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How to Grow Chicken Feed for Your Homestead Flock

Sarah Hamelman

In the last post, I covered why it’s important to create a closed-loop system for yourself and your animals. In this post, I’m going to get into the specifics of how to grow chicken feed so you never have to worry about shortages or what’s in you or your flock’s diet. 

This section will specifically cover chickens, but you can use the same principles and basic math to figure out what your guineas, ducks, turkeys, quail, or pheasants need. 

NOTE: Most of this article will cover laying hens– there is one section under the “how much food do chickens need” where I will specifically discuss meat birds.

What Did Chickens Eat Before Domestication? 

Before humans domesticated chickens, the wild ancestors, known as red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), were primarily scavengers and foragers. These wild birds lived in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia. Their diet consisted of a variety of foods found in their natural environment, like:

  • Insects and small invertebrates. Wild chickens would forage for insects, worms, grubs, and other small invertebrates as a significant part of their diet.
  • Seeds and grains. Chickens would also consume seeds, grains, and other plant matter, picking them from the ground or foraging in the underbrush.
  • Fruits and berries. Wild chickens likely fed on fruits and berries found in their habitat.
  • Green vegetation. They would peck at and eat various green plants, leaves, and shoots.
  • Small mammals, reptiles, amphibians. Chickens are opportunistic feeders, and they might have occasionally consumed mice, small rats, snakes, lizards, frogs, or toads. 
Photo by Nothing Ahead: https://www.pexels.com/photo/red-jungle-fowl-on-rough-terrain-in-countryside-6783225/

Why Can’t Chickens Eat Like That Now?

So let’s just feed our chickens like they eat in nature. Well, it’s a little more nuanced than that. Here are the main reasons why that isn’t an ideal solution.

It’s Too Cold

If you live in a warmer climate, you might be able to recreate these old foraging habits for your flock, at least partially. Where I am in northwestern Montana, we have several feet of snow on the ground for a majority of the year– our chickens wouldn’t have access to most of these food sources without us people harvesting and storing them for the chickens. 

There’s Not Enough Protein

Gallus gallus was (and still is) a small chicken, only weighing about a pound and a half at full maturity. Those chickens you buy at the grocery store or raise for meat are Cornish Crosses– those weigh ten to twelve pounds each, giving you up to seven pounds of meat per carcass. 

Side note: Cornish crosses are not birds that you can self-sufficiently raise. It takes approximately fourteen hens and fourteen roosters to produce a Cornish Cross broiler. These birds are a four-way cross between eight breeding lines. Only one sex is used from each specific line to produce the next generation; this prevents inbreeding and allows each generation to get bigger without being too big to reproduce naturally, and the math gets more complicated from there. 

Chickens also need a lot of protein to produce an egg– each egg contains five to eight grams of protein. If you want chickens who produce an egg a day, they need at least fifteen grams of protein per day to lay the eggs– with five to eight of those grams going right into the egg. If your chickens aren’t getting a modern diet, don’t expect them to lay a modern amount of eggs. Most jungle fowl only lay about ten to fifteen eggs a year. 

Modern Chickens Are Developed to Eat More

If you wanted to pluck some wild junglefowl out of the wild (please don’t) and start homesteading with them, they would likely do fine foraging on their own, so long as your climate allows for it. But people have been developing chicken breeds since at least 7,000 years ago. This domestication and development is how we created birds who weigh a dozen pounds and can lay nearly an egg a day all year round. Their bodies were developed to do these amazing things based on higher available calories. Modern chickens expect about ¼ pound (about ½ cup) of feed daily, equaling 300 calories. 

Most modern chickens cannot survive (much less thrive) on less than that for extended periods of time– it’s cruel to assume otherwise. 

What Do Chickens Eat?

Here are the basics of what your chickens need. 

  • Carbs and Crude Fiber. Carbs are quick sources of energy, and they should make up the majority of your flock’s diet. Corn, barley, oats, rye, wheat, millet, and sorghum are great sources of carbohydrates. Indigestible carbs are called fibers, also known as cellulose. Chickens need up to 3 grams of fiber daily to maintain a healthy digestive system. Notice I said “up to” because too much fiber reduces growth and makes them more likely to have serious intestinal issues.
  • Fatty acids. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature– like animal fat (tallow, lard). Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature– like seed oils. Other fat sources include oats, buckwheat, corn, barley, and sunflower seeds. Chickens need up to 3.5% of their diet to be fat. Chickens need these fats to digest and absorb key nutrients and vitamins. Flaxseed, camelina, and fish meal are the best and most effective sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Up to 10% of fish meal is fat, making it one of the best ingredients for chicken feed.
  • Protein. You can use animal-based proteins like meat, fish meal, bone meal, or plant-based like soybean meal, canola meal, or corn meal. There isn’t a single ingredient available that has all of the 20 necessary amino acids that a chicken needs; this is why we mix the grains up to get a more balanced diet. You need at least ten amino acids available in their feed source because your chickens can use those ten to create the other ten, totaling the necessary 20. I won’t get into the specifics of these in this piece, but just know that a diversified diet is the best practice. Meat birds need 23% of their diet to be protein, laying hens need 17-18%.
  • Minerals. Chickens need copper, iodine, iron selenic, zinc, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, and potassium.  Grains are usually low in minerals, which is why other ingredients are necessary. Meat, bone meal, or fish meal are abundantly helpful here.
  • Vitamins. Vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and B Complex (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12). Most of these are naturally in leafy greens, vegetables, grains, seeds, fruits, legumes, and animal products like fish meal or bone meal.

