What to grow to help feed your chickens.

A young buff Sussex chicken foraging free range.

You can grow a selection of plants as well as cultivate insects on your land to help feed your chickens and keep them entertained. It is even possible to grow some things that are easy to store for the lean months of winter.

My granddad always kept his chickens in an orchard. He used to reckon that saved him around 25% on his food bill having his chickens free range. In the orchard there is grass, bugs and fruit for several months of the year.

Below: This is a patch of wheat growing in one of the hen runs. You can also see the thistles in the background (the hens love the seeds) and the wild seeding grasses.

There are a couple of plants you can grow to both feed your chickens and reduce the food bill. Just how far you can go depends on how much land, time and motivation you have.

It is also possible to forage for some supplies to help feed your chickens. In the fall every year I go and pick mountain ash berries. They keep well and are nutrient dense. I can get a couple of buckets and they last me a few months. I just give them a handful or so three times a week.

Below: The best way to happier, healthier and cheaper chickens is keeping them on pasture. These hens are grazing the growing tips of the grass.

It is important to remember that whatever you save in money will cost you in time.

What can you grow to feed chickens?

So what can you plant on your land to help feed your chickens and keep the feed bill down?

Below is a list of all the things I try to do to keep the feed bill down and have interesting and tasty morsels all year round for the hens. Included is a few ideas for storage feeds that keep for winter.

  • Grass: Chickens do eat grass and free ranging your flock on pasture is the best and cheapest way to help keep them fed. Grass is nutritious and quite high in calcium and protein. 
  • Duckweed: Duckweed grows easily and quickly and can contain up to 40% of easily biologically absorbable protein. Once seeded on the top of water it just grows and you can harvest a handful at a time for your flock to eat.
  • Fruit trees: There is quite a selection of fruit trees and bushed and you could easily get 6 or 8 months of extra feed for your chickens in any one year. I live the redcurrant bushes are the first to fruit in early June, followed by the blackcurrants and blueberries a month or so later. All fruit trees shed surplus fruit during the year from the June drop to windfall apples. Plums, pears and quinces all provide huge amounts of fallen fruit and with a bit of planning you could get supply for 4 or 5 months.
  • Sunflower seeds: These are a power house of nutrients, just when you need it in the fall.
  • Grains: Sacks of grain seed can be had for a few tens of dollars and most modern varieties are quite productive. You could grow millet for example, as it can be dried in large sprigs and fed during the course of the year.
  • Bugs, earthworms and insects: Producing bugs and insects requires only a little time and some compost or rotting logs. I have a huge pile of logs on my land and every few weeks I move them around letting the chickens root about in the bark that as fallen off. There is always masses of earthworms, insects and woodlice in the log pile and it keeps them amused for a few days. You can cultivate earthworms in compost heaps or soil that is rich in organic matter and every now and then dig a bit over for your chickens to scratch through.
  • Vegetables: Pumpkins and squashed are and excellent choice to grow for chickens. If you choose a variety with a firm skin they can be stored for several months and fed at a rate of once a week or so. Pumpkins and squashes also help keep your flock busy in winter when they might be inside because of the weather.
  • Greens: Green help to colour the egg yolks and provide trace minerals and vitamins. My personal choice is to grow kale, it is hardy and will grow in sub zero temperatures and stand for months in the cold without spoiling.
  • Root vegetables: The other plant I grow for my chickens is celeriac, turnips, swedes (Rutabaga) and carrots. They grow well in most places and the whole plant is edible. and they can be stored safely in the ground over winter by covering with horticultural fleece.
  • Clover: Clover is good for the soil and the hens love the leaves, flowers and seeds.
  • Brassicas: You can grow just about any member of the brassica family of plants to feed your chickens, they are all leafy, the whole of the plant is edible and at the end of the season they produce masses of oil and protein rich seeds. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbages all grown well in most places and can be used to entertain you chickens as well as feed them.
  • Flax: Flax is and excellent plant to grow for your chickens as the seeds are extremely high in Omega-3 fats.
  • Peas: Peas can be grown but should be cooked before feeding.
  • Flowers: You can grow flowers for chickens and while this is not going to save you much of the food bill, coloured flowers are full of compounds which are good for colouring egg yolks.
  • Maize and sweetcorn: Maize and sweetcorn are easy to grow in sunny climates and can be dried and stored for later in the year. There are some fantastic multi-coloured types in all colours from blue to red as well as yellow.

Making home-grown chicken feed can save you money but will cost you in other ways like time and effort.

A complete list of what chickens can eat and the flowers chickens are allowed to eat.

What you should not grow for your chickens:

There is quite a long list of foods and plants that you should not be growing to help feed your flock.

Rye and barley: Can contain mycotoxins and barley has anti-nutrients.

Acorns: Acorns are toxic to chickens.

Lentils: All lentils, Puy lentils have to be cooked and are not good things to grow to feed your chickens.

Beans: All beans are toxic to most animals and as few as 6 can kill a chicken.

Rhubarb: Contains too much Oxalic acid and causes digestive upsets.

Grapes: Too much sugar to be a useful food.

Buckwheat: Buckwheat has been shown to lower feed efficiency in poultry.

Lettuce: This may sound odd but some lettuces contain high levels of Oxalic acid and they are mostly water with little nutrients. The exception to this is if you grow your own and leave them to go to seed and then give them to the chickens. This is not so much as shouldn't, but rather you're wasting your time.

Below: Lettuce might seem ideal as it is quick growing but it is very low in protein and almost devoid of nutrition.

Can you produce enough feed that you don't have to buy pellets?

It is almost impossible to keep any number of chickens without buying some poultry feed. Modern hybrids have a dependency on nutritional pelleted feed or mash and this would make it difficult for them to survive just eating naturally.

If you have enough productive land, a flock of heritage chickens might be able to find almost enough food in the summer months when the days are long and insects plentiful.

What is the best grain to grow at home to feed chickens?

I have quite often planted patches of grain in my chicken runs. In Spring I fence off the bald areas where the hens have worn the grass away and just left bare ground. I dig the bare patches over with a fork to break up the soil and plant some grains.

Below: Millet is an excellent choice for growing for your chickens, and it stores well for long periods if properly dry.

As nearly all grains grown commercially are grasses, within a couple of weeks you can remove the fence and let the hens back in while the grain plants grow. When the plant ripens the seeds drop on the ground and the hens eat them over the course of a few weeks.

I like millet for this purpose. It grows tall and the seeds form in large heads which can be picked whole and dried for later use. It can be left in the ground for the hens to peck over as the seeds ripen and fall or you can pick and dry the head for storage.

You can plant a patch of wheat or oats in the chicken run and the hens will eat the grains as they ripen in the fall.

The hens will keep your grain patch insect free as well.

Foraging for chickens feed:

I like to collect dandelions in early spring for this purpose. The greens are full of nutrients and the flowers help to colour the yolks.

Mountain ash berries can be collected in the Fall and store quite well.

Wild fruit from known trees can be a good source of supplemental chicken feeds.

See here for a full list of the foods chickens can and can't eat.