What should you feed your chickens? Laurence Beeken explains
What do you need to feed your birds to get contented hens and more eggs? Everyone will differ in their advice and there are regulations from DEFRA which you should be aware of, nonetheless, you need to do what is suitable for your situation, budget and conscience, and obviously for the birds.
In the wild, chickens are omnivores, picking their way through greens, grains and bugs.
Food is picked up by the beak, which is more sensitive to texture than taste, before being swallowed. Food then passes to the crop (which often bulges like an ample bosom) before being softened by lubricants and then passing between the stomach and the crop, where small ingested stones grind it to aid digestion.
When kept as pets, chickens cannot always access this natural food source and, of course, the job falls to you to provide them with a sensible and balanced diet.
Types of feed
Compound feeds available through pet outlets and agricultural merchants are specially formulated to provide all the essential nutrients and vitamins that chickens need and can be supplied as chick crumb, mash or pellets. The ration may contain additional chemicals to improve yolk colour, prevent coccidiosis and preserve the feed, and you can get different recipes for chicks, layers, growers, even show birds – always check the label if you need a specific type of feed.
Mash: The advantage of mash is that as it consists of tiny pieces so the birds literally have to work for their supper, having to make more of an effort to pick up enough to make a decent meal. This, in turn, prevents them getting fat and reducing the number of eggs that they will lay. Boredom, which is the forerunner to many nasty vices such as feather pecking, is also reduced.
Mash can be fed dry or wet, although, if wet, you must remember to remove uneaten excess from the run before it spoils and, if fed dry, the same will apply as it does tend to scatter everywhere, enticing vermin and often fouling drinking water.
Pellets: Have the advantage of looking like grains or tiny worms and so are seen to be more natural option for your pets. They are easier to store and handle and ensure that the bird cannot pick out the best bits. If you have crested or bearded birds, then pellets must be your choice as mash can get stuck in damp feathers and, before you know it, the other chickens are pecking out feathers. This may even cause serious wounding which could result in a bout of cannibalism when the bids are attracted to the blood.
Grains and seeds
These can be purchased either as mixed corn or whole wheat. Mixed corn will often contain wheat, oats, barley and maize and is great to use as a treat, since the birds pick out their favourite morsels, (invariably the maize). Use whole wheat as your ‘regular’ afternoon feed and give it as an addition to the morning pellets/mash, rather than instead of, to prevent the birds filling up on it and getting fewer nutrients. Ideally, feed a couple of hours before bed time, so that it sits in the crop overnight and digests slowly. Oats can be used in the winter as they are a good source of slow digesting carbohydrate during colder periods. Remember that any changes to feeds should take place over several days by mixing 80:20, 60:40, 40:60, 20:80 to prevent stress.
Specialist feeds will contain calcium, but you can supplement if you like with flint grit and/or oyster shell grit. The flint helps to grind food in the gizzard, while the oyster shell is soluble and may help to keep egg shells firm. Usually sold as ‘mixed’ grit, put a couple of handfuls in a bowl and observe as the chickens scratch through and pick up the bits they want. The best dispenser for grit is a flower pot into which a bent piece of wire can be threaded to secure it to the floor and where the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot will allow rain water to run through.
Access to vegetation is equally important, whether in a run or hung up in the pen (nettles, chickweed, parsley, fat-hen and good King Henry are all ideal), as the birds will digest cellulose in a separate part of the gut, absorbing the nutritional part and voiding the remnants as that sticky, foamy mass you see about every tenth dropping. Remember that if you are unsure about a plant, then don’t feed it!
Make sure that any vegetable matter is fresh and free from pesticides and other nasties (don’t pick plants from the side of the road) and hang them in the run to provide amusement, reduce boredom and keep the birds active. Any uneaten matter is best removed at the end of the day to prevent rotting and keep rats at bay.
Chickens enjoy animal protein every now and again, and will normally pick up bugs and worms as they scratch around. You may want to feed mealworms as a treat; these are available from pet stores (sold as reptile feed), although moderation is key since mealworms, like maize, contain a lot of fat. Protein is used in the chicken’s body to produce feathers and, at times of feather replacement, protein requirement will increase. If you are feeding pet food, then cat food, both wet and dry, tends to be a better alternative to dog food as it normally has a higher protein content.
Keep it fresh, keep it clean, and keep it always available
Chickens get a lot of the essential nutrients that they need from their surroundings (including sunlight), and this, supplemented with a complete ration, will give a healthy bird, able to go about its daily business and resist disease. Birds which are ill may benefit from a vitamin supplement given in the water, as will those with no access to the outside.
Pecking blocks are sold to prevent boredom in indoor birds and can be a useful addition if used in moderation.
How much to feed?
Technically, an adult bird will eat about one to three and a half ounces (30-100g) per day and, if they free-range, then you may cut down on the additional feed of whole wheat. How much a bird will eat will depend on its sex, age and general state of health as well as breed, season and the degree of activity during the day.
My recommendation is to feed pellets during the day (about two and a half to three handfuls per bird) when the birds are first let out and then whole wheat in the evening (about one handful per bird). Remember, also, that too much of a good thing will fill the crop (birds are naturally greedy) resulting in an imbalance of intake and so nutrition, hence pellets before corn.
Only buy what you can use within six months as nutritional content will reduce over time. As soon as you open a bag, tip the contents into a vermin-proof bin and do not top up with fresh until the entire old bag has been used up.
Remember to remove any uneaten food to prevent wild birds fouling it and then sit back, and enjoy your chooks!