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Compost: The Cheapest Way To Feed Your Chickens When You Can’t Free-Range

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If you’re like me and a lot of other homesteaders, you:

  • Keep a small flock of backyard chickens to feed your family;
  • Want to cut down on commercial feeds;
  • Prefer to eat organic;
  • Can’t free-range because of limited pasture or too many predators.

But do you have access to lots of biodegradable stuff that can be composted? Then consider what a growing number of homesteaders are doing: raising chickens largely on compost. Yes, compost. It’s entirely feasible for small homesteaders like us.

Contrary to what many believe, chickens are natural omnivores, not herbivores. They like to eat a wide variety of stuff, from insects to seeds, berries to reptiles. When I watch chickens forage freely, I notice they search for worms and bugs first, then go for grains, greens and fruits later.

Even though chickens’ nutritional requirements consist largely of carbohydrates (around 80 percent), they just love going after the proteins first. Whether it’s the joy of pecking at a juicy, wiggly worm, or the thrill of chasing after a scampering mouse — chickens instinctively go after small animals — lizards and snakes included!

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So whether we raise them for meat or eggs, we have to provide the right mix of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber in their diet.  And to do that from scratch can be quite a challenge.

Composting in the Chicken Run

The trick is to keep compost piles in the chicken run. Set up a series of piles, next to each other, at the end of the run. There you can dump all the fresh biodegradable matter you can collect, so the hens have quick, easy access to the edible things they can get their hands (or beaks) on. They’ll scratch and peck on the goodies on top, shred what they don’t want, and mix and turn the compost as they go. They’ll also leave droppings, providing rich fertilizer for you to use in the garden.

The method certainly isn’t new. Our forebears probably did this for ages, when straw, woodchips, manure and all sorts of garden waste were in abundance. But industrialization and the availability of cheap commercial feeds caused modern chicken growers, big and small, to drop the practice and conveniently resort to store-bought feeds – most of which contain GMO soy and grains, antibiotics, growth hormones and other synthetic ingredients.

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There are organic commercial feeds, of course. But like anything organic, they cost substantially more.

Consider the essential protein a good compost offers: vertebrates as well as invertebrates — arthropods, insects, arachnids and crustaceans — that can provide up to four times the amount of protein chickens need. [1] Couple those with all the variety of goodies you dump into the compost – stale bread, old oats, fruit peels and other scraps from the kitchen and garden – and you’ll soon see a decline in your need to run to the store. And, quite likely, an increase in your flock’s health. You get healthy chickens with strong immune systems and, as an added bonus, eggs that have nutrient-dense, bright yellow yolks.

The Compost’s Composition

If you already have existing farm animals, their manure and hay beds would be the perfect starting material. Add to them your fresh kitchen waste, grass clippings, dead plants and any organic, biodegradable material you can find in and around your property. If you live near the woods from where you could collect fallen branches, see if you can gather them to turn into woodchips and sawdust. You could also ask the local public works department or any tree service company near you if they’d be willing to give you some of the wood they fell.

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Don’t be shy about asking neighbors and the farmers’ market in your area for kitchen and garden scraps. Many grocers, health food stores, restaurants, food pantries and school cafeteria would be happy to get rid of their waste to cut down on garbage collection fees. It would also spare them of the guilt of contributing so much amount of bins to the city landfill.

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Small farms, grain mills and other operations that grow and trade all kinds of fresh produce would also have tons of hulls, stalks and other wastes to discard. Just be wary of their growing techniques, if they use a lot of chemicals or not — you wouldn’t want those ultimately getting into your system.

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Some Tips

Justin Rhodes of offers a practical, step-by-step guide to building a composting system in a chicken run. [2] In it, he recommends setting up a succession of three or four piles, about a cubic yard each, next to each other. You can work it one at a time, week by week, so that you have a chain of piles that are cooking and curing progressively.

Depending on where you live and how cold or rainy it gets, you should be able to keep the compost warm until the late fall or early winter. Just cover with a tarp to help insulate it.

When it gets a bit challenging to balance the carbon-nitrogen level of your compost, try adding some biochar, paper or cardboard if it gets too wet; add water it if it gets too dry. Lime is also said to induce microbe growth and provide extra calcium for the hens to produce harder-shelled eggs.

If you’re growing chickens primarily for eggs, there are certain foods that you’ll want to avoid, as they may cause problems, including low egg production and foul-tasting eggs. These are avocados, citrus peels and fruits, long-cut grasses, garlic and onion, bones and meat scraps that have gone bad.

Have you ever fed your chickens with compost? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:



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