Feeding chickens

What do you feed chickens and how much?

Feeding chickens.

The feeding of chickens is one of the more important things to keep your chickens happy and productive. Hungry or malnourished bird will tend to fight and be unproductive.

Chickens are omnivorous, sociable animals and must be kept in numbers of at least two or greater. For this reason the feeding chickens is a group exercise and to an extent needs monitoring.

Dominant birds may be excluding weaker or younger birds. They may need feeding separately or provide food in more than one location.

Chickens have a simple but efficient digestive tract that requires a complete and balanced diet if they are to stay happy, healthy and lay lots of lovely eggs.

The trouble is chickens will eat almost anything so to prevent deficiencies and health problems, a wide range of foods should be offered. What chickens will eat and what chickens should be eating are not always the same thing.

Above: Young growers foraging in pasture.

I am sure I once read somewhere that a hen in full lay is roughly the same as a human mother having a baby every 9 days. Even if it was a purely scaling calculation it is pretty impressive.

In the good old days chickens were seen as waste disposal units and were mostly left to fend for themselves. They hatched out under their mamas and were taught to look for grain in the horse stalls, and for bugs and greens in the garden. The farm wife tossed stale bread and kitchen scraps to the hens. Chickens destined for the table were fattened on sour milk or whey and sometimes, in the winter a handful of grain.

The poultry feeding guide:

Today we know better and your hens should be fed a proper multi seed feed or layers pellet / mash ration. Either is fine as long as you follow a few simple rules.

  1. Variety. Like you and me chickens like to eat different things.
  2. Knowing what to  include and what to exclude from the diet.

Poultry feed should contain:

Protein – needed for growth, replacement of cells and feathers and the production of eggs

Fats – Source of energy and used for body maintenance. Some vitamins like D are fat soluble. Fats are deposited in the yolk to sustain the chick.

Carbohydrates – Sources of energy. Needed to power the metabolic processes.

Vitamins – Essential in small amounts for growth and ongoing wellbeing. Vitamin D prevents rickets and they need to be present in the egg to nourish the embryo.

Minerals – Calcium and Phosphorus are required to produce egg shells. Bone formation needs minerals .Many others are needed in small quantities.

Water - Clean cold fresh drinking water should be always on tap. Hens need to drink lots of water to produce eggs and more so in the summer months. If they run out of water they will dehydrate quickly and go off lay and begin to die quite quickly.

If you use a drinker system with pipes , always check the following especially in more extreme weathers.

Drinker line height, too high, low or different heights if you have both large fowl and bantams.

Air locks in the water system or insufficient pressure.

Clogged water filters or drinkers or too many birds per drinker.

What about household scraps? What can chickens eat besides chicken food ?

Feeding chickens household scraps is no longer allowed by DEFRA but if you feed ‘allotment scraps’. In this context household scraps would be your leftover dinner and allotment scraps would be a whole cauliflower from your garden. 

The important distinction is one is food that was destined for your table and the other is fed unprocessed to your birds.

It is worth remembering that it tends to be a bit hit and miss with regard to the nutrition they are receiving. If it is done in moderation (no more than 10% of their diet) and mixed with layers or other balanced feed, they will still be well nourished.

 It is usually better that they free range or pasture to supplement their diet if possible.

When household scraps could be fed, feeding too much carbohydrate (Potato, pasta and rice ) is a common mistake and upsets their nutritional balance. It ads excess hollow calories into your hens diet. Fat hens don’t lay eggs! Carbs can upset the digestive system and you will end up with a load of hens that have shitty knickers! and dirty eggs.

The reason we shouldn’t feed table scraps is they are often high in salt and fats. Just because you can eat it doesn’t mean it is suitable or good for your chickens.

Fruit can be given as a treat – Melon seeds, grapes and strawberries are particularly entertaining as they run off with them around the run being chased by others! If you feed too much fruit, they may get the runs so use common sense with the amounts you feed. This is particularly true if they get hold of Elderberries which contain a compound that is a weak poison and whose purpose is to make the bird spread viable seed far and wide rather than digesting it. You have probably had to wash a big red streaky splat of your car at some stage produced by a wild bird eating too many elderberries.

It is lovely to treat hens and it makes them happy to see you but you must not overdo it. You will not be doing them any favours and you can get the same reaction by giving them a couple of pieces of defrosted frozen sweetcorn or a few buckwheat sprouts.

Video of my hens eating sprouts. These are Silver Laced Wyandotte Bantams tucking into rapeseed sprouts.

Sprouts are high in proteins and nutrients, easy and cheaper to produce than treats are to buy. Overall a much better idea for your livestock.

