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What Do Chickens Eat? (A Comprehensive Guide to Feeding Backyard Chickens)

If you’re like most people, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of chickens is “What do chickens eat?” Well, wonder no more! In this blog post, I will provide a comprehensive guide to feeding your backyard chickens. From grains and vegetables to insects and worms, I’ll cover everything you need to know about keeping your chickens healthy and happy. So whether you’re just starting out with chickens or you’ve been raising them for years, this post is for you.

Chicken scratching

What Do Chickens Eat Naturally?

Chickens were domesticated from the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) around 8,000 years ago and Red Junglefowl are still found over much of Southeast and South Asia. As their name suggests, they naturally live in the jungle and can also be found around human settlements. Junglefowl eat a wide variety of different foods including seeds, plants, fruits, insects, and even small invertebrates such as lizards, frogs, mice, and even snakes.

4) Vitamins/Minerals: Required in a small amount however help to control and optimize key functions such as growth and all-round good health.

Like Junglefowl, domestic chickens are omnivores, which means they eat a variety of different foods. In a free-range backyard environment, chickens will happily eat a variety of grasses and weeds such as dandelions, as well as insects, vegetables, fruits, and grains.

Chickens are foragers. Foraging is a natural behavior and is important for their mental health, but it also helps provide the much-needed variety in their diet that chickens need.

However, even in a large backyard where chickens can roam freely, they are unlikely to get all the essential nutrients to keep them healthy and produce well. That is why most chickens, especially when they are laying or growing, need to have a large part of their diet supplemented in the form of chicken feed.

A good quality chicken feed will provide all the essential nutrients a chicken needs. However as with any diet, variety is still important!

What Chickens Need

Ensuring that the correct dietary requirements are met for hens is important to achieve optimum growth and egg production. Here are the main nutrients that hens need:

1) Proteins: an essential nutrient that is required for the synthesis of body tissue as well as the growth of new feathers and egg production. It also provides a small amount of energy for the chickens.

2) Carbohydrates: the nutrient that provides the hen energy and is needed for well-being.

3) Fats: necessary for particular bodily processes as well as containing essential fatty acids such as the omega family.

Free range chickens cratching

Commercial Feed For Raising Chickens

Although chickens are omnivores and eat a large variety of foods, feeding a good quality commercial poultry feed should make up the bulk of their diet. Feeding hens a complete and well-balanced diet is essential to achieving healthy, productive, and happy chickens.

Along with pigs, the nutritional requirements of chickens has been studied extensively and the diets have been formulated to provide the right balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins.

In the commercial poultry industry, feed typically makes up to 60% of the cost of producing eggs and meat. So it’s essential that the poultry feed is not only formulated to ensure the animals are healthy and productive.

But also that they are tailored to their stage of life as newborn chicks, pullets and adult layers all have different nutritional requirements.

Do Commercial diets contain growth promoters?

Commercial diets generally don’t contain growth-promoting additives, antibiotics or other medications. Most medications are only available via prescription through a veterinarian.

Some feeds that you can buy at a feed store can be medicated (i.e. without a prescription), and can contain non-antibiotic coccidiostats. Commercial feed is readily available through your local feed store.

Can I Make My Own Diet For My Chickens?

The short answer is yes you can! But the real question is should you? and the answer is probably not!

Why You Should Use Commercially Made Chicken Feed:

Mixing and formulating poultry diets is complicated and difficult to get right. Even commercial poultry producers usually employ qualified nutritionists to ensure the balance of nutrients is correct. As mistakes can have devastating consequences leading to unhealthy chickens and even death.

For most backyard hens, providing a good quality commercial diet is definitely the way to go as they have been specifically formulated by nutritionists to provide all the essential nutrients for the specific life stage.

An additional benefit of using a commercial diet is that you are able to buy only what you need. This ensures that the feed remains fresh – over time the milled grains can lose their nutritional value and fats can spoil and go rancid.

chickens eating

What About Feeding Organic Chicken Diets?

