In Part I of a two-part series, I took a look at the controversy around what to feed backyard chickens and provided advice on how to evaluate the conflicting information you may find. In Part II, I am providing my tips on what to feed chickens.
What to Feed Chickens: My Approach and Tips for Feeding Your Flock
In my last post, I discussed some of the conflicting advice you may find on the internet and elsewhere about what to feed chickens. But in my opinion, there is no one right answer. Take the time to inform yourself about the different opinions out there, and evaluate why someone might insist so strongly that there is only one right way. Then choose the approach that’s right for you, your circumstances, and your reasons for raising chickens in the first place.
And for one more piece of information in your chicken keeping arsenal, here is my approach to feeding chickens and some helpful tips on feeding your flock.
Commercial layer feed: Each morning I add a big scoop (about 2-1/2 cups or 1/2 cup per chicken) of Nutrena NatureWise layer feed to the chicken feeder. This commercial mix contains 16 percent protein along with calcium and other nutrients needed to promote egg production.
Tips for using commercial layer feed:
- Use the correct feed for the age of your flock, such as starter/grower feed for chickens under 18 weeks of age or all-flock feed for mixed flocks of layers and non-layers.
- Commercial feed usually comes in both pellet and crumble varieties. I have used both types, but find that less feed is wasted when using pellets. However, smaller birds may find crumbles easier to eat. What you choose is a matter of preference.
- Proper feed storage is important to prevent spoilage. Moldy food can cause mycotoxicosis. I store my feed in metal container with a tightly-fitted lid to keep the food dry and rodents and other animals out.
- Likewise, to prevent spoilage, don’t buy more feed than your chickens can eat in about four weeks’ time. Use up all the old feed before starting a new bag.
- Put the feed out in the morning, before providing any treats, to encourage consumption. I leave the feed out all day, and by evening it is gone.
Scratch: Scratch is a mixture of grains and seeds, such cracked corn, wheat, oats, milo, and barley. Chickens love it. You can mix your own or buy a commercial blend, which is what I do. Except on hot summer days (see below), I always toss a couple of handfuls of scratch around the pen for the chickens to find. Like the name implies, scratch promotes natural chicken feeding behaviors – scratching and pecking.
Tips for using scratch:
- Scratch is essentially chicken junk food, with lots of empty calories. Limit it to no more than 10 percent of the chicken’s diet and don’t provide it until later in the day once the chickens have had a chance to fill up on their balanced feed ration.
- Scratch increases a chicken’s body temperature when digested. To prevent heat stress, don’t provide scratch on hot days. On the other hand, on cold winter days, an extra serving of scratch (especially cracked corn) right before bed will help the chickens stay warm through the night.
- Store scratch as you would store feed (see above).
Meal worms: If scratch is chicken junk food, dried meal worms are chicken crack. You want to win over a chicken in a hurry? Offer meal worms. Not only do chickens adore them, they are a good source of protein. My chickens are confined to a pen with straw bedding over a concrete floor. While they do get the occasional bug in there, a daily treat (or two or three – who am I kidding?) of meal worms makes up for the bug protein they would get if they were able to free range.
Grit: Chickens don’t have teeth, but instead swallow small bits of rock to grind their food. Unless your chickens free range (where they can find natural grit) or eat nothing but commercial feed (which is easily digestible), you need to provide grit. Feed stores sell bags of commercial grit. Either mix it into their scratch or provide a small feeder of grit to be consumed on a free-choice basis. I have used both methods with success.
Oyster shells: Commercial layer feed does contain calcium supplements, but sometimes your laying hens will need an additional calcium boost. Thin-shelled eggs may be a sign that a chicken needs more calcium. Ground oyster shells, which you can buy at a feed store, are a good source. I provide a small container of free-choice oyster shells that my hens can help themselves to whenever they need it. In lieu of oyster shells, some people provide crushed eggshells, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it.)
Vegetables, fruits, and green treats: I liberally provide green treats like grass clippings, clover, dandelion greens, lettuce, garden vegetables, berries, and melons. When I prepare dinner, I keep a container nearby to collect things like carrot peels and pepper guts to feed to the chickens. I also give them garden waste like overgrown zucchinis (cut in half lengthwise) or lettuce that has bolted. Some things they like better than others, and their favorites seem to be cucumbers, carrot tops, and corn cobs.
As a general rule, chickens can eat any plant foods that we can, although there are some exceptions (see my list of foods to avoid). Also avoid old, fibrous plants like long, stringy grass, which may cause digestive problems, or anything to which pesticides or other chemicals recently have been applied.
Other table scraps: Again, applying the general rule that chickens can eat most things we can, I sometimes provide table scraps such as leftover meat, shrimp tails, rice, and oatmeal (warm oatmeal on a cold winter day is a special treat). My chickens are pretty much indifferent to bread products, so I don’t waste my time, and I don’t feed them eggs or cooked poultry, although some people do feed those things to their chickens.
Do not overfeed table scraps (use the 10 percent rule), and make sure to take note of the foods to avoid and to limit.
Food to avoid or limit: If you are a dog owner, you know that there are some people foods that can be harmful to dogs. The same is true for chickens. My personal rule is that I won’t feed something to my chickens that I won’t feed to my dogs – like chocolate, onions, and caffeine. That philosophy may be over inclusive, but it helps me avoid confusion about what to feed my pets. In addition, there are foods that may be harmful to chickens or may alter the taste of their eggs.
Foods to avoid include:
- Anything greasy, fatty, sugary, salty, spoiled, or moldy.
- Potato peels, uncooked white, red or gold potatoes (sweet potatoes are okay), and all parts of the potato plant. Potatoes are in the nightshade family and contain solanine, which can be toxic to chickens.
- Other members of the nightshade family – raw eggplants and eggplant leaves, green tomatoes and tomato leaves and vines, and rhubarb leaves and stalks.
- All parts of the avocado, which contains persin, which can be toxic to chickens.
- Apple seeds, which contain cyanide.
- Dried, uncooked beans, which contain a natural insecticide that can be harmful to chickens.
Foods to limit include:
- Cooked potatoes and eggplant and ripe tomatoes: As noted above, these plants are members of the nightshade family and contain solanine, which is still present in small amounts after cooking or ripening.
- Spinach: My chickens love spinach but I limit the amount I give them because it may interfere with calcium absorption, which in turn may impact egg production.
- Citrus fruits: Like spinach, the Vitamin C in citrus fruits may interfere with chickens’ ability to absorb calcium.
- Yogurt and other dairy: My chickens love dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese, but I limit these treats. The lactose in dairy is hard for chickens to digest and can lead to loose stools.
- Strongly flavored foods like asparagus, onion, and garlic may alter the taste of the eggs.
A few more tips for feeding your flock:
- Avoid abrupt changes in diet. If changing feed, do it gradually over the course of a week to 10 days. Begin with a mixture of about 80 percent current feed and 20 percent new feed, and gradually increase the ratio until the transition is complete.
- Spend time with your flock when you feed them to make sure no one is getting bullied away from the feeder. If bullying occurs, provide additional feeders.
- Providing additional protein during the annual molt can help chickens regrow their feathers faster. Good protein sources include meal worms, sunflower seeds, meat scraps, or even a handful of dog or cat food.
- Always provide plenty of fresh, clean water.
And one more piece of advice, to reiterate what I stated in Part I, there is no one right answer to the question of what to feed chickens. Do your research, and choose the approach that’s right for you and the well-being of your chickens.