What to Feed Chickens: The Controversy

What to Feed Chickens: The ControversyIn Part I of a two-part series, I am taking a look at the controversy around what to feed backyard chickens and providing some advice on how to evaluate the conflicting information you may find out there.

What to Feed Chickens: The Controversy

In these times of #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter, Hillary vs. the Donald, who would have thought that chicken feed could be such a controversial topic?

Yet what to feed chickens is one of those hot button topics about which people have widely-varying and deeply-rooted beliefs. Some people believe chickens should be fed nothing but commercial poultry feed scientifically formulated to provide optimal nutrition. Others prefer to feed their flocks an all natural, homegrown diet much the way our ancestors fed their chickens back on the farm. In the middle are a whole lot of people who supplement commercial poultry feed with kitchen scraps, scratch grains, and more.

What to Feed Chickens: My Take on the Controversy

So what is the right way to feed chickens? Especially if you are new to backyard chickens, you may be confused by the conflicting advice about what to feed chickens. But there is no one right answer. Take the approach that’s right for you, your circumstances, and your reasons for raising chickens in the first place.

Do you want or need the convenience of a commercial feed-only diet? That’s just fine! You can rest assured knowing commercial feed is designed to provide chickens with the right balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals to meet their needs at their particular stage in life. Depending on how much you want to spend, you should have options for organic or non-GMO feed if you prefer.

Are you seeking food independence and want to feed your flock using only your own resources? Good for you! You can let your flock free range for greens, seeds, and bugs as they would in the wild, or you can raise and mix your own feed. But understand this self-sustaining approach will require sufficient land resources, the right climate, lots of time, and substantial knowledge (beyond the scope of this post). It may be tricky – if not impossible – to achieve the right nutritional balance that your flock needs year-round. If this is the approach you would like to take, I encourage you to research, research, research (and seek expert advice).

Do you like the convenience of commercial feed but would like to supplement what you buy at the feed store with table scraps, garden waste, scratch, and whatever chickens are able to forage on their own? Great! That’s what a lot of chicken keepers do, including I. This approach allows you to save money on feed while converting your food waste into more food. Your laying hens may produce fewer eggs than those on a strict diet of properly-balanced commercial layer feed, but if you aren’t raising chickens solely for their eggs, you may not notice or care. What you may notice is that the eggs taste better and have darker yolks and thicker shells than store-bought eggs.

What to Feed Chickens: A Cautionary Tale

In evaluating the available information, one thing you shouldn’t do is take one person’s word – mine included – as gospel. There’s a lot of advice out there. Be skeptical of those who insist that one way is absolutely right or another way is absolutely wrong. Consider whether they have any self-interest or bias. And consider whether they’ve provided sufficient evidence to support their positions.

Take for example a recent post by a blogger with a large social media following. This post claimed that a certain recipe for adding natural supplements to commercial layer feed – a recipe found in a best-selling book on natural chicken keeping, by the way – caused the deaths of five hens in a small backyard flock several days after the hens began eating the supplemented feed. The blogger, who is an attorney by profession, even provided an “expert witness” (a veterinarian) to support her claim. The veterinarian reportedly conducted a necropsy (or autopsy) on one of the hens and determined the cause of death to be necrotic enteritis, a bacterial infection of the intestinal system. With no evidence of internal parasites and the recent change in the hen’s diet, the veterinarian opined that the feed recipe was the cause of the infection.

Now, as an attorney myself, I would love to cross examine that expert witness. For one thing, did she rule out all of the other potential causes of necrotic enteritis? According to an article by the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas, potential causes include stress, mold toxins from improperly stored food, and disease organisms transmitted by rodents and wild birds. The post mentioned none of those things. Also, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, a drastic change in diet may predispose a chicken to necrotic enteritis. Would it have been more accurate to conclude that the abrupt change in diet was the problem, not the new diet itself? (Oh, do I love a good cross examination!)

So what was the blogger’s motive in trying to discredit a respected natural chicken keeping resource anyway? I can only speculate, but I did note that the blog post in question was sponsored by Purina. I’m sure her corporate sponsor was delighted with the blogger’s conclusion that feeding a backyard flock anything other than “an unaltered complete layer feed” can endanger the flock.

The bottom line is that you should never view one self-interested blogger as the final authority on what to feed chickens. Make a point to inform yourself. Look all at the options and different perspectives and decide what works best for you and the well-being of your chickens.

Your flock will be all the better for it.

What to Feed Chickens: The Controversy

My hens enjoying a treat of corn cobs and cantaloupe rinds.

Coming up in Part II: My tips for feeding the flock.