On such a rich diet, commercial meat chickens normally reach their table weight by the tender age of just 7 weeks.
On the small farm or backyard it is often more practical to feed rooster and hen chicks together regardless of their different destinies.
However, expect such roosters being grown for the pot to take more than twice as long as commercial birds to reach a respectable size for eating.
Laying hens also have a relatively high protein requirement, as well as needing a lot of calcium, much of which goes straight out again as eggs.
And of course, chickens also need a whole range of other minerals, vitamins and fatty acids to thrive.
What Do Chickens Eat?
Here we’ll mainly concentrate on meeting the prodigious nutritional needs of the laying hen. However, most of this dietary information can be applied to other chickens; just remember though that non-layers need a lot less calcium!
***This is important as giving high calcium (i.e. layer) rations to other chickens, such as growing chicks, can cause kidney damage. ***
Another important point: never feed spoilt or mouldy feed to your birds. Feed is best fed fresh so don’t buy more than what you would expect to use within a few weeks.
And no matter what diet source you go for, make sure your chickens get plenty of fresh greens (weeds, vegetables, grass) every day.
Something to Think About If Raising Chickens for Eggs…
Laying an egg every day is no mean feat… Nutritionally it is akin to a woman giving birth to a full-term baby once a week!
No wonder failure to provide a quality, balanced ration is a common reason for poor egg production when raising chickens for eggs at home.
So, what is the best way to meet the prodigious nutritional needs of the laying hen? There are several options…
What Do Chickens Eat – Your Options!
We’ll cover a full range of options for what to feed chickens – from wholly commercial to the fully self sufficient option suited to raising organic chickens.
Commercial Layer Ration Only
What do chickens eat when you are too busy to mix or grow your own feeds?
By far the easiest option is to buy a high quality feed specifically formulated for laying hens from your local livestock outlet.
This should contain everything your layers need in the correct balance, including grit, vitamins and minerals.
Provide these rations ad lib, so that your hens can have as much as they want at any time.
Commercial layer rations can be in the form of seed mixes, pellets or crumbles. Use a poultry hopper, just half full and elevated to hen head height to avoid waste.
Expect each laying hen to use about ¼ lb (114 gms or half a cup) of commercial chickens food a day.
Supplemented Layer Ration…
What do chickens eat when grain is cheaply available in your local area? Yes, you can significantly cut your feed costs by supplementing commercial rations using cheap local grain.
The best solution is to feed the grain free choice (around 50 grams per hen per day) either in hoppers or spread on the ground amongst deep clean litter to encourage scratching, along with a higher protein (20 to 22%) laying feed.
If using a complete 16% protein laying feed, cut the grain fed down to half of this amount or your hens will get too fat.
You can also add surplus fresh or sour milk, stale bread, table scraps, pasture and garden waste to further cut the amount of commercial feed needed.
Consider local supplies of these resources – such as the waste from restaurants, bakeries, lawn-mowing contractors, fruit and vegetable outlets…
Whenever you are not using 100% commercial rations you need to also provide:
• Extra grit for all chickens.
What do chickens eat to compensate for having no teeth? Grit! Grit is needed by chickens to help grind seeds in their stomach, taking the place of teeth! It can be in the form of fine gravel or small, sharp granite chips.
• Extra calcium for laying hens.
The formation of egg shells requires considerable amounts of calcium. Provide it free choice as either calcium grit, natural lime sand, or oyster shell.
You can also recycle egg shells back to your hens after first washing the albumen off them (to prevent bacterial growth), then drying and crushing them.
Home Mixed Feed
Commercial rations can contain some unsavory industrial waste products such as sewerage, brew yeast or citrus sludges, as well as medicants such as antibiotics or coccidiostats.
So what do chickens eat when you are raising organic chickens or simply prefer a purer, fresher, more wholesome diet for your chooks?
One option is home mixed feed. It is not without its problems though.
Apart from the time and trouble of ensuring a balanced ration, I’ve done some calculations on home mixing my own “complete” chickens feed from bought ingredients and found the commercial feeds a cheaper option.
You just can’t compete on price with the big feed mills! If you can grow your own grains this is not such an issue though.
To do this right you must find the best and most cost effective local sources of protein and carbohydrates, and provide these in balance with sufficient calcium and grit to meet your chickens nutritional needs (see chart above).
Ideally, what do chickens eat when they are layers?
16-17% of the diet (by weight) should be protein. Wheat only has 12.5% protein. How do you make up the difference? By feeding the grain (wheat in this case) with a high protein feed.
Here is the protein content of some potential chicken food ingredients:
IMPORTANT… WHEN FEEDING PEAS OR BEANS!
Grain legumes such as peas and beans contain Trypsin inhibitors that not only reduce the availability of protein in the feed, but can also damage the bird’s pancreas causing chronic illthrift.
To use grain legumes you must first prepare beans or peas in such a way that you destroy the Trypsin inhibitors. This is usually done using heat – keeping them at or above 180°F (82°C) for at least 15 minutes.
The most effective method is:
1. Soak enough legumes to feed your chickens for a few days overnight in water.
2. Bring the whole lot to the boil then simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Cool and refrigerate.
4. Feed directly to your chickens (e.g. a heaped tablespoon of boiled soybeans per bird per day).
Here is a sample ration (parts are by weight):
52 parts Wheat24 parts prepared (boiled) Lupins or Soybeans 14 parts Meat Meal13 parts Corn9.5 parts Lime Sand (38% Ca)9.4 Skim Milk powder4.7 parts Sunflower Seeds0.4 parts Iodized Salt
What do chickens eat for vitamins and minerals?
