Connect with Us!

Brighter Planet's 350 Challenge

Harvey Ussery pulls protein from thin air, and feeds his chickens with it!

~ Please check out on Harvey’s blog the latest on this strategy ~

~ A Crucially Important Advisory to the Reader ~

Harvey Ussery's maggot breeding chambers for free protein

Harvey Ussery's maggot breeding chambers for free protein

Harvey Ussery continues to innovate and add value for all sustainable chicken enthusiasts. The following article originally appeared in Backyard Poultry magazine and is now available online at his website Some might find this post a little too “ripe” for their tastes, please remember that an open mind is the least expensive path to profitable change!

The article Protein from Thin Air: Breeding Fly Maggots for Poultry Feed is classic Harvey Ussery: practical, innovative, well written, and based on the author’s actual useful experience. He describes his practice of turning trapped beavers (from a neighbor) and roadkill into maggots that chickens love to eat. The carcasses are suspended in 5-gallon buckets within the chicken coop, nested between beds of leaves and litter. Flies find the roadkill carcasses, lay their eggs, and as the maggots mature they burrow downward and out the bottom of the suspended 5-gallon buckets (Harvey has drilled holes so they can escape). The chickens gobble the maggots as they fall. Easy, inexpensive, local and sustainable, it’s a beautiful system.

In the article Harvey discusses the various objections, from smell and odor to disease and handling varmints who might be attracted to the carcass. This strategy is probably only applicable to larger properties in our county, but is exactly the type of strategy I think we’ll need more of as we reduce the amount of purchased feed required for our chickens.

Attract and Feed Flies to Your Chickens


Low cost, bio-available protein packet

Low cost, bio-available protein packet

As I search and research sources for locally available sustainable chicken food, naturally my mind turns to bugs. Insects. High-density, bio-available protein packets that self-deliver themselves directly to the chickens. It doesn’t get any more local or sustainable than that! Providing protein is the biggest challenge for helping the sustainable chicken’s diet become more local. In the old days milk and various forms of dairy products were the primary protein staple for the farmyard chicken flock. I’m guessing most backyard sustainable chicken enthusiasts don’t have easy access to inexpensive surplus dairy, so we must look elsewhere, hence the quest for bugs. 


If the chickens are on rotation throughout your backyard or farm, they can self forage for bugs (as well as seeds and clover and herbs), reducing costs and as important, reducing labor in chicken care. But what if you have your chickens in a run or a coop? What if you don’t have sufficient or appropriate space to allow your chooks to have free run of your backyard? Can you induce the bugs to come to them? As you are undoubtably aware, if you have chickens, there will naturally be bugs flying about. If you are doing a good job with deep litter and sanitary conditions for your hens, you won’t have a problem with excessive numbers of flies breeding in the chicken coop & poop, so how do you attract extra insects to visit and become food for your chickens? Or perhaps said another way, how can we effortlessly convert insects into eggs?

Ranging about on the web, this post popped up first from “Chickens in Soup” In URBAN AGRICULTURAL NOTES by City Farmer, Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture

Flies which are attracted to the ammonia in chicken wastes are put to good use. They are captured in traps and fed to the hens. Some studies have shown that at least a quarter of a chicken’s diet can be flies, another half weeds and other plant wastes, and their egg laying will still continue to equal that of chickens raised entirely on commercial feed.

I’m not certain about the research alluded to here, but certainly self-harvested flies and other insects can provide a significant proportion of the sustainable chicken’s diet. 

Chris Morris of IntoAfrica with his fly trap

Chris Morris of IntoAfrica with his fly trap

I can imagine some simple devices for capturing flies, but who has time to think when a quick Google search can reveal someone else’s careful thought and years of experience in .37 seconds? Chris Morris from IntoAfrica recently posted his fly trap and experience with them. I love solutions that come from folks working in Africa, they’re are always elegant, effective, and extremely inexpensive. It’s essentially a couple of plastic water bottles stung together, nice! Chickens love flies. And I love the dance they do as they are tracking and trying to catch a fly.

