Chickens are a common “starter” animal for beginner homesteaders or those in more urban areas.
Unlike sheep or cattle, chickens are omnivores, meaning their ideal diet includes other animals (typically insects). Ever since we bought chickens in 2016, I’ve wanted them to be as “low input” as possible. We do buy pine shavings for their bedding, but they are paper-wrapped, and it makes good compost. Some people use shredded leaves or locally-sourced wood shavings, which is even more eco-friendly. As for their diet, I’ve always been passionate about the chickens having ample time outdoors, plenty of space to scratch, peck and hunt for bugs.
We free range our hens, but they still require supplemental feed, especially in the winter. Our friends introduced us to the concept of mixing our own whole grain feed, a corn-and-soy-free recipe utilizing Minnesota grown buckwheat, rye, wheat, oats, field peas, and black oil sunflower seeds. The whole grain mix has been great for our sandy soil, as they scratch the feed into the dirt and then fertilize the area. These seeds sprout and grow as cover crops, crowding out weeds and slowly preparing the area for future pasture. Another benefit of feeding whole grains is they can be sprouted, or even grown into fodder. Both milled and whole grains can also be fermented, which makes the feed more easy to digest.
After Buckwheat Growers in Wadena closed this past June, we had to find another mill to purchase our feed. Conventional chicken feeds are cheaper and readily available in stores such as Fleet Farm, but we decided to stick with the alternative ration. Thankfully, we have found a few different feed mills which carry organic and transitional livestock feed. In order for a farmer to become certified organic, they need at least three years of following organic practices to qualify; during this time, their product is labeled “transitional”.
RCR Organic Feed Store in southern Minnesota and Cashton Feed Mill in Western Wisconsin specialize in organic feed/seed, and Mile Four out of Minneapolis provides a few organic feed options in 20 lb. packages which can be shipped to your door. Closer to the Mille Lacs area is Luxemburg Feed Services, with a wide range of conventional and transitional feed options, along with affordable delivery. Most importantly, they allow customers to request custom feed mixes, and their staff is incredibly friendly.
If you are looking to save money on your chicken feed bill this fall, one of the best additions to their diet is fresh food waste. Some small grocers and vendors will actually donate (or sell at low prices) old/imperfect produce, especially after the pumpkin/squash harvest. Homesteaders who have access to milk, excess eggs, yogurt, and extra garden produce can reduce the amount of grains needed for their flock by supplementing with these nutrient dense whole foods.
Chickens need protein and calcium to regrow their feathers after molting season (fall/early winter), and to maintain their health when laying eggs. Extra fat and calories can help them withstand the cold, which is why we offer our birds butchering scraps and carcasses during deer hunting season. They consume bone marrow, organs, and all the tiny bits of muscle or gristle around the bones. If you have poultry and hunt, or know someone who does, consider giving your chickens a delicious nutrient boost this fall.
Danielle Wiener, a stay-at-home mom, has a family cabin in McGregor and lives on a farm in Stacy.