10 Creative Protein Sources for Chickens to Help You Save Money on Chicken Feed

10 Creative Protein Sources for Chickens, Whole-Fed Homestead, How to Save Money on Chicken Feed
Don’t be fooled, “creative” is just a code word for weird. We’re about to dive into some really odd stuff here. It might make your stomach crawl, but your chickens will love it! Plus, these ideas really can help you save money on chicken feed.

We wanted our meat birds and egg-layers to be of the highest quality, raised in the best conditions, living healthy and happy lives, and of course, eating like kings. Well, it’s near impossible to have a free-ranger’s diet in the middle of January in Wisconsin… So what is a midwest chicken keeper supposed to do?

The bugs, grass, and pretty much all signs of life disappear for five months out of the year. Sometimes chicken feed, even the best feed, just doesn’t cut it. And if you free-range your chickens, you know that your feed costs go way up when the temperature goes down. Bless all those nasty little bugs.

Do you want a more sustainable way to feed your chickens?
Want to save money on chicken feed?
Do you want healthy chickens that are fed a species-appropriate diet?

Some of this information might be controversial. Chicken keepers have long disagreed on what to feed their flock- and I think that’s okay. I am definitely on the side of free-range, chickens are omnivores, a meat and bugs kind of diet. Not unlike the way of eating that Karl and I try to follow!

As with anything in life, make sure you do further research before taking an idea and running with it. We all live in different environments with different resources, pests, and diseases.

And as a last warning, probably don’t want to read this one during lunch…


Meal Worms
Did you know that you can keep your own family of meal worms? Generations and generations of mealworms. A bin of bugs living above your washer and dryer, or better yet, under your bed.

It’s a pretty small investment for a continual supply of high-protein food for your chickens.

Once you’ve established your mealworm clan (which is very affordable!), they cost little to nothing to maintain. They are also very low maintenance- just check on them every couple days and give them a few new food scraps.

Mealworms may be available at your local pet store. Or you can buy them online- here at Amazon (at the time of posting this) you can get 2000, which is a good amount to start your colony with, for $17.67 and free shipping.


Black Soldier Fly Larva
Fly larva is just a nice way to say maggots. And no matter how much you love your chickens, no matter how cute and sweet they are when they sit on your lap, the truth is they love maggots.

Like meal worms, soldier fly larva is something you can grow in the comfort of your own home as well, although the set up is a tad more elaborate, because- get this: the larva harvest themselves. They have a migration instinct that tells them to climb up the slanted ramp you’ve given them and then they drop right into your collection vessel. How thoughtful.

There are instructions floating around online on how to make your own set-up, or you can purchase an already made all-inclusive black soldier fly home.

Since they eat a lot more than mealworms, they require more work and attention as well. Not only do these maggots like all kinds of food and food scraps, they especially love manure. In fact, they can turn a whole lotta manure into a whole lotta incredible compost. Maggot bonus feature.


Earthworms & Such
Although you can raise your own worms- I recommend just going out and collecting them.

You do have to have the right type of soil for this, or know where to find some.
You can go out with a bucket and shovel, but my favorite way to pick worms is to wait until after a good rain, or at dawn after a night of rain. You can walk by and pick them right up off the top of the ground. Or send the kids out to do this. I’m pretty sure this why people have kids.

Once you have a bucket of worms, they will keep in the refrigerator for at least a few days (cover them so that they can breathe but not escape… because otherwise, no kidding, you might have a crisper drawer full of earthworms). Poke holes in the top of the cover but make sure the cover is tight-fitting.

Consider preserving them for the colder months when fresh bugs are more scarce. Dehydrate or roast in the oven, then store in the freezer or, if dry enough, just store in a jar. Probably want to label those…


Fish & Fish Guts
Too Small to Keep

But still legal, that is. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve caught a mess of fish that were legal-size, but just too small to justify gutting, scaling or filleting. Many of the pan-fish (Perch, Crappie, Bluegill) don’t have a size limit in our area, and those 2-6” little fishies are perfect for the chickens. Don’t throw them back!

