The Tightwad’s Supplement to The Thrifty Feed and Caring of Chickens

The Tightwad’s Supplement to The Thrifty Feed and Caring of Chickens

by Alexander D. Mitchell IV Scots and their descendants have a well-earned reputation for frugality. And as my wife’s flock of heritage-breed chickens continued to expand, I found it prudent to find thrifty ways to make our chickens happier.

One technique seeing some gain in popularity of late is using spent coffee grounds as “chicky litter” to aid in cleaning coops, instead of the more typical sand or pine shavings. Our coops have coffee grounds acting as absorbent material on shelves under perches and the floors, from which manure may be sifted. The coffee acts as a natural deodorant as well. If you’re worried about over-caffeinated chickens, don’t fret — chickens are not attracted to eating the grounds, at least any more than the regular grit they peck at for their crops. Besides, relatively little caffeine remains in the grounds, and what remains also acts, allegedly, as an insect repellent. You may have seen bags of dried used coffee grounds in your local feed stores. This option is fine if you have just a couple of birds in a small coop — or brew a lot of coffee — but when you have dozens of chickens in large coops and runs, this becomes problematic and expensive very quickly.

However, look at all those seemingly-ubiquitous coffee shops throughout most of the United States. Look at convenience stores increasingly offering a constant dozen or two blends of fresh coffee. All those grounds are nothing but heavy trash to them.

From tiny bistros to outlets of the national Starbucks chain, most such shops will happily let you “take out the trash” for them, particularly drive-through kiosks, which are almost always claustrophobic. Such shops usually dump grounds into bins lined with a disposable nylon mesh filter bag, which is tied off and removed as it fills. For many stores, it’s by far the heaviest component of the day’s trash. A casual inquiry to such shops may find them willing to set aside such bags for you, setting them outside the back door, free for taking.

However, once you have these wet grounds, they will need to be dried. Damp grounds left alone will soon become moldy, forming uninviting green clumps. Depending on your local climate, you could set the nylon bags out in the sun on a dark surface to dry, with an occasional flipping and rearranging of grounds inside, or use some heat source to dry them. After many experiments in bone-dry high Arizona desert — including filling the house with coffee smells from the kitchen oven! I found a perfect solution for us: I picked up a used, large, standing propane-fired smoker for smoking meats and cheeses. (These normally retail for $300-700 unassembled; I found mine fully assembled for sale on Craigslist for a mere $30 from a Hawaiian BBQ hobbyist upgrading to a larger model!) I originally bought it for smoking an occasional batch of ribs, fish, or briskets, but it quickly became our coffee grounds dehydrator almost exclusively! Electric smokers also exist and are usually thermostatically controlled. One could also try drying in a pan in an enclosed gas barbeque grill, but it will be hard to maintain a proper temperature.

thrifty-coffee-grounds
My used bargain smoker with coffee filter bags set for drying.

The photo shows my technique: After bringing the bags home, I set them for a day or two in the sun on either a former aquarium stand or wire shelving (both roadside salvage finds, for more thrift!). If you place the bags properly, capillary action and gravity will drip out much of the leftover coffee. Then I flip them onto the smoker racks for a couple of hours at 200-225 degrees F. (A note of caution: Nylon filter bags and plastic zip-ties melt and split open at sustained exposure to temps over 250 degrees F, so carefully monitor the temperature to avoid this.) When the bags are sufficiently dried, I sometimes take the extra effort to sift the coffee through a large, professional colander ($3 at the thrift store) into plastic five-gallon buckets (most of mine were found along the roads or salvaged from junk piles). The biggest culprit for clean grounds will be espresso — finely-powdered coffee pressed into damp clumps that don’t dry out. One can sift these out and discard or leave them in and hope for the best. If weather and climate cooperate, you may get the grounds sufficiently dried with sunshine alone, and you can just empty the bags into the desired locations.

If your smoker fills with “tar” from smoking foods, the recommended solvent for cleaning it is alcohol, either industrial, cheap vodka, or even hand sanitizer.

