Whether you’ve noticed a drop in egg production or your chickens are just looking a bit more lethargic than normal lately, it might be time to up their protein intake.
Finding healthy snacks for your backyard flock can be a challenge.
Sure, there are plenty of options out there, but most storebought snacks are filled with additives and unnecessary fillers.
What’s a backyard chicken keeper to do?
Simple. You need to start creating your own snacks!
There are plenty of great options to choose from, including homemade fermented grain and homemade suet cakes.
However, fresh mealworms are some of the healthiest snacks you can feed to your backyard flock.
There’s not a lot to producing your own mealworms at home.
With a little bit of know-how and time, you can easily grow your own mealworms for a fraction of the cost of the storebought varieties – all while feeding your hens healthy snacks all throughout the year.
Here’s everything you need to know about these tasty treats (for chickens, anyway)!
What are Mealworms – and Why Are They So Good For Chickens?
Scientifically, mealworms are known as tenebrio molitor.
Technically, mealworms are insects that scavenge for their food in dark, dry locations.
They are usually found in grain stores, nibbling on feed sacks as well as occasional household dry goods like flour and cereal.
Mealworms tend to infest grain, which is why they are so easy to grow at home on your own.
As adults, these creatures are known as Darkling beetles, but you won’t let them get to that stage before you feed them to your chickens.
Here are some of the major benefits of growing your own mealworms and feeding them to your chickens.
If you find that your chickens need an extra dose of protein, mealworms are the way to go.
In the winter months in particular, chickens have a harder time putting on weight and staying healthy.
Mealworms contain about 50% protein, making them a great option for a productive, healthy flock.
Minimal Investment for Maximum Output
Just a few mealworms really go a long way!
All you need to do is give a handful of mealworms to each chicken each day – you’ll find that this portion really boosts their protein intake.
Laying hens need about 16% protein each day, while younger birds need even more.
Helps with Molting
Molting can be a stressful time in a chicken’s life – but it’s necessary. Each year, your birds will need to shed their feathers and put on new ones.
This usually occurs in the fall, just as its getting colder and daylight hours are being reduced.
The immune system of your chickens will be reduced during molting, and they’ll also need extra protein to regrow their feathers (which are mostly protein).
Mealworms can fill in the nutritional gaps to make the transition easier!
Improved Egg Production
If you raise laying hens, mealworms can help improve the size and flavor of the eggs.
Eggs are almost entirely protein, so mealworms can help boost their protein content and overall quality, too.
If you’re planning on using the deep litter method of bedding your coop – or if you want to encourage your chickens to scratch and to find their own grit – mealworms are a great aid.
Chickens enjoy scratching and pecking for these tasty morsels, so to encourage them to turn the bedding and find grit, all you have to do is drop a few mealworms on the ground. It will keep them entertained for hours!
Storebought vs. Homegrown Mealworms
You can easily buy mealworms at the store. They are available at most farm supply stores as well as online – even Amazon carries them!
However, starting a mealworm farm is a lot more fun – plus, if you have children, it’s a great project for them to see nature at work.
It also is a constant, self-replicating food source for your backyard flock.
Just a small container of mealworms at the store can cost quite a bit of money – and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
When you grow your own mealworms, you will never have to worry about running out or spending money once you get started.
Plus, you don’t ever truly know where your storebought mealworms are coming from.
It can be tough to find a reliable local source for mealworms, and outsourced mealworms run the risk of contaminating your flock with zoonotic diseases like salmonella.
Don’t risk it!
By spending just a few dollars and a few minutes now, you can easily raise your own lifelong supply of mealworms for your chickens.
How to Raise Your Own Mealworms
In this section we will cover the basics of raising mealworms. First, though – let’s look at mealworm ecology.
Understand Mealworm Ecology
Before you can grow your own mealworms, you need to have a clear understanding of how mealworms reproduce and grow.
The average female Darkling beetle will lay up to five hundred eggs in her lifespan – which is usually only a few short months.
A couple of weeks after being laid, the eggs will hatch and turn into larvae, or what we refer to as mealworms or even yellow mealworms.
Mealworms produce an exoskeleton, molting several times before arriving at the pupa stage. This occurs at about three months.
If you are raising your own mealworms, you might be shocked by this transition – the pupa looks like a dead mealworm, and this can be discouraging if you’ve worked hard to cultivate a population of mealworms.