The Undesirables
By this, I mean the fish that most people don’t eat and tend to throw back, usually because they are a pain to clean, they don’t taste good, or they are bottom feeders.

“Most people” doesn’t include my dad, who isn’t afraid to go up to the fisherman next to him and offer to take that Dogfish he’s about to throw back. “Hey, you gunna eat that?”

The point is, just because you don’t want to eat that fish, doesn’t mean your chickens (or my dad) doesn’t. Think Suckers, Carp, Bowfin, Bullhead, Catfish and even Turtle! The rule is: if it’s legal, it’s coming home.

Most people “help” the chickens by first cutting the fish open for them, or chopping it into a couple pieces to get them started. Simply throw them on the ground and watch the chickens come running.

In the cold months, you don’t want to present a frozen fish to your chickens, so you’ll have to either thaw the fish from frozen or even heat it up before giving it to them. Freeze the fish in the condition that you want to feed it to the chickens in, so you don’t have to monkey with it after it’s thawed. Little fish can be frozen whole or cut in half. Big fish should be cut into chicken-serving size (in the amount that they will eat in a meal, and not more than in a day).

Alternately, you can take your fresh fish and dehydrate it. Consider this option: bake the fish until it falls off the bones. Then you can dehydrate the meat and run it through the food processor or blender to turn it into flakes or powder that can be added directly to your dry feed.

If that particular fish species filets well, you could cut off the filets and dehydrate them. Feed the remainder of the fresh carcass to the chickens immediately.

Fish Guts
Did you catch your weight in Salmon? Strike it big with a record Northern? Get your limit of Walleye? Save those heads and innards! And the roe! Fish eggs are a chicken delicacy.

I think fish guts are something you might want to serve immediately. Not a long shelf life. The thought of preserving fish guts just seems… messy. You could try freezing them in water blocks for a fun treat on a hot summer’s day. Store them right next to your popsicles.


Animal Meat
So what kind of animals are we talking about here?
Definitely any animal that you’d eat, your flock can eat too. And then some!

Smaller animals can be skinned and then opened up (intestines removed or left in) and fed to the flock family-style. It helps to cut the animal open first to give the chickens a starting point. Think coon, fox, rabbit, etc.

Larger animals can be cut into big pieces and fed to the chickens in large chunks (so they can just rip off pieces with their sharp beaks). Or you can cut it up into bite-sized pieces as well. Wrap hunks in freezer paper and freeze for later. And don’t forget to label that package… Think venison, bear, pork, cow, etc.

It should be fresh, and absolutely not rancid or rotten at all.
It should also be healthy. Don’t feed them an animal you don’t know the cause of death of, because it could have been very sick. Also avoid those that are behaving oddly, because that could be a sign of illness in wild animals… like a raccoon in broad daylight stumbling across your front porch. That’s not normal behavior, that’s a sick animal.

A raccoon trying to break into the coop and eat your chickens in the middle of night is normal behavior, and… well, call me cruel but I think being fed to victims you were stalking sounds a little bit like justice in the animal kingdom.

If you’re lucky enough to bag more wild game than you can eat, consider giving some to your flock. They can eat it raw, cooked, or even dehydrated. Ground venison that has been dehydrated would be a great addition to your homemade chicken feed.

Did you do away with the fox, snake, or stray cat that was bothering your flock? Well, they can eat those too…

You know those leftovers that are three days old and still fine to eat, but nobody wants to eat them?
Chickens love three-day old leftovers.


Road Kill
Same rules apply- if it’s safe for you to eat, it is safe for your flock.

But do understand the difference between what you would eat, and what is safe for you to eat (even if you wouldn’t choose to). Chickens aren’t as picky as you. Just because you wouldn’t eat it, doesn’t mean they won’t. Don’t you waste that perfectly good meat!

This is a great way to get free, high-quality protein. In our neck of the woods there are deer on the sides of the road all the time.

Many counties have a road kill list- that is, a list of folks interested in road kill that they will call to come pick them up. Or consider listening to a police scanner for tips.


Bones
It’s not the bones themselves, but the meat on them. Your chickens would love to peck every scrap of meat clean off those animal bones. Especially the hard to reach places that you can’t get to with your knife, like around the spine and ribs.

