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Cost Saving Tips: Frugal Farming with Goats and Chickens

As regenerative farmers, we prioritize growing, raising, and foraging food in harmony with nature. This encourages us to think beyond simply working the land for the sole means of earning money. Our metrics of success include financial sustainable, but also include things like improving soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. Ultimately, we aim to leave the land better off than when we were entrusted with it.

Buff Orpington momma hen with baby chicks in the grass in front of a chicken coop

In nature, there is no concept of ‘waste’. In fact, producing any waste that requires disposal indicates inefficiency in the system and ultimately a loss of not just resources, but also money. Mother Nature is a frugal lady and thus, in natural ecosystems, each byproduct becomes a food source for something else.


By removing the concept of ‘waste’ from our farming vocabulary, we aim to mimic natural ecosystems in our operations while also saving money as a natural byproduct. By moving away from a mindset of buying everything we think we need, being frugal encourages us to create a more resilient farming operation by prioritizing the use of readily available (i.e., free) resources.


After years of practicing frugal farming, implementing cost saving strategies has become our default setting. It’s not just about identifying existing resources available from the land (including ‘invasive’ species) or within the community. It’s also about observing and interacting with the land to design (or redesign if necessary) systems in such a way that naturally minimizes resource use and/or allows operation byproducts (i.e., ‘waste’) to easily flow from one area to another.


Below I discuss cost saving tips we use with our goats and chickens on our farm in the northern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every farm, homestead, and garden is different, so our examples may not apply directly to your situation. However, we hope our examples will inspire you to find your own unique cost-saving solutions. Some of these cost saving tips are small and easy, while others require observation and/or research of your local area to discover free or low cost ‘waste’ resources.



Frugal Farming with Chickens


Chickens are incredibly useful when their natural behaviors are harnessed to assist with farm work. Here at Apple Acres Farm, that means allowing our flock to free-range on pasture and in our woods under the watchful eye of our rooster (with the help of Heather who is our resident livestock guardian human). We do have issues with predators and use a variety of predator prevention strategies, but we feel the benefits of allowing our chickens to forage for their own food outweigh risks from predators.


Overall, free-ranging our flock results in the biggest direct cost savings while providing many useful benefits, including:


  • Producing nutritionally superior eggs and healthier chickens

  • Self-spreading fertilization (i.e., chickens poop everywhere, all the time)

  • Decreasing the tick population

  • De-weeding goat bedding (hay) before it can be used in the garden

  • Reducing parasite populations in the goat pasture

  • Recycling nutrients and eliminating the need for a dedicated (and labor intensive) compost system

  • Providing endless entertainment and a little bit of drama


Chicken Cost Saving Tips


1. Use free local materials for deep bedding and nesting boxes


We forage for, rather than buy, bedding materials. Leaves are our preferred choice, which our chickens, and eventually our gardens, love. Each spring and fall, we collect dozens of bags of leaves from our local public works leaf dump or we pick the bags up directly from the curb. The leaves are a wonderful source of food, entertainment, and carbon, which the latter is essential to neutralizing the nitrogen heavy chicken poop. We treat our deep bedding like we would a compost pile, making sure to balance the regular nitrogen inputs (i.e., chicken poop) with a carbon source in order to eliminate ammonia issues. This ensures our coop never smells bad, reduces excess moisture that can contribute to frost bite in the winter, and minimizes the potential of various other health issues for our flock.


Each morning the leaves are turned over to bury freshly added poop. This takes just a couple of minutes each day, but reduces the chances of the leaves clumping into mats, which makes it easier to clean out and later use the bedding. A new bag of leaves is added as needed, depending on how much time the chickens spend in the coop (i.e., more leaves in the winter, less in the summer). The chickens love to scratch through the leaves, so we simply dump them in a pile and the chickens enjoying tackling the pile looking for weed seeds, grass clippings, bugs, etc. The daily scratching and turning of leaves produces a nicely textured amendment for the garden (after it has had a chance to age).


For the nesting boxes, we primarily use sawdust from a local sawmill. Other bedding material we’ve used for either the deep bedding or nesting boxes include pine needles, shredded paper, and ‘waste’ hay from the goats. We avoid using sawdust when we have baby chicks since they may try to eat it – this is less of a problem when they are raised by a hen.


