Whether you have just a couple of chickens or a large flock, they’re great composters for much of your food scraps and yard trimmings. A dedicated compost heap can feed your chickens, or it can supplement their normal diet. The nutrient-dense materials help the chickens stay healthy and produce flavorful, nutritious eggs while also creating a source of compost for your gardening needs (reducing feeding costs as well!)
Feeding chickens from a compost pile is a fast way to process your compost and keep your chickens happy, but you have to be sure to do it correctly to make sure everything goes well. Here, we’ll go over the different methods and best practices for maintaining a chicken feed compost.
Is It Safe For Chickens To Eat Compost?
Compost can be an easy and nutritious way of feeding your chickens and directing food scraps away from the garbage disposal, but there are some best practices to follow to be sure it is safe and productive. This includes maintaining balanced nitrogen to carbon ratio, aerating and moisturizing the heap as necessary, and only adding foods safe for chickens.
Balanced Nitrogen To Carbon Ratio
Like in other compost heaps, a balance between nitrogen-rich moist materials and carbon-rich dry materials needs to be maintained for the most even compost. The dry materials absorb the moisture as leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits are broken down. On the other hand, that moisture keeps the decomposer (including bacteria, fungi, small insects, and worms) alive and able to eat the material.
The end result is a compost that’s able to hold moisture while maintaining its structure. The chickens will feed on the decomposers, the fresh material, and add their manure to the bulk as decomposers themselves.
Managing The Compost Heap
For the bacteria, fungi, insects, and worms to be able to survive in the compost heap, air needs to be incorporated regularly. Depending on the size of your heap, it may need to be turned over somewhere between once a day and once a week. Smaller piles will be easily turned over by the chickens scratching and spreading the materials out and may need to be raked back together to keep the process going.
Large piles won’t be easily torn down by chickens, and they will need to be mixed regularly to result in an even breakdown and expose the interior insects and worms for the chickens to pick out. Be careful when you use a pitchfork to turn your compost if the chickens are around at the time: touch the fork tines to the ground and push in rather than stabbing to ensure you don’t injure the birds or keep them away from the area when you turn the compost over.
If the compost materials get too wet, the food will likely rot and become a health hazard for the chickens. On the other hand, too dry compost won’t break down quickly and may not be eaten as readily by the birds.
What Should I Add To Chicken Feed Compost?
Kitchen scraps, yard waste, and other inputs can make your compost a rich source of nutrients for your chickens and, eventually, for your lawn and garden. You can add most foods contain fiber, and the range of vitamins and nutrients chickens need like iron, potassium, and magnesium. Some of the best things you can put in your pile include:
- Food scraps like lettuce, tomatoes, banana peels, berries, squash, cucumbers, and many other kinds of fruits and vegetables that are good for chickens
- Grass clippings and green leaves from the yard (make sure the yard clippings aren’t toxic!)
- Seeds (some of which will germinate and provide sprouts)
- Hay and straw
- Chicken bedding
- Dead leaves
Make sure everything you add is chopped up or cut into smaller pieces for the best breakdown and easiest picking for the birds. Adding charcoal helps absorb liquids and decrease odors, as well as contributing carbon and bulk to the compost. The chickens will pick around what they don’t need and don’t like.
What Should I Not Add To Chicken Feed Compost?
There are some food items chickens don’t like that may irritate them or may be toxic if they are accidentally eaten with other food. This includes:
- Onions and garlic
- Spicy foods
- Coffee grounds
Large pieces of hay, medium to large sticks, or anything that might injure the chickens or be difficult for them to pick apart shouldn’t be added to your feed pile. Too much hay, or too much dry material in general, can create a dense mat as the compost breaks down, becoming difficult to break apart.
How Do You Feed Chickens From A Compost Pile?
Depending on the number of chickens you have in your garden or on your farm, a compost pile can range from a small heap to a medium-sized system to a pile as large as you’d like to have.
For a couple of chickens or a small flock, your kitchen scraps and yard trimmings might be enough to provide them with a source of food, either as a supplement to their diet or as the sole source for all of their meals. If you’re feeding your chickens only from a compost pile, you have to make sure there’s regularly available food.
There are a few methods to choose from that will accommodate your preferred feeding style.
If you have a lot of chickens, you may need a larger stream of inputs. Food for your chickens can be sourced from stores or restaurants that have landfill-destined products that might be able to be directed your way if you establish a mutually beneficial relationship.
Consider offering the buckets, lids, and regular pickup of a restaurant’s compostable cuttings (as well as a list of things to not include). Stores or co-ops may be able to sell their food waste at a discount. Local foresters and arborists can be a similarly good source of carbon-rich materials like woodchips and leaves.
There are a few methods of feeding chickens from a compost pile:
- Open air
- Hot house
- 3 section system
The easiest way to compost for chickens is to have a single pile kept somewhere near the coop or on your property where it can be picked at over several weeks as it breaks down. In the open air and managed, this method is somewhere between “hot” and “cold” composting.
The constant aeration will help the bacteria and fungi thrive, while the addition of chicken manure is an extra level of material decomposition. Being exposed to the open air, however, won’t lead to very warm internal temperatures and, depending on your location, may attract one or another type of wildlife.
Keeping your compost pile in a hothouse or tent near your coop is another easy method to direct your stream of kitchen and yard scraps toward feeding your chickens. Keeping the chicken feed composting heap inside will protect it from wind, rain, and wildlife while keeping in humidity and heat to encourage breakdown. In cooler climates, this also helps provide a year-round compost-based feeding program.
3 Section System
One way of managing compost is to have a 3-section, or bay, system, where 3 compost heaps are consistently going, each in a different phase of progress two weeks apart. The rotation will process compost over 6 weeks, and the chickens can eat from each pile for different benefits:
- The new material in pile 1 will be fresh foods and materials they can get their raw vitamins and juices from.
- The halfway composed material in pile 2 will be full of insects, worms, and some sprouts that the birds will scratch around to find. This aerates the compost while also helping break up the solid materials.
- The mostly-decomposed pile 3 will provide the finished product after its two-week period. This compost will be rich in nutrients from the various materials added to it, as well as from chicken manure added throughout the process.
Can You Put Compost In A Chicken Coop?
You should keep the composting pile outside of the chicken coop to keep pests and potential diseases out of the chicken’s structure. The dark, usually cozy interior likely won’t provide enough ventilation for compost, which can lead to high humidity and rot, in addition to mold. As a precaution to protect the chicken’s health and to produce the best compost, the heap should be located outdoors or in its own hothouse.
How Do I Use Chicken Compost?
Once the chicken compost is finished, it can be used like any other kind of compost. It will be rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals that will give your plants what they need to thrive. The finished compost should be put through a sifter to break up any large pieces, catch any potentially unfinished pieces, and aerate the compost to apply to your lawn, garden, or potted plants.