Nutrition Matters: How To Add Supplements To Chickens’ Diet

Extras such as grains, scraps and greens should be kept to certain levels, while grit and calcium are supplements that should be available at all times.

by Lesa Wilke
PHOTO: Lesa Wilke

Chickens love eating scratch grains, kitchen scraps, and yard or garden greens. But, because commercially prepared poultry feeds are designed to satisfy a chicken’s nutritional needs, these extra bits should be fed sparingly as treats. They dilute the nutritional value of the chicken ration, so it’s recommended that treats make up no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of a chicken’s diet. In addition to feeding treats sparingly, it’s best to feed them at the end of the day. That way, the flock will already have eaten enough chicken feed to meet their dietary needs. Also—unlike scratch, scraps and greens—grit and calcium are two supplements that should be made available for chickens at all times.

Scratch Grains

Chicken scratch usually contains grains such as barley, corn or wheat. These grains are generally low in protein but high in carbohydrates. Chickens adore scratch grains, but overfeeding dilutes the nutrients in the chicken ration and can also make chickens “fat.”

Including oats, sunflower and flax seed in the scratch mix can be beneficial. Oats provide more protein, fiber and antioxidants than most scratch grains and also provide vitamins, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and zinc. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin B and E, while flax seed will increase the omega-3 levels in the eggs a hen produces.

Kitchen Scraps

Chickens make great garbage disposal substitutes. In general, if it’s good for you, it’s probably good for them, too. Avoid any stale, rancid or moldy scraps and a few healthy human foods, which are toxic to chickens, such as avocados, dry uncooked beans, caffeine, chocolate, onions, rhubarb and members of the nightshade family (eggplants, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes). Scraps from most other fruits, vegetables, bread, lean cooked meats, cooked seafood and eggs can all be safely fed to chickens.

Yard & Garden Greens

Limited amounts of grass, weeds and garden scraps are also good for chickens and help make egg yolks a deep-yellow color. If your chickens already free-range, then they’re probably getting a good supply of greens. If not, feed greens from your yard and garden. Chickens enjoy grass, herbs and weeds, such as dandelions, chickweed, lavender, nettles, oregano, parsley and thyme.

Most garden greens are also good for them, but there are a few—such as those from the nightshade family—that should not be fed. When feeding grasses or garden plants, avoid fibrous stalks and chop grasses into fine pieces to help the chickens digest them. Also, don’t feed any greens that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides.

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Grit & Oyster Shell

Grit and a calcium source are two supplements that chickens should have available free-choice. Chickens don’t have teeth so they need continuous access to insoluble grit so they can grind their food into digestible sizes and avoid an impacted crop. Oyster shell is commonly provided as their calcium supplement or you can save, dry and crush eggshells to feed back to the chickens for calcium.

Your chickens will enthusiastically eat any grains, scratch or greens you take the time to add to their diet. Just be sure to avoid the few foods that are not good for them, and add most supplements in moderation.

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.

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