Read more about backyard flock nutrition with this University of Georgia publication.

How Much Food Do Chickens Need?

For Egg Layers or Dual Purpose Breeds

Each chicken needs about ¼ pound of food, equal to a ½ cup, every day. So one chicken will need 91.25 pounds of feed per year. Multiply that 91.25 times the amount of chickens in your flock. 

In my case, I have nine hens and a rooster (I actually have 3 roosters at the moment, but two of them will be dinner soon). So, I need 912.5 pounds of feed to sustain my small flock of 10 for a year. Since I have production reds and I use a light source in the winter, I get about six to nine large brown eggs a day, totaling 2,190 to 3,285 eggs each year, in exchange for those 912.5 pounds of feed I give them. 

For Meat Chickens

When I say “meat chickens,” I am referring to the Cornish Cross, also called Cornish X Rock or Jumbo Cornish.

Yes, you can eat any chicken, but all chicken available in grocery stores and restaurants are Cornish Crosses. Even most farms and homesteads use Cornish Crosses because they are ridiculously fast-growing and put on a lot of weight. This is due to hybrid vigor (heterosis)– it is NOT the result of hormones, injections, or some crazy antibiotics. It’s what happens when you very intentionally crossbreed chickens to get the best traits of both parents. In the case of Cornish Crosses, it takes a four-way terminal cross between at least fourteen chickens to get each Cornish Cross Meat bird.

We know that two of these lines are Cornish chickens and White Plymouth Rock. We (as in us, the general public) do not know the full extent of these crosses because those are hatchery secrets. You can read more about that on the Murray McMurray Hatchery site.

Cornish Crosses will hit about 5.25 pounds (live weight) at six weeks, 8 pounds at eight weeks, or 10 pounds at ten weeks. After ten weeks, these birds are so heavy their organs will begin to fail, or their legs will break under their weight.

Justin Rhodes averages 4.14 pounds of meat per Cornish Cross meat bird.

Just for reference, Bresse, Buff Orpingtons, Buckeyes, Chantecler, Rhode Island Reds, and Plymouth Rock chickens are fully mature at seven to nine pounds, but it takes them 16 to 21 weeks to get there, so twice the time of the Cornish Cross (and twice the feed!). Jersey Giants hit up to 13 pounds in 9 months (36 weeks) but have a higher bone-to-meat ratio.

Remember that the average chicken will give you 40-60% of their live weight in meat. So, an eight-pound bird will give you 3.2 to 4.8 pounds of meat.

There are other commercial meat birds for you to try, too.

A Cornish Cross will eat about 15 pounds of feed before their harvest date.

Alternative meat birds will eat up to 22 pounds of feed per bird before harvest.

This means you’ll get about 4 pounds of meat for 15 pounds of feed in 8 weeks for Cornish Crosses, and 4 pounds of meat for 22 pounds of feed in 12-20 weeks for alternative commercial meat birds.

How To Reduce The Feed Needed

Over 900 pounds sounds like a lot because it is. In all reality, I actually buy closer to 500 pounds of chicken feed per year. A fifty-pound bag lasts us just over a month. This is because of a few factors:

  • In the summer, my chickens forage. They eat insects, grasses, grains, weeds, mice, and snakes to supplement their diets. They also wander beneath my rabbit hutch and pick through whatever food the rabbits drop.
  • All year round, they get food scraps. We’re a family of four, and our kids are three and five years old– sometimes food gets wasted. Chickens are there to close the gap and make sure these leftovers aren’t scraped off in the trash. 
  • They get outdoor scraps, too. I pull weeds and toss in garden scraps for them to enjoy. They also get parts of my snowshoe hares, grouse, and deer carcasses when we hunt. They even get the “waste” from our goats, chickens, and domestic rabbits when we process our livestock. We do our best to ensure nothing goes to waste, and the chickens are happy to help us. 
  • I ferment some of our feed. Most of the time, I ferment chicken feed to make it stretch even further. Fermented chicken feed will cut your flock’s feed intake in half once they’ve self-regulated. This is because the feed is more bioavailable, so they get all the nutrients out of it without it passing through the bird. 

