If you're just getting started keeping laying hens or meat poultry on your small farm, you may be wondering what chickens eat to maintain their health. It helps to know the best diet you can provide for your chickens and poultry when they're roaming and foraging outside in a pasture or a run.
The Typical Chicken Diet
Chickens rummage for earthworms, insects, and slugs of all kinds to eat. You may even see a rooster catch a mouse to feed his hens. However, most poultry also like to eat the tips and seeds of the following growing grasses and weeds:
- Kentucky bluegrass
- Broad-leaved weeds, such as dandelions
What to Feed Chickens on the Farm
Birds raised for meat and poultry kept for eggs require different diets. Typically, backyard and small farm chickens raised for eggs can eat appropriate food scraps from the farm household in addition to feed. Meat birds raised indoors or on a pasture are small, but voracious eaters, and require mostly high-protein feed to reach top weight efficiently. The feed needs to be monitored to help the birds avoid overeating, which could lead to fatalities. You'll also need to determine whether to vaccinate your meat birds to be able to give them non-medicated feed. Meat birds raised outdoors in a pasture eat a more rounded and healthier diet by foraging on plants, insects, and small animals in addition to feed.
Unfortunately, all chickens think non-food items, such as Styrofoam, are edible, and some munch on the pine shavings of their litter, so you'll also need to make sure they don't eat what they're not supposed to.
Kitchen Scraps: What Can Chickens Eat?
Besides the main feed, there are quite a few kitchen scraps that pastured chickens (not raised for meat) can gobble up. There are also certain foods from the kitchen which are dangerous for poultry to eat. Here's what chickens and hens love to eat from the kitchen:
- Beef and pork scraps (including gristle, tendons, and fat)
- Cooked rice and pasta
- Cooked vegetables
- Dairy such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese
- Eggshells and oyster shells (for calcium)
- Fats and oils (congealed to pudding texture)
- Fish and fish skin (but avoid bones)
- Fresh fruits (apples, grapes, and bananas to name a few)
- Stale bread and crackers (avoid moldy items)
- Wilted salad greens
Here's what you should avoid feeding your poultry:
- Chicken scraps (can spread disease through cannibalism)
- Coffee or coffee grinds
- Peels from potatoes or citrus fruits
- Processed foods
- Salt (pure)
- Soft drinks
Raw potatoes can be poisonous to chickens due to glycoalkaloids.
Should you pasture your chickens or provide a chicken run? Any outdoor time for chickens will create healthier, more relaxed poultry. Whether you pasture or provide a run depends on the space you have for your chickens.
Benefits of Pasturing
Hens that are raised primarily on pasture with a healthy diet produce eggs that boast bouncy, deep orange yolks and thick, viscous whites. If you are raising meat birds primarily on pasture, you should be aware that they will not grow as quickly as those confined and fed broiler rations. The meat is dense from the exercise they get (yet still tender) and their omega-3 content is higher than their grain-fed, sedentary counterparts.
Benefits of a Run
If you can't pasture your chickens but can let them have access to a run (a fenced-in area outside the coop, which will also need to be protected from predators), they will be happier and will be able to get some supplemental insects, even if the floor of the run gets pecked down to bare dirt. They will also be able to sun bathe and dust bathe which are natural and relaxing behaviors.
You can hard boil and chop eggs (or scramble them) and feed them to the chickens if you run out of feed. Remember, they can also go a day or two without feed, and longer without experiencing any real issue as long as they are eating general kitchen scraps. Of course, always make sure they have water to digest food and feed.
Make or Buy Your Feed
You may wish to design, buy, and mix your own feed, or even grow all the grains, seeds, and other components of a comprehensive chicken feed. There are several different commercial feed choices with different purposes for each one. Some of the specifics differ. For example, one manufacturer may have you switch to grower/finisher at a different number of weeks, a suggestion that may differ from another supplier. Always follow the directions of your specific feed and check with your feed supplier or store when in doubt.
Introduction to Pasture-Raised Poultry: Maximizing Foraging Behavior. University of Florida Extension.
Raising Backyard Chickens for Eggs. University of Florida Extension.
D'Mello, J.P. Felix. Handbook of Plant and Fungal Toxicants. CRC Press, 2020.
Research shows eggs from pastured chickens may be more nutritious. The Pennsylvania State University.