Here on the homestead, we are bringing up a fresh batch of 25 laying hens. Between the chicks, coop, fencing, and feed, it’s a pretty hefty up-front cost in the pursuit of fantastic free-range eggs. Therefore, my ears perked up when I saw a post in one of my groups on ways to raise chickens for free.
The author, Josiah Bakker, raises over 50 chickens, which he keeps for free, or very close to it. I’m always keen to learn from homesteaders with real-life experience, and Josiah’s suggestions were tried-and-true while also being original.
After Josiah’s recommendations, I’ve added a few extra ideas that I’ve either used or would like to try at the bottom. But, first, here are some tips straight from a seasoned homesteader on ways to raise chickens for free.
How to Raise Chickens for Free
I (Josiah) have had a fair number of people ask how we raise 50+ chickens 100% for free, so here ya go. I’ll list the cost-saving methods in order from easiest-to-start to things that take a little more setup.
(In Josiah’s words)
1. Feed Kitchen Scraps
Give the chickens all of your food scraps, even if someone told you it’s bad for them. As long as they aren’t being starved, they will avoid the things that aren’t good for them. Ours regularly get fruit scraps (including apple seeds), citrus, coffee grounds, onions and meat scraps/bones.
2. Free Cartons
I posted twice on local Facebook groups asking for cartons. That was 2 years ago, and we still have over 100 cartons left. Occasionally friends and customers will give us cartons back as well.
3. Utilize Mulch
Pile mulch in their run. Stir it around with a shovel every few weeks. They’ll pick through it for worms, bugs and other tasty bits. I called around to a few dozen local tree trimming companies, and now we regularly get deliveries of wood chips, all for free. (Bonus Tip: they also give us fire wood that we use for our wood stove all winter.)
4. Don’t Pay for Bedding
We use wood chips (see tip above), dry leaves, shredded paper, pine needles and anything similar. The deep litter method will reduce your work and bedding use. A few local landscaping/yard cleanup companies regularly drop off leaves, pine needles and grass clippings for this.
5. Compost Inside your Chicken Run
We have 3 areas that I rotate the piles into for 2-3 months at a time, with 5-foot-tall compost piles. One pile builds, one pile composts, and one gets taken from. The chickens get to peck through all of these for scraps, bugs, add their poop to it and aerate them by scratching it around. It also gives up a LOT of free compost every year for the garden.
6. Source Food Scraps Elsewhere
Collect food scraps from friends, family and neighbors. Every fall, I make a handful of posts in local Facebook groups offering pumpkin disposal. We get around 50 pumpkins from that each year from people we don’t know, which helps feed the birds through the winter.
7. Hatch your Own Chicks
Hatching chicks yourself is a good idea whether you want to sell them or add them to your flock. If you hatch them and sell all of them as day-old chicks, you don’t even need much setup and make around 5x the amount you would selling the eggs.
8. Grow for your Chickens
Put in plants that your chickens can eat from. I planted mulberry and Siberian pea tree around the run, so the chickens get to eat any fallen fruit. Sunchokes/Jerusalem Artichokes are another easy one. I don’t plant any annuals specifically for the animals, but some people do that as well.
9. Collect Brewery Grains
Breweries soak grain (usually wheat or barley) in water to get the sugars out of them. Then have no use for the high-fiber, high-protein, leftover soggy grain. A few times per week I stop at a local brewery on my way home from work and load up 100-200 gallons worth of grains. When it’s sunny, I pour some out on a cement pad to dry for longer term storage, as well as to feed to our chicks and rabbits. This is one of our best methods of saving on feed costs, and the brewery is happy to get rid of their high-volume waste product.
10. Collect Restaurant Scraps
Brewery grains are not a full diet for poultry, so I add restaurant scraps as well. Whenever I stop at the brewery, I also pick up 30-50 gallons of food scraps from the breakfast restaurant next door. Lots of egg shells, waffle bits, carrot tops, the occasional chunk of bacon, and other good variety foods to round out the nutrients the birds need.
11. Stack these Methods Together
Each morning, I fill a wheelbarrow half full of food scraps and brewery grains and top it off with wood chips. I’ll lightly mix it together, then dump it in the chickens’ run. This helps keep the smell down compared to just dumping the food in on its own. The chickens pick through for what they want to eat, And everything else stays and gets turned into compost.
With all of this combined, we have not given any commercial feed in over a year! It takes a little more work each day, but saves a lot of money in the long run.
Other Low-Cost Suggestions for Raising Chickens
Here are a few extra ideas, from me (Kris) on ways to keep chickens for free, or at least to reduce the cost of raising your flock.
12. Grow Mealworms
Many chicken keepers learn to keep mealworms as a way to raise a form of protein for their flock. It’s a popular method, and something to consider for anyone who is serious about gaining self-sufficiency and starting to raise chickens for free.
13. Farm Black Soldier Flies
We don’t have many soldier flies here, but if we did I would be keen to give this a try. It looks like an easy way to generate good way to help raise chickens for free.
14. Ferment the Feed
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a way to raise chickens for free. However, fermenting your chicken feed will really help to reduce the cost of your purchased chicken feed.
15. Lay Down Wood Scraps to Farm Bugs
The concept behind this is simple, and it’s equally easy to apply—you lay an old piece of plywood on the ground in the chicken run. After a week or so you flip it over, and let your poultry feast on the grubs below. The process then starts again.
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Giving your chickens plenty of space to free range means they can scrounge up scraps, bugs, and seeds on their own. For a while we raised a few laying hens this way without needing to feed them. They were happy, and provided us with daily eggs. However, be aware that they will be particularly vulnerable to predators.
We have long kept a worm bin, which provides us with the highest quality fertilizer. As we’re in Canada, our red wrigglers like to be inside. However, we can harvest some of these worms periodically and feed them to our chickens as a high-protein treat.
Check out this video from our YouTube channel where we add worms directly to the walipini warren, where we were raising young hens.
18. Rotational Grazing
If you keep larger livestock, rotational grazing a method you might be familiar with. integrate your chickens for even more benefit. This video shows some of the advantages of this practice.
19. Trade Eggs for Infrastructure
You may not be able to offset all your costs this way, but eggs are a valuable commodity that you should have plenty of if you’re raising layers. This year alone we took down our neighbours’ fence in exchange for the materials that we can repurpose ourselves. We also had the good luck of finding a large coop/shed on our local buy-and-sell group that was free. When my husband was helping with cleaning up a farm field he found a wire rack that works perfectly as laying boxes.
Even if you don’t trade eggs, keep your eyes open and your community networks strong. These are invaluable as ways to source free or cheap infrastructure on the homestead.
If you’re interested in more information on how to simplify keeping poultry, check our posts Automatic Chicken Feeder or Duck Feeder: Everything to Consider and Setting Up Automatic Coop Lighting: Everything to Know for Chickens or Ducks.