Coffee grounds are full of nitrogen and calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Just the grounds, combined with manure dust, can be applied to the soil around nitrogen-favoring plants. Both the manure and the grounds can be shoveled up for composting. Still, one detail needs to be raised: Because both chicken manure and coffee grounds are high-nitrogen or “green” compost feed, for the best benefit for gardening, they must be composted with twice as much “brown” or carbon-rich feed — straw, grass, wood chips, sawdust, vegetable waste, etc. Compost piles also benefit from worms to help break down the material and said worms can be yummy foraging targets for your chickens if you provide them access to your compost heap (talk about thrifty feed).

Choo-Choo Two-Two, our Buff Orpington hybrid and “queen” of the one flock, inspects and approves of the freshly-changed coffee grounds on the lowest level roost of her henhouse.

Coffeehouses, however, are not the only ones with usable waste to repurpose. Brewpubs and small breweries have enjoyed a renaissance over the past several decades as drinkers seek craft quality over mass production. According to the Brewers Association, the United States alone now has over 9,000 breweries, the overwhelming majority local brewpubs and “nanobreweries.”

In the usual brewing process, crushed malted barley, sometimes with other grains like wheat or oats, is steeped in hot water to convert starches to sugars, for later fermentation enzymatically. The sugary liquid (called “wort”) is then strained and boiled with hops to create the liquid fermented into beer, with damp, slightly sweet grains as leftovers. These grains, termed “brewery spent grains” or “BSG” in the industry, can be fed to horses, cattle, swine, or chickens.

It should be noted that these grains have had much of their normal nutritional value stripped away in the enzymatic process, becoming about 70% fiber and 15-25% proteins. In a sense, they are less food than filler, much like popcorn or potato chips to humans. It cannot be the main food source if you attempt to raise healthy chickens. But most chickens love the sweet snack, and it serves as a terrific (thrifty) “boredom buster” to vary their diet.

thrifty-grains
Collecting spent grains at my local “nanobrewery,” about eight miles from my flock.

As with coffee grounds, the best way to source these grains is to befriend a local microbrewery. BSG is hardly a secret, especially with feed prices increasing — you may be queuing up with ranchers, farms, horse riders, and the like, depending on your brewery’s location and productivity. Many users enjoy better success by providing heavy-duty totes, buckets, or barrels for the brewery to fill and pick up at the user’s convenience. (Whatever is used, be sure it has lids, or the flies will be horrendous in the summer!) In the case of my local brewery, another farmer collects spent grains to supplement his small cattle herd’s feed, and I grab a bucket or two, or even a tote, from his allotment on my way to our chickens.

As with coffee, you may want to dry the grains for preservation, but our chickens never give us a chance. Try to dry the malt openly in the hot sun, and the chickens will fly over fences to get to the thrifty “buffet” you kindly provided them! In practice, you can slop the damp grains on the ground or in trays wherever they feed; the chickens seldom give it time to dry out. They may leave some fibrous husks on the ground; those compost or eventually blow away. As with humans and popcorn, they will know their limits soon enough. You do not want this to be a regular part of their diet anyway; I tend to make it a treat every one to two weeks when the brewer’s schedule and my ability to make a pick-up align.

The BSG’s moisture makes them highly perishable; unless dried, they will quickly begin to spoil in a day to several days, depending on the weather. You could freeze some into a pecking block for summer or bake them into a feed block or grain biscuits for later feeding. At worst, you end up with more feed for the same compost as the coffee grounds!

Be sure to thank the sources of your grounds and grains with your patronage or fresh eggs for the staff if feasible. This past winter, the employees of our neighborhood coffeehouse, which probably gets a hundred dollars’ worth of patronage from my wife’s coworkers every workday morning, received both eggs and a Christmas card “signed” by all 75 of our chickens by name. Such a personal touch adds charm and feeling to the staff’s extra efforts on your behalf!

Originally published in the June/July issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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