A few interesting facts about the chicken's digestive system:

Chickens have no teeth and rely on small stones, firstly in their crop but more so in the gizzard to grind their food. The crop is able to store up to 40% of the daily food intake and contrary to popular belief does relatively little food processing. They also have a triangular tongue and only 25 to 50 taste buds.

A 30 day old chicken consumes around 10% of its live weight per day and the digestive tract will thus have to handle slightly over 7 g of feed per hour. To put this in perspective, a 75-kg person would have to eat more than 450 g per hour during the 16 awake hours to have an equal food intake relative to body weight, equivalent to 1 small loaf of bread.

Digestive Transit time is between 3 and 5 hours depending on the feed. This adaptation is important for flight even though modern chickens rarely fly or attempt it halfheartedly.

Chickens are omnivores, they graze on greens, eat seeds and insects but also larger prey like small mice and lizards.

Chickens produce saliva. It coats their food which they swallow whole.

The oesophagus takes the food down to the crop which is a transient store for ingested food. It enables them to gorge when food is available and store it to be released gradually into the digestive system. After a chicken has eaten, the crop will feel full and bulge. The crop also enable the bird to process food overnight whilst roosting.

Food from the crop slowly passes down to the proventriculus where the food is mixed with Hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. Bile produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder helps to break down fat.

Food is then passed through to the gizzard where insoluble grit has accumulated. It is ground down by the strong muscles and the grit which collects here. The gizzard is also known as the ventriculus and is a unique anatomical feature of birds.

From here food is passed by peristalsis through to the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed. The residue then passes through to the ceca, a pair of blind sacks along the lower intestinal tract, where bacteria help break down undigested food. From the ceca, food moves to the large intestine, which absorbs water and dries out indigestible matter.

Chickens have a pancreas, liver, and intestines, which pretty much do the same things as they do in humans. The digestive tract layout differs slightly when you get to the cecum. The plural of cecum is ceca, which is useful to know, because birds have two.

The ceca are blind pouches located where the small and large intestines come together. They are a pair of tubes that allow fermentation of undigested food to take place. Birds extract a little extra nutrition out of their meal, especially fatty acids and B vitamins, through the fermentation process that happens in the ceca.

The ceca empty their contents a couple of times a day, producing nasty-smelling, pasty droppings which generally looks a bit like a light brown or mustard coloured froth . Chicken owners should be familiar with these normal but smelly cecal poops as they can often be confused as diarrhoea by the novice.

The cloaca / vent passes a combination of faeces and urine, together with eggs from the oviduct. Chickens don’t pee, and they don’t have a bladder. Urinary system wastes, urates, is produced by the kidneys and excreted with the digestive wastes at the end of the digestive system, at the cloaca, or vent. That’s why normal chicken droppings contain white urates mixed with darker digested material.

Source and further reading - https://academic.oup.com/japr/article/23/2/306/761377/Function-of-the-digestive-system1

What can I not feed to my chickens?

You should also be aware that there are laws in the United Kingdom, Europe and many other parts of the world that control what you should and should not feed to your birds. These were brought in after Mad cow disease and it’s counterpart in sheep, scrapie, both of which effect humans.

Insect protein like dried meal-worms is illegal to feed to hens in the UK and too many treats can lead to all sorts of problems.

Potatoes or potato peelings need to be boiled first – never feed green potatoes.

Lettuce has little nutritional value and can cause dirty bottoms in chickens.

Do not feed rhubarb leaves or avocado pear as these can be poisonous to hens. I have seen hens eat young rhubarb leaves when free ranging and have still lived to lay another egg but they don’t seem to eat the bigger / older leaves. Thankfully, they seem to instinctively know what is good for them when free ranging.

NEVER feed any mouldy food to chickens. Mouldy feed is a fast track to poorly birds and some moulds produce mycotoxins which can cause hallucinations and death. 

Store feed in a dry rat and mouse proof place where it will not be subject to damage from moisture or losses from rodents. A large galvanised garbage can with a tight lid makes an excellent storage container for your feed.

Fish, Seafood, Cat food or meat scraps of any kind. The small bones in fish will choke your chicken as easily as they will you. Wet cat food is a real no-no, this stuff is not even good for cats, it contains Arsenic in quantities that can quite easily cause kidney failure in chickens.  

Cereal like Cheerios, etc. They are nearly all very high in sugar and are just not good for your poultry.

Crickets or Mealworms or fishing maggots . These are for wild birds only and are illegal to feed in many parts of the world. Fishing maggots are stained red which can get into the yolks and colour them blood red which will put you off.

Is there a list of what chickens can eat?

Treats should only ever be given in very small quantities. Also bear in mind most treats are expensive.

