There are right and wrong ways to feed chickens. Make sure you get it right!

‘As rare as hens’ teeth’ is a common saying – true, as food is ground up in the gizzard. Food and plant material is delicately picked up with the beak (made of keratin, rather like our own nails). Texture is more important than taste, and hens use their feet to scratch the soil and expose insects. Colour vision and shadows help her to find food. The crop is used to store food which then is passed to the proventriculus (acid-producing stomach) and then to the gizzard where some grinding up is done. Nutrients are absorbed from the small and large intestine and the liver then filters nutrients and toxins from the food, carried in the blood. The caeca (paired, blind-ended portions of the gut) is where a certain amount of fermentation of plant material takes place and the droppings from this area are voided about one in ten, slightly frothy and paler in colour than normal droppings which are brown with the white (urate) tip.

It is important that only balanced compound feeds from reputable sources are used. Cheap feed will be of poorer quality and adversely affect the health of the hens and their egg quality. Feeding kitchen scraps is illegal due to the risk of disease transfer, but green vegetable matter is appreciated straight from the vegetable garden, especially in the winter to maintain vitamin A. The compound rations can be fed either as pellets or meal/mash. The meal can be wasteful as it no longer looks like food when on the ground and sticks to the beak making any water quickly foul. Pellets and meal can be fed in ad lib feed hoppers.

A feeder is good if it prevents the hens from hooking food out (with vertical bars) and also not allowing them to perch on it with either a sloping lid or a bar which revolves. Hens need to eat pellets in the morning to provide the best egg laying nutrition and can then have a small amount each (one egg-cupful per hen) of grain, preferably wheat. Some people purchase mixed corn which is wheat and maize mixed. This is fine in winter as it helps to keep the hens warm, but not good in warm weather as the maize makes the hens fat, reducing egg production, and also makes them hyperactive which can lead to feather-pecking. Grit should be provided ad lib in a separate container.

Feed in plastic feed bags is not really waterproof, so needs to be kept in a weather-proof and vermin-proof bin to keep it fresh. Check the date on the bag label at purchase as freshly made feed will only last three months before the vitamin content degrades to an unacceptable level. If feed gets wet it goes mouldy very quickly indeed and this is toxic for the hens, so keep feeders in the hen hut or use rain-proof ones. Wild birds contaminate chicken feed, so try and exclude them and do not let hens ‘clean up’ under the bird table as it is a high disease risk area.

Feed is much more expensive than it was a couple of years ago, so not letting vermin such as rats eat the feed is sensible on the pocket and for the health of the hens as rats carry some nasty diseases. Automatic feeders are readily available and some work on the weight of the hen to open the cover of the feed. Hens quickly learn how to use this if a brick is put on the mesh or treadle to begin with.

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