Save Money on Chicken Feed

by Robert

Here's an old trick that not everyone knows about: If you feed your chickens out of two feeders, one full of grain and the other one full of chicken feed, you save money. Chickens have a reasonably accurate appetite for calories, protein, and other things, and will mix and match the two feeds in a way that tends to maximize the amount of inexpensive grain they eat, but with no downside in performance or health.

For example, laying hens given access to a balanced 16% layer ration in one feeder and corn in another feeder will eat about 1/3 corn, but will do just as well as hens that eat nothing but the balanced ration.

This has always rather annoyed poultry nutritionists, because it sort of doesn't make sense. The key seems to be that only the high-producing hens need the full 16% protein, while the ones who aren't laying much anyway don't need all that protein -- and don't crave it.

This trick works best if the chickens are given clear choices: a high-protein/low-energy feed and a low-protein high-energy feed. Most commercial chicken feeds use wheat bran and other cheap, low-energy fillers, which means that they fit the bill nicely. I had some trouble with a custom-milled high-protein/high-energy feed -- wonderful feed, and the chickens liked it a lot better than grain. NOT what I had in mind, because it was three times as expensive! So this is a trick where ordinary chicken feed is likely to outperform super-premium stuff.

Normally there are two kinds of layer ration -- a 16% ration and a 20% ration. With the 20% ration, the hens will eat about half grain, half 20% ration. Such rations are formulated for use with supplemental grain, and contain extra calcium and such. For broilers, you simply use the same broiler ration as ever, but with supplemental grain in a second feeder. If you used to use a finisher ration, try using the starter or grower ration plus grain. The results will probably be the same as ever, but the cost will be less.

Corn and wheat are the grains of choice here. They can be tolerated by chickens of any age. Use whichever is cheapest. Chicks can't handle oats or barley very well. Chicks can handle whole wheat, but can't handle whole corn until they're about half-grown.

A three-feeder system is even better, with oystershell in the third feeder. Hens have a definite calcium appetite. If they can get the calcium they crave directly via oystershell, they do. If they have to eat chicken feed for its oystershell content, they'll do that, even if it means eating too much. Feeding oystershell can thus reduce the flock's total feed intake.

To get the maximum feed savings, you need to find your local provider of low-priced grain. Feed stores and feed mills overprice grain, but usually there's a local vendor who is selling it at a lower markup. Here in the Corvallis area, it's Venell Feed. As of this writing, they're selling whole corn at $6.00 a sack, while at Kropf Feed (now CHS Nutrition) it's $10.20 a sack. This is typical.

How much can you save?

  • 16% chicken feed from CHS: $11.17/sack or $0.223 per pound

  • half 20% CHS feed ($11.70) and half Venell corn ($6.00): $17.70 per cwt or $0.177 per pound

  • Savings: $0.046/lb. or 26%.

According to Leeson and Summers' "Commercial Poultry Nutrition," feeding oystershell on the side can give total feed savings of 6%-7%. This means that a total feed savings of 30% is within your grasp!

This topic is covered (along with every conceivable feeding topic) in the classic book, Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser, which I have reprinted. Check it out! It even has a chapter on the nutritional value of green feed and free range.


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Comment from: EJ

I a link to your blog to the coabc sendlist and received the following response:

I support the concept of choice-feeding for small poultry flocks, especially organic flocks, for the following reasons:
1. Poultry have some ability to balance their diets when allowed an appropriate choice of feeds.
2. The nutritional requirements of organic poultry have not been well defined.
3. The program is likely to be more profitable, as pointed out in this report.
4. Whole grain helps to promote optimal gut development, especially of the gizzard, which may assist in disease resistance.
4. Choice-feeding is closer to the natural way of eating for poultry.
If layers do well consistently when given the choice of grain or a 16% protein layer feed and consume about 30% grain and 70% layer feed, it follows that the 16% layer feed contains more nutrients than are needed by the birds in that particular flock. The possible drawback of this program is that the birds when in high production and possibly continuing to consume substantial quantities of grain may develop a nutritional deficiency.
In my book Nutrition and Feeding of Organic Poultry I have suggested a choice-feeding program based on grain and a Supplement (concentrate instead of a layer diet) as the 2 feeds. A Supplement provides all of the nutrients not provided by the grain and is therefore a safer choice than the layer diet. However producers may find it more difficult to purchase organic Supplement than an organic layer diet.
In either case producers should provide 3 feeders for the birds, the first containing grain, the second containing layer diet (or Supplement) and the third oystershell grit (for eggshell production).
The grain could be oats, wheat or barley etc. (or a mixture) and fed whole. Corn needs to be kibbled for feeding to poultry since the whole kernels are too large for the birds to ingest easily.