If you have a longer summer or you’re not burdened with several feet of snow, your chickens might be able to forage longer or even all year long to help supplement their diets. Having a garden going year-round can help, too. 

If you have a larger family with more food waste, it might be possible for you to supply their diets from your table scraps alone. I have not done this, but I know many families who have.

Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/table-with-food-in-yard-10034002/

How Much Space Will Your Chicken Garden Need? 

In each section, I’m going to share each crop as if you were following my specific recipe that is intended to be a balanced diet. Please note that I do not recommend feeding your chicken one kind of crop with nothing else! They should have variety whenever possible. Also, I have picked crops of which I’m most knowledgeable. Oats and sorghum are interchangeable, as are bone meal and fish meal.

If you’re really interested in feeding your chickens all homegrown foods, use this piece as a starting point and dig into your options even further than I have today. The point of this post is to get you thinking and considering new options, this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Each chicken would need about 120 ears of corn annually if you only fed corn. Don’t actually feed your chicken 120 ears; instead, maybe give them 36 ears of corn, 27 pounds of wheat, 18 pounds of peas, 9 pounds of oats, 9 pounds of fish meal, and 2 pounds of fresh greens. 

A good formula is:

  • 30% corn
  • 30% wheat
  • 20% peas
  • 10% oats
  • 8% fish meal
  • 2% fresh greens (weeds, vegetables, herbs, salad greens, grass clippings, etc). 

Use this formula as your base, but feel free to lower these numbers as you give your chickens more free-range time, ferment the grains, and offer more table scraps. 

The following ingredient sections of each ingredient will assume that you are not free-ranging your chickens, not fermenting their grains, and not sharing your kitchen scraps with them. For our homestead, I feed about 55% of their diet from a bag (aka what I’m trying to replace by growing foods myself). I’ll add our feed situation to the bottom of each section just to give you a decent reference starting point for your own flock.

Corn 

Corn is one of the most common ingredients in chicken feed because it is easy to grow, easy to store, and it meets many of their nutritional needs. It does not take much space to grow either, especially if you companion plant or use square-foot gardening practices.

It takes five dozen (60) ears of corn to make a bushel, which is fifty-six pounds. If your chicken needs 91 pounds a year, it takes ten dozen (120) ears of corn to supply that chicken for a year.

Square Foot Gardening (growing in raised beds or by the square foot) allows you to grow 12 to 64 ears of corn in a 4×4 square. You need somewhere between 32 to 160 square feet of corn to grow enough for your chicken for the year. 

Row cropping or gardening says you should plant the corn in rows that are 2.5 feet apart, with each plant in the row about 8-10 inches apart. A 30-foot-long row of corn will give you 36 to 72 ears. You need a 50 to 100-foot-long row of corn to provide for your chicken for a year. 

Realistically, though, to feed a balanced diet, you would need about 27 pounds or 36 ears of corn per chicken per year. It’s not a good idea to only feed corn with nothing else. To get about 27 pounds of corn, you need a 2×2 to 4×4 square foot garden or a 15 to 30-foot row of corn per chicken per year. 

Ten chickens on a balanced diet would need about 9×10 square feet of corn or a 225-foot-long row to sustain them for the year. 

Our needs at Cedar Hills Homestead are 5×10 square feet or a 123-foot row of corn. This is because we share our table scraps, outdoor scraps, we ferment feed for part of the year, and let our chickens free range for part of the year. 

Wheat

It takes about a hundred square feet to produce around eight pounds of wheat. Some will get five pounds in this space, while others will yield twelve pounds– eight is a good middle ground. 

If you want to grow 27 pounds of wheat, you would need 300 square feet per chicken. For a flock of 10, this would be a 3,000 square foot (a 30 x 100 ft area). 

Our needs at Cedar Hills Homestead are 1,650 square feet of wheat. This is because we share our table scraps, outdoor scraps, ferment feed for part of the year, and let our chickens free-range for part of the year. 

Peas

You’ll get about 3.5 pounds of unshelled peas for every 10 feet of row you have planted. If you want to feed your chicken 18 pounds of peas, you need a row that is 51 feet long. For a flock of 10, that is about ten rows that are each about fifty feet long. 

Using field peas (Pisum sativum), you’ll get about 2 tons (4,000 pounds) of dry matter per acre. You will need around 200 square feet (a 10×20 plot) to grow around 18 pounds of peas. For ten chickens, you need a 40×50 plot equal to 2,000 square feet. 

