Feeding Your Chickens or Laying Hens

Girl feeding a hen by hand.
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If you're just getting started keeping chickens or other poultry on your small farm, you may be wondering what to feed your chickens. It's best to start with what chickens and poultry eat when they're on pasture, or outside, in a field, with grass and weeds to roam on and eat. From there, you can learn about the best diet to provide your chickens.

What Chickens and Poultry Typically Eat

What birds eat differs a little if we're talking about turkeys, geese, or other poultry. The basics are the same. Most poultry like to eat growing grasses, like clover, buckwheat, and Kentucky bluegrass. They eat broad-leaved weeds of all kinds. They eat the growing tips as well as the seeds of these plants. Chickens also eat earthworms, insects, and slugs of all kinds. Finally, they need to eat a little grit like sand and/or coarse dirt. They keep it in their gizzards to help them grind up the wild foods they forage. Once in a while, a rooster will catch a mouse and feed it to his hens.

Typically, backyard and small farm chickens also eat food scraps from the farm household. This can include anything besides beans, garlic, raw potatoes, onions, and citrus. You can feed them beans, garlic, and onions, but the eggs might taste funky. Raw potatoes can be poisonous to chickens. Chickens are dumb enough to eat significant amounts of styrofoam if allowed access to it, and some munch on the pine shavings that act as their litter. You'll also need to make sure they don't eat what they're not supposed to.

Pasturing Chickens

Hens who are raised primarily on pasture eat this type of diet most of the time. Their eggs boast deep orange yolks and are three-dimensional when gathered fresh, with thick, viscous whites and bouncy, fatty yolks. 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.

If you can't pasture your chickens but can let them have access to a run (a fenced-in area outside the coop), they will be happier and they will get some supplemental insects, even if the floor of the run gets pecked down to bare dirt. Pasturing requires keeping the chickens protected from predators with a livestock guardian dog and/or fencing.

Supplements to Commercial Feed

Besides the main feed, there are a few supplements commonly fed to chicks, pullets, and chickens. Oyster shells provide calcium, a cabbage head for fun and entertainment, and grit to help them digest anything outside of the commercial feed are all important.

Emergency Feed

You can hard boil and chop eggs 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 eating general kitchen scraps without a real issue. Of course, always make sure they have water.

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 then another. Always follow the directions of your specific feed and check with your feed supplier or store when in doubt.