As with most growing animals, a flock of laying hens requires different nutrients at different life stages and throughout different seasons of the year. Your flock’s extra dietary and digestive needs will largely be met by the variety of supplements provided in addition to daily chicken feed.
You’ll need to think about stimulation, too. Nothing wins over a flock of chickens like a good treat.
Let’s look at how to provide a balanced daily feed ration first and allow some forage time. Then we can shamelessly enjoy bonding and building trust with your chickens by offering fun treats—in moderation, of course.
That’s the secret every chicken keeper knows. The way to a chicken’s heart is through her crop.
Chicken Feed, For Starters
Eating—that’s what chickens do best. Nature has expertly designed them to convert a variety of edible plants, insects, seeds and other living things into fuel for their daily activities. And chickens are certainly happier when they can realize their true nature.
Foraging is a very basic part of being a chicken. It’s their livelihood.
So why have modern chickens been converted to a diet consisting almost solely of cheap grains? Well, unlike ruminants such as cattle (whose seven stomachs evolved to digest grasses best), chickens are fairly good at converting grains and legumes, such as corn and soy, into the protein of their meat or eggs.
But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.
When lacking a varied diet (and in particular, the greens found on pasture), a chicken’s egg and meat quality plummets. The good omega-3 fatty acids decline, and the omega-6 fatty acids skyrocket. It’s no wonder the chicken egg has developed a reputation for being an unhealthy source of cholesterol and “bad” fats and is often written off as a harmful food.
In reality, the modern chicken has just been producing the best egg it can on the feed it is given.
Upon learning this, my knee-jerk reaction was to set all of my hens free to forage for their food on our property. But after learning more about chicken nutrition, I realized that this extreme wasn’t the best route, either.
Unlike their ancient Asiatic ground fowl ancestors (or the feral Key West chicken, for that matter), domesticated poultry can rarely meet all of their nutritional needs by foraging. Small backyards or suburban lots do not have substantial fare to support a flock for very long, if at all.
The bottom line is that variety—and balance—is best. In addition to a well-rounded commercial feed, give your gals a chance to stretch their wings and legs by grazing on grass for a few hours each day. Just because they eat commercial feed ration doesn’t mean they need to stay cooped up.
Any time spent foraging will be great for morale, alleviating boredom, providing exercise and supplementing their diet.
They’ll be happier if they can realize their true “chicken nature.” Both you and your flock will find the time fun and entertaining.
And, if your birds must stay confined to a coop, run or enclosure, give them some greens as treats. Or better yet, grow them yourself. Your chickens, their eggs and ultimately your diet will be healthier for it.
The Main Course
Like other prepackaged animal and pet food, commercial poultry feed is a relatively new commodity. Before the advent of manufactured feed and industrial trucking routes, domestic poultry likely relied on foraging close to home. They “hunted” for bugs, grubs and other small insects, and ate scraps from the kitchen. They foraged for seeds, grains and, of course, grasses.
As omnivores who spend nearly every waking minute focused on finding food, this lifestyle suited chickens well for quite a while. But, over time, domestic chickens were bred toward the most efficient conversion ratios. This means they were able to convert the least amount of food into the largest amount of protein (whether that be eggs or meat).
In the last century or so, intensive breeding has turned the domestic chicken into a veritable egg-making machine. The modern layer needs much more in the way of nutrients than her ancestors in order to stay healthy and keep up with her body’s egg-laying demands.
In combination with healthy greens or pasture time, a good commercial feed is crucial to keeping each hen in her best health.
What’s in Chicken Feed?
Each brand of chicken feed will have a slightly different “recipe.” The best way to know exactly what is in your bird’s food is to take a glance at the label.
Corn and soy are two foods often found at the very top of the ingredients list on a bag of commercial chicken feed. Wheat or wheat meal often runs a close third. Aside from being high-allergen foods, corn and soy are nearly all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) unless purchased organic.
Furthermore, cross-contamination of fields leads to adulterated wheat as well. The good news is that there are more organic choices readily available today. Some brands now make soy-free and even gluten-free chicken feeds for keepers with intolerances or for those who opt to stay away from GMOs.
Other ingredients in commercial chicken feed may include:
- field peas
- rice bran
- oils (such as sunflower)
- alfalfa meal
- a variety of yeasts and added vitamins
But because brands vary widely in their ingredients, additives and preservatives (if any), read labels closely and call the manufacturer if you have questions. Chicken feed should be consumed within about three months from time of purchase. Even though it will still be edible, its nutritional value rapidly declines beyond that time.
Crumbles, Pellets or Mash?
Chicken feed is available in three types, or textures: crumbles, pellets and mash.
With their texture, crumbles are the most popular form of commercial chicken feed. Crumbles are actually just crushed pellets.
