Eggs without Industrial Grains

Eggs without Industrial Grains

Originally published in Organic New Zealand January 2013


It’s obvious it’s easy enough to feed chickens in a way that keeps them alive…. We can all do that. It’s easy enough to even let a hen go clucky and raise your replacements. If you’re willing to buy shaver chickens and commercial feed it’s even easy enough to keep them laying for a few months of the year, even quite a few months.. With a little more luck or skill some are even able to keep their chickens laying  for even longer.  It is my experience however that managing heritage chickens  for the long haul, so that you get maximum eggs, and or a good meat bird, as well as replacements of such a standard that we actually keep a breed  is quite another matter….. and doing it without industrial chicken feed is another matter again…..

I’m not interested in chickens as pets, or as a bird that I need to feed with industrial grain. I’m making a serious attempt  to provide myself and others with nutrient dense food  and find a regenerative  way  of doing things.

I see a time in the very near future when grain will cost far far more than it does today and when many more will not be able to afford to buy it. Those who can afford them  afford it, may be  challenged by the choice,  given the destruction of our earth’s ecosystems industrial grain production creates? ( see the Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith)


I also understand that chickens are  omnivores, and did not co evolve with industrial grain, or even much grain at all. They co evolved in  forest garden situations in Asia where they could endlessly scratch away in a deep litter situation and live off the bugs, grubs, green shoots, microbes, fungi  and seeds that were there and I’m sure in late summer autumn there would have been significant amounts of grain to be found amongst the grasses on the forest edge.

Most of us have not been giving our animals,  cows or chickens , sheep etc a very wide choice, but when you do it is profoundly interesting to be able to begin to see through their  eyes , why they choose what they choose to eat!

There is a growing awareness that all animals are constantly on the look out for food that will create the mineral range and balance  that they intuitively know they need to be in top condition!

It has always been obvious that there has to be another way of feeding chickens and at the same time achieving high egg production ( so long as you have a chicken selected/bred for high egg production) . There are many heritage breeds of chickens that are purported to be able to lay that number of eggs each year, but few of them do.  I’m going to ignore the question of genetics and breeding, leave that for another time because it is a critical issue, and stick with the feed issue, as we clearly have enough of a challenge with that question alone.  I’m assuming we have chosen a breed for egg production and we now want to be able to feed them without grains and achieve high egg production, eg over 250 eggs a year.

We always had heritage breeds of chickens, and we always kept them under a free range organic regime, and I was always looking for better ways of feeding them. My first clues came from the old poultry breeders  we knew in Northland, the guys who were the show judges, the guys who had been breeding and managing chickens their whole lives. We were fortunate enough to have several of them in our lives and they were quite clear about a few things. Number one was do not use pellets, use only whole grains, and always  free range. Viv Purdon told us that feeding chickens whole grains means they don’t get parasites among other things so that is what we always did. Ken Vincent always milked   cow and soaked his grain in milk, he swore by that and that also seemed like a great idea. The more feed from the farm the better. That was our regime for many years… whole grains soaked in milk, free range ( never put chickens on a bare earth mud yard) and loads of comfrey. Later we learned about sprouting the grain and we did that for many years as well, still do with the little grain we still use.

It was never radical enough for me though, I wanted off the industrial treadmill.

I have always poured over chicken books, every organic chicken book especially. They often have beautiful pictures and great info about housing ,breeds, management etc but when it comes to feeding they either seem to go way over the top with tables about feed and nutrition that the average home flockster or chicken lover can not relate to at all, or they basically ignore the subject. They mostly end up saying the industry knows best , just buy commercial feed.

I  recently discovered a book written before 1923 ( it has no publishing date but has a table of information saying they are 1923 figures) called Ward.Lock.&.CO’s Poultry Book by Dr Harry Roberts.  It goes way back before all those scientific tables showing just what an industrial system thinks chickens need to eat and , back to the basics of chicken patterns… from observation.

He says early in the book “ Birds in a natural state will by instinct manage to secure the right proportion of the necessary constituents for their needs, and those fowls having a fair amount of liberty to range about for their living will be found to obtain in the way of slugs, insects, worms, grasses, seeds, lime and other minerals, enough food  to keep them in perfectly normal condition. What we ask of them, however is something more than normality. We wish to encourage the bird’s productiveness of eggs  or to increase their capacity to put on flesh. It therefore becomes necessary to supplement  with food calculated to have the desired effect.”  in his words “The foods most necessary for adult layers are those containing the constituents necessary to the production of eggs.  Which he says are “nitrogenous substances and proteins” …and so if we want to achieve high egg production without industrial feed, we must focus on a system that provides the ingredients that make eggs best ……..raw live protein!!!…..


The small Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery is the most recent chicken book on the market and I’m so excited to be able to say that it is the best poultry book I’ve ever seen. The most exciting thing about that book is that he squarely faces the question….”how do we feed our chickens without industrial grains” and how do we do it in a regenerative way from our own land……..and he comes up with some great ideas. Not many of them were totally new to me but the fact that he is actually doing it very successfully himself and that he has put all the ideas together and added some that were new to me has been inspiring.

The best part for me was the section describing the Vermont Compost Company’s operation where they use  chickens to do much of their work. They turn food scraps from restaurants , together with dairy effluent and hay, into high quality compost for sale using chickens to do that work. As a by product, of this operation they receive large numbers of eggs, and the chickens eat only the residual food scraps ( less than 10% of what goes into the compost so not much of that) and the ‘recomposer’ organisms (earth worms, pill bugs, millipedes, crickets, slugs and snails, ground beetles, spiders and fungi whose rhizomorphs chickens love, pupae of insect species, and at the microscopic level thousands of species of bacteria, protozoa, yeats, actonimycetes, and more)  as the heaps become biologically active.

We’re  well down the track  of getting off industrial chicken fed and grain ourselves  and this is how we are doing it.

1.     We are designing and beginning the job of planting food forests that contain many  trees that are legumes that drop eg Acacia retinoides, Siberian Pea tree, karamu, tagasaste,  mulberries,  etc etc seed that will become chicken feed in the years to come.  Our dream is that eventually these areas will have biologically active deep litter under the forest and the birds will be able to forage all day in ideal conditions that mean we get eggs for very little input. We are in the process, well down the track of drawing up a NZ data base for creating forest gardens and that will include chicken forage trees shrubs etc)

…. In the meantime…….

2.     all our chicken houses have a biologically active compost heap within their run. We keep this easy for them to turn over by choosing what goes in there carefully, saw dust ( we have a free local supply)  added regularly as it is high carbon and easy to turn. The carbon absorbs all nitrogen from their manure and any soft material added to the pile and helps produce high quality humus to use back in the garden or orchard. IT takes uop toi ayear to fully develop these biologically active compost heaps that are able to feed the chickens, it’s just a matter of time however if you maintain a  compost pile the chickens can scratch over

3.     All chickens are fed comfrey cut up finely when very young so that they know it and recognise it as a staple part of their diets. They are creatures of habit so ensuring it is a major part of their food when young will ensure they always eat lots of it. It can  make up around 60% of their protein needs as described by Lawrence Hills in Comfrey Past Present and Future.

4.     All chickens   are fed curds from our own cows milk .. we mix the cut comfrey with the curds when the chickens are young. Skimmed milk curds are raw super biologically active, and around ?% protein.

5.     All chickens are fed worms which we specially grow on pig manure and cow manure and comfrey,  (you can also  grow worms on house and restaurant scraps and many other things) with added minerals to create high quality  vermicast and highly mineralised worms! We will be building our worm farms into the ground in a greenhouse ( under the paths so they don’t take up useable space) to ensure the worms are active all through the winter. Worms are raw and high quality protein.

6.     We are learning to produce soldier fly larvae as well, understanding that they are 42 % protein and 24 % high quality fat.  I’ve seen this working well at the PRI at The Channon in Australia and we can see we have the soldier fly bugs here, we will probably also keep our soldier fly larvae system in the greenhouse to extend the season and we will make sure we return larvae to the soil in Autumn inside the greenhouse to ensure we have adults hatching to lay new eggs early as possible in Spring. Soldier fly larvae require wetter feed than worms and a well drained home so it doesn’t become anaerobic but kitchen scraps and garden vege are what they love, but also love dead mice and rats and other dead animal waste. . It is critical to only feed them what they eat in 1 day as opposed to a warm farm where you can fill it with cow manure 40cm deep and leave them top it. There is a lot of info on the internet about making soldier fly larvae habitat with several designs that are well thought through and there is a soldier fly larvae production unit available world wide called a ‘Biopod’. These are very well designed and work very well, but there are cheaper options  if you are keen to make your own on the web as well

7.     Maggots are another excellent food source for our chickens. We used to turn possums into maggots for them and we did that by drilling holes into a 20 l bucket and putting a carbon source eg hay or sawdust or corn shucks in the bottom about 5cm deep, then put in the dead animals best to be no larger than 1 possum, then cover with the carbon (to keep the smell down, very effective). The possum must already be fly blown before going into bucket. We then hang the bucket behind the shed and put underneath the bucket another bucket with very small holes in the bottom so any liquid can drain away to fertilise a tree and the maggots are held in the bucket to be fed as required. If you leave the maggots to simply drop inside the hen house they wait for them to drop but often I found they couldn’t keep up with them or were somewhere else and the maggots went into the ground which I didn’t want. Harvesting them works well. Our current maggot technique is to have a deep litter composting area for the chickens and bury offal possums road kill etc in it sp that there is no smell, and the chickens constantly scratch h it over to get to the maggots. That can be done on a lareg scale with a deep large pile of sawdust and offal from killing sheep cows etc can be buried in it to compost /decompose and provide recomposers for the chickens to eat.

The main things seem to be to remember that chickens and ducks are creatures of habit and if you are going to change anything in their diet, do it slowly. It takes about 10 days of persevering to train chickens to eat comfrey or worms if they haven’t had them before, and that they need protein……  raw,  alive protein in large amounts if you want large amounts of high health eggs! Also you can’t remove grains without supplying an alternative source of quality protein.

I’d love to hear your stories  if you’ve got your  chickens off industrial feed and they are laying well over time.