Feeding your chickens table scraps can save money, reduce waste (and trash bills), and provide good nutrition.
A New Old Practice
During the Great Depression and the Second World War, when frugality was urgently needed, the US government urged its citizens to set aside food scraps to go to farmers for their pigs and chickens. More recently, poultry farmers concerned with reducing costs and environmentalists concerned with reducing waste have begun to explore feeding poultry on scraps again.
I supplement my hens’ rations with food scraps from my kitchen. Since I don’t discard a lot, and sometimes I’m feeding scraps to worms and pigs as well, this doesn’t make up a very large proportion of their diet. Still, it saves some waste and provides the hens some variety and enjoyment.
Some farmers supply most of the food their hens need by collecting discarded food from neighboring households or from restaurants, stores, schools, nursing homes, etc.
There’s an in-depth guide to that process for mid-scale farmers, written by Vermont-based Black Dirt Farm with help from the USDA. Some of the strategies in this guide could be scaled down for home growers.
Fresh Feeding or Composting
Since I just feed my hens my own family’s table scraps, and since this is a small proportion of their diet, I feed scraps while they’re still fresh and the hens wolf them right down.
Black Dirt Farm, which feeds chickens mainly on scraps collected from neighboring institutions, takes a different approach. They mix fresh scraps with active compost and agitate the pile regularly so that the scraps actively decompose.
They say that the compost supports beneficial organisms that outcompete any pathogens which could pass from the scraps to the hens and then to their eggs. They’ve done considerable testing for salmonella in their eggs and their poultry housing and found no cause for concern.
One side benefit of composting is that active compost piles tend to be home to bugs and worms, which are another valuable source of protein for your chickens.
What Table Scraps Should You Feed To Your Chickens?
There’s quite a wide range of possibilities here. Chickens are omnivores. Red jungle fowl, widely believed to be the ancestors of modern chickens, wild chickens eat a combination of green plants, fruits/seeds, and bugs/other animal protein. Your hens can benefit from a mix of grain, fruit, vegetable, meat, dairy, and eggs.
Solids are easy to feed: just throw them into the chicken run. Liquid dairy products can also add protein to your chickens’ diet.
I make goat cheese, which means I have a lot of whey to dispose of. I pour this into a waterer and put it out for my hens, who seem to enjoy it and get some protein boost from it. Some growers also soak their grains in whey or other dairy products to boost their protein content.
How Fresh Do Your Scraps Have To Be?
This may depend on how you’re feeding your birds. The McMurray Hatchery warns against feeding your chickens spoiled food which may be growing harmful molds or bacteria.
I avoid feeding my chickens anything moldy. I do feed them some food that’s past the point where I would want it. My hens have done fine with whey that’s starting to smell sour, grapes too squashy to appeal to me, etc.
I also fed my hens some of my homemade cheeses that developed a bad flavor as they aged. But I didn’t feed them the cheeses that swelled up and stank, which indicates the presence of dangerous bacteria.
Black Dirt Farm, which feeds in a compost system, not a fresh system, collects food weekly and says that sometimes the scraps are infested with maggots, though putting sawdust over the containers helps reduce that problem.
Don’t mix table scraps and dry grain in a solid-bottomed container. My only bad experience with chickens and spoiled food came when I was still feeding them layer mash in a wooden trough and I carelessly threw in some wet greens on top of the mix. The mash grew mold, and I lost a couple of chickens.
Now I feed scraps and wet foods by throwing them onto the chickens’ compost pile during the growing season. I feed them in a separate feeder from the dry grain in winter. (This precaution might not be necessary now that I’m feeding whole grains not mash, but I haven’t felt like making the experiment.)
What Table Scraps Should You Avoid Feeding Your Chickens?
This depends on who you ask, what you’re concerned about, and how you’re presenting their food.
Harvey Ussery, the author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, says that chickens can eat anything people can eat (as well as many things that people can’t eat). He is writing about giving your hens discards from your own kitchen, not doing a large-scale collection.
The McMurray Hatchery offers a short list of foods chickens shouldn’t eat for various reasons. They say that alcohol, avocados, coffee, chocolate, and raw potatoes or potato peels can be toxic to chickens.
I’ve heard the warning about raw potato in many places s and believe it. I’ve never tried feeding my chickens alcohol, avocados, coffee, or chocolate, and don’t intend to start. They add that processed foods or fatty foods may be hard for chickens to digest.
Black Dirt Farm reports that mixing food scraps with active compost, and keeping the scrap pile turned so it’s decomposing actively, helps to deal with the potential problems of spoiled or hard-to-digest food. But they say that there can be a serious problem with compost piles attracting rodents.
I know my regular (chicken-less) compost pile is more likely to attract rats if I put meat or dairy products in it. Since I feed meat and dairy to my hens in small quantities and they’re promptly eaten, I don’t have a problem with rats in the chicken run. (Chipmunks do sometimes come to steal the grain.)
McMurray suggests that garlic and onions may flavor the eggs. I’ve heard that in other places and never tried feeding those. They also warn that feeding chickens raw meat may promote cannibalism. But I feed my chickens raw offal after I butcher my rabbits, and the two batches of chickens I’ve fed this way actually peck each other less than the earlier batches I raised on layer mash and corn without raw meat.
Some growers say that feeding eggs to chickens will encourage them to eat their own eggs. I wouldn’t give them raw broken eggs for that reason. But I’ve fed bits of cooked eggs to them without starting an egg-eating habit.
It’s very easy to supplement your chickens’ diet from your own household food waste if you avoid the few things that chickens can’t eat. With a little more effort, you can provide most or all of their food from other people’s discards.
Start with what’s available in your area, see what your chickens like and what they avoid, and find a feeding system that works for you.