Chicken feed is a kind of livestock feed intended for chickens and other barnyard fowl. The term “chickenfeed” or “chicken feed” has also been an American expression since at least the 19th century. Referring to money, it means the same thing as “small change” or “peanuts,” a tiny, even insignificant amount. By extension, “chickenfeed” can mean anything that is unimportant or too small to be trifled with. This is one of numerous disparaging chicken-related expressions in English, including “chicken-hearted,” “chicken-livered,” and “chicken scratch.”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the pioneering farmers of the American frontier raised various grains and livestock. The best grain was saved for human food requirements and to feed larger animals such as horses and cattle. These large animals were expensive to acquire and often important for daily life on the farm. Chickens, by contrast, were usually cheap and plentiful, meaning that their nutritional needs were not high priority. They were often fed table scraps or whatever grains were left behind by the larger animals.
As a consequence, “chickenfeed” soon became a common phrase for any small or unimportant quantity. Like the chickens themselves, any quantity identified this way was considered with such disregard that it bordered on contempt. In this sense, the phrase first appears in print in the 1836 memoirs of American frontiersman and statesman Davy Crockett. Crockett was describing professional riverboat gamblers, who would play card games with locals for small change. By swindling or outplaying the locals, the gamblers could make good money on these “chickenfeed” games.
The use of “chickenfeed” to describe small amounts of money remains its most common meaning. A similar term is “peanuts,” as in “working for peanuts,” meaning a low or insignificant pay rate. The phrase has taken on a broader meaning, describing anything of little to no value. An unusual example appears in Robert Hendrickson’s Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. During the Cold War of the mid-20th century, spies would sometimes supply rival agents with misleading information to throw them off track; they called these false leads “chickenfeed.”
In the present day, the poultry industry is a lucrative global business. Chicken farmers, whether independent or corporate, often purchase specialized feeds that include nutrients engineered to produce healthy eggs and birds. The production of these feeds is itself a significant sector of the agriculture industry. In short, chicken feed is neither unimportant nor inexpensive in the modern era. Nevertheless, the expression retains its original meaning in common English usage.