What chickens want: a question of chook-food
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.
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!
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!