What chickens want: a question of chook-food

Blog reader Janneia asks:

Hi Dan.
I’m about to pick up my first ever hens :) and want to know about feeding them grains. I have lots of weeds, scraps etc and would rather buy only what they need instead of simply getting a commercial mix.
Thanks!

Here’s my answer:

Hi Janneia,

What a great question. Chickens are omnivorous animals and require a diverse diet to live well. Like us, they need an amount of vegetation, protein and carbs. Chickens in their natural environment of the jungle roam from place to place scratching as they go. Their main interest is eating meat in the form of bugs, worms, and lizards (just to name a few preferences) and greens and seeds along the way. In an enclosed environment, chickens lose that ability to move on when the bug population is low.

It’s important to decide how you will house the chickens and therefore what level of attention you need to give to their dietary requirements. Chickens that free range totally will clean up the bug population quite quickly and although people often think that letting them wander anywhere is the best thing for the chickens, I would disagree. I prefer to see the garden sectioned off into smaller areas and allow the chickens into one of those areas for a couple of weeks before moving them on to the new area and allow the scratched up area to rest for a few months during growing season. A mobile chook house design is very helpful for this. This way, the chickens naturally disturb the ground and fertilise it at the same time so it is a positive use of the land. Allowing the chickens constant access to the same piece of land will see it overgrazed and scratched up, never allowing it to recover, and has a very negative effect on the land.

So, to answer your question, it is very hard to feed chickens well without bringing in any supplementary feed. You should give them weeds and scraps anyway but this accounts for very little of their dietary requirements. It certainly adds to the quality of their life and entertainment! In order to reduce the amount of grain required, you need to increase the protein you feed them. You could start a large worm farm (feeding it with scraps from other sources such as neighbours or restaurants) and feed the worms to the chickens or you could try Black Soldier fly composting and feed the larvae to the chooks. I have a friend that gets scrap meat from the butcher to feed to the girls once per week (just don’t feed them any chicken meat!). I have started growing eating fish in an aquaponics system and will feed the offal to the chickens.

You can also recycle the used eggshells by drying them in the sun then crushing them into tiny pieces (you don’t want them learning to eat the eggs so need to disguise them) and adding it to their grain mix. This gives them back some minerals such as calcium that they would otherwise replenish through eating small stones as they graze so is extra helpful if you don’t let them free-range.

If you are doing all the right things, you can get away with feeding the girls about a handful of grain each per day but I would highly recommend you start with more and reduce as you see how they go. If you are not feeding them enough they will tell you by crying and not laying.

Happy chicken-raising, it’s great fun and very rewarding!

Daniel

Here’s a few useful resources for the chicken-conscious:

http://www.poultryhub.org/nutrition/nutrient-requirements/ (all-round great site for all sorts of chook info)

http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1317/ (nutrition for backyard chicken flocks with some good information tables)

Book – Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow (a comprehensive guide to raising chooks, highly recommended for those who want to know a bit more)

What tricks have you found to make your chickens happy and healthy? We’d love to hear about them!

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About Healthy Harvest Kitchen Gardens

Healthy Harvest provides a permaculture-based kitchen garden service for existing food growers and people who are inspired to grow food. We sell fresh chemical-free seedlings, seeds and seasonal produce. We also provide educational workshops, courses, gardening consultations and services. We can help with new vegetable garden designs, maintenance of established gardens, or converting and improving existing gardens ready for growing food. Please see our website for more information: www.healthyharvest.com.au Check out our blog at https://healthyharvestnsw.wordpress.com/ for news and interesting bits and pieces.

Posted on September 26, 2012, in Chickens, Raising chickens on pasture, urban farming. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve had my three chooks for only about two months. We can’t really do a moveable pen in our garden and I definitely wanted the chooks to have some free-range time (for them and for my garden) so we let them out of their coop and into their run in the morning and then in the afternoon (when my son gets home from school) we let them out into the garden. I was shocked at the amount of damage they did to the garden so anything important (i.e. my veggies and anything getting established) needs to be protected.

    • Hi Keda,

      It’s really hard to get the balance right and I have tried and tested several methods, including yours, with very little satisfaction. My current method of keeping the chooks is very different from my last property but ultimately the landscape decided that for me (I did listen though) and you need to find something that works for you and your chooks.From what you are describing, the chooks my be enjoying the garden but after a few weeks of constant abuse, the garden (more importantly the soil) won’t appreciate the constant abuse. To use a simple analogy, soil is like flesh and mulch (or plants/grass etc) is like skin. If you have a cut (like the chicken scratching the grass up) it will only heal if you don’t scratch it. Scratching it just morning and night is still far too much. You need to leave it for a few weeks before you can scratch it without tearing the scab off.

      If you have a lawn area, a small chook tractor (lightweight made from pvc piping or similar) could be made about 3x1m and moved to a new piece of grass every day or two.
      If it was me, I would (and have) used them for processing weeds in to chook mulch. I wrote an article about it here. It’s more important to keep your chooks interested all day (by giving them lots to eat and scratch though) than giving them lots of space with nothing much to do.

  2. Great answer Dan the man!

    Sent from iPhone

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