What should you feed chickens? What to feed backyard chickens.
Owning a flock of backyard chickens is so much fun. Chickens are some of the most rewarding pets that you can own since they will literally pay you back with eggs.
Although you may think of your chickens as members of the family and beloved pets, it can be hard to know what to feed backyard chickens. Keep reading to learn what is safe to feed your chickens, how to feed them and what’s not safe to feed chickens.
Are you ready to get serious about your chickens’ health? Grab a free copy of my chicken first aid kit checklist to stock your first aid kit before an emergency happens!
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What chickens typically eat
Chickens, although they are a domestic animal, they aren’t that far removed from their wild ancestors. If you turn a chicken out on it’s own, it can manage to forage all of its food to meet its nutritional needs.
In fact, chickens that are allowed to forage are overall healthier birds. Allowing your chickens time out of the coop will not only provide them with a healthier diet, but, since they can find most of their food on their own, it will also lower (or dare I say) eliminate your feed bill!
But, I totally understand that not all chickens can be allowed to free-range. I can only imagine the chickens that are raised in backyards of suburban houses. My chickens would have a hay-day hopping fences just to check out what’s going on in neighbor’s yards.
Chickens that are confined to a coop can be just as healthy and happy as chickens that can get out. You just need to know what they can and can’t eat.
To better appreciate what your chickens need in their diet, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what chickens would choose to eat. In order to do that, let’s talk about what pastured chickens eat.
When you say ‘pastured’ chickens, you probably think about chickens foraging on lush, green pastures. That’s not exactly how it goes down.
Chickens are omnivores, which means that they eat both plants and other animals. Chickens get about 60% of their diet from insects, give or take. The rest of their diet is composed of seeds, berries and leaves of plants.
So technically, yes, pastured chickens do eat grass, but that’s not the only thing they eat. They’ll spend the majority of their time on the pasture in search of insects to eat.
Some of the favorite insects for chickens to eat include:
- grasshoppers and crickets
My chickens have free run of our farm during the day. They’ve created a sort of fly-control relationship with our horses, goats and cows. They will go into the pastures and peck flies right off of the livestock. They’ll even stand on the fences to get flies up on the backs of the other animals.
What ever works, right?
And don’t put it past chickens to eat small snakes, frogs and even little mice. We’ve seen our flocks attack them before and then proceed to eat them.
Now that you know that chickens naturally eat both plants and animals, let’s talk about how that translates over into chicken feed.
Chickens eat insects mainly as a source of protein. Therefore all chicken feed needs to have some source of protein that is going to provide similar nutrition.
Chickens consume grasses for fiber, vitamins and minerals. Your chicken feed needs to have similar nutrition.
Most chicken feeds will also have a source of calcium. This is important for laying hens.
When you’re picking out a type of chicken feed, pay attention to the percent protein in the feed and what type of chicken the feed is advertised or created for. For example, some feeds will be created for chicks and may say “Chick Starter”.
You’ll notice that you can get organic feed, feed that is medicated and feed that is either crumbled or pelletized.
There are many options of feed available for chickens. Here are some questions that you need to ask yourself to help determine which kind of feed you need to buy:
- Are you feeding chicks or adults?
Baby chicks have small beaks and cannot consume large pellets. Opt for a chick starter crumbled feed.
- Are you feeding meat chickens or egg-layers?
Meat chickens require a larger amount of protein (22%) and don’t need extra calcium. Laying hens need extra calcium (2%) and don’t need as much protein (16%).
- Is your chicken molting?
Chickens will occasionally shed old feathers and regrow new ones in their place. When this happens, it’s called molting. To help your chicken go through molting easier, increase the amount of protein in their diet. The extra protein will help them to grow new feathers faster.
- Do you plan on feeding organic?
There are plenty of options out there for organic chicken feed. Keep in mind that while organic feed may be healthier, it’s also more expensive.
- Will your chickens have access to pasture or will they be in the coop all of the time?
If your chickens will be spending some time out of the coop then you’ll want to supplement their diet that they get while they’re out. Chickens that are confined to the coop will need you to provide them with their entire nutritional needs. Chickens that are confined to a coop will need a complete feed to make sure that they get all of the nutrients they need.
Best Feed for Egg-Laying Hens
I’m really impressed with this feed. The original Layena was a high quality feed, but the Layena+ takes it over the top.