Many of the large commercial poultry feed producers also make Organic Diets that are certified by the USDA. If you want to go down the local route many smaller boutique companies produce only Organic Diets.

What is an Organic Diet?

Organic diets are grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides, man-made fertilizers, and are made from non-GMO ingredients and are non-medicated.

Many of the smaller organic commercial mills use a far bigger range of ingredients which can not only provide more variety in the diet but may provide additional health benefits. The downside is that these diets can cost a little more due to the scale of production and cost of producing food organically.

Should I feed an Organic Diet to my Chickens?

There are no proven benefits of feeding organic feed to your hens. Whether you feed an organic diet or a regular commercial diet really comes down to personal choice.

The most important part of feeding chickens is that the feed is well balanced, formulated properly and purchased from a reputable feed company or mill.

What To Feed Baby Chicks

Baby chickens are precocious animals, which means that they are born with their feathers and are able to see, hear and move around their environment as soon as they are born. This means from day one they are already able to eat independently and will actively search for food in their environment.

You can start day-old chicks with:

  • Chick Starter (0 to 6-8 weeks) or
  • Chick Feed Starter and Grower feed (0 to 16 weeks).

What To Feed Growing Chickens

Once chickens reach the pullet stage (the “teenager” chickens or pre-laying) they are often changed from a Chick Starter feed to a Chick Grower or Pullet Grower feed.

What to Feed Adult Chickens

Once chicks reach 16 weeks plus they can progress to a laying hen diet. Heritage breeds tend to start laying later (20+ weeks) and so they can stay on a grower diet for longer.

Feeding The Right Diet For Your Laying Chickens

Each life stage requires a specific formulation of nutrients to ensure your chickens are growing properly or producing well.

Chick Starter (Starter Crumb, Chick Starter Crumb or Baby Chick Starter)

Age: 0 to 6-8 weeks

Protein: 18-20%

Calcium: <1- 1.2%

Medicated: Some feeds come with a coccidiostat such as Amprolium or Avatec.

Never feed laying diets to chicks as the calcium content is far too high which can result in kidney damage and premature death.

Chick Grower (Pullet Grower or Pullet Developer)

Age: 6-8 weeks to 16 weeks

Protein: 16.5%

Calcium: <1-1.25%

Chick Starter and Grower

Mainly for convenience of only needing one feed prior to starting a layer diet

Age: 0 to 16+ weeks

Protein: 18%

Calcium: <1-1.25%)

Layer Feed

Age: 16+ Weeks

Protein: 16-18%

Calcium: 3-5%

Adult heavier breeds do better on lower protein diets whereas light breeds, and hybrids do better on higher protein level feeds.

Selecting The Right Diet For Your Meat Chickens

Meat Bird Crumbles

  • All ages
  • Protein 19-20%
  • You can use a Chick Starter diet if you want to grow your chickens more slowly. Growing them slower can help produce more flavorful meat.

Broiler Finisher diets

  • From 19 weeks
  • Protein 19%

Should I Feed Crumbles, Mash Or Pellets?

The main difference between crumbles, mash and pellets is essentially the size of the feed.

Mashes

Mashes are the finest or smallest sized feed and are essentially a complete feed ground up finely. This has a few advantages as makes it much harder for birds to separate out ingredients, therefore there is less wastage and it ensures that each bite is well-balanced.

Chickens of all ages can consume mashes. Mash diets can also be combined with hot water to form a porridge.

However, mash diets can be less palatable to chickens compared to crumbles and pellets.

Pellets

Pellets are really just a compressed “mash”. Where the mash is mechanically pressed through small holes using steam to make hard dry pellets which resemble “artificial grains”.

Pelleting the feed helps to improve feed intake and weight gain compared to mashes. They are also a convenient way to feed chickens with less mess and are easy to store.

The steam used to create the pellets also helps to keep the feed bacteria-free.

Pellets are not recommended for young chicks as they can be hard to pick up and eat and can reduce feed intake.