Beans, green beans and peas should be well cooked only, never dry. Even green peas should be brought to the boil first. They contain Lectins which can be toxic in large quantities and are a digestion inhibitor in small ones.

Root vegetables like Beets, carrots, turnip and swede can be fed whole to peck at . Leave the greens on .

Berries - All kinds are a treat, especially strawberries. Elderberries in strict moderation.

Feed starches in moderation as they are just empty calories from the birds point of view. If allowed in your country then all kinds of bread, rice, potatoes or pasta can be fed but must be cooked first. Avoid green skinned potatoes. Allow bread to go dry and stale in the open air, then they have to pick at it rather than stuff themselves silly as fast as they can.

Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage & Brussels Sprouts. Hang a whole head of the brassica or cabbage from their coop ceiling in winter so they have something to play with and greens to eat.

Cheese - Including cottage cheese should be fed only in moderation, fatty but a good source of protein and calcium.

Corn, on the cob and frozen ( defrost first ) , raw and cooked or whole grains can be soaked and sprouted.

Eggs - hard boiled and grated, shell and all are a good source of protein, and a favourite treat. Feed cooked eggs only because you don’t want your chickens to start eating their own raw eggs.

Flowers. Make sure they have not been treated with pesticides and pollen is often lethally poisonous in lilies.

Fruit - Apples are fine, the seeds contain cyanide, but not in sufficient quantities to kill, a chicken would need to eat several hundred. Pears, peaches, cherries, Peeled Bananas are high in potassium, a good treat. With Pomegranates the raw seeds are a big treat.

Grains - Bulgar, flax, Niger seed, wheat-berries, Dari. Buckwheat is particularly good as it contain a very high quality protein.

Grapes - I have never given grapes to mine as there is a yeast on the surface which can be harmful to dogs.

Grits - (Maize meal)  should be cooked. 

Leftovers - If allowed then  only feed your chickens that which is still considered edible by humans, don't feed anything spoiled, mouldy, oily, salty or unidentifiable.         

Lettuce, kale or any leafy greens, spinach collards, chickweed included. A big treat, depending on how much other greenery they have access to. Too much lettuce can cause digestive issues, especially the really watery types like iceberg.

Oatmeal or porridge - Cooked is nutritionally better but raw is fine as well.

Bell Peppers or Aubergine - They love the seeds

Popcorn must be popped with no butter and no salt.

Anything from the curcubit family like Pumpkins, winter squash, melon, watermelon, courgettes and cucumbers. Raw or cooked. Both seeds and flesh are a nutritious treat. Leave to fully mature so the seeds are at their best.

Raisins - a few per bird              

Sprouts - Wheat and oat sprouts are great and good for greens in mid-winter or as in my case recently when my chickens were confined because of bird flu restrictions.

Sunflower Seeds have high quality protein and they absolutely love them. Always use husked or shelled seed otherwise the shells add to much fibre to the diet.

Tomatoes - Raw and cooked.

Plain Yogurt - A big favourite amongst keepers but not really good for chickens except  in small amounts. Don’t give flavoured or sweetened.

What do you feed chickens at different ages?

Proper feeding starts from day 1:

Chick crumbs – Fed from hatch to when the birds are between six and ten  weeks old. I am not going to be specific and say you must stop feeding crumb at 6 weeks. Typically 19% Protein but it can vary a little and should contain a coccidiostat.

Above: Chicks like this blue laced Barnevelder need plenty of warmth and chick crumbles.

Growers mash or pellets – Fed from six weeks till point of lay. This could be as long as 30 weeks in some slow growing heritage breeds and you shouldn’t be bothered if you haven’t switched to layers by week 19.

Above: Growers like these an intermediate feed-stuff.

At what age do you start feeding layers mash or pellets? – For fast growing hybrids you may need to be on layers by week 18. Typically 17% Protein.

I introduce greens and seed sprouts from two or three weeks of age.

Grit should be available to get them used to it. Use smaller or pigeon grit for young birds.

Garlic is very good for chickens and a bulb of fresh garlic for the to peck at will help keep them in tip top condition. What’s more, a few cloves of fresh garlic won’t break the bank if you’re keeping chickens on a budget.

Can you feed a rooster layer feed?

Most people feed their hens and cockerels exactly the same feed and I am no exception. Their needs are not as great as they have no eggs to produce.

Above: Confined cockerels can suffer as there is too much calcium in hen feed.

The male of the species spends quite a lot of time resting and doesn't have to produce eggs and his feeding requirements are easily met with layer feed.

How should you be feeding chickens?

