Raising mealworms for free chicken feed

Over the years I've raised mealworms for chicken feed many many times. In fact, I do it almost every spring/summer. It's when winter hits that I never wanted to bring them into the house so I'd give them all to the chickens. My chickens love the mealworms, and raising them is much more frugal than buying them...so last year I finally started raising them in the house during the winter. It's not so bad.

Raising mealworms for chicken feed, cheaply

Mealworms are small, quiet, don't smell, don't take up much room and require only a few minutes of time every few days once established. A mealworm farm can be kept in an aquarium or plastic tote. You don't have to worry about them getting out since mealworms cannot climb up the sides of glass or plastic containers. 

But lets talks about the free feed aspect which is one of my favorite topics! A container of mealworms is around $5 to get your mealworm farm started. You'll need oats (dollar store) or wheat bran for bedding and some fruit or vegetable scraps for food. They get all the moisture they need from their food so you won't need to give them water. 

I use plastic bins from the dollar store, but an old aquarium or rubbermaid tote works fine too. As you can see it's pretty cheap to set this up. I spent around $10 to start my current mealworm farm and it's been producing treats for my chickens for almost 18 months! I would have gone through at least 2 bags of mealworms by now, and at about $25 a bag....that's a big savings!

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How to raise mealworms for chicken feed

You'll have to start with live mealworms from the local pet or feed store. It should be under $5 for 100 mealworms locally. Or you can order mealworms by the thousand online. Mealworms come in sizes, I usually get the large. They call it size but what it really means is age, since mealworms grow as they get older. 

Here's a very brief overview of the lifecycle of the mealworm
The female darkling beetle lays tiny white eggs. 
The eggs hatch in 1-4 weeks.
Tiny mealworms emerge from the eggs and spent the next 8-10 weeks eating and shedding their exoskeleton as they grow.
The mealworms then enters the pupa stage. A pupa has no mouth so it does not eat during the next 1-3 weeks as it transforms into a beetle.
Once transformed the beetle will be white and soft, but will darken to brown then black as it's exoskeleton hardens. These darkling beetles will live for 1-3 months, starting to reproduce after about 2 weeks. 

darkling beetles / mealworm beetles

What size mealworm you want to start with is up to you, but keep in mind that larger mealworms are closer to the pupa stage and therefore will begin breeding sooner. Do not buy the ones labeled superworms. These will usually be on the counter at pet stores not in a cooler. They have been treated with a growth hormone and will not reproduce at all. 

I use 3 plastic shoe keepers from the dollar tree. Mealworms prefer darkness so I wrapped black duct tape around the outside of the plastic containers. Admittedly I probably could have used any color duct tape since they're all gray on the inside, but I wasn't thinking of that when I did it. lol I also put a few pieces on the top to block out the light, obviously you can skip this part if yours has a solid color top. Mine were clear.

You can skip the light blocking if you'll be keeping your mealworms in a dark room or out of the light in some way.

I do not drill holes in the tops of my containers. Instead I leave the lids slightly askew so air can get in. If you prefer for the lids to be on tight then cut or drill some holes in the top for air flow. 

Some people like to put sections of cardboard egg carton in the container for the mealworms to hide under. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't and I've never noticed a difference. This would be more important if the mealworms are in a clear container. Since mine is pretty dark it doesn't seem to matter but if you're using something like a big aquarium you might want to add the egg carton just to give them a way to get away from the light.

Put at least an inch of rolled oats or wheat bran in each container for bedding. Pour your container of mealworms into 1 of the mealworm homes you've made. They're probably packed in bran so just pour the whole thing in. The last time I bought live mealworms I bought a pack of 100 but many people start with 1,000 or more. 

Add some fruit or vegetable matter for moisture. I use thick slices of apples and carrots mostly, but sometimes I'll use potatoes. I've also been known to give them kitchen scraps like the tops of celery or small pieces of lettuce and they seem to like it. Don't use anything moisture heavy like grapes or strawberries or you run the risk of mold which is bad for your mealworms. 

I check every 3 days and add more food if needed. Remove any that has started to mold. 

Keep in a warm, draft free location. Mealworms prefer warmer temperatures. They grow best at about 78°. When temperatures drop they grow at a much slower rate, so keeping them warm helps the colony grow faster. Since my house is not kept quite that warm in winter, I use a seedling mat under the colony to keep them warmer.

After the pupa have turned into beetles I move them to container #2. Do not move the pupa too or the beetles might eat them. I don't touch the beetles to move them, I use a plastic spoon. They don't move terribly fast at this point so it's easy to get them from one container to the other. Feed the beetles in the same way you feed the mealworms. 

After about a month I move the beetles again to container #3. The reason for this move is that they will eat their own eggs which would be extremely counterproductive to the mealworm population! I don't keep as much bedding in this third container, maybe about 1/2" instead. 

From this point on, I will scoop out the bedding every few weeks and put it into the first 2 containers kinda evenly. I use 1 container to raise mealworms for feeding the chickens and the other for breeding new beetles to lay more eggs. 


Mealworm farm setup for chicken feed

Chickens can eat the mealworms in all stages of development. They can even eat the beetles after they die. (they only live a maximum of 3 months) I just pick the dead beetles out with a spoon and drop them into the chicken feeder. Don't do this with live ones though because they might crawl out and take up residence in your coop!

If you want to feed live beetles to your chickens I suggest using a dog bowl with steep sides so they can't crawl out before the chickens get them. You could just leave the dead ones in the container though, the other beetles will eat them eventually. 

To feed the chickens you can collect the mealworms easily by picking up the food pieces and shaking them into a bowl. The mealworms should fall right off. Or you could scoop them out with a spoon though it is more tedious.

This is a great way to provide mealworms as treats or feed for your chickens without the high expense of store bought freeze dried ones!

Want to know more about free and cheap feed sources? Click here for my other posts on feeding your chickens for free (or just cheap!)!

~L

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