We never have purchased 100% of our chickens’ diet from a store–and we don’t plan to.  I’m not comfortable with all that processed stuff, and I’m not sure where it all comes from.  When we do purchase feed, we prefer organic feed so we know what we’re giving our beloved chickens.  This kind of feed is usually expensive.

Let’s also take a second to point out the obvious:  chickens had been around for years figuring out what they wanted and needed to eat long before man domesticated them and started supplying them with the food man decided was best for them.  So…why not let them have some more natural choices?

These are two things we think about when we consider interfering with our chickens’ diets.

We’re all about self-sustainability around here, so it only makes sense the chickens should live that way too.  However, although ours are free-range, we do limit where they can and can’t go.  That means we take responsibility to make sure they have access to natural foods they can’t obtain due to their impaired freedom.  Some things we grow, some we gather.

Here are 12 things we grow, gather, and store in the fall to feed our chickens in the winter.

Acorns

We gather acorns as they fall from the trees in the fall.  Later in the season, we’ll crush them with a hammer and toss them out near the coop for the chickens to peck at.

One ounce of dried acorns averages 2 grams of protein, and 15 grams of carbohydrates (source).   Carbohydrates are the major source of energy for chickens, and while proteins provide a little bit of energy as well, they are mostly needed for normal bodily functions and egg building.

Pea Seeds

We let a lot of our peas go to seed in our garden.  They are generally ready to be gathered as the snow starts to fall, just before we open the garden for the chickens.  The kids take a bucket and walk along the trellis’s and pull the pods off. It only takes a few minutes.

The prime seeds will be saved for next year’s garden, and the rest will be stored in a coffee can, to later be given to the chickens.

Peas can average a 23% protein level, and offer a variety of amino acids, which is very important for animals, chickens included.  They can be used for 10-40% of a laying chicken’s diet, but must be part of a variety-diet to make sure all amino acids are present.  (Source)

Sunflower Seeds

Since adding sunflowers to the cucumber area of my garden, the cucumbers have been thriving.  It’s now something we do every year.  With this system, we grow more sunflowers than our family consumes.

In the fall, we pull off the heads we want for storing.  Then we come and grab the larger of the heads left and set them out to finish drying outside where they are protected from snow, chickens, and other birds.  We’ll scrape the dried seeds out and store them in coffee cans for winter and spring feed.

Sunflower seeds are rich in linoleic acid and naturally occurring antioxidants, although exact nutrient content varies depending on variety and growing conditions (source).  We grow organic lower oil-seeds (not the black ones) in our garden.  This way, we make sure we can save some seeds from year to year for next year’s garden and I don’t worry about what my chickens (and my family) are consuming.

We like to offer sunflower seeds during the winter when other proteins aren’t as available, or during molting.  It’s important to us to limit this treat, since less than 5.6% seeds in a laying hen’s diet have been found in studies not to have effects on “daily feed intake, average egg weight, feed conversion efficiency, eggshell percentage, [or] yolk color (source).”

I don’t measure it out to make sure it’s less than 5.6% of their feed, but if you are careful to only give them seeds once a month, that’s definitely less than 5% of their feed.  Since I never feed them straight sunflower seeds, I’m comfortable with supplementing with these twice a month.

Turkey Carcass

We generally have a turkey in the fall.  To toss out the carcass would be a waste. We’ll put the carcass in the freezer, and when the snow is deep and chickens can’t find protein, we’ll pull it out, let it thaw, and give it to them.  They pick it clean.  In fact–after a couple weeks, we usually can’t even find the carcass.  It’s one of their favorite treats.

Turkey is high in protein, and replaces the bugs and snakes the chickens forage for in the warmer weather.

Wheat 

As wheat farmers, we know exactly what’s not in our wheat and we trust it more than any other wheat we could buy (since we know what happens to it after it gets sold).  When we take it to the elevators to get protein tested, we pick from what tests over 16% to keep for our family that year, and a year’s worth for the chickens too.

Compared to what we would pay for wheat in the store, it’s really pennies.  If you know an organic wheat farmer, you’d be doing both of you a favor by purchasing your wheat from them.

This is actually stored in our wheat seed totes in large amounts–we go through a lot of wheat.

Commercial chicken feed is largely wheat based in Canada and corn based in the United States.  We don’t save corn for our chickens since we live in a colder climate.