Despite its popularity, crumbled feed may lead to some wasted food because it spills rather easily from the feeder.
Compact capsules of feed, pellets are specially designed to contain a balanced ratio of nutrients in each morsel. In fact, this is the major advantage to feeding pellets to your birds. They receive complete nutrition in each pellet.
They don’t pick out the pieces they like and leave the rest.
A major disadvantage is that birds tend to eat pellets rather quickly, become satiated, and then bored without anything to pick and eat. And bored chickens will usually pick on each other instead.
A flock with a lot of pasture time will do well on a diet of pellets.
Very simply, mash is all of the individual ingredients of a chicken feed recipe mixed together but easily recognizable to the birds. Chickens fed mash tend to pick out what they like and leave the rest.
This is a major disadvantage to feeding mash. Much of the feed is wasted if the birds refuse to eat certain ingredients. Plus, ignoring some of the less desirable ingredients may lead to nutritional deficiencies.
There are ways around this, however. The easiest is to make a wet mash with the remaining feed by adding water and mixing thoroughly. Birds love it.
The biggest advantage to feeding mash is that, unlike pellets that have been processed into morsels, the ingredients in mash have never been heated or processed and retain many of their nutrients.
Whatever texture or brand of feed you choose to buy, it’s most important that you purchase the appropriate feed for the age and life stage of your flock. The feed should also meet the hen’s needs based on the season and temperature and her breed’s weight, size and rate of lay.
Generally speaking, chicks and breeder birds require a bit more protein. Layers require a bit more calcium. And almost all birds eat a bit more of everything in winter and a bit less in summer.
When to graduate from chick to adult feed and how to make the transition will largely depend on the brand you choose. Read the label thoroughly and call the company to learn how and when they recommend transitioning your birds from one feed to the next.
The four types of feed are:
- grower (or developer)
- broiler and finisher
Each is designed to meet the needs of different birds in different life stages. You’ll need to pick the feed that fits your intended use for your birds. Many keepers begin with starter feed for newly hatched chicks, then switch to grower feed past the chick stage and still growing. They switch to layer feed once their chickens reach point of lay.
Broiler feed is generally for meat birds, provides high amounts of protein—around 30 percent—and comes in formulations for different life stages.
It’s important to consider what life stage your birds are in, and feed accordingly. Not all nutritional profiles are acceptable for birds at all ages. You can harm their health if you offer an incorrect diet.
A Side of Grit & Shells
There are two main supplements that every chicken keeper should become intimately familiar with: grit and oyster shells. Both supplements look like tiny rocks or very small gravel. They are easy to source since they are very common supplements for backyard chicken keepers.
Every egg-laying flock will need both of these supplements. Some chicken keepers will argue that layer feed completely covers the digestive and reproductive needs of laying hens (it can). Similarly, others will insist that free-ranging chickens are able to pick up all the “grit” they need from the ground (sometimes they do).
But pet chickens are often fed scraps and treats that require additional digestive effort. And pastured birds will eventually run out of natural grit wherever they roam. However you choose to feed your chickens, they’ll need access to the grit and oyster shells that you provide.
How to Supplement
If there were a cornerstone in the digestive system of a chicken, it would be grit. Without teeth to chew their food, chickens rely on these little rocks to team up with the strong muscles of the gizzard to mash and grind everything they eat into manageable, digestible bits.
A bird deprived of grit may experience a variety of digestive issues, such as impacted crop, sour crop and other digestive blockages. Repercussions ranging in severity from severe discomfort to death.
Begin offering grit to chicks as young as 1 to 2 weeks old if they eat any food other than their designated starter feed, such as treats, or if they spend any time outside on pasture. Choose chick-sized grit for young birds.
If this product isn’t available at your farm and garden store, check pet stores for parakeet grit or grit for other small pet birds. Once your young flock reaches its adult size, switch to the standard-sized chicken grit.
Many of the egg-laying breeds of chickens we hold dear have been developed and refined over time to produce the maximum number of eggs possible. The production of eggs, however, requires a substantial amount of calcium—about 2 grams per egg, in fact.
What happens when a hen doesn’t have all the calcium she needs? She could experience reproductive issues, such as prolapse, and exhibit cannibalistic behaviors, such as egg eating. Her eggs’ shells will lose strength over time and may become deformed or even shell-less.
Eventually, a hen with a true calcium deficiency will develop weakened and brittle bones as her reproductive system pulls the calcium it needs from her body. Fortunately, the remedy is so simple.
Providing a laying flock with oyster shells every day of the year is a quick, easy and inexpensive preventive measure for a host of reproductive problems. It keeps you flush with eggs, too.
