Although frequently attributed to Herbert Hoover (who never actually said it), the concept of a chicken in every pot probably originated with King Henry IV of France in the 17th century. Hoover’s Republican Party did pick up the ball and run with it in the 1928 Presidential campaign, adding that they’d also assured a car in every garage.
In Henry’s day, chicken was a luxury meat for French peasants. Part of the reason chicken was expensive is that you don’t get much meat from a chicken. On the other hand, chicken is easy to butcher and since the bird usually makes only a couple of meals, in the days before refrigeration you didn’t have to worry about smoking or drying the bird – you just ate it fresh. But for the average peasant, the real value of chickens lay in their egg production. Only the older hens and excess roosters went into the pot.
In today’s world, chickens are supposed to be very efficient at converting feed to meat. The poultry industry will tell you it takes two pounds of food concentrate to make one pound of meat. I don’t know that I trust that figure. According to other sources I’ve seen it takes from three and a half to a bit over six pounds to grow one pound of chicken meat. The other problem with that feed conversion ratio is that the focus is strictly on commercial concentrates, which are primarily grains and soybeans. In comparison, beef supposedly takes two and a half pounds and pork three and half pounds. In actuality, beef and pork can both be finished without concentrates, as can chickens.
The idea that chickens need grain and soy came from clever marketing when chemical farming resulted in surpluses of corn and soybeans. In fact, chickens are omnivores. Bugs, grass, seeds, worms, fruits, crayfish shells, vegetables, dead fish, rotten meat — all of those things are “food” from a chicken’s point of view. On the ranch, a chicken will include fruit and vegetable trimmings, spoiled leftover food, clabbered milk, cheese parings, egg shells, garden weeds, offal from butchering, Halloween pumpkins, bacon grease and your flower garden on its dinner table. Note that many of the items on this list are actually food waste, meaning they’re byproducts of feeding humans that would otherwise spoil and rot, wind up going down garbage disposals or be dumped in landfills.
So how do you raise chickens without commercial feed? For chicks, you use the same foods adult chickens eat — you just chop or grind it. I run vegetable and fruit trimmings through the food grinder, mix in leftover bacon grease, bread crumbs, cold oatmeal and meat scraps. For extra protein, I might chop up some hard-boiled eggs or mix in some clabbered milk. Adult chickens get similar foods, but I let them tear it apart instead of chopping it up. Garden weeds, orchard windfalls, spoiled hay, garden thinnings or trimmings, and leafy greens that are past their prime all go in the chicken pen. I do feed some grain screenings which we buy in 1,200-pound tote bags from the local mill for about 18 cents a pound. Screenings are an adjunct feed rather than the main course, however. Another source of food is old bread and baked goods from the local bakery outlet. Twenty-five dollars buys a pickup load.
During the school year, I get a daily bucket of leftovers from the local school lunch program, probably 10 to 15 pounds worth of food every weekday. The chickens share this largess and family leftovers from seven people with the pigs. We, by the way, have a lot less leftover food per person than the school, because we use leftovers creatively and try not to waste food. I’ve seen plenty of useful food come out of that school lunch bucket: half heads of celery and lettuce; whole, unblemished fruits and peppers; apples with one bite taken out of the side, and half-eaten hamburgers, burritos and sandwiches.
Chickens need protein, especially if you want to keep up egg production in cold weather. When we butcher, I grind meat scraps into chicken balls and freeze them. Offal from butchering and hunting usually goes to the pigs, as they’ll clean it up before it starts to stink. When I’m milking, I make human cheese, but when a cow is producing three to five gallons of milk a day, there’s plenty for all to share. I make a quick cheese for the chickens by boiling clabbered milk and adding a cup of vinegar. The leftover whey — which is also high in protein — is mixed with grain screenings and may go to either chickens or pigs. Alfalfa hay is another high-protein food and also supplies green food. We feed our elderly stallion alfalfa, which I haul from the hay stack on the front of the four-wheeler every night. The leaves and stems build up on the rack, so every other day or so I clean it off and give the cleanings to the chickens.
Some people free range their chickens, which allows them to eat grass, weeds, seeds, worms and insects, but I have too much pressure from predators. I might let them out for a while just before bedtime, but they’re supervised to prevent fox incursions. Their pen is in the house orchard, so they’ll clean up fallen fruit and insects during these evening forays. The other issue with free range is that you lose the value of the manure. I have horses, sheep and cows producing manure for the pastures, so I prefer to use the chicken manure in my kitchen garden.
The moral of the story: don’t let commercial producers tell you how to feed your chickens. You have lots of other options. Get creative with what you can grow. Summer squash, for example, is notoriously productive — chickens can help use up that umpteenth zucchini and save you the trouble of looking for unlocked cars in the church parking lot on summer Sundays. Large zucchinis store for several months and can be whacked up with an ax for fall and winter chicken feed (ditto pumpkins and winter squash). Some grocery stores will give you their produce trimmings, produce that’s past its prime, outdated milk and other foods. Make a deal with the school for leftovers. Remember, it’s all chicken feed.