It’s got everything that you need in a layer feed, and then some. Purina really went over the top and covered all of the points with this one.
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They’ve added omega-3 fatty acids so that eggs laid will contain 250 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. To put this in perspective, many store bought eggs only contain 50 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per egg. You’d need to consume almost half of a dozen eggs to get 250 mg of omega-3’s from a store bought egg!
One of the signs of a farm egg is the brightly colored yolk. Yolks from farm eggs are often a deep orange color, not the pale yellow seen in store bought eggs. Layena+ has marigold extract that will help give your chicken the nutrients it needs to make that deep orange yolk.
I mentioned above that laying hens need protein and extra calcium in their feed. Layena+ has 16% protein which is ideal for layer hens. It also contains almost double the amount of calcium that other layer feeds have. Most layer feeds have 2% calcium; Layena+ contains 3.5%.
When your hens don’t get enough calcium, it could stop them from laying eggs. With Layena+, they shouldn’t stop laying because they aren’t getting enough calcium.
Layena+ has added levels of lysine and methionine. Both of these are essential amino acids that the chicken needs to be healthy and happy. In fact, a lack of methionine is the number one cause of cannibalism in chickens.
Lastly, Purina has added prebiotics and probiotics to the feed to help the chicken’s digestive tract function more effectively.
Supplements to Feed
Depending on the type of feed or lifestyle that your chicken has, you’ll want to supplement their diet.
A supplement is any feed that isn’t a complete feed that is added to the diet in small amounts to complement the diet of the chicken.
A common supplement for a chicken’s diet is oyster shell. Oyster shell is used to add calcium to the bird’s diet. This is a good supplement to add if you free-range your chickens or if their feed doesn’t contain enough calcium.
Oyster shell can be put into a dish and kept in the coop. Chickens won’t overeat the oyster shell and will only take what they need.
Another supplement that may be added to the feed is grit. Chickens don’t have a digestive tract like ours. They have to ingest small rocks to grind up the feed in their gut. So if you see your bird eating small rocks, it’s normal!
Like oyster shell, you can put a small dish of grit in the coop for chickens to get as they need it. Chickens that are free-ranged may be able to find rocks on their own, but if you don’t think they can find small rocks, put a small dish of grit in the coop for them.
You’ve probably also seen mealworms and scratch grains. These are supplements that you could also consider treats.
Treats for Chickens
Chickens will eat a lot of the foods that we eat, so table scraps can be a good treat for them (more on that below).
But two of the most common treats for chickens include scratch grains and mealworms.
Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle. They may look gross to us, but to chickens they are like candy. Mealworms provide a powerful protein punch. Just feeding a few mealworms to each chicken per day is enough to seriously increase their protein intake.
Mealworms are also packed with methionine, an essential amino acid. Methionine is found in insects and animal tissues. If chickens aren’t getting enough methionine, they will start to peck one another and can cause serious injury and even kill each other just to get the methionine their bodies need.
You can avoid this by providing them with mealworms (or a high quality feed with added methionine, like Layena+).
Scratch grains are another great treat for chickens. Scratch grains are a blend of seeds and grains, and sometimes freeze dried fruit or flowers. Scratch grains are a wonderful treat, but they aren’t a complete diet for your chickens.
Scratch grains don’t contain a good source of protein, so your chickens can’t live off of scratch grains alone. If you feed scratch grains, you’ll notice that your chickens will go crazy over scratch grains.
Always feed scratch grains after your chickens have been fed their normal, complete feed, to make sure that they get the nutrition they need. Think of it like eating cake before dinner. You don’t want to fill up on the cake before you’ve eaten the healthy meal, right?
Scratch grains can be used to fulfill a chicken’s need for foraging. Chickens spend much of their day scratching and pecking, looking for insects, seeds and other bits of food. Scratch grains are tossed on the ground to allow chickens to scratch them up and mimic foraging behavior.
Best Treats for Laying Hens
Have you ever found yourself going to feed your chickens, only to look in the feed bin to see that you’re completely out of feed?
Don’t feel bad if you have. I’ve done it before myself.
I live about 30 minutes from a feed store. Almost an hour away from a good one. So, when I do find myself out of feed, it’s not always easy to just run to the feed store.
If you’re out of feed, you can make do for a day or two without hurting your chickens. There are a ton of food items that you have in your pantry or fridge that you can feed them.
