Feeding Chickens for Optimal Health and Production
Backyard chicken farming is very basic with your bird’s only needs being food, shelter, and water. While poultry waterers and feeders are nice, they aren’t necessary; anything deep enough to avoid tipping and the chickens walking through the feed and water works.
When feeding your chickens, don’t solely rely on commercial chicken feed. Besides being the least healthy food to feed them, a green diet is better for them. Those beautiful, large, orange yolks, synonymous with fresh eggs, don’t come from a diet made solely of grains. For healthy chicken meat and eggs, you need healthy chickens eating a healthy diet. I only feed my chickens commercial food during the winter if the natural source is scarce.
Chickens are natural foragers; hunting insects, worms, and greens. Even if you can’t let your chickens forage on their own, you can supply them with the varied diet they need by feeding them leftover scraps from the kitchen.
5 Essential Dietary Ingredients
The chicken’s diet is largely related to superior tasting eggs. During my years as a backyard chicken farmer, I’ve explored many choices and have narrowed it down to six items I consider the best for egg layers.
• Meat Protein – Protein is essential to egg production. I do not recommend feeding your chickens meat as this tends to turn your chickens cannibalistic. When chickens forage, they eat worms and bugs which are high in protein. Since I don’t let my chickens free-range, I provide them with a culinary delight of various types of insects. During the summer, I pick tomato worms and give them to my flock. They are crazy for these fat green worms and run around the pen, squealing with delight. In the winter, I buy mealy worms and crickets. I also provide them with fish oil and fish meal throughout the year. They not only love it but it’s good for them as well.
• Grass and Hay – I know this sounds strange, but believe me, it’s a win-win situation. I have a large pen for my small flock and in one corner I have my compost pile. Why do the backbreaking work of turning your compost? It takes almost a year before you can use the compost this way. With chickens, your compost will not only be ready in about 4-6 months but your fertilizer will be mixed in. Believe me, chickens make fast work of a compost pile, plus it’s good for them.
• Dried whole Corn and Grains – This I use sparingly but it is a good supplement to their diet as well as contributing to the richness of the yolk.
• Greens – The secret to nutrient rich, delicious eggs is greens. This includes lettuce, beet greens, kale, or whatever green scraps you have in your kitchen. I’m a dumpster diver, so whenever I see the markets and stores throwing away vegetables, I gather them for my girls. I also beg scraps from my neighbors; I’m known as the “vegetable bag lady”.
• Calcium – Calcium is essential for chicken’s health as well as egg quality. No…I don’t put calcium pills down their throat; I feed them eggshells. If you talk to other backyard chicken farmers you will find many different opinions about this. However, everyone agrees, laying hens need lots of calcium. A lack of calcium is bad for your hens and causes thin shell eggs.
• Water – I find it interesting that what is the single most important feeding aspect for a flock is rarely discussed. You can provide your chickens all the high priced, fancy food you want, but if enough fresh water is not available, your chickens won’t eat. This results in egg production loss since half the egg is made of water. Make sure fresh water is always available. In the winter, place water inside the coop to avoid freezing, and increase your water monitoring in the summer. Birds quickly dehydrate without enough water.
Many people will tell you grit is a necessary part of your chicken’s diet. We don’t buy grit because the chickens get all they need from the soil. If you want to feed your chickens grit, go ahead but it isn’t necessary.
Feeding Your Hens Eggshells
Because your hens use a lot of calcium laying eggs, it’s important to add calcium to their diet. Most local and online feed stores carry oyster shell as a calcium supplement. But, if you’re like me, you prefer sustainable living which includes caring for your chickens naturally. This is why I use egg shells instead of buying calcium supplements.
Feeding chickens eggshells is a practice dating back a few hundred years. Most premixed feed rations contain the added calcium. However, most of their food is table scraps and foraging finds, then you need added calcium in their diet.
Some people fear that feeding their flock eggshells will turn them into egg eaters. In my 20+ years of raising chickens, I’ve only had 2 egg eaters that I can remember and I don’t think it was because of feeding them eggshells. If that were true, all my hens would be egg eaters.
Usually, chickens eat their eggs because of a lack of calcium in their diet. But, as a disclaimer, anything is possible, and some chickens may have the “mad egg eating” disease…however, I think that is unlikely.
The feeding process is as simple as tossing the used shells in your scrap bucket with their other goodies. I prefer a different method, but it’s whatever works best for you.
• I collect the shells as I use the eggs, smashing them down as I go and storing them in a bucket I leave in the pantry.
• Once the bucket is halfway full, I spread the half crushed shells on a baking sheet and bake at 350° F for 8 minutes. While the baking process kills any lingering bacteria, I bake the shells because toasting them dries out the membrane, making them easier to crush into tiny pieces. If I’m in a hurry, I skip this step.
• Once cooled, crush the toasted shells into tiny chicken “bite-sized” pieces. You don’t want a powder, just pieces about the size of small glitter (that’s the best way I know how to describe the size). I want them small enough that they are not recognizable as eggs. Chickens will go after any egg shaped object, so crushing the shells stops them from thinking they can eat eggs. Again, this may not be necessary with your flock but I rather not put the temptation out there.
• Mix your eggshells with their feed rations or place in a separate feeder. I keep the eggshells separate from their feed. Chickens know when their body is craving calcium and will eat from your eggshell feeder. If you mix it in with their regular food, they just pick it out if they don’t need the calcium and all those eggshells go to waste.
• As for the amount to feed your hens, this depends on their need for calcium. It’s like with any other feed; just note how much is left in the feeder. The eggshells won’t go bad, so you can keep them indefinitely.
In the beginning, you may not have enough eggshells and will need to spend the extra money for some oyster shell or a calcium enriched feed. I have the people who use my eggs, save their shells for me so I always have a ready supply of calcium.
I never use store-bought eggshells. This is a personal preference and strictly your decision, however with the unknown factor of the chicken’s health and what they were fed; I don’t want my backyard chickens eating them.
Importance of Quality Feed
Your feed should never contain mold or dust as chicken lungs are delicate and susceptible to disease. Dust and mold puts stress on the chicken’s lungs making any food containing these inadequate. Always inspect your feed as soon as you get home. If the chicken feed is moldy, call your supplier and they will usually exchange it.
Once your chickens are regularly laying, stay with the same brand of food. Brands vary and a difference in egg quality and yield is possible. However, if the chickens aren’t producing, you need to switch to a different brand. Talk with your feed supplier for suggestions.
Winter is an especially important time for quality food. Green grass is gone and nature’s table is void of the summer gourmet feast of bugs and vegetation. A high protein feed with a proper balance of vitamins and minerals is necessary for your flock’s health. While you still feed your hens table scraps this is not enough without supplementing their diet with commercial feed.
Treats are Nice
As with any pet, chickens love treats. I keep a bag of mixed corn on hand for this purpose. The chickens love it. Scatter a couple handfuls around the chicken yard. The chickens love scratching the ground and digging out those golden kernels. It’s also great for getting your chickens to go to bed. I scatter a path up the chicken run into the coop and the birds follow.
In closing, remember that your chicken’s diet dictates their overall health and their egg production. Never skimp on feeding your flock. Keep their food clean, dry and vermin free by storing in sealed containers. And finally, fresh water is as important as quality food.