In the coming weeks we’ll be talking about hatching chicks and raising them through their first year and we will address nutrition for young birds at that time. But for this week, we’ll address the nutritional needs of birds that have reached the point of coming into lay.
What you put into your chickens is what you’ll get out of them. I don’t think you can go wrong with a high quality commercially formulated feed. Although they can be costly, manufacturers have spent a lot of time and money to make sure their product provides a balanced diet and will produce optimum results.
If you are raising table birds, a commercial feed will fatten up your flock faster than foraging. You’ll need to butcher your chickens at a young age, before the meat gets tough. Commercial feed will put more meat on your chickens faster than another diet.
Commercial feed will also get the most eggs out of your layers because it is formulated to do so.
With that said, I certainly don’t want to discredit the generations of farmers who have kept the breeds strong and productive without the aide of a commercial supplier.
Nor do I want to discourage those of you who would rather feed your chickens more traditionally with a home-devised diet. So if you choose to provide home rations the following information will be of help.
Because chickens are natural foragers, they will instinctively seek a balanced diet provided all the elements are available to them. If you confine your flock, remember that you are limiting their dietary options to the area of confinement.
If you happen to live in an area where free range is an option and forage will provide a balanced diet, you are blessed. For the rest of us, supplementing is a must.
Grit – Chickens don’t have teeth. They will peck at their food to make it “bite size” before it is swallowed. The food is ground up within the chicken’s gizzard which is lined with thick, muscular walls. Chickens will swallow small rocks or pebbles to grind the food against. If there is not an abundance of small rocks or pebbles available to your chickens at all times, you must provide your chickens with grit which can be purchased at your local feed supplier.
Grain – Contrary to popular belief, chickens do not require grain, but grains will benefit your birds and encourage them to lay generously and grow well. A mixture of grains is better than a single grain: corn, wheat, barley, sorghum, oats, buckwheat, any combination is fine. This mixture of grain is often referred to as “scratch”. Although corn is probably the easiest to grow, watch that your flock is not getting too much of it as it is a low-protein, high-fat food. Fat chickens don’t lay well and fat roosters don’t breed well.
Greens – If given the opportunity, chickens can use greens for up to 20 percent of their diet, more than that and their health will suffer. They love plants and will head right for the garden so make provisions if you don’t want to share. It is the greens in their diet that make home-grown egg yolks that rich, yellow color. Feed them surplus from your garden; swiss chard, pea shells, carrot tops, leaf lettuce ribs, melon rinds, cooked and chopped squash and potatoes, etc. Pasture them and let them eat grasses. If your chickens are confined, feed them greens in a hanging basket to give them something to do. Remember, when chickens are bored they start to cause trouble.
Chickens will eat most any plant they can get to so you must take care that there is nothing toxic available if they are free ranging. Here is a helpful list of plants toxic to chickens:
Protein – If you want protein out of your birds, you must put protein into them. In season, bugs and worms will provide all the protein your flock needs if there is ample supply. Out of season or in an environment with limited supply, you’ll have to supplement. Chickens love milk. Thirty birds can consume a gallon each day. Warm milk is a wonderful treat in the winter. Do not use powdered milk as it is without whey, a necessary element. Share your cooked meat and/or poultry scraps. I do not recommend fish because of the extent of polluted waters. Legumes are great, avoid raw soybean though because it has compounds that are poisonous to chickens. Protein supplements are also available from your feed supplier.
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Table scraps – Chickens can and will eat just about anything you do. Give them your table scraps, peelings, damaged fruit and refrigerator throw-aways. Do not give them moldy food or chocolate. They will have preferences just as you do. My chickens don’t seem to like peppers or onions. If you’re eating a balanced diet, your chickens will be also.
Calcium – Chickens need calcium for strong bones, to produce hard shelled eggs as well as replace feathers. You can purchase oyster shell from you feed supplier. Offer a constant supply in a separate container. An alternative is dried and crushed egg shell. I tend to shy away from this exclusively because of the law of diminishing returns but some people highly recommend it. Chickens know what they are lacking and given the opportunity, will eat the shell (oyster or egg) as needed. It is not necessary to provide shell mixed in with their food and will ultimately be wasteful.
Regardless of whether you are feeding a home-devised diet, commercial feed or a combination of both, your winter rations will need to increase. Chickens need to eat more just to maintain their health in the winter. If you are in an environment where the temperature falls below freezing, 10 birds would require an extra 37 pounds of feed per month.
Your climate and preference will indicate whether you can keep your food outside or inside the hen house. Like the water container, there are many options available for food delivery. Get as fancy as you’d like, just remember that the chickens don’t care.
Old-timers say to feed first thing in the morning and again in the evening. Provide enough feed to last 30 minutes at each feeding. The evening feed encourages your flock to come home to roost and to lay in the morning before they leave the coop.
Regardless of when you feed, never put new food on top of old. Use two feeders if necessary, allowing the first to be emptied before refilling. Never let your chickens eat moldy food. Keep their feeder clean by washing and sanitizing monthly or more often if necessary.
That about covers it for feed, I hope you find this information helpful.
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