Crumbles

Crumbles are pellets that have been crushed into a consistency coarser than a mash. This has the advantage of being easier for chicks to eat and is a popular choice for starter and grower feeds due it its smaller size compared with pellets.

Feeding crumbled is highly convenient to use and easy to store. Research has shown that chicks fed crumbled starter diets were able to consume more feed than mash diets and also gained more weight.

Common Grains Used to Feed Chickens

Many grains are used in chicken feed but these are the most commonly used types:

  • Maize
  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Oats

What about Chicken Scratch?

Chicken scratch is not a complete feed even if it looks like it could be! It is a mix of grains and cracked corn that is intended as a supplement to a commercial diet or as a treat.

Chicken scratch tends to be low in protein but high in carbohydrates and very high in energy, this means chickens can gain weight very quickly with too much chicken scratch in their diet!

Gaining too much weight can actually stop chickens from producing eggs, so like all treats, moderation is important.

Chicken scratch does have uses:

  • It helps to stimulate normal behavior of scratching at the ground looking for food such as seeds, insects, and grit.
  • It can also be used as a reward. For example, to help get the chickens back into the coop at night, or to help encourage them to try a new food.
  • Can help them stay warm in winter by providing extra energy to store fat.
  • Can help build trust with your chickens and allow them to become more comfortable being handled.

A good rule of thumb is you should never feed more than 10% of the diet as chicken scratch.

Chicken scratch
Chicken Scratch

Grit

Grit is a commercial product made up of small quantities of stones and has no nutritional value.

As chickens lack teeth they are unable to grind their food like many other animals. However, they do have a gizzard, which is the highly muscular tube part of the digestive system of birds and other animals such as reptiles and fish.

Birds such as chickens will eat small stones which sit in the gizzard helping to grind up food.

Chickens tend not to need grit if they eat exclusively commercially prepared diets but this really only applies to large commercial operations.

Backyard and free-range chickens need grit in their diet due to the varied diet they eat and the need for the grits grinding abilities. Even if your chickens are free-range and have access to small stones, they often don’t consume enough to ensure adequate digestion of whole grains and other foods that require grinding. Therefore supplementation with grit is always a good idea.

Grit shouldn’t be confused with calcium supplements such as oyster shell grit. I have written a comprehensive article on grit if you want to check it out.

Oyster Shell Grit – Calcium Supplement

Oyster shell grit is the best way to supplement calcium and calcium is essential for laying hens. Although laying diets have lots of calcium in them, sometimes it is just not enough for your prolific layers and that is where oyster shell grit comes in.

If a hen doesn’t get enough calcium it may start to produce soft-shelled eggs. This can lead to egg-binding which can be fatal.

A lack of calcium in the diet can also cause osteoporosis. This is because, to keep making the eggshells they will start “stealing” calcium from their bones. Osteoporosis and potentiallycan lead to broken bones and lameness.

Oyster shell grit
Shell grit

Can you use eggshells instead of shell grit to supplement calcium?

Although you can use egg shells themselves, there is a risk you could transmit harmful bacteria and it increases the chance your hen might start eating her eggs, so it’s not recommended.

How to feed Oyster Shell Grit?

Always give oyster shell grit on its own in a separate container and never mix in with the feed.

This reduces the risk of accidentally giving extra calcium to those who shouldn’t have it (basically any chicken not laying and male chickens). It also reduces wastage and it last longer.

The Best Greens For Your Chickens

Fresh green vegetables are a great way to supplement a chicken’s diet. Not only are they healthy and allow chickens to express natural foraging behavior but dark leafy greens can produce darker and richer yolks.

Even though veggies are considered healthy, they should be fed in moderation.

Some healthy options include:

  • Lettuce such as romaine
  • Broccoli
  • Swiss chard
  • Beets
  • Kale
  • Pumpkins and squash
  • Cucumbers
  • Lavender, mint, and oregano
  • %Cilantro (coriander), thyme, and basil

Water Requirements For Chickens

Chickens actually drink a lot of water! In fact, they typically drink twice as much as they eat by weight. Layer hens need even more water as eggs require a lot of water to produce.

