Feeding chickens isn't quite as simple as tossing a few handfuls of bird seed into their pen every day. Chickens actually eat a lot more than just corn or grain, and a varied diet will help them stay a lot healthier.
Few people who raise backyard chickens are going to have enough yard space to just allow their chickens to free range and fend completely for themselves. So you will have to have some kind of feeding plan in place for your flock.
The more space they have access to, the more insects and seeds they can forage for themselves, which then means less food you have to provide. But for your contribution, you can offer them commercial chicken feed as well as many of the same foods you eat yourself. Chickens definitely don't need to be raised solely on purchased feed. This is where many novices end up spending too much money with their chickens.
And by chicken feed, that doesn't mean the mixed bird seeds you can get for pet birds or outdoor bird feeders. These mixtures have too many high-fat components and will not provide a healthy diet for your chickens. Mixed birdseeds or cracked corn make good treats, particularly in the winter but should not be the main diet.
Chicken feed comes in pellet form as well as a powdered mash, which is really only used for chicks. They are a nutritionally balanced product and should make up the foundation for your chicken feeding program. This type of food should be always available from a feeder inside the chicken coop, or even outside in their pens. Feeders should allow your chickens to have access to the food without being able to either stand in it, or tip it over. Troughs at head level work very well.
Mixed seed can be added to their pellets, or even just tossed into their pen to let them scratch for it. This is a good idea during the winter months when they are cooped up inside more often. It gives them something to do and keeps them occupied.
Aside from this main component of their diet, you can also feed your chickens almost any kitchen scraps that would otherwise end up in the composter. Raw or cooked vegetables and fruits are ideal for chickens, and you can also feed them stale bread or other baked goods. Stay away from salty or sugary foods, and meat products.
As a very rough feed estimate, each hen who is laying eggs will need a half cup of commercial feed each day but that will vary based on what other food they have access to. You shouldn't try to eliminate chicken feed completely unless you are very familiar with chicken nutritional needs because you'll need to supply just the right proportions of protein and minerals that grains can't provide. Home-made mixes with cooked soybeans, kelp and other not-so-handy ingredient can be put together once you gain a bit more experience.
Rather than try to create a complete diet on your own, you can experiment with a little more home-grown food by growing some of your own grains. A small patch of wheat, barley, rye or corn can help defray your feed costs, and make a fun gardening project all their own. You don't even have to thresh out the grains. Just tie a bundle of dried stalks together, and hang it in your pen. The chickens will peck out all these grain seeds themselves.
Extra supplements (mentioned below) are very important but commercial feed will ensure your birds get the right balance of nutrients.
Along with actual food, you will have to provide a few more things for your chickens so they can eat properly and stay healthy. The first is grit. Since chickens have no teeth, they use small stones to help crush the seeds and grains they eat. These stones are kept in the chickens gizzard and act like little grinding stones each time they eat.
Chickens can usually find small stones in their pens, but if they are in too small a space, they can eventually exhaust the local pebble supply. So you should provide some grit for them. You can purchase grit but any kind of small gravel should work fine. Oyster shell pieces make a good grit that will also supply some calcium.
To keep laying hens in good shape, you do need to give them additional calcium. The simplest way to do this is to actually feed them back their own egg shells, but that can lead them to see eggs as food. Not something you want to encourage. So you must crush the shells up so that they are not really recognizable as egg shells and mix them in with their pellets. Buying chicken feed designated as "layer pellets" can also help provide extra calcium.
You should have a ready source of clean drinking water available to your chickens at all times, ideally in a waterer that won't be tipped over. Waterers that work best are a lot like the ones you can buy for regular house pets, with a larger cannister that drains into a shallow saucer as the water level drops. They are fairly inexpensive and you can always make your own with a bucket and a shallow pan. You probably should see how one works before you try to make your own though.
Having a waterer doesn't mean you can just fill it and forget it. Droppings, food scraps and coop bedding can all get in and foul up the water. Keep an eye on it at least once a day, and wash it when it gets too dirty. Bacteria will thrive if left unclean, which puts your chickens at risk.
Things to Avoid
Most urban backyards are strictly grass with a few common weeds growing here and there, but if your yard offers a more extensive range of vegetation, take care not to let your chickens have any access to certain plants. The obvious ones are poison ivy, hemlock, nettle and foxglove. That is not the whole list of plants that are toxic to chickens, and some of them are actually very common in a yard.:
- Lamb's Quarters
- Wild Onion
This is not a complete list, but just a few examples of things you should watch for when placing your chicken pen. If your yard has a large variety of weeds or unknown plants, you should do a little research with a plant guide before letting your chickens run free.
As mentioned above, there are also a few things you should avoid when it comes to your kitchen scraps as well. Meat and junk food are the two obvious ones. Stale bread is good, though you should limit it if you use white bread because it doesn't have that much nutrition. Whole wheat bread is much better for your chickens. Rhubarb leaves, and uncooked potato peelings are two other risky items that may make your chickens ill.
Finding a source for decent amounts of feed, grains or oyster shell can be a challenge for urban chicken keepers. A standard pet store may have some mixed grains and oyster shell but it will get expensive in the quantities you are going to need, and they probably won't carry chicken feed pellets at all. You will have to find an agricultural co-op to get the best deals on feed. Of course, you'll be buying in bulk that way, as in 25 pound sacks of feed. So you'll need to plan on a place to store it all.
Large plastic tubs, or even garbage cans are common containers for chicken feed. They are convenient to get, large enough for this kind of quantity, and are usually pretty pest-proof. Storing your bins of feed outdoors (in a shed or garage) may be more convenient that storing it in the house but then you need to make sure the container has a secure latch. Standard snap-on lids will not keep out industrious raccoons, and once they discover your cache of food, they will be back every night.
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