Don’t be thrown off, though – it simply means that the pupa is in the process of transforming into a Darkling beetle.
You might see an occasional shudder or twitch if you happen to bump or otherwise disturb the pupa.
During the pupa stage, the mealworm does not eat at all. It stays in this stage for about three weeks before hatching into an adult beetle.
The total transition from egg to adult takes about six months in most cases.
Get a Container
Before you can get started you need to find a container in which you can grow your mealworm farm.
You have lots of options when it comes to the perfect container – you don’t need to spend a lot of money, or even any money at all. You can use any of the following options:
- Old aquarium
- Plastic tote
- Glass box
- Recycled trash bin
The main criteria that your container must meet are that it must be about 12” x 24” x12” in size. It should be made out of a solid material that won’t rot, like plastic or glass. Avoid cardboard or wood.
If you use a non-porous material, make sure there are breathing holes. You can drill holes using a thin drill bit, roughly ⅛”.
Your container should also be equipped with a screen mesh or lid to go over the top. The lid should allow for some air circulation in the container.
It’s best to use a clear container so that you can watch your mealworms as they develop. This will make for easier maintenance.
Prepare Your Container
Once you have your container picked out, make sure it is clean and dry.
Especially if you are using a recycled container like an old fish tank, you need to make sure any debris or contaminants are cleaned out.
If you once raised fish in the aquarium, you may have used chemicals like antibiotics or other treatments on your fish. Get all of these out with a thorough cleaning.
Next, you’ll want to pick out a location for your mealworm container. The best spot is one that is warm (around 80 degrees) with minimal lighting.
You can put your mealworms in a closet, but you need to make sure you pick a location where they won’t be easily disturbed.
Plus, you’ll want to let any visitors you have over know that there are mealworms in the closet if they are particularly squeamish!
If heat is problematic, you can always supplement with a heat mat designed for reptiles or other animals.
These usually come pre-wired and with programmable thermostats so you hardly need to lift a finger to keep your mealworms at the proper temperature.
If you live in a warm climate year-round, don’t worry – your mealworms will probably be fine without any kind of temperature control.
Just make sure you keep everybody in a dark place as too much light can kill your mealworms.
If darkness is a concern, here’s an option – you can place a piece of cardboard on top of the pile.
Press lightly down – don’t squeeze out all the oxygen.
This will help keep the mealworms in the dark and it will also help warm them up.
Add a Substrate
If you’ve ever raised fish before, you’re probably familiar with the term substrate.
In the case of raising aquarium fish, it refers to the material on the bottom of the tank to provide the aquarium with some structure.
In the case of growing mealworms, it refers to the food source.
The exact amount of substrate you need will vary depending on the container size. Usually, you will need a layer that is about two to three inches deep.
The best feed will be options such as:
- Wheat bran
- Rolled oats
- Cereal crumbs
- Chicken mash
Just make sure the substrate you use is safe for use with mealworms. Some chicken feeds contain toxic ingredients for mealworms, like diatomaceous earth.
You don’t need to spend a lot on the substrate. Usually, it can be purchased for less than a dollar a pound.
No matter which kind you use, make sure you sterilize it before you add it to your mealworm farm. This will ensure that no pests are living in the feed.
To do this, simply bake it on a cookie tray in your oven for about twenty minutes. Cook it at temperatures around 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
The other benefit of sterilizing your substrate is that it will dry it out – you don’t want any excess moisture as it will create mold, which can be harmful to your mealworms.
Once it’s been sterilized and cooled, you can go ahead and add it to your tank.
Start with Storebought Mealworms
Now it’s time to add your mealworms. You will need to start with store-bought mealworms as a “starter colony.”
You will need a minimum of 500 mealworms to begin with.
These can be ordered online or bought at certain feed or animal supply stores. Make sure you invest in high-quality mealworms.
In particular, you want to know exactly what the mealworms were fed. This can impact your chickens’ health.
Some mealworms have the potential to transmit zoonotic diseases. Salmonella is one major concern.
Therefore, you will want to make sure you are buying mealworms from a reputable source.
Many online and local feed stores sell giant mealworms. Don’t use these for your mealworm farm.
Often, they have been treated with growth hormones that can make it more difficult for your mealworms to pupate – they will produce beetles that are, unfortunately, sterile.