You can develop your own technology, there are many examples of fly catchers on the internet, it looks fairly simple to create your own and modify it to facilitate easy harvest of flies to feed to your chickens. Most seem to be focused solely on flies, but I would be concerned if too many other, beneficial insects got caught in such a trap. Try it and monitor for what you’re getting. And let us know in the comments about your experience!


Enticing flies and other insects to become food for your backyard chickens is a seasonal affair, spring and summer see many more insects than fall and winter. So this is a supplemental strategy at best. I will be profiling other low-cost, homegrown protein strategies in posts to come.

More sustainable choices are not always obvious

Sustainability requires choosing from several non-perfect options

Sustainability requires choosing from several non-perfect options

Although we don’t have a number to compare feed grown in your backyard to feed grown in California to feed ingredients grown in the Midwest or China for that matter,  we thought it was important to at least bring up the challenge that can arise when trying to make more sustainable choices. It is always important to look at things holistically and consider the impact from the whole life cycle of a product. Unfortunately we can’t always google “life cycle analysis between X and Y” and get the info we need. So this isn’t  an exhaustive discussion, but just an example to consider.

Many support local sources of the the things we buy and use as the more sustainable choice for may reasons. Local sources cut down and can almost eliminate the environmental impact caused by transportation, among many other benefits. But is it possible that in some cases we might be shifting the impact from one resource to another, or one point in the life cycle of the ingredient, to another?

Corn was given to me as an example of a plant that grows well in the Midwest without irrigation because of the rainfall and climate there, whereas in California we have a Mediterranean climate which is not as conducive for growing corn, and requires irrigation using water resources and energy to provide that water.

Now that being said, we don’t know if the additional resources needed to grow corn in California are more impactful than the transportation of corn from the Midwest, but want to raise the question and we welcome comments from anyone who knows more about this topic or the answers to questions like this.

Stonybrooke Sustainables

I interviewed Suzi Hajjar of Stonybrooke Sustainables of Cotati.  They currently have 74 chickens and are awaiting the delivery of 30 more chicks this week.  Suzi sells her “Eggs of Color (ungraded and unsized) from pasture-ranging happy hens” directly to customers such as myself and at the Cotati Farmer’s market.  Suzi started with 25 chicks in 2007 which they hand raised.  Suzi is very concerned that her chickens be raised naturally and she researched best practices. She did not give medicated feed to her chicks, instead putting apple cider vinegar in their water, feeding organic feed and giving them electrolytes in their first few weeks- focusing on raising healthy chickens. Late in 2008, she added 50 chicks to her flock. They were raised separately from the older girls but now the 2 flocks have integrated although they have separate roosting areas to which they return each evening.  The chickens have about 3 acres to range although Suzi says they probably only use about an acre as they’re hesitant to wander too far. She believes if she had mobile coops or chicken tractors they would range on more of the property.

Suzi says the chickens do all their composting for them.  They are fed table scraps, weeds and garden scraps.  They have deep straw bedding which makes a good Carbon/Nitrogen ratio for creating compost which Suzi then uses in her garden. She is very gratified by the sustainability of this loop.  She feeds by the philosphy mentioned by Plamondon of providing a complete feed for the chickens to ensure good production but allowing them to free range and choose to get their nutrition from what they find.  She buys organic feed from Rivertown Feeds in Petaluma. The feed is produced by Bar Ale which was mentioned in an earlier post as being somewhat local. Suzi is very pleased with the feed and was aware of its local nature.  Equally important to her is that the feed is fresh and of high quality. She has been disappointed by some other feeds she has tried.

Suzi loves her chickens and finds them to be stress reducers in her life.  She also very much enjoys the experience of being at the Farmer’s Market saying it’s a great opportunity to meet customers, learn from other local growers and connect to the community.