Barley

Same story as the wheat, exactly.

The available protein content of barley is similar to peas (see above).

Pumpkins

If you have chickens that hunt mice, snakes, etc. like ours do, you’ll want to encourage all the de-worming action you can.  We grow way more pumpkins than we’ll ever use.  I love them for decorations, pies, waffles, seasoning, and selling in the fall.  They are super easy to store in the cold cellar and they last all winter.

Every so often, I’ll cut one in half, or throw it really hard at the ground if there aren’t animals too close.  The chickens appreciate it.

To my knowledge, there are no organic chicken de-wormers on the market. In fact, I don’t know of anything that has been scientifically proven to de-worm a chicken.  Not one thing.

I do, however, know of studies supporting pumpkins as being linked to preventing worms–as in the numbers suggest that those that eat pumpkin (seeds) don’t get as many worms as those that don’t.  However, I am unable to find a single one that states it will de-worm a chicken that already has worms. If you know of a scientific study that has a conclusion either way, please tell me.

Zucchini

Who doesn’t grow more zucchini than they want?

I store this in the cold cellar.  It doesn’t last as long as pumpkins and other gourds, but it’s always a welcome treat around the coop.

There’s not much to a zucchini (source), but the chickens sure love them, especially those large ones no one knows what to do with.

Cabbage

I can never gauge how much cabbage we’ll eat.  I’ll can some (sweet & sour style for topping meat dishes), and I love to make egg-rolls, but there is always more than I want.

I hang it from the root in the cold cellar on bailing twine.  When winter-bordom for chickens sits in, I just move the entire string to hang off a hook on the coop eve.  It lasts for a while, so I don’t think it’s a coveted treat for them, but they sure like to play and peck at it.  I think it keeps them from pecking at each other when they get bored.

Cabbage is perfect because it can take a lot of cold abuse.

Like zucchini, cabbage doesn’t really offer so much nutritionally (source), but it keeps them from pecking at each other when winter is at its most boring time.

Ham Carcass

We might have a ham hock in the summer or the fall.  Just like the turkey, we’ll save it in the freezer.  We pay attention to our chickens’ diet in the winter and give it to them in rotation with other protein supplements.

Again, protein is the goal here.  We rotate these with the turkey carcasses, and try to make sure to offer them in the morning after all the raccoons have gone off to slumber, and usually make sure it’s a day when we’re near the coop so other animals, like skunks and coyotes, don’t come in and get any ideas.

What small scraps of bone are left (most of the time we can’t even find it), a cat will run off with.

It is worth noting that ham generally has a large salt content in it (especially if you purchase it commercially).  Chickens are sensitive to too much salt, so be very careful with this if you decide to give some to your hens as well.

Dried Herbs

Herbs are so easy to dry.  When I dry a batch, it’s easy to do extra and save it for the chickens year-round.

Oregano is a favorite for antibacterial properties.  Some gets mixed in the food. Some goes directly into their boxes.

Lavender is also a favorite.  I’ve never grown enough to be satisfied.  I love to hang it in large bunches around the inside of the coop to repel flies and other bugs the chickens don’t eat.

Calendula

In the fall after the calendula have completely gone to seed, I cut the entire heads off and bring them inside.  I collect 5 quarts for next year’s seeds.  Some time during the winter, I get 3 bowls out.  I pull the dried flowers off and deposit them in the first bowl, then pull the seeds out and put them in the second bowl. The empty pod goes in the third.

The seeds are ready to scatter along the east and west sides of next year’s organic vegetable garden.  The pods go into the compost pile.  Those beautifully dried flowers?  They are good for the chickens.

Dried calendula petals are said to help chickens prevent the contraction of mites and lice.  They also turn the yolks a lovely darker shade of orange.

Chickens can't do their normal hunting and gathering in the winter, so we have some things we start saving in the fall to put away for their winter diets.

While the perfect diet for a chicken is a well-balanced one where they can forage and hunt their own foods, this just isn’t widely available to them in the winter here.  Combine that with our habit of keeping them penned in close to the coop in the winter when larger predators are looking for a more scarce meal as well, and they just aren’t able to sustain themselves.

Being able to gather extra and varied sources of nutrients for them in the fall helps them to stay healthier in the winter.

What do you gather in the fall to feed your chickens in the winter?