Feeding chickens with nutritionally balanced, bagged livestock and poultry feed is a fairly recent and welcome development. One hundred years ago, poultry keepers grew their own produce for feeding chickens or fashioned it from bulk ingredients.
Consider chick starter. In 1909, Arthur Johnson wrote Chickens and How to Raise Them. In it he stressed the importance of chicks’ first meals to a healthy start.
“For the first meal, there is nothing like the old-fashioned hardboiled egg and stale bread crumbs, the former being well minced and mixed up with the latter,” he wrote. “A little of this should be sprinkled upon a sack, and the chickens will in most cases immediately begin to eat.”
In a couple of hours or so, Johnson said, the chicken keeper may offer another meal. The next day, the chicken keeper could add some coarse oatmeal to the mixture.
“Unfertile eggs are just as good as fresh ones,” he wrote, “but this food should not be used exclusively or excessively, and not after the third day, unless the chickens are very weak and the weather against them. Having discontinued it gradually, some scalded biscuit-meal may be given with the oatmeal, and green food added to the bill of fare.”
Green food enjoyed high regard in the day. It still impacts the fare of our chickens, whether chicks, layers or slow-growing heritage meat birds. Johnson couldn’t stress enough the importance of a good supply of fresh, juicy vegetables, particularly in late winter, when green is hard to find.
“Lettuce, cabbage and onions can always be obtained, and the last-named is an excellent vegetable for chickens if minced up,” he wrote. “They are cheap, always obtainable, wholesome and prevent many diseases.”
Myrtle Wilcoxon wrote Common Sense on Poultry Raising in 1906 and heartily agreed. Her favorite chicken feed from the garden was the mangel-wurzel, also known as the mangel or fodder beet, an astoundingly productive, easy-to-grow, old-time vegetable still right for today’s poultry garden. A single root weighs as much as 20 pounds, and mangels keep well in winter storage.
“Where fowls are kept in pens and yards throughout the year, it is always best to supply some green food,” she wrote. “During the winter and early spring months, mangel-wurzels, if properly kept, may be fed to good advantage. The fowls relish them, and they are easily prepared. As it is not difficult to grow from 10 to 20 tons of these roots per acre, their cost is not excessive.”
When feeding chickens the beets, Wilcoxon advised splitting the root lengthwise with a large knife. The chickens can then pick out the crisp, fresh food from the exposed cut surface. Large pieces have the advantage over smaller pieces in this respect: The smaller pieces when fed from troughs or dishes fall into the litter and soil more or less before consumption. Large pieces can’t be thrown about as easily and remain clean and fresh until wholly consumed.
Fanny Field, author of The Excelsior Poultry Book (1891), preferred cabbage and clover. “If we would keep our fowls in the best of health and have them lay regularly in cold weather, we must supply them with some kind of green food that will, as nearly as possible, fill the place of the green grass that they get while at large in warm weather,” she wrote. “Some poultry raisers claim that raw cabbage is ‘the best’ green food, while others declare that clover is better than cabbage. I think the better way is to feed both if you can get them.”
Field advised to hang the head of cabbage to the side of the coop. There, the birds could reach it and let them help themselves. Don’t worry about their eating too much good food, she wrote. “When it is where they can get at it all the time, they won’t eat enough to hurt them.”
In addition to green food, turn-of-the-century chickens ate rations comprising grains, protein from milk or meat, and scraps from the family’s table.
“Bits of bread, cheese, meat, cake, pie, doughnuts, all kinds of vegetables are served up to the hens,” Field wrote. “Nothing in the way of food comes amiss. Of course, where a large number of fowls are kept,
the table scraps will not be sufficient to make the fowls’ breakfast every morning, but if all the scraps are carefully saved in something kept for the purpose, there will be enough to give an occasional breakfast that will be liked by the fowls.”
Field’s preparation included scalding or boiling the table scraps enough to soften them. She then mixed in enough wheat bran to make a stiff, crumbly mass.
“For some of the other breakfasts, boil up the small potatoes, apples, turnips, carrots, beets, parsnips, beans, peas, squashes, pumpkins, celery tops, sometimes one thing, sometimes another. Mash them, and then mix up with bran and shorts [wheat middlings] and sometimes a little cornmeal,” she wrote.
The Ideal Plan
In The Home Poultry Book (1913), author Edward Farrington described an ideal feeding plan for a small flock of chickens.
“Good sound grain in variety, with a mixture of ground grains served as a mash, a certain amount of meat in some form and green food in abundance will fill all the requirements,” he wrote. “The grains to use are corn, oats, wheat, barley and Kaffir corn [sorghum]. Corn, oats and wheat are the grains to be depended upon month in and month out. The others are fed to give variety but really are not necessary.”
Farrington especially adored corn. “Corn is the best poultry food there is, and the danger that it will make the fowls too fat to lay is a bugaboo to which little attention need be paid. Cracked corn is better than whole corn simply because it makes the hen work harder to fill her crop, and exercise is important.”
The Spice of Life
The Excelsior Poultry Book author Field earned a reputation as an outspoken lady. And she really loved chickens. Her nutrition advice included feeding chickens a variety. This was not just for health reasons but because the chickens needed it for their mental well-being.
“Don’t give the same kind of cooked food every morning right through the winter,” she wrote. “Give as much variety as possible. I don’t like the same kind of breakfast 50 or 60 mornings in succession. And I don’t believe hens do either.”
Wet Their Whistles
Our authors stressed that supplements and plenty of water are important, too.
“Only the veriest tyro [beginner] needs to be told that oyster shells and grit must be kept in hoppers where the hens can have access to them at all times,” Farrington wrote.
He also noted that without water, hens will not lay eggs. During summer, he advised providing fresh water at least twice a day.
“It is an advantage to have the water dish in a shaded place outside the house and an iron or earthenware dish will help to keep the water palatable,” he wrote.
Field addressed winter water for hens in the same way she addresses feeding chickens. She was direct, with her chickens’ welfare in mind.
“Many farmers who would not think of depriving their fowls of drink in warm weather, make no effort to supply them with water in cold weather,” she wrote. “They seem to think that the biddies can get along somehow without drink, but the fowls that ‘get along somehow’ are not the ones that pay dividends.”
During cold weather, Field suggested keeping a supply of pure, fresh water available to your flock during the greater part of the day. And be sure it’s a bit warm.
“Warm drink and warm food makes the fowls feel comfortable,” she wrote.
Vintage poultry books contain a lot of interesting, often adaptable old-time advice for feeding chickens. Download a few from the Heritage Biodiversity Library or buy reprints from today’s booksellers. They are fun to read and informative, too.
All the vintage poultry books we discuss in this column are available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium of libraries dedicated to making digital a huge array of old-time natural history and agricultural books and journals so they’re available as free downloads to anyone who wants to read them.
More than 200,000 titles are available, including more than 50 general-interest poultry books. And a plethora of books just about chickens including breeds and bantams, geese, ducks, turkeys and guinea fowl. It’s a resource every poultry keeper should have.
This article was originally written for Chickens magazine online and is regularly updated for accuracy. Click here to subscribe.