Buying manufactured food for our pet dogs and cats is a relatively new thing. Same with chicken food. Not that long ago chickens were free-ranging and their diet was based on what they could forage. Nowadays most chicken keepers buy the bulk of their feed and supplement with garden and household scraps.
Chicks should be fed Starter crumbles with 20-22% protein from hatch until they are roughly eight weeks old. Medicated feed contains amprolium, a thiamine blocker, which helps to prevent coccidiosis. Do not use medicated feed if your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis. If you do give medicated feed make sure you’re not also supplementing with vitamins at the same time.
After 8 weeks they move on to Grower crumbles with 16-18% protein. Once they mature, around 20 weeks, they will transition for the last time, to Layer pellets, with 15-17% protein and higher rates of calcium than grower.
If you keep a mixed age flock or have a rooster, all your birds should be fed Grower/All Flock and offered oyster shells separately. Non-laying birds (i.e. younger and older females and male birds) can’t utilize excess calcium, which can lead to kidney issues including gout.
I supplement store-bought feed with a large variety of fruits and veggies I get from two food recovery programs. I drop by a corner grocery store close to where I work several times a week, which puts out their unsellable perishables free for pick up. It’s hit-and-miss, in terms of quantity and quality, but I usually get greens and fruit and occasionally things like tofu or multigrain bread. I try to freeze what I can’t use in the short term. I also pass on a bunch of it to Tracy who is my GERTIE bus driver three afternoons a week. She brings a bag and I divvy it up on the ride home.
I also get chicken food from the recovery program on Gabriola. Volunteers pick up unsold perishables/ trimmings five or six days/week from our local grocery store and sort into three streams: the foodbank/soup lunch program, farmers and compost. Last year I got more than 300 boxes for my girls. Sometimes there are things they don’t like which goes into the compost so nothing gets wasted.
Feeding a flock of 30 birds and 75+ chicks through hatching season can get costly. To cut my bills I supplement with the things I get, much of it organic, for free. If you don’t have a food recovery program near you check this out for some freecycling tips on how to save money keeping chickens.
If your birds are free-ranging then they are already foraging for insects, worms, seeds and plants. If your birds are penned you’ll have to bring the buffet to them. If you’ve got a compost bin does your flock have access to it? Do you divert some kitchen waste to them instead? What do you do with the weeds you pull from your garden? Chickens will eat it all, but avoid long grass which can lead to sour, or impacted, crop.
I’ve learned that what my chickens like is different than someone else’s flock. Try your birds on a variety of foods to see what they enjoy or not.
There are some basic foods to avoid: avocado skins/seed (mine won’t even touch the flesh), raw or dry beans, moldy foods, mushrooms, green potatoes and tomatoes, rhubarb, processed foods with high fat, sugar or salt content, chocolate and anything that has been treated with pesticides. Most things in moderation are fine.
Chickens, like the rest of us, need a balanced diet. As with all foods, the key is moderation: be aware that chickens have voracious appetites and don’t always have the opportunity to burn off those excess calories. Chubby chickens might look cute, but obesity can cause illness and death. Avoid too many sugary treats (grapes, corn, bananas, sweet potatoes), which can lead to fatty liver syndrome.
Two of the things they do require for optimal health are: protein for growth in young birds and feather growth in adults; and calcium, which is a key component in egg production. Luckily, some of the same foods appear on both lists.
Protein Rich Foods
- Fish/meat/sea food
- Dog and cat food (ask your vet for pet food that has reached the best before date)
- Yoghurt, cottage cheese, kefir, cheese
- Kidney beans, chick peas, soybeans, lentils
- Pumpkin Seeds
High Calcium Foods
- Yoghurt, cottage cheese, kefir, cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes (cooked)
- Broccoli, cauliflower
- Dark leafy greens: collards, kale. Avoid too much spinach which contain oxalates, inhibiting the absorption of calcium
- Mustard greens, okra, arugula
- Oranges (in moderation)
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Egg shells (dry, crush and feed back to them)
Some folks go the extra mile and make special treats. Tracy’s partner, Keith, makes his girls warm oatmeal on cold days. In summer, some people freeze melon cubes or corn and offer it as a cooling treat. My girls won’t eat cabbage unless it’s chopped finely like coleslaw, but if hung like a tetherball will devour it. I get loads of yams and sweet potatoes which are too hard for my girls to eat raw, so I cube and boil them first. They are high in calcium, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre and only take a few minutes to prepare.
Access to fresh water is critical, especially in hot weather. If you put apple cider vinegar in their water stop during the summer months to avoid acidosis. Another thing you can add to their waterers is crushed garlic for digestive health and to prevent parasites.
My birds love most berries (but for some reason not strawberries), dark leafy greens, lettuce, pomegranates and bananas. Citrus fruits are a great source vitamin c, but inhibit the uptake of calcium, so again, give them sparingly. They wouldn’t do well on a keto diet because they go crazy for carbs: cooked rice, pasta, potatoes, bread and tortillas. Give these sparingly, as treats.
Some people give their birds herbs. Mine don’t touch them, but when I do have access to them I dry mint, fennel seeds, rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme, calendula flowers and toss them in their nest boxes to freshen things up. Aromatics, like mint, are a natural insecticide.
I haven’t tried making fermented feed yet. It’s an easy way to improve vitamin and enzyme content in their diet, as well as making the feed easier to digest. Another benefit of fermented feed is due to its density it helps fill up your chickens faster, saving you money.
Remember that food left on the ground is an attractant to rodents, so be careful to pick up what isn’t eaten or you’ll be feeding the pests as well as your flock.
If you can supplement your chicken’s diet with healthy, free food they’ll be happier and so will you when your feed store costs are reduced.