These can be fed to your chickens in a pinch:
- cooked oatmeal
- cooked beans
- leafy greens
- cooked rice
- cooked meat
- cooked potatoes
Or, you can always let your chickens have some free time during the day out of their coop to get their own food. Your yard will have a lot less insects if you let them out for a day or two.
Making Your Own Feed
You can make your own chicken feed if you want. There are a few ways that you can make your own feed. Some of these methods will cut costs and save money. This is good if you’re trying to raise your chickens on a budget.
Most grains that you’d feed chickens can be sprouted and fed to your chickens. When you sprout the grain, rather than feeding it as a grain, you increase the amount of feed and the nutritional value of the feed.
For example, wheat is found in many feed blends. You can purchase a bag of wheat grain and sprout it for your chickens. All you need to do is add it to a pan of water. Once the wheat sprouts, the wheat plant will start to grow.
This can increase the amount of feed that you can give your chickens by up to 9x without increasing how much you spend.
Ok, I get it. This doesn’t sound appealing, but hear me out.
Mealworms are the larvae, or baby stage (that sounds nicer that larva) of the darkling beetle. They’re virtually odorless and quiet. Since they prefer the dark, you can even hide them right in the middle of your house and no one will know that you’re raising mealworms for your chickens.
Raising mealworms isn’t difficult either. You need to allow a few of the mealworms to grow into adults so that they can reproduce and make more mealworms for you. To do that, simply keep a few mealworms and don’t feed them to your chickens.
To feed your mealworms, put slices of potato or carrot into the mealworm’s bin every few days.
A few scrap bits of cardboard will give them places to hide out.
You can raise mealworms way cheaper than you can buy a bag of them in the store. Check out the video below for more information about raising mealworms:
Feeding Chickens Table Scraps
In the old days, chickens and pigs were the ‘garbage disposals’ of the farm. Any leftover scraps were either put onto the compost pile or fed to pigs and chickens.
Waste not, want not.
You can still feed your chickens scraps from your table. I know there is a ton of information out there about what you can and can’t feed chickens, but honestly, if it’s poisonous or not good for them, then they probably aren’t going to eat it anyways.
You might be surprised to learn that chickens can be pretty picky. For example, chickens love to eat oranges but they aren’t supposed to eat the peels or the seeds of them. When my chickens get the random orange in their coop, guess what gets left behind?
The peel and the seeds.
Chickens may not be the smartest animal, but they aren’t completely helpless either. They know that some things aren’t good for them and they won’t eat them.
Odds are if your chicken eats it, then it’s not dangerous for them to eat.
Now, with that being said, not all table scraps are healthy for your chickens. Fried foods, pasta or foods with a lot of sugar aren’t good for your chickens.
5 Healthy Treats for Chickens
Looking for healthy treats for your chickens? Here are the top 5 healthy treats to feed chickens:
1. Mealworms and Scratch Grains
We already touched on this one. Mealworms provide protein, with ample amounts of methionine. Scratch grains can help your chickens feel like they are foraging naturally.
Oatmeal is a wonderful treat for chickens, especially when it’s cooked. Grab a box of old-fashioned oats. Cook them in warm water and give them to your flock on a cold day to help them warm up.
All chickens love herbs. If you’ve ever tried to grow an herb garden and your chickens are allowed to free-range around your herb garden, you’ll know what I mean. I can’t hardly keep my chickens out of my herbs. Many herbs have amazing health benefits for your chickens.
Oregano is a powerful herb that is a natural antibiotic. Lavender can help calm chickens, just like it has a calming effect on people. Garlic, lemongrass, dill, cilantro, parsley and other herbs are also good treats for your chickens.
You’ve probably seen that pumpkin is a ‘natural dewormer’ for your chickens. Although this isn’t totally false, it’s not exactly what it seems. Pumpkin does contain a compound that has been proven to kill internal parasitic worms but in tiny amounts. However, it doesn’t hurt for your chickens to have pumpkin. I just wouldn’t rely on it as a dewormer if your chickens are having problems with worms.
With all of that being said, pumpkin itself is very healthy for your chickens. The bright orange flesh is a tasty and nutritious treat for chickens. Instead of tossing leftover Halloween pumpkins in the trash, toss them into the chicken coop (as long as they aren’t moldy).
Your flock will enjoy pecking the seeds, stringy bits and flesh clean off of the skin. The skin is tough, so cut the pumpkin open so the chickens can get to the inside.