Pullets do not need extra calcium until they actively lay. In fact, an overabundance of calcium could be harmful to young chicks. So hold off on offering oyster shells to immature birds.
A good rule of thumb is to begin offering this supplement to a flock upon maturity—at point of lay—or once the first few eggs start showing up.
Herbs, Flowers & Superfoods
Many herbs, plants and foods naturally boast immense healing and health-promoting properties. There are herbs and plants—whether fresh in the garden or dried—that effectively repel nasty bugs; make excellent tonics and tinctures; and have antimicrobial, antiviral and antiparasitic properties. Some are nutrient-dense foods eaten just as they are.
Most of the following herbs and plants are really easy to grow in any size garden or pot, and the so-called superfoods are easy to find at grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
Treat your Birds
A flock regularly offered treats will quickly learn to trust and follow their keepers. This comes in handy when training, breeding, preparing a bird for show, or administering medical care.
Plus, giving treats is just fun; it gives you a chance to watch your birds, study their behavior and get to know their individual personalities while they chirp, peep and squabble over snacks.
Scratching the Surface
Scratch is the quintessential chicken treat. Each manufacturer of scratch will have a slightly different recipe. But the main ingredients are usually whole grains (cracked corn, wheat and barley) with secondary ingredients such as sunflower seeds, dried mealworms, flaxseeds and even dried fruit like cranberries and raisins.
As you can imagine, scratch is like candy for chickens. In fact, a wise chicken keeper knows to consider it as such.
You can give just about any unprocessed food scrap from the kitchen to your chickens. This includes scraps or cuttings from nearly every fruit or vegetable, with a few exceptions. (Read “Do Not Feed” sidebar, below.)
My flock adores fruit such as overripe bananas, peaches, apples, raisins and every berry variety I’ve ever offered to them. Applesauce is always a huge hit.
Most chickens also love leafy greens, summer squash, winter squash, tomatoes and other soft vegetables, too.
Chickens also adore meat. It’s a great source of extra protein for certain times of the year, such as when the flock is molting.
Just make sure bones are large enough to prevent swallowing, and remove them from the coop after a day or so. Dairy products are also fine in moderation. In fact, yogurt is a great source of probiotics. When mixed with the crumbs and powder at the bottom of the feedbag, it makes a great treat while keeping waste to a minimum.
Pasta, stale bread and rice are tried-and-true favorites, too, as long as they are well cooked and offered in moderation. Cooked eggs and crushed eggshells are also well loved by chickens. As long as the eggs are cooked and the shells are crushed, this treat won’t encourage egg-eating behavior.
Whatever the food item, just be sure that the pieces are a manageable size for a chicken to gobble up. Leafy greens, in particular, should be chopped or torn into smaller pieces. Chickens tend to get greedy and excited when they see the scrap bucket — a potentially lethal combination if an individual swallows large, whole chunks of food in a hurry.
You Are What Your Chickens Eat
Have you ever heard the phrase “You are what you eat”? Well, it’s no different when it comes to raising chickens for eggs.
For instance, many people with gluten or soy intolerances show sensitivities to factory-farmed eggs but are able to eat eggs from pastured hens. This is because the factory-farmed hens may be fed products that contain these and other potential allergens.
Pastured hens, on the other hand, live on a diet that largely consists of natural grasses, seeds and bugs, and will be supplemented with feed (hopefully organic). If you or a family member experience any sensitivities to certain foods—especially top allergens like soy—consider purchasing chicken feed that does not contain these ingredients.
You may also want to consider purchasing organic chicken feed. Organic feed may come with a slightly higher price tag, but it also comes with better overall results and health benefits.
The only way to be sure that you aren’t buying or eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is if you purchase certified organic products. If you do purchase feed that contains corn, cornmeal, soy or soybean meal, consider buying organic to reduce your chickens’ intake of GMOs.
After all, you raise chickens to feed yourself and your family the best food possible. This starts with what your chickens eat.
Do NOT Feed
There are many plants that could pose a potential risk to your birds if ingested, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. Some chickens will instinctively keep a distance from toxic plants. Some will not.
Plus, not every toxic plant is equally toxic. This isn’t a comprehensive list by any measure. If you’re unsure of a plant’s toxicity, ask the horticulture experts at your local nursery or consult your avian veterinarian.
- avocado (the pit contains a toxic fatty acid called persin which is fatal to all birds)
- black locust
- black nightshade
- castor bean
- corn cockle
- monkshood, wolfbane
- morning glory seeds
- nightshade plant leaves (eggplants, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes)
- poison hemlock
- potatoes, green or sprouted
- rhubarb leaves (the oxalic acid contained in them is also poisonous to humans)
- soybeans, raw (enzymes in the bean’s raw form can cause digestive upset)
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.