Chicken coop nesting boxes with hens sitting in the nesting boxes

We don’t add anything to our nesting boxes or coop for parasite control and we’ve never had issues with mites or other parasites. We also don’t use any cleaners when we remove the deep bedding each spring and fall. While this is a cost savings, we avoid using all chemical products for health reasons and instead prefer to focus on activities that promote our flock’s health – including avoiding overcrowding, ensuring adequate ventilation in the coop year round, and access to clean water.


2. Ferment feed


I’ve been fermenting human food for more than a decade, so it was only natural that I would ferment our chickens’ food. We use small food grade buckets from a local restaurant and feed the chickens directly from the buckets. Fermenting their feed reduces food waste, ensures better hydration, increases nutrient absorption, and allows us to repurpose nutrient-rich ‘waste’ liquid from the kitchen. This includes the liquid from soaking and cooking dried beans, pasta water, kombucha scoby dredges, bone broth produced when we make bone meal, etc.


3. Supplement winter feed with locally grown or foraged dried herbs and seeds


Our chickens are great at foraging their own food when we have snow-free ground. The challenge is supplementing their organic commercial feed in the winter months with healthy food we can grow or forage. Currently, we give our chickens dried comfrey leaves, cider apples, ‘waste’ bananas from a local hotel, various seeds and dried berries, and the occasional tray of microgreens. In the future, we’ll be growing more potatoes, winter squash, and small-scale grains that can be easily stored for winter feeding. The chickens also love the hay sweepings from beneath the goats’ hay wagon, which are full of seeds. To keep our flock entertained in the winter, I try to offer them at least one or two of the supplements listed above. Bored chickens are naughty and more prone to being aggressive.

Drying comfrey flower stalks and leaves on a wood rack
Drying comfrey leaves for winter animal feed

4. Add wood ash for dust bathing


We heat primarily with a woodstove, so we have a regular supply of wood ash throughout the winter. We have earthen floors in our coop and we dump the wood ash in their favorite dust bathing corner. In addition to enhancing their dust bathing experience, the chickens love to eat wood ash since it contains important minerals.


5. Supplement calcium with eggshells


We’ve never given our flock oyster shells since they are not available locally. Instead, we give them back their own eggshells. We don’t eat enough eggs to provide a sufficient quantity of shells, but several of our regular customers kindly return their shells back to our hens. I step on the eggshells to break them into smaller pieces. This makes it easier for them to eat, and any shell pieces they don’t eat, end up in the deep bedding that will eventually make its way into our gardens.


6. Reuse clean egg cartons


I wasn’t going to include this because it seems obvious, but I know several chicken keepers who purchase egg cartons. In my mind, this is one of the easiest expenses for small-scale chicken keepers to avoid. Once people learn we have chickens, many readily offer to save their cartons. We inspect each carton before reusing it and repurpose any dirty or damaged cartons as coop bedding.


7. Use golf balls as fake eggs


Hens love to sit on eggs and egg-like things. In fact, many hens will seek out nesting boxes with more eggs when deciding where to lay their egg each day.  Our first chicks arrived in the mail and didn’t have a mother to show them where to lay eggs. To encourage the use of the nesting boxes, we added an old golf ball to each box and we still use the same golf balls today. This worked perfectly and all of our hens took to the nesting boxes right away. You can buy beautiful fake eggs, but golf balls work great and are readily available.

We also use golf balls when we have new hens go broody. I like to wait a couple days to see if a hen will remain broody (i.e., commit to sitting in a nesting box with the intent to raise chicks). Instead of leaving her with eggs, I give her several golf balls. Once I’m certain of the broody hen’s commitment, I’ll replace the golf balls for marked eggs.



Frugal Farming with Goats


When we add a new animal to the farm, we first think about winter. Thanks to our long and snowy winters, our highest costs are associated with the months when snow prevents our animals from foraging for their own food.


We were very intentional when we added goats, including the breed selection, the number of animals, and the sex. Getting this right not only reduced our direct and indirect costs, it also ensured that our goats were a good fit for the land and our farm. We decided on two Nigerian dwarf wethers since we were primarily interested in their help with managing vegetation. If you want to learn more, check out our posts on managing vegetation with goats and ecologically managing invasive species (part 1 and part 2).