  • Off the floor in a clean dry feeder. To high and they will crane their necks and too low and you will have scattered feed all over the floor.
  • Surplus in the morning to make sure all birds in the pecking order get a good feed. Remove any leftovers at night.
  • Try to get feeders that are easily cleaned and difficult to contaminate with droppings.
  • With the ever present problem of bird flu around you should feed your birds in the coop where wild birds cannot see the feeders.
  • There is much to be gained from providing entertainment to hens like a hung cabbage or cauliflower.

Should I feed my eggshells back to the chickens?

Yes, eggshells are made up from Calcium and other minerals in a protein matrix. Cook the shells in your oven for a few minutes till dry and crispy and then break up into flakes. Firstly collect your egg shells and dry them in the oven for a few minutes when you can.

Below: Egg shells dried in the oven.

Below: Then crush shells into bits like this:

Add a teaspoon or so a day to your hens feed. The heat in the oven sterilizes and the reason you crush the shells is so as they look nothing like eggs.

How much food do they need?

Feeding hens is a bit of an imprecise science when it comes to quantities. A few important points to remember

1. Chickens eat more in cold weather and less in hot weather.

2. In the height of a northern summer with 16 to 18 hours daylight and plentiful supply of natural food on pasture they will appear to eat less. In reality they are finding their own food whilst scratching around.

3. Moulting birds need some special care. Feathers are mostly protein and poultry may need a little boost at this time.

4. Chickens don’t eat in the dark, all their feeding needs to be done in daylight. The crops stores feed for processing overnight.

5. Chickens require between 60ml and 250ml of clean fresh water every day depending on their size, type, sex and location.

6. You can easily test to see if your birds are getting enough feed. Go to your coop after dark when your hens have roosted and have a little look / squeeze of the crop. If it feels full and solid then the bird is well fed. On the other hand if it is empty you have a problem that needs addressing.

The crop should be completely empty in the mornings otherwise it may have become compacted.

Modern hybrids:  Modern, hyper productive egg breeds convert feed to eggs efficiently, especially if they’re fed a ration formulated for laying hens. After they’re laying well, it takes about 4 pounds of a quality feed of 16 to 18 percent protein to produce a dozen eggs.

Heritage breeds: The breeds kept for dual purposes (eggs and meat) generally have heavier body masses to support. They need more feed  and time to produce a dozen eggs than a lighter hybrid types. A medium-weight laying hen will eat about 1/4 pound of feed per day when she begins producing.

Bantams: Generally around 2 to 3 ounces of feed per day. In my experience the smaller types like Belgian bantams need a percentage or two more protein in their feed.

Meat birds : It takes roughly 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of body weight on a growing meat-type bird. So if a broiler weighs about 6 pounds at 10 weeks, it will have eaten about 12 pounds of feed.

Below: Meat birds like this la Bresse eat more and grow more quickly.

Fast growing meat birds like this young Poulet de Bresse (above) will need more feed as well as a higher protein levels.

Bear in mind that it ate less when it was a chick, and the amount of feed consumed increased each week as the bird matures.

These are basic estimates, but they will give you some idea of what to expect. Number of birds along the top and type down the left.

Below: A table of feeding quantity to number of birds.

This quick feed calculator reference (above) will help to show what sort of feed quantities you will need to keep in stock. It may vary along with the calorific and nutrient content of your chosen feed and how the birds are kept.

What’s the best way to add protein to the diet?

Proteins tend to be expensive which is why chick feed costs more than ordinary layers.

In the short term grate a boiled egg shell and all. One egg is enough for two to four hens. More will just be a waste as protein cannot be stored in quantity in the birds systems.

Certain seeds have plenty of high quality protein. Both shelled sunflower seeds and safflower seed have protein levels between 18 and 21 %.

Mung beans as well as other beans and peas have protein levels between 22 and 30%.  They really need to be sprouted or cooked.

Hemp and buckwheat seed have protein levels around 30%.

Commercial feeds use soybean and seed meals from other processes like oil production to produce concentrates. If you can get them you can add them to your feed to boost levels.

Turkey finisher ration has protein levels around 18% and can be used to bring up levels.

What about fermented Feed for my hens?

Fermentation has been used for hundreds of years by many cultures to preserve and enhance foods. If you have ever consumed cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread or sauerkraut you have eaten a fermented food. It is the simple fermenting of a foodstuff with a Lactobacillus or lactic acid bacteria.

Fermenting chickens feed does have some advantages like making food more digestible.

I would take any claims that it will reduce your food bill with a very large pinch of salt, it didn’t in my tests and it didn’t in either of the two studies I looked into.

It also has some disadvantages. The production of alcohol during fermentation and mould is more likely to develop. There is also a need to keep active cultures and exclude oxygen from the ferment.