After you’ve purchased your mealworms and made sure they are healthy, you can go ahead and add them to your container.
To do this, gently pour them out and put your cover on the container.
You don’t have to worry about the mealworms trying to crawl out of the container. The cover is merely designed to keep potential pests out.
Lots of other critters enjoy crunching on mealworms, so you need to make sure you have a barrier in place!
Feed and Care For Your Worms
Now that your mealworms are ready to go, all that’s left to do is care for them. You will feed them more food (or “substrate”) every few weeks.
Just drop a few handfuls of feed into the tank so that it maintains a depth of about three inches.
You don’t have to stick to your original substrate material, either. You can feed bits of fruits and vegetables as well.
Just keep in mind that the mealworms might consume these more slowly, so you will need to keep an eye out for food spoilage in the process.
Here are some options when it comes to food to feed your mealworms:
- Dry oatmeal
- Chopped apples
- Chopped carrots
Keep an eye out for potential issues in the container, such as mildew or mold growth. Otherwise, that’s all there is to it!
Harvest Your Mealworms
Depending on the conditions in which you are raising your mealworms, you should only have to wait a few months before you can begin feeding mealworms to your chickens.
Both the pupae and the beetles should be left in the container to continue to reproduce – only feed the actual worms themselves to your chickens.
You don’t need to worry about removing dead beetles that you might find in the container. The larvae will do this for you. You should only remove pieces of mold or moldy food.
Be careful harvesting your mealworms. You will want to wear gloves to avoid contamination.
In addition, you may find that you are sensitive to the dust that the mealworm farm produces. You may want to wear a dust mask to prevent any irritation to your respiratory tract.
When you’re ready to harvest your mealworms, all you need to do is add new food to the farm.
Take a piece of carrot or another similar vegetable and add it to the container. Leave it there for about five minutes.
You will notice that during this time, the larvae will attach to the vegetable.
You can then take the vegetable and shake it out over another container. You’ll have plenty of mealworms to fill the container, which you can then feed directly to your chickens.
Alternatively, you can just feed the vegetables covered with mealworms – they’ll enjoy crunching on that treat, too!
If you have too many mealworms when you go to harvest, don’t worry. You can store them for long term use!
Just as you can buy frozen or freeze-dried mealworms to feed to your chickens, you can also freeze your own mealworms. All you have to do is stash them in plastic bags.
Feeding Mealworms to Chickens
You can feed mealworms to chickens as often as you’d like.
In fact, mealworms are a great alternative for people who are looking to remove storebought chicken feed from their budgets.
Combined with a good source of carbohydrates, like grain, you can pretty much entirely eliminate all of your chicken-raising expenses!
Start off slow when feeding mealworms to make sure your chickens take to them well.
Usually, you will want to start with half a cup per chicken, and then you can scale the ratios and portion sizes up or down as needed.
The Drawer Method of Breeding Mealworms
If the idea of using an old fish tank or plastic tote for breeding mealworms doesn’t appeal to you, here’s another quick, convenient idea.
Invest in one of those standup plastic set of drawers. They’re inexpensive – usually less than $20 at most bargain stores.
You’ll prep the drawers in more or less the same way. The mealworms will go in the bottom drawer with about an inch of your substrate.
You can add some fruit for a little bit of moisture.
The top drawer will have the plastic bottom removed and replaced with a screen this will allow the beetle eggs to fall through the drawer.
This method can prevent the beetles from killing and eating the pupae – an infrequent occurrence that nonetheless is very frustrating if you are trying to raise your own mealworms.
In the middle drawer, you can put some extra food. This will allow you to continue adding food every few weeks without having to disturb your mealworms.
This method is a great way of breeding mealworms if you’re pressed for space and also want a neater, cleaner solution. It will allow you to separate out the mealworms at the various stages, as they will simply move among drawers when the time is right.
Other Benefits of Raising Mealworms
Mealworms aren’t just pests that get into your chicken feed supply – they are also beneficial food sources for your flock!
Sure, they might not look very appealing, but these tasty morsels will improve the overall health of your flock.
It’s fun to watch them run around the chicken yard in hot pursuit of wriggly mealworms, and generally, just a few can go a long way.
Start growing your own mealworms today – for a few minutes of time each month and minimal investment, you’ll have an unending supply of snacks for your laying hens.