In summer expect your hens to be sipping water constantly. As the temperature soars so does water consumption. At room temperature 20°C (68°F) chickens drink at a ratio of 2 parts water to one part feed. However, in very hot weather hen’s water requirements will easily double.

As a rule adult chickens will drink around 0.5L ( 1/2 a quart of water) per day. So 12 hens would need 6 quarts of water a day. Remember in hot weather this can more than double.

Water should be clean and fresh. Chickens prefer to drink water at a temperature of around 55°F (13°C). In summer ensure water remains in the shade.

How Much Should You Feed Your Chickens

  • A good rule of thumb is to stick to a 90/10 ratio of the main diet to treats.
  • 90% Commercial Feed: A complete feed should be approximately 90% of the diet. For a 4.4 pound (2kg) Brown Shaver that roughly equates to 120 -140gm (or 1/4-1/3 of a pounds) of a commercial feed.
  • 10% Treats: Treats healthy or not should make up less than 10% of the diet or roughly 5-10gms (2 tbsp). Heavier breeds weighing 6 pounds (3kg) or more can have 1/2 pound (180-200gms) per day whereas small breeds such as bantams only need around 80gms (3 ounces).

How To Feed Backyard Chickens

Simply throwing feed into your run/coop is not advisable, it increases the chances of infection as the hens are eating feed that’s been in direct contact with their droppings. Instead, providing a good feeder is what we recommend, it keeps the feed of the floor and makes the task easy. 

The best way to feed chickens is to use a well-designed feeder. The main types of dry feeders are:

  • hanging/suspended feeders made of plastic i.e. to keep food off the ground or
  • floor-based varieties

Hanging feeders

Hanging feeders are very popular as they are cheap to buy.

Advantages:

  • They can store a lot of dry feed so you don’t need to top them up too often.
  • They don’t get knocked over or bedding kicked through the feed or soiled with feces. Most will suit a variety of ages and you just need to adjust for the height of the chicken.

Disadvantges

  • The main disadvantage is that you do need somewhere to hang them from.
hanging feeder
Hanging Feeder

Ground feeders

Ground feeders come in a range of options and price points.

We’ve had 15 to 20 hens at a time over the years, our feeding setup is 2 ground feeders and 2 drinkers which worked just fine. There are a lot of expensive feeders on the market that in our opinion aren’t entirely necessary.

  • Long plastic feeders (which look like little troughs) are typically used for very young chicks (<2 weeks) as they make it easy for young chicks to get to their food. They are cheap to buy and easy to clean but can topple over easily and become contaminated if chicks sit on top of the feeder. Generally, you will need to upgrade to something bigger within weeks.
  • Step-on feeders are usually made of metal and store dry feed in a closed box that only opens when the chicken stands on the “step” and the lid is lifted off by the weight of the chicken. They are suitable for most hens including bantams but are not recommended for chicks as they can become stuck if an adult chicken steps off. They are great for free-ranging chickens and prevent wild birds, rats, and other opportunists to access the feed, while keeping the food dry and reducing waste.
  • Automatic feeders are very similar to step-on feeders. The birds step on the treadle which allows the door to the feed bin to open. They generally store a lot of dry food, keeping it fresh and dry, while being easy to refill. Some will allow birds as little as 250gms (1/2 pound) to access the feed. Like step-on feeders, they prevent access to rats and wild birds.
cone feeder
Cone Feeder

Storing Chicken Feed

Chicken feed should always be stored in a cool, dry, covered environment in a non-permeable bin or box to prevent rats, mice and wild birds from accessing the feed.

A simple clean, plastic or metal rubbish bin will be suitable as long as it has a secured lid. Even unopened bags are easy pickings for rats and mice, so it’s best not to leave them lying around if you can help it.

