How to Raise Chickens: #4 Feeding your flock

chickens eating

During the summer months, we don’t worry about feeding our hens much other than to make sure they have access to some commercial feed.  Most of the time, they are running around outside, “free-ranging” and eating grass, Mama’s plants (stay out of my garden!), and plenty of insects.

giant chicken

During our Wisconsin winters, they live mainly off commercial feed as we can’t find the ground under all that snow.  They do get table scraps. Everything from fruits and vegetables, to cooked meat, spaghetti (which they love), and other pasta.  Since we have a toddler whose appetite can range from eating two bites per meal to everything in sight, I love that there isn’t a whole lot of food that goes to waste in our household.  Garden scraps are great too – tomatoes that aren’t quite perfect (or even better, have a worm in them!), over-abundant squash, blighted lettuce, etc.  I read someone saying that their chickens get awfully sick of zucchini by the end of summer.  Yeah, don’t we all?!

Speaking of feeding scraps – here’s a cute video showing how the chickens know what’s coming when Papa brings out the scrap bucket!

It’s also cute to watch them try and avoid walking on the snow!

We buy our feed from the local mill at a cost of $11.50 for a 50 lb bag.  The big-name supply stores also sell feed for a few dollars more.  Papa likes the local mill’s feed better because it’s a finer grind; they don’t spill as much on the ground so it seems to last longer.

There are different kinds of feed.  Baby chicks get a special blend of feed called chick starter.  Then there is a feed blend especially for laying hens that is higher in protein and good for your adult hens.  You may also find broiler ration feed in the store – that is also a high-protein feed meant for “meat birds”.

There are a few foods that you should not feed to your chickens:

  • avocado skins and pits; however they can eat the flesh of avocados (or your leftover guacamole)
  • green potato skins
  • garlics and onions in large amounts.  Not only will your eggs to taste like them, but large amounts could cause hemolytic anemia
  • citrus fruits and peels (may cause a drop in egg production)
  • chocolate.  Also not safe if the dog gets into the pen (But then again, who has leftover chocolate?!)
  • dry beans.  Cooked beans are fine.
  • moldy or rotten food.  If there’s just a little bit, I’ll throw it out there as the chickens will usually avoid the bad spots.  Anything too bad gets tossed over the hillside.

You’ll have to pick up food and water dispensers.  Our feeder hangs from the ceiling of the run, as does the waterer so they are less likely to kick bedding and other unmentionables up into the dispensers.  You could also mount a waterer inside the coop if you’re concerned about it freezing during wintertime.  They make water heaters for chicken coops as well.   You need to be sure they have clean water daily so they don’t become dehydrated.

chickens in the run

Eggshells contain calcium.  Hens need calcium to be able to lay eggs.  If they aren’t getting enough the eggs may end up with thinner shells, and worse yet, the hen herself may be depleting her own supply of calcium to lay eggs.  What are the best calcium supplements? eggshells!  When you use your eggs, you can turn around and feed them to the chickens.  Some experts say it’s best to break them up so the hens don’t know they’re eating eggshells and start to peck at the ones that have just been laid.  You can also buy broken oyster shells and leave them in a container, or sprinkle them in the run for the chickens to peck at.

Chickens also need access to “grit”.  They use small pebbles they ingest to help mash up food in their crop.  You can use other bird gravel (parakeet / canary gravel) available at your local pet store.  Just place a small container where they have access and they’ll find it.

Treats (and ways to keep them entertained):

  • hang a head of cabbage just out of reach of the chickens, so they have to jump up and peck at it
  • grass clippings
  • yogurt
  • scrambled eggs.  Yeah, it seems ironic, but eggs are a good source of protein.  This is a good treat during molting.
  • Pumpkins and pumpkin seeds
  • Mealworms
  • Vegetable soup – warmed up for the winter months
  • you can also place special treats in suet feeders – especially in the winter months
  • cracked corn
  • sunflower seeds

Caution: just be sure those foods listed above are used as treats and in small amounts.  They should not be fed on a regular basis as some can cause problems.  Just like humans, moderation is key.

chickens eating
Photo courtesy of Fir0002/

Here’s a tip.  We have problems with tent caterpillars in our area.  If you know what they are, they are a caterpillar that (as their name implies) builds a “tent” or web in a tree and practically demolishes that branch by eating all the leaves.  Many people spray their trees to get rid of them.  We’ve found an effective method is to remove the limb that is infected and drop it into the chicken yard.  The chickens scramble to get first bid on those caterpillars!

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