There are plenty of guides to fermenting chicken feed so I won’t go into the process here. I will make a few points:

  1. The chickens have beaten you too it already. They have two pouches called cecae where they ferment food in their intestines.
  2. If it was genuinely beneficial then commercial chicken and egg producers would have adopted it wholesale as they would not be missing out on a chance to save money.
  3. Sprouting seeds is much easier and quicker and has similar beneficial results.
  4. Soft feed is likely to cause weakness in the crop and gizzard leading to impaction and other problems.
  5. It is time consuming and requires equipment.

I would agree that it is beneficial for young birds to help inoculate the gut with bacteria but I have found no real world benefit in older birds.

Poorly nourished chickens may benefit but if birds have a good diet then fermented feed is unlikely to help.

What Can Happen if Their Diet Isn’t Right?

Chickens require a balance of protein, calories and nutrients to grow and also to produce eggs.

A malnourished hen will go off producing eggs and will sicken more easily. Eggs may be smaller, thinner shelled, have weak membranes or be misshapen.

Eggs from under nourished parents are less likely to hatch or will produce weakened chicks.

If they get ill or suffer a parasite attack it is more likely they will be overcome and die or take longer to recover.

Poultry that is going hungry may well fight and cause injury or force the weaker birds off the food altogether.

Feathers are 80% protein so hens will often pick feathers up off the ground and eat them. This is normal behaviour. It is only a problem if they are pulling the feathers out of each other and leaving bald patches.

When hens moult, they will lose their feathers and regrow a new set. During this time, they will usually divert the protein that went into egg production to feather production which is one of the reasons hens stop laying when they go through a moult.

Not feeding properly is a false economy and I have made this mistake myself in the past - In my inexperienced youth I managed to get a supply of spent brewer's grains without realising the clue was in the name - SPENT. They have been malted, crushed and steeped in hot water and there is very little left in the way of nutrition. I ended up feeding my hens around 40% and all was fine for around three weeks and then productivity just crashed and it took several weeks to recover.

What about mixed poultry corn?

By far the biggest feeding mistake people make is feeding chickens too much wheat. Mixed corn is usually a mixture (80 to 90%) wheat and (10 to 20%) cracked maize.  Wheat contains around 10% protein which is an insufficient amount of protein for a hen to be able to produce eggs.

Below: Plain mixed corn is not enough on it's own.

Mixed corn is relatively low in protein, high in carbohydrates and lacks essential vitamins and minerals that are required by chickens. Keep mixed corn as a treat or add other seeds to improve it’s protein levels

Maize is high in fat and contains carotene that colours the skin. Whilst this produces attractive looking corn-fed chickens with yellow skin and a layer of fat on the breast for the supermarket shelves, it won’t produce laying hens.

It’s like candy to them. But, it has no real nutritional value other than calories. It is fine to give them a little in the winter when the weather is really cold, but otherwise it has no benefit. It does quickly make hens fat, which can lead to serious egg and laying problems.

How can you tell if my chickens diet isn’t right ?

How Can I make my own chicken feed ?

Yes, I do after all. You need to do a little research to make sure they will be getting all they need. It is easier if you are free ranging or pasturing your poultry.

Do you have a chicken feed formula?

This is my exact one I use for preparing my feed. The left column shows the list of ingredients, the middle column shows how much of each seed goes into the feed mix and the third column is to help me balance the protein level my chickens are getting.

Below: My basic all seed feed and grit formula for chickens.

I use hulled sunflower seeds as the shells add too much fibre to the diet to be of any use. If you make 100 Lb or Kg mixes it will avoid the need for complex calculations and chicken keeping should be easy.

As you can see my mix comes out to nearly 15% protein.

Can I make a homemade chick starter feed?

You can but I would not recommend it. Fast growing chicks need special feed that contains a coccidiostat.

It would also need to be milled to make it small enough.

What do you feed your chickens?

I am going to have to say that I am not a fill a hopper with pellets type, in fact my hens haven’t had pellets for several years now so you can keep happy hens without having to feed pellets. I prefer the whole grain option, mainly because I have rare breeds but doesn’t mean it is suitable for everybody.

Whole seed mix – You can see my formula in the section above. Picture of what it looks like below.

Greens and free range - Free ranging chickens get all the greenery they need by nipping off the growing tips of grass and other plants. They root around for grubs, insects and worms. Otherwise greens should be given daily and can include things like cabbage, carrots, cauliflower leaves, spinach, dandelions or sprouted grains.

Sprouts – My birds get a selection of seed sprouts.

Grit (2.5%) and shell (2.5%). Grit: Hard crushed rock, preferably from granite, used by the chickens in place of teeth. The crop helps grind the food into a more digestible form. 