Have a friend who hunts? I bet they’d be happy for you to take the bones off their hands!

Is there is a butcher or game processor in town? They might be willing to give you some bones.
Are you planning on ordering a ½ cow? Ask the butcher about keeping all the bones (not just the “soup” bones)! You are paying for them, after all.

Did you roast a chicken or turkey? Let those gals finish cleaning the last bits of meat up after your done with it.


Offal (Organ Meats)
If you’re not saving these goodies for yourself, then at least give them to your girls!

One exception: if you’ve ever butchered an animal, you know you’ve done everything in your power to not breech the intestines. And this is for several reasons, but perhaps the most powerful being that: they stink. I can’t imagine the stench of a dozen chickens eating a pile deer intestines in the yard. This goes for the gallbladder also. I wouldn’t give them these parts. At least from larger animals. This might be kind of a grey line that is more my personal preference than anything.

So what parts would I feed the chickens? The heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, spleen and…forgive me, even the testicles.


Other Small Morsels
Trapping mice in the attic? Throw ‘em to the chickens. Of course, fresh is best.
That seems like an odd thing to say about a mouse…

Frogs, gophers, moles. snakes, squirrels, and rabbits are all great sources of protein as well.

Anything your chicken would find hunting in the wild, they can eat.

Also remember that chickens may be regarded as dumb (although I don’t think so!), but they are very intelligent when it comes to knowing what to eat and what not to. On many occasions I have seen a chicken pick something up several times, check it out, and then ultimately leave it behind.

You’ll quickly learn what they like and don’t like. Every flock is different. Mine love toads but hate frogs, they live for little mouse babies but won’t bother with a pre-killed mouse. Yes, mouse babies. Don’t ask how I know that…


Dehydrated Eggs
It’s often feast or famine with egg production. If you find yourself in excess, why not save some to feed back to your girls later? I think that dehydrating them is a great way to preserve them, plus it makes it really easy to add them to your feed.

But doesn’t feeding eggs to chickens give them a taste for it and encourage egg eating? I don’t believe that it does. Especially when dehydrated and turned into crumbles, I think they would have a hard time knowing what it was.

To make dehydrated eggs:
Simply scrambled the eggs and gently fry them up. Allow them to cool and then place them in the dehydrator overnight. Pulse the dried eggs in a blender or food processor to crumble. Store in the freezer (preferably) and add to your feed or give as a treat.


Food Scrap Seeds
Cantaloupe and honeydew melons have a concentrated pocket of seeds in them.
I often have a big bowl of tomato seeds after a canning session.
Bell pepper and jalapeño seeds are fair game.
And don’t forget those pumpkin guts littered with protein-rich seeds.

Do research what you plan on giving them before you throw it out there. Some fruit seeds can be harmful to chickens (in larger quantities, like apple seeds).

Some of my favorite chicken memories from this summer (when it was warm, the grass was lush, and the bugs were plentiful) were from happening upon a chicken who had just found a small critter- usually a toad. It doesn’t matter what it is really, if someone else has it, they all want it! Chaos ensues. If you could see the way a chicken dismembers a toad and practically swallows it whole- you’d know your flock would appreciate something other than plain old chicken feed!

And why not feed your chickens something that is high in protein and is a natural part of their diet. Plus, will help you save money on chicken feed! Everyone wins.

Want more weird creative chicken-keeping tips? Check out:

Chicken 911 prepare for chicken emergencies     is it normal to have chickens in your house, keeping chickens in the house     Chickens have feelings too

This post may contain affiliate links, which means that if you click through them and end up purchasing an item (any item, not necessarily the one I recommended even!)  I may receive monetary or other compensation. The price you pay is unaffected by using this link, and buying stuff you were going to get anyways through an affiliate link is a great way to support your favorite blogger and fellow homesteader! Thanks!

Instagram Collage Whole Fed Homestead

Comments

  1. says

    Great post! I agree, once people start opening their mind to not letting anything go to waste, their chickens will eat better, be healthier and you will save on feed. Sharing on my Facebook page. Lisa/Fresh Eggs Daily

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Thanks for the information Pam! From my research, it seems that a lot of people are feeding Carp to their chickens with no ill effects. I guess every Carp and every flock is different.