Since vegetation management was our priority, and time was not a limiting factor, we knew we would be fine with the minimum number of small goats. Goats are social animals, so two goats are required for their wellbeing. Thanks to our two small dudes, we were able to build a smaller barn with a smaller hay loft as well as buy less winter feed each year. As an example, in 2023, we spent a little over $100 on hay ($75) and minerals ($30). Keeping our goat herd small also means we save labor costs because it takes less work to care for two goats, regardless of the season.



Goat Cost Saving Tips


Similar with our chickens, our primary cost savings come from rotationally browsing our goats during the growing season. This takes more labor to move fencing every few days, but essentially cuts out hay feeding costs from May through October. The tips below, therefore, focus on the winter months when our deep snow pack makes it difficult for our goats to access food outside.


1. Provide tree prunings


Anytime we need to prune a tree, we give the branches to our goats – they love to strip the bark and eat the ramial wood tips. In the fall, we focus on non-native trees that we want to manage, such as buckthorn. Fall is a great time because while the native trees have lost their leaves and gone dormant, the introduced species usually still have tasty leaves. This not only makes them easier to find in the woods, but it also means they are more appealing to our goats. In the winter, we prune our heritage apple orchard, which contains over a hundred trees.

Nigerian dwarf goats debarking apple tree prunings

Tree prunings have been a great way to provide entertainment and important minerals for our goats (we offer free-choice minerals as well). In the spring, we end up with large piles of de-barked branches. We use larger diameter wood for firewood and chip smaller diameter wood. These ramial wood chips are an incredibly valuable byproduct that gets used around the farm, including to grow mushrooms and to feed the mycorrhizal fungi that partner with our apple trees.


2. Supplement winter feed with stored fruit and vegetables


Our apple trees provide year-round food for our farm. In late fall (usually October), after we press cider but before we get a hard frost, we harvest the remaining apples and store those for both the goats and chickens. The apples are stored in old coolers with sawdust in our garage and they usually last until May when spring ushers in more food options for the animals.


All animals like a diverse diet and our goats love non-hay snacks during the winter. In addition to the apples, we try to grow extra root crops as well as give them fresh food scraps from our meal prep. Lastly, the goats love comfrey leaves, which are easy to dry and store in our hay loft.


3. Save seed heads for winter snacks


Each summer we grow small forests of dill, fennel, and cilantro. We gradually thin each crop back and feed the surplus to the goats. We allow a significant number of plants to set seed because the pollinators love the flowers and our goats (and chickens) like their seeds. We dry and store hundreds of these seed heads, but also let the plants self-seed to ensure a new crop the following summer.

4. Collect ‘waste’ food from local hotels and/or grocery stores


Many grocery stores and hotels have perfectly good food they cannot sell or serve their customers. We often get overripe or slightly damaged bananas and apples from a local hotel and they love knowing this food isn’t going to the landfill. Bananas are definitely a favorite for our goats (and chickens)!


5. Christmas tree snacks


Each winter, we take untreated and undecorated Christmas trees for our goats (this is important to verify since most trees from a commercial tree farm are painted green). Families love to bring their kids to meet the goats when they drop off their tree. Once the goats are done with each tree, I cut off the branches and chip the trunk along with all the other tree prunings in the spring.

Nigerian dwarf goats eating a Christmas tree


6. Goat hiking to locate snacks


We don’t typically start to rotationally graze (browse) our goats until mid-May when there is enough grass and other vegetation growth to entertain the goats and minimize their interest in eating tree bark.

During the rest of the year (i.e., spring, late fall, and early winter), I like to hike with our goats to allow them to forage in a directed manner. This ensures they do not eat things that I don’t want them eating (such as tree bark or small trees), and it also lets them burn off some energy. Over the years, I’ve learned their favorite seasonal foods as well as the areas where we want more intensive browsing. Hiking with goats to find food does take time on my part, but it’s something I appreciate since it gets me out on our land throughout the year.


Nigerian dwarf goats eating autumn olive shrubs in the snow


Finding the Joy of Frugal Farming


There’s a saying that if you want an easy life, choose a hard one. Being a frugal farmer brings me joy not simply because we save money, though that is a very nice bonus. I enjoy being a small-scale regenerative farmer because of the connections I've developed with the land, our animals, and the seasonality of life. It's rarely glamorous, but it's always rewarding!


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