Below: a mix of grit and shell is a must for laying hens.

Shells is not a substitute for grit and birds need both. It is best to have a surplus.

Kelp or sea-weed flakes. Harvested from the sea and full of trace minerals. It also replaces any need to add salt to their rations. It makes up about 0.4% of my feed.

Studies have shown an all pellet feed isn’t necessarily the best for chickens as you can see in this extract: the really important bits are highlighted in italics.

                “One important factor is the form of the feed, which to a large extent will determine feed intake. Pelleting of the diet will usually increase feed intake of chickens by 10 to 20% , and thus will increase the demands on an already high-performing digestive system. An increase in digestibility when diets were given as mash compared with pellets was observed by Svihus and Hetland and indicates that pelleting may cause an overload of the digestive system. Engberg et al. found significantly higher levels of digestive enzymes when diets were given as mash compared with pellets, and also showed that pelleted diets resulted in a much more poorly developed gizzard than when mash diets were given. Thus, as the gizzard probably has an important role as a feed-flow regulator it is possible that the combined effect of a high feed intake and a low gizzard-stimulating effect increases the risk of a too-rapid passage of material through the digestive tract. This fits with conclusions made by Rougière and Carré  who concluded that retention time in the proventriculus or gizzard was a major limiting factor for digestion in chickens based on passage studies. A high feed intake due to pelleting may therefore have particularly detrimental effects when no structural components exist in the diet, resulting in a small and under-developed gizzard. Environmental conditions may be important in this context, as birds will compensate for lack of structural components in the diet, to some extent, by eating litter materials, such as wood shavings, if available. As pelleted diets are used commercially for broiler chicken, this means that the use of mash diets under experimental conditions may not reflect the commercial reality in terms of digestibility and digestive function.”

Source and further reading - https://academic.oup.com/japr/article/23/2/306/761377/Function-of-the-digestive-system1

There are 3 simple reasons why I don’t feed pellets:

1.  I don’t like what is on the list of ingredients. Fish meal, Genetically modified soy, bentonite clay and ash are not things I want to be feeding my hens.

2. Commercial feeds are formulated for Hybrids and commercial flocks, not backyard situation and heritage breeds.

3. My hens have always preferred seed and free range. Over the years I have tested them incessantly and when they have a choice they choose seed based feed.

For confined birds, grit should be offered ad lib and needs to be the right size for the age of the bird. Chickens allowed to free range will not need as much but should have access to it.

Chickens do not have teeth and use grit in their gizzard to grind down their food. Oyster shell should be included in the mix as this contains a lot of calcium that the hens need for eggs.

Can chickens find their own food?

Yes, and they love to do so and you should let them do it whenever it is convenient and safe.

Video of hybrid scratching

Do I have to feed them at all, is pasture enough?

I get asked this quite a bit. I have never tried it.

The only example I know off is one of a man who owns a compost business. Not all of us have 4 acres of compost yard surrounded by fields. He manages to keep quite a few hens and buys no chicken feed at all.

It is quite easy to supplement their diet by keeping them in an orchard or allowing them to forage through fields after harvest. To actually not feed is probably not possible. As in the example above chickens love a compost heap.

I have planted wheat and other grains which is a cheap if time consuming way of supplementing the feed bill.

Even chickens kept in the Rural third world are fed to some extent.

Hens out on the range can find a lot of their own food but they will still need feeding.

What can we learn from third world chicken keepers.

What do I feed my chickens if I want organic eggs?

You will need an Organic certified chicken feed which is expensive. There are a few brands on the market but they are about twice the cost of standard feed.

The other alternative if you to feed your poultry organically is to grow it yourself, you will need a plot of land and some determination but it can be done. Some grains are easy to grow thresh and store and things like pumpkins store well and my hens go mad for the seeds inside as well as the flesh.

Where can I get inexpensive chicken feed?

I can buy Whole wheat for £3.50  for a 25Kg sack which makes it cheap. I wouldn’t have happy or well fed chickens if I just gave them wheat.

Buying the cheapest is a false economy but there are a few ways you supplement their diet for free such as windfall fruit in summer and surplus veggies late in the season when there is a glut. If you like a beer why not make your own all grain brews, it will be cheaper and you can feed the hens the spent barley afterwards.

What should I feed my breeders?

Commercial hens will produce on a wide range of laying diets. This doesn't mean that the same diets are adequate for breeding flocks. Slight vitamin or mineral deficiencies may prevent an otherwise normal fertilised egg from hatching. Diet deficiencies which may reduce hatch-ability to zero, often will not have any ill-effect on the health or productive performance of the breeder hen.