Robert Plamondon on free range chickens

One of our primary strategies for helping make your chicken flock more sustainable is allowing the chickens access to your backyard or farm. Assuming you have sufficient space (more on that shortly), this is a great strategy. Here’s what Robert Plamondon in Oregon has to say on chickens foraging for food from :

More comments  below the quote.

Do I have to feed free-range chickens, or can they find their own feed?

Chickens can find their own feed, but each chicken needs a lot of room if this is going to work. Chickens can’t find feed that isn’t there, and the more chickens you have, the less feed there is to go around. You have to match the number chickens to the feed supply, or nature will do it for you through poor health and starvation. How it was done in the old days. A farmer of 100 years ago might have kept a dozen hens and a rooster through the winter, and allowed the hens to hatch a brood of chicks each in the spring, giving, say, 72 chicks plus the original 13 chickens, or 85 birds total. The old rooster would be sold after the chicks had hatched. The old hens and most of the young chickens would be sold in the fall, and one cockerel and twelve pullets would be kept through the lean months. By having 85 chickens during the fat months and only 13 during the winter, the amount of supplemental feed needed by the chickens would be minimized.The old ways always involved manlnutrition. A flock of 13 chickens might survive all winter on the grain spilled by a cow and a team of draft horses, plus some hay and whatever else they could find. This winter diet would be nutritionally poor (both vitamin- and protein-deficient) and the hens would lay no eggs, but they’d recover in early spring and the cycle would repeat.Malnutrition increase with the number of chickens. I’ve heard estimates that you can support 1-2 hens per acre with no supplemental feeding, though probably not during the winter. As you add chickens to the farm, they first exhaust the supply of high-calorie feeds such as seeds, then the supply of high-protein feeds such as bugs and clover. Finally, they use up the supply of high-vitamin feeds such as green grass. Except for the last stages, when all the green plants disappear, you can’t tell what stage your forage is in.

In the bad old days, when people didn’t feed their hens at all, much of the hen’s diet was provided as a side effect of poor sanitation. People threw their garbage out into the street or the barnyard. The cows and horses spilled grain. Manure was everywhere and was full of yummy maggots. Even with all the natural bounty provided by stone-age sanitation, the number of hens that could be supported without supplemental feeding was very limited. Flocks of over fifty hens were unusual before chicken feed was invented.

In practice, though, it always pays to provide a complete diet. The increased production always pays for the increased feed bill.

There are a few circumstances where the diet can be adjusted to reflect reliable forage ingredients, such as old-fashioned “range rations” which left out the vitamins that were provided in abundance by green feed. But enough dry days in a row browns off the grass and makes it unpalatable to the chickens, so this method has its risks. Also, many of the things hens eat are so tiny that we can’t see them — tiny seeds, tiny bugs, tiny worms. If we can’t see them, we can’t estimate how much the hens are finding, and we can’t know how much supplemental feed they need on a day-by-day basis.

Fortunately for the frugal farmer, hens prefer fresh, natural feeds to dry, processed chicken feed, and will eat natural feeds in preference to store-bought feed whenever they have the chance. This leads to a foolproof strategy:

Offer the chickens as much (balanced, high-quality) chicken feed as they want, and settle for whatever amount of foraging they discover on their own. This will maximize production and profitability. Sure, if you’re an expert and are always very careful, you can get some eggs out of a flock you don’t feed at all, without actually crippling your chickens through malnutrition, but you won’t get very many. It’s a mug’s game.

My experience at Golden Nectar Farm corroborates this. We had our chickens in a mobile coop that we would open during the day. The chickens would range about the farm, eating whatever suited their fancy. They had unlimited access to a balanced ration, all organic, purchased at our local feed store. When the chickens had ready access to the farm, they ate very little of the purchased rations. They ate bugs, seeds, grass, lots of worms, and they grew plump and happy. There’s very little more satisfying then watching a small flock of chickens roaming around the farm (or backyard) clucking, scratching and pecking. And of course the eggs are excellent, feed costs are very low, and the feed is as local and sustainable as you can make it.