      I also just learned that thiaminase is denatured by heat, so cooking the Carp would disable this enzyme!

  2. Amanda Folger says

    My 3year old daughter has celiac disease (wheat/gluten allergy) I was wondering if I need to be feeding my flock of chickens and pheasants a gluten free diet as well. I am worried that it may contaminate both meat and eggs and just want to be sure that my daughter is as healthy and happy as can be but also the birds needing everything they need as well.

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Hi Amanada- great question! And unfortunately one that I don’t think there is a definite answer to.

      I have never seen evidence or studies that suggest what an animal eats can be found in the meat. However, when considering someone with Celiac, you must keep in mind the possibility of underlying autoimmunity, as well as leaky gut and just poorer intestinal health in general. Because of this, many people find that the quality of the meat (usually directly related to what the animal ate) has an impact on their condition. Not because there are traces of what the animals ate in the meat, but because the animal’s diet is related to the types of fats and nutrient profile of the meat. So, eating meat from animals that were fed a species-appropriate diet can often help (like pastured or grass-fed meats).

      As far as eggs go- I read something once that I thought was a good point. Many “gluten-free” packaged products contain egg (most likely from commercially-raised chickens, likely fed some kind of oat or wheat) and those products are certified gluten-free (and therefore are tested for traces of gluten). So…

      However, Celiac disease often has roots in autoimmunity, and eggs (even the best, highest quality eggs) are often a big problem for these folks. So that is another thing to take into consideration.

      Sorry for the complicated answer- I hope it helps!

    • rebecca says

      Hi!

      We have wheat, corn and soy allergies in our household so I feed pout hens a diet free of those things. I am unable to eat the eggs of chickens that are fed wheat based diets, but haven’t had a problem with the meat of wheat fed hens.

      I mix my own feed and offer free choice egg shells (only from my own hens), mineral salt and offer kitchen scraps, herbs and black oil sunflower seeds regularly. They also free range for most of the day on three acres and help themselves to all sorts of bugs and critters.

  3. Barbara Bunch says

    i remember the first time I saw my chickens fighting over a mouse.. I was horrified and grossed out. It didn’t last a minute with them

  4. samnjoeysgrama says

    My mother is 87. When she was growing up during the depression, everyone had at least one milk cow and often more like 20. Its often difficult for a family to consume all the milk that doesn’t sell. So, you give it to the chickens. Mine love sour milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Actually, any milk product from milk to hard cheese. And one of the best things to feed baby chicks is extra hard boiled eggs.

  5. A jackson says

    I think it is disturbing that you mention feeding chickens chicken and foxes because yes they are omnivores an opportunistic feeders, but I really don’t think they naturally would go out and eat each other, or foxes (that need to be protected if they are local species) while being jungle fowl in India. In addition how about feeding the neighbors some of those extra eggs.
    Thanks for your other great suggestions!

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      I like to think a band of chickens that stumbles upon a dead fox might enjoy a nice meal. Further, if you must kill one to protect your flock, or even if you are a fur trader, why not honor the fox’s life and not waste the meat if it would nourish your flock? And if the chickens don’t want to it eat it, they won’t.

      Great point- neighbors sure do appreciate farm-fresh eggs!

  6. says

    Wow! Great info. I’m new to Wisconsin AND chicken keeping so this is helpful. I’ve been purchasing meal worms but with your how to… I plan to be a worm farmer soon! My girls love crickets as well. Have you “farmed” or heard of maintaining your own “cricket ranch”? :).

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Thanks, and best of luck!

      I think people do keep “cricket ranches,” yes! I wonder if there is a non-noisy species? I know I do everything in my power to keep crickets out of the house. But then again, I would say that about flies and meal worms too.. haha.

  7. E Mack says

    My chickens are in a field with my goats. As gross as it sounds,when goats kidded,chickens cleaned up ALL of the afterbirth. They even went as far to take what was still hanging from the does. Great cleanup and loads of protein! Sure saved me a lot of work!