5. Scrambled Egg
This sounds cannibalistic but your chickens won’t know the difference. One of the most common problems that people have with raising chickens at home is that they end up with a surplus of eggs. There could be worse problems to have!
When you can’t sell or give away your excess eggs, use them as a feed. Cook the eggs first and then feed them to dogs, cats or your chickens.
Chickens make eggs, therefore it’s a perfect source of nutrients for you chickens to consume to make more eggs.
A word of caution though- don’t ever feed anything (chickens, cats, dogs, etc.) raw eggs. This will create animals that will eat eggs. You don’t want to create egg-eater hens. It’s a hard habit to break once they start it. It’s best to avoid creating the problem.
What Not to Feed Chickens
There are a few things that you should avoid when feeding your chickens, especially food from your table.
Don’t feed chickens raw or green potatoes. These are actually toxic to both you and your chickens. Make sure that all potatoes are cooked.
Foods that are high in sugar don’t make good feed for your birds. It can lead to overweight hens. Hens that are overweight will develop health problems and may stop laying.
Don’t feed your chickens greasy foods. Remember, if it’s not healthy for you, it’s not healthy for your chickens.
Foods with caffeine shouldn’t be given to chickens either. I don’t know why you would try to feed chickens tea bags or coffee grounds, but just don’t. Put them in your compost pile instead where they can be useful.
How to Feed Chickens
There are some basic guidelines that you need to follow to feed your chickens properly. The time, amount and way that you feed your chickens matters more than you may realize.
The best way to feed your chickens is on the ground. Chickens are designed to eat food that is at the ground level. Occasionally, they may find an insect or berries that aren’t on the ground but the majority of what chickens naturally eat is on the ground.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to throw your chicken’s feed directly onto the ground. You can feed them using a feeder, but it needs to be a feeder that is either on the ground or provides the feed very low.
Feeding chickens at the ground level is the best way to help them stay healthy and work naturally with the way their digestive tracts and body was designed.
You definitely want to give their food in a feeder if the ground of their coop is wet or could get wet. This can make feed mold. Don’t let your chickens eat moldy feed.
The Best Chicken Feeder
There are so many things that I love about this feeder.
1. It’s a gravity feeder that holds 50 pounds of feed.
That’s a ton of feed. Gravity feeders let the feed slowly trickle down so that the feed stays fresh longer and feed isn’t wasted.
2. It’s rainproof.
This is a huge win for people that feed their chickens in a coop or run that doesn’t have a solid roof. Most chicken feeders are designed where the feed is exposed to rain or water. This one prevent rains from getting to the feed and making it mold.
3. There are three openings for chickens to eat from.
Some gravity feeders only have one opening that chickens can eat from. When there’s only one opening, chickens will compete to eat. The more dominant chickens will eat first and the chickens lower on the pecking order will eat last. Multiple openings allows more chickens to eat at a time.
4. The top of the feeder is sloped.
I can’t tell you how many feeders and waterers I’ve gotten rid of because the tops made perfect perches for chickens and I was constantly cleaning poop off of them. When the top of the feeder is angled like this, chickens won’t perch on it and it keeps them clean.
5. This feeder is made from plastic.
Why is that a positive? Because you can clean it. Galvanized feeders can be tough to clean and don’t always like it if you try to sanitize them. Plastic though? It’s easy to clean with soap and water. If you want to sanitize it: bleach or chlorohexidine will clean it right up and won’t damage it.
How much should you feed chickens?
This depends on what you’re feeding them.
A bag of complete feed will have feeding directions on the bag. You can follow these directions OR, you can do it the easy way.
Chickens don’t normally overeat. If you put a ton of feed in front of them, they’re only going to eat what they need.
So, invest in a good feeder and fill it up. Once it gets low, refill it. Don’t worry about measuring out how much feed you need unless you run into a problem where you need to weigh out feed.
How often should you feed chickens?
Feed your chickens every day or make sure that they have access to feed every day. If you’re using a large capacity feeder, just check it daily to make sure that it doesn’t need to be refilled.
Don’t provide treats or scratch grains in a feeder. Those should be given in small amounts. You can give them every day, but don’t give them too much.
When should you feed chickens?
Chickens sleep at night, so if you’re feeding them daily or giving treats, you’ll want to do that while they are awake. Ideally, either have feed available 24/7 or feed them in the mornings.