Major strategies for providing locally grown feed for chickens

Here’s an overview of several prominent strategies we will expand on in coming posts. We are eager for additional ideas, so if you have any, please post to comments.

chooks on patrol

chooks on patrol

The following major headings are the primary strategies for meeting chicken nutrition at the home-scale level, in as sustainable a manner as possible. Our assumption is that you will provide purchased feed for your chickens, and then will supplement with one or more of the following strategies to reduce the need for purchased feed. Our vision is that over time the percentage of supplanted feed would grow, increasing regional food security, creating happier hens, and improve the quality of our eggs.

breed selection will be important: choose chicken breeds that are good foragers, more wild and hardy, able to walk around and feed themselves from the land.

deep bedding within the hen house and in an enclosed outdoor area can develop into a rich, deep compost over time that will provide many small bugs and insects that the chickens will be able to scratch and peck into for a substantial amount of their protein needs. There are many forms this strategy could take.

compost can be used in multiple ways by poultry for supplemental feed, and to turn the compost for the gardener, saving some labor and chiropractor bills.

planned grazing around a property allows chickens to access a variety of food sources, spread their manure around, and give them and you the pleasure of each others company. Obviously chickens love to roam the garden, scratching and pecking on a daily rotation around a property, finding bugs and soil critters, and eating the plants and herbs they like to keep them healthy. Planned grazing implies that you are pulsing the chickens out into a section of the property in a deliberate manner, in order to minimize any overgrazing or damage to the plants within that  property section, limiting any buildup of manure and possible pathogens, and minimizing the damage to soil roots and mulches (from dust baths for example). Planned grazing also implies that you are making sure there is adequate food within the property section for the chickens to eat. If it is mostly bare ground, there won’t be much for the chickens to eat.

Joel Salatin claims chickens can get 20% of their daily calories from grass (You Can Farm, page 233).  I assume this is calories from carbohydrates (seeds) and protein from bugs and lots of minerals and vitamins from fresh grass and herbs. Carla Emery confirms this saying chickens “will use greens for 20% of their diet” (page 652)

chicken food forest is a mixed planting of multiple plant species that chickens are known to prefer. A food forest generally consists of a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses and herbs. There are many species that can fit the requirements for a useful food forest, and special attention should be given for mixed use species, plants that provide food for humans as well as chickens, might be placed to screen an unsightly view, or might provide shade.

duckweed could be the cornerstone of a sustainable poultry farm. Research indicates that duckweed  is not difficult to grow, and is one of the richest sources of protein. As you might infer from the name, it is a weed that poultry like. The richer the brew it grows in, the higher the protein and the higher the quality of feed produced.

home food scraps are a well known and well used strategy. There are ways to improve the palatability and usability of the food scraps, that will increase the quantity that the chickens eventually eat.

worms and vermiculture is another well used strategy. High in protein and easy to grow, wrigglers can be an important food source for chickens, and oh how they love to eat them.

gleaning is collecting unused food resources that would otherwise go to waste. One of my favorites in Santa Fe was grabbing the large bag of popcorn leftover from the movie theater at the end of the night.

OK, that’s probably the major strategies, let us know if you have other ideas.

One of the more local feeds

hb-logo3We interviewed John Martan of Hunt & Behrens, Inc. a local feed store that mixes their own feed in Petaluma. John was kind enough to give me a general sense of where the ingredients come from and some of the limitations to getting some of the ingredients locally due to where certain ingredients grow best, the way ingredients are brokered and cost.

The Hunt and Behrens feed, Organic 16 Lay Pellet,  is 90% grains (Corn 55%, Soy 25%, Wheat Mill Run 10%) and 10% minerals.