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Oh my! Yes, that does sound pretty gross! :) I guess somebody had to clean it up… haha, glad the chickens made use of it! -Crystal

  8. Gail Steele says

    We just got our first small flock of layers a couple of weeks ago and they where already in molt stage. So I was looking for protein sources to help my birds through the molt and found your site. Love it !! We give our dog, Monster, a big bone every night at bed time and he has healthy teeth for an old dog and has never had doggie breath. I usually put the bones he is done playing with in the green bin. Never ever would of thought of giving them to my birds. Today was pick up bone day and I took them out to the chickens. Mr. Tail-feathers, the rooster, is none to impressed but the girls sure are having fun. Gail

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      I love it! I bet Mr. Tailfeathers picks at the bones when you aren’t looking… he has to make sure you don’t see him enjoying himself! :)

  9. Natalie says

    Great info, thank you! Does anyone know if it’s ok to feed your chickens ground deer meat and also use the chicken poop for the garden and compost? Thank you, Nat

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Yes, I feed ground deer meat to our girls quite often (they looove it!). I try not to give them too much at a time because they love it so much that they will over-stuff themselves. We have 14 chickens, and around 1-1.5 pounds at a time seems to be a good amount for that size flock- to where everyone gets some but most chickens don’t get too much.

      Chicken poop is like gold for your garden! You can use it fresh if you are very careful not to get it too close to the plants, but really it should be properly composted in order to 1. kill any pathogens and 2. break it down to increase the nutrient availably and eliminate chance of Nitrogen burn. What type of bedding and how much of it you use dictates what you should do to compost it… definitely worth reading and learning more about!

      Hope that helps! -Crystal

  10. James L says

    I have heard some people feed ground up chicken feathers from the plucking process. I know chicken feathers are about 80% protein, is this something that can be done safely?

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Good question- I know that the feather meal that is added to feeds has gone through a process (I think one of extremely high heat) in order to break it down and (I believe) make the nutrients more available.

      My opinion is that it probably isn’t a great option… unless you do a whole lot of research on it, including how to process it to 1. make sure the nutrients are available from it 2. kill any bacteria/virus, etc. 3. find out what the upper limit of how much you can safely feed. and 4. if there are any other dangers, like certain toxins being stored in the feathers that increase the risk of harming the birds eating them if they get too high.

      Hope that helps! -Crystal

  11. Scott Huber says

    Just ran across this article and enjoyed it very much. I know a lot of folks are shocked at some of your suggestions because they don’t think of their little feather babies as being carnivorous, but they’ll eat almost anything that doesn’t eat them first. We have a small hobby farm and have a big garden, a good sized flock of laying hens, and we raise meat rabbits. When I’m slaughtering rabbits I save the livers to trade them to an Amish butcher I know for his incredible bacon, the dogs get the hearts and kidneys, and the chickens get the lungs and the heads and they go wild for them. It reminds me to be careful to stay on my feet in the chicken yard, fall down in there and you might not get back out! ;-)

    Thanks for the enjoyable read, I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog.

    Scott

      • Amy says

        I had chickens when I was a kid, and a year ago last July I bought 16 day-old females. I raised them at first in my family room in a terrific brooder, didn’t lose a one… and i enjoyed picking them up and petting them, as I would walk by. I so tamed them, that when I moved the pullets out into their chicken house in the garden, I would take a chair into their room, and they would all immediately jump onto my shoulders and lap.

        I first realized what a mistake i had made, when I walked in with them and 6 good sized hens flew at my head, trying to get on my shoulders… I then thought, Oh My, when they are all full grown, if 16 hens fly onto me… I am dead meat! So the taming and petting kinda ended and I still enjoy the heck out of them, but I do not want to be flattened by my flock! I do love my girls though…

  12. Cheryl says

    I am vegan but recently cooked a bunch of Boston Butts for BBQ and turkey breasts, and boy, did my chickens enjoy the pork fat, cooking liquid, and bones! The turkey carcasses looked like something in the desert when they got finished with them! I feed my girls most anything – no more “doggie bags” at a restaurant for me, we have “chicken bags”! LOL They also eat their own eggshells, crumbled up after drying. And now my family saves things for them, like stale cereal, etc. Then they come over and we all sit outside and have a glass of wine while the chickens ramble all around us. Drinking with Chickens! :)