Our needs at Cedar Hills Homestead are 1,100 square feet (a 22 x 28 plot). This is because we share our table scraps, outdoor scraps, we ferment feed for part of the year, and let our chickens free range for part of the year. 

Oats

Oats yield between one and four tons of oats per acre. Assuming that you can grow 2.5 tons (5,000 pounds) of oats per acre on average and need nine pounds per chicken, you should grow 78 square feet. This is equal to an 8×10 plot.   

For a flock of 10, this is 780 square feet or a 20×40 plot. 

Our needs at Cedar Hills Homestead are 430 square feet or an 11×22  plot. This is because we share our table scraps, outdoor scraps, we ferment feed for part of the year, and let our chickens free-range for part of the year. 

Fish Meal 

Fish meal is dish that has been dried and then ground into a powder. You can make fish meal for long term storage or feed fresh fish to your chickens for simplicity. 

You can fish for your supply or raise it yourself. 

Fish meal is also easily replaced by other animal products– so if farming or fishing isn’t an option, look into other animal by-products. Remember that fish meal is about 65% protein or higher and about 10% fat, so if you want to replace fish meal with something high in protein and some amount of fat, about 10% fat. 

It takes 4 pounds of fish to make a pound of fish meal. If you want to make nine pounds of fish meal per chicken, you need about 28 pounds of raw fish. For a flock of ten, that is 280 pounds of raw fish to be turned into 90 pounds of fish meal. 

Our needs at Cedar Hills Homestead are 154 pounds of raw fish or 39 pounds of fish meal. This is because we share our table scraps, outdoor scraps, we ferment feed for part of the year, and let our chickens free range for part of the year. 

Fresh Greens 

Fresh greens are quick-growing and ready in 30 to 60 days. Each chicken should have at least 1.83 pounds of fresh greens a year. 

To get this, you need: 

  • 9 large stalks of kale,
  • 18 cups of spinach,
  • 4 cups of lettuce, or 
  • 4 cups of arugula

You can mix and match these or choose one leafy green to grow for your chickens. You can grow these greens in a single 2×2 (four square feet) because they will regrow after each cutting. Alternatively, you can grow up to 52 plants per aeroponic tower

For 10 chickens, you need 3×6 or 18 square feet of space to grow enough leafy greens for them. 

Our needs at Cedar Hills Homestead are 10 square feet of leafy greens. This is because we share our table scraps, outdoor scraps, ferment feed for part of the year, and let our chickens free-range for part of the year.

Growing Feed for Your Chickens: Final Thoughts

In short, it takes the following to feed ten heritage chickens annually, assuming you do not give them any other supplements like free-range time, scraps, or ferment the grains. 

  • 9×10 square feet plot of corn
  • 30×100 square feet plot of wheat
  • 40×50 square feet plot of peas  
  • 20×40 square feet plot of oats 
  • 280 pounds of raw fish turned into 90 pounds of fish meal (or equivalent in animal by-products) 
  • 3×6 square feet plot of leafy greens 

Total Space Needed for 10 Heritage Chickens: 5,388 square feet.

Remember that many families, especially large families with smaller flocks, are capable of feeding their chickens exclusively on kitchen scraps without any supplements. 

Fermenting chicken feed daily can reduce your grain needs by 40-50%. 

Allowing your chickens free-range time cuts down their feed needs too– some farmers claim their chickens forage for 100% of their food without any issue. I know this won’t work for everyone– it doesn’t work for us because we have too much snow and ice for a good portion of the year– but it may work for someone reading this. 

Finally, take another gander at this graphic I made. Look at how much more space the wheat needs compared to the corn– both of which should make up 30% of a chicken’s diet. This is why most bags of feed at the store contain more corn than any other ingredient. It’s so darn effective to grow, now I just wish I could convince it to not tassle out at 2 feet tall. Ha!

The Calculations for Meat Birds

A little recap on the meat birds:

A Cornish Cross will eat about 15 pounds of feed before their harvest date.

Alternative meat birds will eat up to 22 pounds of feed per bird before harvest.

This means you’ll get about 4 pounds of meat for 15 pounds of feed in 8 weeks for Cornish Crosses, and 4 pounds of meat for 22 pounds of feed in 12-20 weeks for alternative commercial meat birds.

Each Cornish Cross meat bird will need about 885.69 square feet of space to grow all of their food.

Each alternative meat bird will need about 1300 square feet of space to grow all of their food.

If you wanted to raise 52 meat birds, which is equal to 208 pounds of meat (so one chicken dinner per week), you would need 46,055 to 67,549 square feet to plot their food. This is equal to 1 to 1.5 acres.

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