If you do bulk buy feed and can’t put it in a secure container then ensure that it is kept off the ground on (such as a pallet).

It is recommended to buy just what you need for a month or so to avoid feed going stale or rancid.

Regardless of how much feed you buy at a time, and how you store it always have some form of vermin control whether it be traps or baits.

What Treats Can I Feed My Chicken?

Anything other than the main feed is considered a treat. Remember the 90/10 rule, or no more than 10% of diet is a “treat”.

Common healthy chicken treats include:

  • scratch grains
  • mealworms
  • vegetables
  • fruits (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.)
  • seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sunflower etc. However, they tend to be in fats and therefore should be fed in limited quantities

Feeding Kitchen Scraps to your Chickens

Chickens love food and will try just about anything! However, feeding them a diet of solely kitchen scraps is not only unbalanced but can also lead to unhealthy, poor-producing chickens.

Kitchen scraps should be seen as a supplement to their main diet or a treat, so keeping things in moderation is important.

Kitchen Scraps You Can Feed Chickens

  • Fresh fruits such as apples, berries, bananas, grapes
  • Raw vegetables such as bok choy, silver beet, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli and carrots
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Cooked rice and pasta (in small amounts)
  • Cooked Beans

Kitchen Scraps You Should Avoid

Although you can feed these to chickens, it is recommended to avoid these foods as they can either cause health problems in large amounts or they can result in behavioral issues.

  • Meat
  • Bread (only in small amounts and probably should be avoided as they are like McDonalds for chickens, tasty but not very nutritious)
  • Fats and oils
  • Fish and fish skin
  • Citrus

Kitchen Scraps You Should Never Feed Chickens

There are also some foods that shouldn’t be fed to chickens as they can make them sick.

  • Raw potatoes
  • Avocado
  • Chocolate
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Parsnip
  • Celery
  • Parsley leaves
  • Coffee or coffee grinds
  • Foods high in salt and fat
  • Food that is rancid or moldy
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Uncooked beans and rice
  • Chicken scraps (can spread disease and result in cannibalism)

What Not To Feed Your Chicken

  • In general table scraps are best avoided (see above). They are often too rich and can limit egg production.
  • Bread and pasta is okay to feed but again it’s not ideal food and so should be avoided. Never feed moldy bread to chickens.
  • You can feed meat including fish in limited amounts to chickens but ensure that fat is trimmed off.
  • Dairy products such as cheese and yogurt can be eaten by birds but again are best avoided.
  • Avoid garden pruning’s, weeds and plant trimmings unless you are absolutely sure they are not toxic.
  • Salty foods
  • Highly processed foods e.g. pizza, salami, ham.

Toxic Foods Chickens Shouldn’t Eat

  • Avocados
  • Chocolate
  • Rhubarb
  • Green potatoes
  • Oak
  • Parsnip, parsley and celery leaves and roots

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you tell if your chicken is getting the nutrients it needs

You can tell by assessing three things:

How many times a day should I feed my chickens?

Chickens should have a consistent supply of food available to them and so feeding them once or twice a day is fine if you are using an automatic type feeder

  1. Is your chicken well covered in bright feathers? Dull, pale feathers can be a sign of malnutrition
  2. Is your chicken in decent body condition? Feel the breast area to ensure it is well covered
  3. Egg quality? Are the eggshells thick and glossy? weak, soft shells can be a sign of calcium deficiency

What herbs do chickens eat?

Chickens love herbs! Some of the most popular include:

  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Mint
  • Lavender
  • Dill
  • Cilantro/coriander

It is possible for chickens to eat too much but it’s not common. Chickens will usually regulate their own intake according to their needs.

If you are concerned that your chicken is eating too much, speak to a vet.”

Will chickens eat too much?

Do hens Eat More Than Roosters?

No, both hens and roosters eat approximately the same amount.

Other than that, feeding your hens is a simple process, once you’ve found the right feed you can sit back relax.

Do Chickens Eat Less When Molting?

Yes, they do eat a little less. Check out my article for further info

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