Corn provides calories and is the most efficient calorie provider per pound. The organic corn in this feed is primarily grown in Sacramento Valley and trucked to Petaluma. It occasionally comes from the Midwest and is railed to Napa Junction then trucked to Petaluma. It is important to note that here in Northern California we are in a Mediterranean climate, rainy short winters and long hot summers, which is not the most conducive growing environment for corn. The Midwest on the other hand is more conducive to growing corn, so where we may save on resources because it doesn’t have to be transported as far, we are using more resources here to grow corn because in California we have to irrigate corn crops.


Soybean Meal is the bi-product of extracting soybean oil from the bean. It is a high content vegetable protein and provides amino acids. Organic soybean is from pressed soybean, which is a different processing method than is used for conventional soybeans. Pressed organic soybean provides a little higher fat, which provides more calories.

Soybean is brokered and generally grown in the Midwest. The catch here is organic soybean. There are sources for organic soybean meal in the US, but domestically produced is $200 more a pound than what comes from China. Since it is brokered it is hard to determine the original source, but due to costs, it is fair to assume some portion of organic soybean meal in chicken feed comes from China. It would be shipped to Stockton or Oakland and then trucked to Petaluma. The chicken feed that does come from China is tested for melamine.

Wheat Mill

Wheat Mill Run helps make a good pellet. Wheat Mill run is one of the most abundant ingredients available and is typically brokered. It could come from say Kansas by rail or Northern CA by truck; it all depends on the cost at any given time. If trucked it would come from the Bay Area.


The limestone comes from a Quarry in the foothills of the Sierras. Blue Mountain Minerals in Columbia, CA is the supplier. The limestone is trucked to Petaluma in 24-ton truckloads.

Other Minerals Contents

All of the other mineral ingredients are pre-mixed. The mineral pre-mix comes from the San Joaquin Valley and is also trucked in 24-ton truckloads to Petaluma. A lot of vitamins A, D, and E are produced synthetically over seas.

An Interview with Bob Cannard


Green String Farm

Green String Farm

Bob Cannard, of Green String Farm, has farmed sustainably for 30 years. His father Bob Cannard Sr. was an avid advocate of backyard chickens, particularly in Sonoma, CA. We asked Bob Cannard how he would feed chickens locally. He provided the following chicken meal plan.


Free range

  • In your backyard, periodically rotate in your garden with fencing
  • With a bigger property they can free range on a rotational pasture
  • Fenced in backyard lawn – they will scratch it up a bit, but will keep it mowed
  • Orchards are a great place to let chickens run around
  • Good ground covers for chicken runs in the winter – crimson clover


  • For egg laying hens provide 60-70% greens
  • Too much greens isn’t good for growth or egg laying
  • The like greens that are soft, leafy and palatable
  • Some good greens – kale, swiss chard, beet tops, amaranth, not a lot but some comfrey
  • Kale is a source of protein
  • Avoid less sweet greens like mustard
  • Pick, chop up, drop in
  • Greens are great as long as the chickens are not de-beaked
  • Phytochemicals come from greens

Grow an old fashioned crop of corn

  • Source of protein
  • Flint or semi-flint type corn
  • Not hybrid or GMO
  • Good choice – Semi-Flint, Semi-Sweet Country Gentleman
  • Feed whole corn kernels – just shell off from cob
  • Corn dried on plant will keep for feeding later
  • For 20 chicken you would need 1/8 acre of corn

Alternate to Corn – Millet and Milo

  • Source of protein
  • Easier to grow than corn
  • Yield can be lower depending on how it grows on your property

All kitchen scraps

  • Everything from the kitchen including cheese and meat

Garden Waste

  • Weeds – a wheal barrow load each day for 20 chickens
  • Anything no longer edible for humans (but nothing rotten or moldy)
  • Melons, squash, etc.