Both males and females should be placed on a breeder diet five to six weeks before saving hatching eggs. By the end of this period the hen will have deposited all of the essential nutrients required for proper embryo development in the yolk.

Providing adequate vitamins in a breeding ration is very important. The degree of the deficiency affects the stage at which death of the embryo takes place.

Deficiencies of various trace elements and vitamins may lead to reduced hatch-ability and poor chick quality. Dead embryos may exhibit conditions that reveal the particular vitamin deficiencies causing their death.

A deficiency of Vitamin B-12 will cause a rapid decrease in hatch-ability.

There's also a poorer survival rate for chickens that do hatch. Riboflavin (Vitamin B-2) deficiencies also cause poor hatch-ability with embryos showing clubbed down.

An example is that a marginal deficiency of pantothenic acid may permit almost normal hatch-ability but poor chick viability. A greater deficiency results in heavier mortality at the end of 21 days. An extreme deficiency causes high mortality as early as twelve to sixteen days with no embryos surviving to hatch.

Biotin, choline, and manganese help prevent a condition known as perosis or slipped tendon.

An acute deficiency of biotin causes high embryo mortality during the period of 72 to 96 hours of incubation.

A manganese deficiency gives rise to embryos with parrot beaks and nutritional chondrodystlrophy, which is a shortening of the long bones of the embryo. A choline deficiency is unlikely as the hen seems fully able to synthesise her own requirements.

Lack of Vitamin D cause rickets and malformations in the Embryo.

Torticollis, also known as twisted neck is caused by a deficiency in vitamin E and the mineral element Selenium.  In a chick this is likely to be caused by the parent birds being deficient in those elements.

These vitamins and minerals must be included in your breeder's diet: riboflavin, pantothenic acid, Vitamin B-12, niacin, folic acid, biotin, choline, Vitamin A, Vitamin D-3, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.

You should also make sure the protein level is slightly higher, around 16.5%

Most commercial breeder mashes and concentrates are sufficiently fortified and contain more than an adequate amount of these essential vitamins and minerals to insure proper embryo development.

Frequent feeding of fresh feed is important. Food stored exposed will oxidise and lose nutritional value over time.

Feeding broody hens

During the first seventeen days the hen should come off the nest at least once a day, I do this last thing at night after all the other hens are roosting. Broody hens don’t often get on with others. They do need to stretch their legs and empty their bowels without fouling the nest or eggs and broody poo’s tend to be huge and quite smelly!

Broodies will feed themselves with as much as they need and they are probably best left to decide how much that is.

As the hen is a creature of habit, it is a good plan to combine the daily run with feeding routine. It is necessary to make this combined exercise and feeding at a regular time, for the hen may get restless if her normal time has passed.

She should be allowed back to the nest after about twenty minutes, except in very cold weather when the time can be shortened. The short absence from the nest also helps to aerate the eggs.

Most hens will come off the nest to feed of their own free will but some may have to be lifted off, and the sitting bird must be handled very carefully. First, the wings should be raised gently to release any eggs that may be held between the wings and body otherwise you may get broken eggs and a messy nest. When it is certain that no eggs are held between wings and body, the hen may be lifted with one hand under the body and the other over her back. The hen should always be lifted from or returned to the nest head first to reduce her tendency to resist, and to prevent the wings getting caught up in the sides of the entrance.

I always do this later in the day after the other birds are roosting, there will be less disturbance and the broody hen will have the desire to return without wandering off as she might do in a morning.

Feeding chickens definitions:

Mash: A commercial blend of several feed ingredients, cut to a small size like a flake but not to a powder.

Pellets: Kernels of compressed mash four to six mm in diameter and eight to ten mm long. Widely available. Short cut version for bantams and growers

Crumbles: Whole pellets that have been short cut by the processing machine and are much smaller.  A bit bigger than mash and often with other milled ingredients.

Starter: A blend of feed for chicks and young growing birds. Mostly crumble size but it differs depending on the supplier.

Grower: Normally an off heat chicken from six or weeks or feed for this age of bird.

Layer: The feed blend for chickens that are laying eggs with extra calcium and protein added. Should not be fed to younger hens as the excess calcium can be harmful for hens not yet laying.

Broiler: Feed blend for chickens that are growing as fast as possible in order to be harvested for meat as early as possible.

Scratch: Whole grains fed separately to chickens, usually scattered on the ground to keep them busy. Could be a single grain or a mixture of grains, such as wheat, rye, oats, sorghum etc. Maize must be cracked before using as scratch as it is a little big in full kernels.