Essential vitamins and minerals can be provided either in the form of a special proprietary preparation, or as dried kelp collected from the beach, as well as daily nutritious weeds, herbs and vegetables picked from your garden (see the home grown section below for more details).
Self Sufficient, Home Grown Option
What do chickens eat when, like us, you are striving to be as self sufficient as possible? The question is more important than you might at first believe.
Add global economic collapse to the mix and it makes increasing sense to plan for self sufficiency now rather than for continued dependence on purchased inputs to your system.
And if your aspiration is raising organic chickens, it is even more crucial to grow as much of their food (organically of course) as you can.
So how do you grow your own chickens food?
We must start by reconsidering their nutritional needs (outlined above) for protein, carbohydrate, calcium, minerals, vitamins and grit and how we might meet them.
What do chickens eat for Protein?
There are several options on what to feed chickens to meet their protein needs at home.
Do chickens eat worms? Absolutely! And just as well, as they are a rich source (28%) of high quality protein as well as “good” fats and other nutritious yummies.
Earthworms are also easy to grow, converting almost any organic waste material – from used tea bags, paper and potato peels, to horse manure, weeds, hair and vacuum cleaner dust - into a primo poultry food ingredient.
Under ideal conditions earthworms reproduce rapidly. Grown on horse manure, one square meter can yield 1.7 kg of earthworm protein a year, enough to exceed the protein needs of 1 hen.
You can either grow your earthworms in special worm farms and feed them out to your gals, or grow them in the rich soil of your specially designed organic vegetable garden system and let the hens help themselves, while doing valuable work for you at the same time.
Other High Protein Fodders to Grow
• Alfalfa (Lucerne):
High protein and a good source of several vitamins and minerals, Lucerne is a perennial plant that can yield 0.3 kg of protein per m2 per year when irrigated.
We grow it specially for our hens and chop a good handful of the young fresh growth each day into their feed.
If you have greywater you wish to purify, duckweed (Lemnaceae) will do the job for you. Duckweed is a valuable feed supplement.
It has high concentrations of trace minerals, and its protein is extraordinarily rich in the essential amino acids, lysine and methionine. Each square meter of pond would yield around 0.4 kg of protein per year.
Comfrey provides a protein and mineral-rich feed which can effectively replace some costly concentrates in the poultry diet.
In summer four to five comfrey plants per hen can meet much of their protein and calcium needs. In winter, when the plant dies down, alternative sources need to be found.
Being less fibrous than Lucerne, it is much better suited to the digestive system of chickens.
With a dry matter protein content of between 15% and 30%, comfrey is as valuable a protein source as legumes. It is also rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium, potassium, phosphorus and iron, as well as magnesium, sulphur, copper, zinc, selenium and germanium.
What do chickens eat for Carbohydrates?
All animals need carbohydrates for energy. For the laying hen about 80% of the diet should be carbohydrate. The most concentrated sources are the grains – wheat, barley, rice, oats, as well as vegetable seeds that chickens integrated with Permaculture vegetables can access.
Unless you are growing these yourself, or can get a steady supply of stale bread from your local baker, you’ll need to purchase grain locally. Luckily it is relatively cheap.
Hens totally unsupplemented with commercial rations may need from 50 to 100 grams of grain each per day, depending on what else they are eating and the season (feed more in cold weather).
What do chickens eat for Calcium?
Calcium is best made available to laying hens ad lib as crushed oyster shell or cuttlefish, or sprinkled in appropriate quantities on other feeds as crushed limestone (lime sand).
Various foods are rich in calcium and can also be included in your chickens’ diet. These include many green leafy vegetables (e.g. collards or mustard greens), brewer’s yeast, oats, milk, kelp, cooked beans and peas, sunflower and sesame seeds.
Herbs and vegetables you can grow for your girls which are known to be high in calcium include: dandelion, chickweed, mustard greens, kale, cabbage, dandelion, watercress, parsley, comfrey, plantain, nettles, raspberry (leaves), alfalfa, red clover, horsetail and chamomile.
Many of these can be served fresh, dried or sprinkled over fresh food.
Fresh watercress (Nasturtium officinale) in particular is highly nutritious, providing 4% calcium, 3% protein, just over 1% phosphorus, and a very good source of other important vitamins and minerals.
What do chickens eat for Minerals?
Your hens will get much if not all of their mineral needs from the many herbs and vegetables they get access to from your organic garden system.
If you are, however, keeping them in a simple run, kelp fronds make a very good source of essential minerals in the right combination for good health.
Simply collect some from a clean beach, then hang whole from a sturdy clip inside the run for the chickens to help themselves.
We make up our own inexpensive multimineral multivitamin preparation for supplementing all our animals and even ourselves.
Here is our recipe:
• 1 part (by volume) Torula or Brewers Yeast powder
• 1 part Lecithin granules
• 1 part Kelp powder or granules
Combine ingredients and store in the fridge in an airtight container. Give at the rate of 1 flat teaspoon per hen twice a week mixed into other food.
What do chickens eat for Grit?
On your travels, look out for deposits of sharp grit of granite, gravel or other hard rock and collect a variety of sizes. Offer the smallest to young chicks and the larger ones to adult birds.
Now you know what do chickens eat!