In this 16-part series, Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm draws upon her expertise as a farmer, agrarian, mother, and writer to provide the information you need to raise your own backyard chickens.
Words by: Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm
As a supplement to fresh forage and grazing, chicken feed options are endless. Chickens are adventurous, voracious eaters that enjoy variety as much as any creature. From providing kitchen scraps to supplementing their feed with oyster shells, there are many ways to keep your backyard chickens healthy and satisfied in between their frolicking and foraging.
It couldn’t be easier to feed your flock chicken scraps directly from your home. This is a great way to reduce food waste in your house, and a quick, very efficient way to eliminate the smell of compost from the kitchen. If you decide to include chicken scraps in your flock’s diet, there are a few foods to avoid.
Oyster shells, which can be purchased at most feed and supply stores, are a terrific source of calcium carbonate, which is what egg shells are made of. Hens can also get a good boost of calcium by consuming their own egg shells, but if you go this route, it’s important to crush or grind them up. If left intact, hens will make the great cognitive leap of realizing that the eggs they lay are a delicious source of food, and you’ll soon find one or two hens fall into the habit of eating her own eggs. This is a frustrating and impossible habit to break, and a behavior that others in your flock will quickly pick up. Nevertheless, supplementing your hens’ feed either with oyster shells or their own crushed egg shells helps them lay eggs with strong, thick shells. Without calcium in their diet, you may notice that their eggs break easily and have very thin walls.
It’s important to remember that you aren’t limited to layer feed for your chickens. An organic layer feed is great—even essential—for wintertime birds, especially if their habitat is severely limited by snow. But if you’re able to provide forage and a varied diet, it’s worth experimenting with fermenting whole grains for your hens. Whole grains are typically much cheaper than processed feed, and can be found at your local feed and supply store, or even in the bulk section of your grocery store. Fermentation opens up the seeds and releases their nutrition value, allowing them to be digested more readily while providing higher concentrations of nutrients. The process is simple:
Regardless of what you feed your birds, it’s important to keep their eating area clean. There will always be poop, feathers, and dirty chicken feet stepping in food and water bowls. Every week, I wash all water and food bowls and move the feeding area to give that part of the grass a rest. I have a filthy “chicken coop only” scrub brush that I reserve for this purpose; it helps remove anything that has caked on in the interim days. If you can’t change the feeding location, spruce it up as best as you can, raking free any spots of poop and food debris at least weekly. You can also put your food and water bowls atop pieces of scrap wood to elevate them just enough to reduce debris in the bowls and save the grass from overuse.
Need some tips for keeping your hens happy during the winter? Read on for Kate's wintertime must-haves on Longest Acres Farm.
A note from Pete and Gerry's:
For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.
June 21, 2021
Hi there, do you make your own organic feed for your chickens? Where do I find organic feed? I have not seen it locally (I live in southern NH
Hey there Robin! While our USDA Certified Organic feed comes from different grain mills around the country, you may want to ask your local grain store if they can special order a feed that may not be on the shelf. We hope this helps!
October 12, 2020
I have a chicken on the bottom of the pecking order, and she has been picked on so much, she is starting to bleed. Is there something I can put on her to discourage the others from pecking her to death.
October 13, 2020
Hi Mary, we're so sorry to hear this is happening, but know that this is pretty common. There are a handful of reason why chickens might peck at each other: due to stress, to show pecking order, a protein deficiency, or boredom. As long as your chickens have a comfortable living environment and access to fresh food and water, then you are doing a great job trying to prevent this. One thing you can do in addition to is to add an element or two to keep them entertained. Something as simple as a bale of hay for the hens to peck at could do the trick. There are several ideas online. We hope this helps!
January 15, 2020
I am looking for some good chickens that lay a variety of colored eggs this spring. Can you give me advice on which species are the best?
Hi Julie! Finding the right breed for you depends on many different factors, including egg color but also your climate, size of the hen, temperament, noise level, and more. We recommend reading up on many different breeds and checking out resources like this blog article: http://bit.ly/2sq9m0c. We hope this helps!
January 02, 2020
What are the grains that you use? How long does the five gallon bucket last?
January 07, 2020
We checked with Kate and she says you can use any whole gran, corn, wheat, or oats, but she mostly uses barley. In her experience, it takes 30 hens about 3 days to go through a 5 gallon bucket in the winter (when they're not ranging very far). We hope this helps!
Hey there! What's your opinion on using farmed insect feeders purchased from a reputable source? For example live black soldier fly larvae?
We checked with Kate about her thoughts on the matter. She admitted she does not use farmed insect feeders and instead lets the chickens forage for their own bugs. While there are more insects for them to eat in summer than winter, Kate finds her hens do a good job of cleaning the barns of spiders and flies even in January. We hope that information helps!
November 14, 2019
Really enjoyed reading about Kate's farm, care and feeding of her chickens! Thanks for sharing this information. Just confirms why I buy Pete and Jerry's organic eggs! Thanks!
November 27, 2019
Hello Kay! Your message warms our hearts. We think Kate is an amazing human being and we're so glad to hear that you are enjoying her stories and tips about raising her flock. Thanks for supporting all of our small family farms!
January 08, 2020
I want to start raising chickens and getting fresh eggs for my family. I live in the country and have plenty of space! I look forward to learning more through your Facebook posts, thank you for sharing your knowledge!
January 10, 2020
We're so glad we could help! Be sure to check out the rest of the articles in Kate's blog series for more great information on raising backyard chickens!
November 13, 2019
Do you feed your birds supplemental feed that includes soy?
Hi Mari! Great question! When our free range hens aren’t pecking around for insects in the pasture, they enjoy an organic supplemental feed consisting mainly of corn and soy. The soy provides them with the extra protein they need to maintain a well balanced diet, and the corn is a great source of carbohydrates. There are also a wide range of other beneficial nutrients and minerals in our feed that help to keep the hens healthy, such as electrolytes, sodium bicarbonate, and more. Every single ingredient that goes into our feed is USDA Certified Organic. Let us know if you have any follow-up questions!
October 28, 2019
November 01, 2019