Feed Ingredients Concentrate: Protein-rich foods, often oil processing by products like sunflower seed meal. Or manufactured concentrates like methionine.

Corn: this term is the source of much confusion depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on so I will stick to the terms Wheat or Maize for the relevant feed-stuff.

Grain: Any small, hard seeds, especially grass-family seeds provides energy, B vitamins, phosphorus, and the whole grains are a fair source of protein.  Includes Millet, Sorghum or Milo, wheat and Barley as well as others.

Bran: The outer coating of a kernel of grain which is high in silicon and fibre and relatively indigestible by poultry. It is a cheap by-product of milling.

Germ: The embryo plant inside a kernel of grain. It is rich in oils and very nutritious as well as being high in protein.

Protein: Foods high in amino acids used to build tissues. Protein quality is determined by the completeness of the amino acid varieties in the food source and it’s digestibility.

Amino acid: The molecule that is one building blocks of protein. There are 22 different amino acids, most of which can be manufactured in the body but a few that cannot must be supplied directly by the food consumed. These are the Essential Amino Acids. Food that supplies all 8 essential amino acids is called complete.

Minerals: Elements found in nature and needed by the body like Iron and Selenium

Trace minerals are those needed in relatively very tiny amounts and can be highly toxic if these amounts are exceeded.

Macro-minerals are those needed in larger amounts, such as calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium.

Water - Probably should be first on the list!

Please make sure your hens have plenty of water and shade whatever the weather. 

The importance of water to chickens - “Water is the driving force of all nature” Leonardo da Vinci

Water is an essential nutrient for all poultry and whilst it is not possible to state exact requirements it is incredibly important to the development and well being of birds. In hot weather it is advisable to add a second source of cool fresh water that is easy to access. About 70% of the body weight of a chicken is water, much the same as a humans, and the egg is around 75% water. 

It helps to soften the food in the crop to aid digestion. Without water dry food like layers pellets can form hard lumps in the crop, slowing digestion at best and swelling to block the arteries to the head at worst. You can try adding whole wheat or split maize soaked in water to the diet on hot dry days.

From my own experience chickens prefer cool fresh water rather than warm water sat in the sunshine. 

Chickens need shade and fresh water in all seasons, not just hot weather in summer but also freezing weather in winter.

The picture below is some of my hens flopping around in my garden. Raising a wing in the sun helps to aid cooling by evaporation from the bare skin under the wing.

Below: Some of my hens in the garden.

The actual amount of water required depends on ambient conditions like temperature and humidity as well as whether the bird is in egg production as well as the efficiency of the kidneys.

See this article for keeping waterers clean. Opens in a new window.

A study by Medway and Kare, 1959 found that it was generally as much as twice the dry weight of feed consumed, and in 1984, further investigation by Marks and pesty concluded that the more protein present in feed and pellet only diets increased the water:feed ratio. Their studies were based on confined birds so can only be used as a guide. They found that per 1000 birds on commercial feed they needed a supply of around 300 litres a day.

In warm or hot and sunny weather it advisable to make sure birds have at least a pint of water per day available from 2 separate sources, as well as shade.

Interestingly Dun and Emmans discovered in 1971 that competition reduced the water intake of hens and that a maximum of 10 hens per watering point was advisable. Again this study was based on confined hens but it is a good standard for those of you with large flocks.

Hearn and hill in 1978 compared the water consumption between water trough and nipple-point systems and found that birds on the trough system consumed around 30ml more per day.

Depriving birds of water for 12 hours can have catastrophic effects, causing at least distress, and at most death of the bird, as well as a break in laying and when water is restored it can lead to water intoxication which can be fatal. Whilst they were not particularly nice studies, it was confirmed by three separate tests in 65, 66 and 73 that water deprivation for 36 hours is fatal in most cases. As these birds were in a climatically controlled environment, it is likely in warm sun the timescale would be reduced.

For anyone rearing birds for meat purposes (broilers), the need might be even greater as they tend to consume more, higher protein food.

Water supplies should be chosen with some care, water runoff from fields may be contaminated with nitrates (fertiliser), Sulphates or chemicals and water run off from roads in the UK may be contaminated with quite high levels of salt.

Birds can die of thirst even in winter when their water bowls are frozen so it's not just a summer problem.

A good rule is not to give your birds water you wouldn't drink yourself. I personally would never use a nipple-point watering system, especially if you live in a hard water area as deposits and minerals can block the system and at the end of the day filling the waterers every morning gets you amongst the flock.

I use galvanised waterers as plastic ones tend to be very short lived and the drinking trough on them get dirty easily.

Buy your hens a sturdy galvanised waterer for your hens.

Plastic waterers tend to last only a year or two and are easily messed in.