Provide feed before you give treats or scratch grains. Scratch grains should be given after your chickens have had time to eat feed. Feeding scratch grains too soon can cause them to fill up on scratch grains rather than feed.
Scratch grains are best fed either in the evening if your chickens have 24/7 access to feed or an hour after you’ve given them feed. This will make sure that they get plenty of quality nutrition before getting treats.
Water for your chickens
Always make sure that your chickens have access to clean, fresh, cool water.
In the summer, cool water is the best way to keep your chickens from overheating. In the winter, chickens will also need ample amounts of water.
Make sure that your chicken waterer stays thawed out in the cold winter months.
Clean your waterer at least once a week with soap and water to keep algae and bacteria from building up in your waterer. Use soap, water and a damp rag or sponge to remove the slick film that develops on the inside of your waterer.d
Problems Associated with Improper Diet
A chicken’s diet needs to be varied and include ample amounts of protein and fiber from plants. You also need to make sure that your chicken’s diet contains plenty of calcium, along with other vitamins and minerals to ensure proper health and support egg production.
When the diet isn’t right, health problems can crop up. Here are some of the most common health problems that are associated with an improper diet:
Reduced Egg Production
For egg-laying hens, proper nutrition is important. When hens don’t get enough protein or calcium, their body will reduce the number or quality of eggs that she lays.
You might notice your star hen producing less eggs. The dependable hen that lays an egg each day may start laying an egg every other day.
She likely needs some additional protein in her diet. Make sure that she’s getting at least 16% protein. If she’s going through a tough time, say, during molting, give her a feed with a little extra protein. Or, you can provide her with a protein-packed treat, like mealworms to boost the amount of protein she’s getting.
Once egg production drops off, it can take some time to get hens back to peak performance. It can take weeks of proper nutrition to see her egg production come back up.
This is an issue most commonly seen in fast growing meat birds. Water belly, or ascites, is a condition that is caused by the chicken getting too much protein.
The chicken’s body uses the extra protein to build muscle tissue. That sounds great in theory, but the muscle tissue can actually grow so fast that it outgrows the internal organs, including the heart and lungs.
When this happens, the chicken’s heart and lungs can’t pump enough blood to the muscle tissue. This can lead to pulmonary stress and even death in the bird.
To prevent water belly, avoid feeding protein levels that are above 22%. It can be tempting to reach for the high protein bags with 28-30% protein, but that’s just asking for trouble.
I touched on this topic earlier, but it’s an easily avoidable problem. Almost all cases of cannibalism in chickens can be traced to a lack of methionine in the diet.
When chickens aren’t getting this essential nutrient, they’ll turn on each other to get it. Methionine is only found in insects and animal tissues, and your chickens HAVE to have it in order to survive.
If they aren’t getting it in the diet, they’ll get it through pecking one another. Usually, one chicken becomes the punching bag. If you don’t get them the methionine they’re craving, they can kill one another.
Avoid the problem by providing a high-quality, fresh feed with methionine in it. Supplement their diet with mealworms, which contain a large amount of methionine-containing proteins.
An imbalanced diet in chickens can lead to weird or abnormal egg production.
Hens lay hundreds of eggs in their lifetime. It’s natural and expected that occasionally, eggs will turn out funky. Eggs with double yolks, weird shapes or with less than perfect shells aren’t usually a cause for concern.
If you notice that hens are laying abnormal eggs consistently though, that’s a different issue.
Eggs that frequently have thin shells can indicate a calcium deficiency. Check the hen’s feed to make sure that it contains at least 2% calcium. Supplement or change feeds if necessary. When hens aren’t getting enough calcium in their diet to lay eggs, their bodies will pull calcium from their bones.
If you notice flecks of extra calcium on the outside of the egg shell, your chickens are getting too much calcium. I don’t change anything about my chicken’s diet if they are getting too much calcium. I’d rather get eggs that have excess calcium on them than thin shelled eggs that don’t have enough calcium!
Small eggs can mean that your chickens aren’t getting enough protein in their diet. Again, when this occurs occasionally, it may not mean anything at all. However, if you notice eggs that are frequently smaller than they should be, add protein to your chicken’s diet.
You might also be interested in:
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How do you feed your backyard chickens? Let me know below!
PLAN YOUR DREAM FARM AND GARDEN
Do you feel overwhelmed? Our Planning Your Farm: Gardens to Goats guide will show you how to plan your perfect farm. It's a game-changer- get it for free for a limited time!