Robert Blair, DSc, FAIC
Professor Emeritus

08/08/08 @ 07:16
Comment from: Ivan

Hi Robert, have you tried feeding okara to layers? Thanks.

Not me. Okara has never been on my radar. I think it’s a byproduct of soy milk production, and I’m over a thousand miles away from soybean country. Agriculture in my neck of the woods is dominated by the grass-seed industry, and its byproducts aren’t very palatable to chickens.

08/11/08 @ 08:55
Comment from: J.R. Neumiller  
5 stars

So along the lines of independent, sustainable farming, have you tried rotating your chickens with wheat or grain crops? Surely the rich soil would provide excellent feed for the chickens, as well as straw for litter.

Even at today’s prices, it’s a lot cheaper for me to sell my eggs at niche-market prices and buy my grain and straw at commodity prices than it is to grow my own. In the meantime, the pasture absorbs all the nutrients and is presumably making the topsoil deeper as well as richer. The fertility will be there when I want it.

A farmer we know used to grow grain on about ten acres, and fed it to cattle and chickens. But he was an old, experienced farmer who was wise in the ways of cranky old combines. I’m not sure grain on small acreage makes sense unless you already have that kind of experience.

I’m planning on trying kale, sunflowers, and corn next year, though, as much for their shade as their nutritional value for the chickens. We’ll see what happens.

08/20/08 @ 10:58
5 stars

I am interested in getting the soy out of our feed for our chickens. They are pastured and the organic corn and wheat we feed is of excellent quality, (we grow it ourselves and our fields are regularly tested). I also have access to barley but it is not hulled, can I feed that to the girls. We have 200 hens right now and I hope to grow when I can get through these soy issues. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


10/05/09 @ 19:53
Comment from: robert

I’m personally not impressed by the recent backlash against soy, just as I wasn’t impressed by the pro-soy love-fest that preceded it. It’s just a bean, when all is said and done.

It’s not hard to eliminate soy from poultry diets, just expensive. Chickens need some kind of balanced protein supplement in their feed, and soy (plus some other stuff, since its protein isn’t balanced) is by far the cheapest. Has been for over fifty years. Replacing the soy with meat is very easy from a nutritional point of view, since meat has complete protein and vitamin B12 and a lot of minerals that soy lacks.

Trying to raise chickens on grain alone is a recipe for failure – you’ll be lucky if all you suffer is low production, and not deficiency diseases.

10/08/09 @ 11:55
Comment from: lskena  

I have your book Success with baby chicks and just love it. It was very helpful through my whole process. We even built the brooder light that you had the diagrams for. It works great. My hens are now laying and I’m enjoying it very much, since this is a first for my husband and I. My question is about feed. We were raising some meat birds for a friend of ours for the first 5 wks of their life. Now he has them on his property and is feeding them cattle feed because its cheaper and he has cattle also. My husband and I don’t agree with this. Is this bad for the birds or are we worrying for nothing? I would appreciate the feed back.

05/15/11 @ 21:35
Comment from: robert


It depends on the cattle feed, but cattle and chickens have very different digestive systems, so fiber that is digestible by cattle does nothing for chickens, while chickens want higher levels of proteins. They’re omnivores by nature, unlike cattle.

Now if they were feeding pig food or dog food or Purina Human Chow, that would work better. It would still be more expensive and less nutritious than feeding a high-quality chicken feed, but it would likely be in the right ballpark if you’re not too particular.


05/16/11 @ 15:28