Pumpkins in the winter

  • Source of protein
  • Grow pumpkins around the corn
  • Chop up the pumpkins and feed all winter long
  • Get full sized pumpkins, New England Pie or slightly bigger Howden
  • Need a couple dozen plants for 20 chickens / can get 20 tons of pumpkin from an acre

Any Squash

  • Source of protein
  • In the Winter: Winter Squash and Butternut Squash
  • In the Summer: Zucchini, which is high in protein

Other helpful information

  • You probably won’t be able to grow all the food you need for your chickens, but you can definitely grow most of it.
  • To feed a flock of 20 chickens once a day, it should take on average 10 minutes a day. This assumes some days longer and some days just a few minutes
  • Chickens are extremely efficient animals – converting 7lbs of feed to 1 lb of body.
  • General Sustainability: Keep the pin clean, conserve manure for compost and put back on the things you are growing for their food

Introducing Robert Plamondon


Robert Plamondon's chickens on range

Robert Plamondon's chickens on range

In our extensive research of all things sustainable chicken, I finally stumbled upon Robert Plamondon, a farmer in Blodgett, Oregon who has done great thinking and writing on practical free-range poultry rearing. Robert and his wife Karen live on a 37-acre farm in Oregon’s Coast Range and raise 500-600 layers and 2000 broilers a year, something they’ve been doing since the mid-Nineties. He’s a skilled writer, with strong opinions that he backs up with facts, research and experience. I love the “Hi Tech and Overalls” theme to his blog.

His primary writing on free-range chickens can be found here. He has a nice FAQ page with well-written and helpful article on deep litter, coops, fencing, free range, yarding and confinement, and much more.

We will be excerpting and linking to numerous pages of interest to Sonoma County backyard chicken farmers. His extensive research into practical chicken rearing provides a helpful counterweight to the amateur fluff and speculation that is ubiquitous on most chicken websites. 

Of great interest to the modern chicken enthusiast is Robert’s work recovering out-of-print books on chicken rearing written 50 to 100 years ago. 

In his own words:

We’ve been rediscovering the old-time American free-range poultry methods developed during poultrykeeping’s Golden Age between 1900 and 1960. We read pretty much the entire collection of ancient poultry books and magazines in Oregon State University’s Valley Library, and tried or adapted as many of these as possible.

He has revised or “revived” several out-of-print texts under his Norton Creek Press label, including The Dollar Hen, Genetics of the Fowl, Fresh Air Poultry Houses, and Feeding Poultry. He also wrote Success with Baby Chicks, a helpful primer on raising chicks without the heartbreak.

An Interview with Deborah Grace Kraft, of CatchTail Garden


Deborah Grace and Chicken Tractor

Deborah Grace and Chicken Tractor

Deb, her husband Djubaya, and little Talise, keep 20 chickens on 3-acre rural residential property, 4 miles outside of Sebastopol, CA. They currently feed their chickens organic lay pellets from the local feed store, kitchen scraps, and garden weeds. They are interested in finding more local sources that provide good nutrition for good egg production. Her idea of chicken nutrition is organic feed, greens and as many bugs as possible. She wonders whether just greens can provide enough protein and nutrition for egg production. Local to her depends on what is possible, starting with her backyard, Sebastopol, Sonoma County, and then California.

Free ranging – They do free range the chickens part of the year and they have a chicken run in the center of their vegetable garden so they get weedings and scraps. They grow cover crops as part of their chicken run, as well.  They are interested in better ways to free range. They have a chicken tractor, but the design doesn’t quite work for the number of chickens they have.

Growing food – They would be willing to grow food to let them forage, which is what they are currently doing with the cover crop, but feel it might require more labor than they have available to grow, harvest, and prepare feed. They are interested to know more about the things they can grow that the chickens will eat and receive good nutrition from and the process of preparing it as feed.

Gleaning – Their interest in gleaning depends on what and where it is coming from. They have occasionally come upon left over apples and such from local markets that they fed their chickens. She said as a regular food source they would need to become more organized about it, but food scraps maybe from Wholefoods, or other markets would be a good option.

Other notes – They want to avoid GMO food sources as much as possible, so they have been looking for a non-soy option for their pellet feed and wouldn’t be interested in say movie theater popcorn for gleaning for this reason.