Feeding Chickens – What do Chickens eat
As it happens in many livestock categories, we have the well-known “Pasture vs Commercial” argument. Supporters of “Pasture” school of thought claim that the chicken’s natural food is pasture combined with insects, worms, sand and small stones, all of which the chicken loves to explore itself rather than being offered in a plate. The state of wandering and exploring the food is very important and is strongly related with the well-being of the chickens. With the term pasture, we define a broad range of plant species: grass, clover, alfalfa (Medicago sativa), chicory, legumes, brassica etc. The biodiversity of pasture is directly related to the quality of food consumed (more diverse food – better quality). If you think that your field can offer enough pasture for your chickens all year round, then there is no reason to offer anything else other than pasture, hay and simple cracked corn in the feeder. Many farmers also use chicken frames (or boxes) as an easy and convenient way to offer their chickens fresh grass in a small space. Chicken frames are actually raised beds protected with wired cloth. The chickens can eat only the upper part of the stems, while the roots of the plants are protected from foraging, so that the plants will grow up again in a few days. However, it is not safe to let your chickens eat any unidentified plant. When raising pastured chickens, you are strongly advised to remove any nightshade plant (tomato, potato, eggplant etc.) from your field, as the leaves and other parts of these plants are toxic to chickens. Other ornamental plants (Azalea) and shrubs have been found to be toxic for the chickens and may result in life threatening situations after eating even one small leaf.
Although a field with rich and diverse flora is an excellent source of food, keep in mind that during the winter frosty days, even if your field can offer adequate flora and even if you have opened the door of the coop, the chances are that the chickens will not exit the coop most of the day. Consequently, in most cases we must have an adequate stock of commercial hen feeder in order to offer our chickens balanced nutrition with adequate protein levels and fiber.
Most common commercial hen feeders are a mix of soy, corn and cotton seeds, often blended with alfalfa. Newborn chicks require a starter feed, which usually contains 20% protein and is often medicated against coccidiosis. Scratch is used for adding energy to egg laying hens that eat mainly pasture. Scratch is usually made of cracked corn and whole wheat and is suitable food for keeping the chickens warm during winter cold. When we raise chickens for eggs, a common practice is to offer (among other feeds) pellets high in calcium (3%), which promote egg production. When we raise chickens for meat, we generally add more grains (wheat, barley and sorghum) to their diet (protein up to 20%), so as to promote their growth.
Nowadays, pelleted food is very popular among the chicken farmers. The reason is that pellet feeding ensures that the chickens will receive the optimum mix of nutrients according to their intended use, growth stage and needs and thus they will not have the chance to select food they like, leaving the rest untouched. However, even the farmers that offer pellets to their chickens usually add whole grains at a small percentage to their diet. The reason is that eating whole grains stimulates a sensitive part of chicken’s stomach, something that has been found to be strongly related with chicken’s health and well-being. Keep in mind that grit is also important when your chickens do not forage at all. Grit (dirt, sand and small stones) is extremely helpful in the digestion, since chickens have no teeth. If your chickens graze outside and browse for food, they will surely select their fair share of grit from the field, so there is no need to add extra grit to their diet.
Finally, chickens need to have 24 hour a day access to water. We should place immovable (automatic or not) waterers inside the coop and in 2-3 distant spots of the field.
You can read more on Plants Poisonous to Livestock.
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4. How to Feed Chickens
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