  13. Lynne Boykin says

    I often go fishing for perch. I keep them alive in a bucket of lake water for the ride home. I usually pour them in my pond for my grandson to catch later. Invariably a couple perch may die on the ride home, I had been adding them to my compost pile but now I will be cutting them smaller and feed them to my hens. I named my coop The Oval Office and all the hens are named after First Ladies. I love your ideas, thanks for sharing.

  14. Lucy Jorgensen says

    Hi Crystal,

    I came across your page and enjoyed it. I’m in Australia and we haven’t all discovered the benefits of raising our own chickens. It is not only expensive but hard to get things like protein powder and calcium powder here, I managed to get DTE on-line but was expensive.
    My girls are free range on an acre of grass/lawn and we have fruit trees that line the back and side of the property. I feed them bread, table scraps, layer pellets and a grain mix.
    I tried fermented feed which they turned their beaks up at. Am I giving them enough of what they need?

    Kind Regards Lucy

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Hi Lucy- it sounds like your chickens have everything they could dream of there!

      The way I try to think about making sure they have a good diet with everything they need is this: The layer feed has all of the nutrients and protein amount that they need; it is “complete.” Giving them extra bread and grains (not usually the most nutrient-rich foods) can throw off the balance of their complete diet. However, if they are free-range and there is plenty of greenery and bugs, they tend to balance themselves out with what is available in the wild… so you don’t have to worry too much about that.

      For me, the only time I am more cautious is in the winter when it is cold and snowy and they are getting 100% of their nutrients from the feed I give- then I make sure not to “water down” the protein content of their feed with extra grain or other scraps that aren’t super nutrient-dense.

      And the only other thing I didn’t see you mention was offering them free-choice calcium and grit- this is always a good idea, even if they are free-range.

      Hope that was helpful and not more confusing, haha! -Crystal

  15. Keith Perry says

    I have 23 chickens – 20 of which are under 9 months old. I never get more than 9 eggs a day during the nicest of days over the summer. Now that late fall is here i am getting about 4-5 a day. I recently (4 days ago) added 3 hours of light to my coop. I give them 14% protien a scoop of cracked corn and free range of my 3/4 acre property. I have a few Easter Eggers and one laid a green eggs for about a week and we never saw that again since (early Aug.) , we have a clean coop , plenty of fresh water and a self feeding bucket that they can access any time for more pellets. What are we doing wrong?

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Hi Keith- there could be a variety of reasons that you aren’t getting as many eggs as you should- here they are, in order of most to least likely in my opinion:

      1. They are hiding them from you. Might need to go on an egg hunt… tall grass, behind buildings, in the bushes. I suspect they have multiple nests around and are laying them on your 3/4 acre. I’ve had the best luck with spending a couple hours in the morning watching where they go and following (from a distance). Or lock them up for a week and see how many eggs you get then!

      2. Something is stealing them. You didn’t say where you lived… snakes and rats are notorious for this. Another possibility is that the chickens are eating them. I have had a couple do this in the past, and I could tell because the had remnants of yolk on their beaks and face in the morning or afternoon. You may also find wet spots in the nest box where they were broken if this is the case and you catch it soon after it happened.

      3. They aren’t getting enough protein. Laying hens should really have minimum 16% protein, and cutting your 14% with cracked corn (which is often 8% protein) would bring the protein content way down. I would think they would make up for this with free-ranging… but there might not be enough bugs this time of year, they might not be great hunters, or they could be lazy and only eating the feed and not much else.

      4. They have parasites. Check for mites and lice (might want to google this if you haven’t done it before). I would also examine their droppings for any signs of worms. If you remedy all of the above mentioned things, and if they still aren’t laying well this next spring (in winter, even with supplemental light, they might not be at their peak laying) I would consider sending in a fecal sample to a lab to check for parasites that way.

      Hope that helps! -Crystal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *