Anyone who raises chickens for either meat or eggs will tell you that your biggest expense is feed. Good quality, organic, soy-free feed runs around here for about 60 cents per pound. It may not sound like much, but when our 4 chickens eat 10 pounds a week, that makes just feeding them each week cost $6.00. in one year, it costs us $313 to feed 4 chickens. In one year, we get about 200 eggs per chicken, so 800 eggs per year. Doing the math (($313/800) x 12) bring us to $4.70 per dozen eggs. Kinda expensive, though not unreasonable for "pastured, organic" eggs. Still, not cost effective when I can buy 2 dozen organic eggs at Costco for $8.58 ($4.29/doz). In an effort to bring our costs down, I've been researching alternative feeds and found that growing fodder, specifically wheat or barley, is a very cost-effective method.
After seeing a few setups, including some high-cost professional systems, I figured out that I could set it up for only a few dollars. I bought cheap, shoebox-sized tubs at Lowe's for about $1 each and used my soldering iron to burn small holes in the bottom of one end for drainage. I used the wire shelving I had gotten from a friend when he moved. I got a 2x2 piece of pine and cut it into 3 pieces to use as a shim to set the tubs on an angle. All told, I think I invested about $15 in this arrangement.
My first attempts were using barley, which is generally considered to be higher in nutrition than most other fodders. I got it from Reedy Fork Farm. It costs roughly the same as the layer feed, though the idea behind fodder is that you can turn one pound of seed into 6 pounds of food. So rather than feeding them 10 pounds of seeds a week, I can feed them 1.6 pounds of seeds grown into 10 pounds of fodder, thus reducing my costs from $6/week to about $1/week. The daily routine involves soaking 6 ounces of barley for 12 hours and then pouring it into an empty tub, which then gets watered 2 to 3 times a day. The theory is that it will sprout and should reach an optimum height of 6 inches and a weight nearing 36 ounces in about 7 days.
How can growing barley make it better than just giving them the seeds? Well, just search for "sprouting grains" and you'll find a plethora of pages about the benefits and the changes involved in the growing process. Do chickens really eat what is essentially grass? Yup! Chickens are omnivores, which means they eat anything. Grasses are a big part of their diet. Ours love foraging for clover and fescue. Heaven forbid they are let loose in the garden! They'll eat every sprout and every leaf showing on the plants. But anyway, back to the plans...
Unfortunately, as I discovered, barley is very picky about temperature. It has to be above 70 degrees for it to even think about sprouting and the room where I'm doing this is... well... less than ideal in the winter. The room never got above 65, so my barley was a dud. It hardly sprouted, let alone grew into a cost-reducing feed system. I was going from 6 ounces to about 10 ounces over 12 days, with almost all the gain in the initial 12-hour soak. After trying different things like a space heater and a grow light (no, not particularly a decent one), I gave up and got a bag of wheat.
Wheat is considerably cheaper ($22.50 for 50lbs vs $29 for barley) and, thankfully, much easier to grow. It's less finicky about the temperature and sprouts very easily.
You may notice that there's no dirt in the tubs. That's because it will grow all on its own. The roots all grow together and form a tightly woven mat that retains the water it needs to live. Obviously, I couldn't grow a wheat crop in the little tubs, but for this purpose, it works wonderfully.
After doing this for a couple of weeks, I'm now turning 6.6 ounces of seeds into about 26 ounces of food for the chickens per day, which is more than the average 23 ounces of feed they were eating. This is costing me 18.5 cents per day instead of the 86.25 cents we were paying for the prepared feed. If this works long-term, it will reduce our yearly cost to $67.75 or $1.02 per dozen eggs. Not too shabby...
The real question is: are they eating it? Uh.... yeah.
They freak out when I bring it to them each morning. They first fight over the loose seeds in the bottom, but then they start pulling apart the root mat and go to town. They'll usually eat about half of it right away and then go scratch in the yard for bugs for a while. They'll sort of graze on it for the rest of the day and then I'm left with a little bit of dried out wheat in the tub at the end of the day. Rough guess? 3 to 4 ounces left over, which is less than an ounce of seed. I could probably fine tune the amount I'm growing so that there's no waste at all, but I think I'd rather waste a little than there not be enough and we start to lose egg production.
We'll be adding 2 more layers to our flock in about 6 weeks, so we'll see how that affects the balance. Once the weather warms up for good, I'll also be adding a black soldier fly larvae system that will hopefully provide a significant amount of feed through the summer months. If you're squeamish, don't look up the videos on youtube about them. :)