narrative, which is being promoted and “identified” by the same faulty, fraudulent PCR test used to promote covid. Keep in mind this narrative may very well be part of the engineered food shortage plan, getting farmers/homesteaders to keep their flock indoors (not a good thing) and to promote fear; and to dissuade from having chickens at all. Verify if this “bird flu” scare is real. Many say it is not.

  • From what I have read the pioneers fed their livestock root crops through the winter months. the animals ate many thins that the humans ate,

  • My neighbour’s mum used to boil wheat for their chickens. We were on neighbouring sheep and wheat farms and I rode my bike past their place on the way to catch the bus to school, and our favourite thing on a cold morning was to raid the parboiled still warm wheat for ourselves. Apparently the light boiling makes the wheat easier to digest or something. Something to keep in mind when you need to make feed last.

    My poultry used to get a couple of scoops of layer pellets or boiled wheat every evening, it was easier to get them into their run because they knew that feed dropped every evening an hour before sundown and so all 30 of them (plus a dozen turkeys and a dozen ducks) would come flooding in all by themselves and all I had to do was close the gate after them. There was also a ramp up/in entrance with no matching ramp inside so latecomers could slip in and the foxes couldn’t…

  • My maternal Grandparents were farmers. I spent a large amount of my childhood with them. They always had chickens running around and its likely one reason I never went barefooted. 🙂
    I never remember their chickens being given commercial chicken feed. They MAY have gotten some scratch once in a while. Mainly they fended for themselves and got whatever left-over kitchen scraps were available that day. They obviously weren’t as scientific or fussy over their chickens as many people are now with their back-yard flocks. My Grandparents never had a shortage of chickens and I don’t remember them having to buy replacements.

  • We use a portable chicken pen – a chicken tractor. There is a good book by Andy Lee about it. Joel Salatin uses his technique. This really cuts our feed bill in the sting/summer/early fall.

  • So you still have to buy feed for them. Huh. Wonder where people went to get special feed for their chickens a couple of hundred years ago?
    Special feed at the prices now doesn’t seem cost effective. Thats some expensive eggs and meat sounds like.

    • We supplement the grass/bugs. We keep them penned in the portable pen Because I don’t like chicken poo everywhere.

    • We never buy store feed. Everyone turns them into pets. There’s so many people that read and believe there gonna support themselves selling eggs . There are people that will give away eggs because they have so many. We feed extras to our hogs

      • You can also freeze your excess eggs. Using a silicone soap mold, I blend 2 eggs at a time in a pyrex measuring cup, pour in the mold, freeze, remove when frozen and then vacuum seal and put back in the freezer. Then, in the winter when my year old hens aren’t laying, I have a supply of beautiful orange yolked eggs for baking, quiche, scrambled eggs etc. You can get the molds online and there is a few good sites mentioned on Pinterest if you search.

  • Soaking feed is an idea for what you are buying. My birds started cleaning up every bit once I did that and it is easier for them to digest, so feed conversion is more efficient.

  • Back in the early part of the 20th century, my rural Kentucky grandmother grew sunflowers for chicken feed.

    Do small farmers and homesteaders actually spend $715 for chicken feed?

    • Steve my grandmother also fed her chicken before Purina. She fed them all the free-range goodies they could catch (rodents included) plus scratch grains like you mentioned. In wintertime she fed them scratch PLUS ground field peas in a 25% peas and 75% scratch ground and moistened mixture and even sprouted trays of wheat for them. She said they needed fresh grass all year.

      Her garden compost piles steamed all winter in Colorado and the chickens would come running to see what Grandmother iron raked out of that compost pile today. Fresh bugs and everything.

      Thus while most other chicken houses were almost zero egg production in the wintertime she had eggs at premium prices. Chickens NEED Protein to make those Protein Packed Eggs.

      There is a LOT of thinking to keep farm animals well fed and healthy.

  • Did anyone mention that the eggshells should be returned to the chickens to keep their calcium levels up? For us the shells are part of the compost scraps that the hens have access too. We also make sure to turn the compost piles regularly so the hens can get to the worms and larvae. Young chicks are also easy to train with mealworms, training them to come when you call makes nightly lock-up (or any other time) much quicker and easier.

  • I supplement with wild forage, garden weeds and extras from the garden(kale and zucchini are great for this. heavily in the warm months(live in upper midwest). We supplement with household food scraps for the rest of the year. Sometimes I intentionally cook extra beans to give to the chickens if we haven’t had much extra. I have teens right now so there isn’t a lot of leftovers about to go weird in the back of the fridge for the chicken to eat.

  • During trapping and hunting season we give our birds raw beaver and deer carcasses to peck at. They love it. Sometimes we boil it if they get to frozen for them to peck at.

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