Nutritional deficiencies are a relatively rare problem for a flock of backyard chickens, ducks or other poultry. Of greater nutritional concern are the following five easily avoidable mistakes commonly made in feeding poultry.
1. Inadequate Water
The most important thing to remember about what to feed chickens is water, and water deprivation is a serious matter. Yet most of us don’t think much about water quality and availability unless a problem arises.
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Deprivation can occur for a number of reasons. The need for water goes up for your backyard chickens when the weather warms, but if the amount of water you furnish remains the same, some birds may not get enough. Even when the amount of water is sufficient, if the water is too warm, your birds may not drink it. Putting out extra drinkers, keeping them in the shade, and frequently furnishing fresh, cool water solves this problem.
Water deprivation can also occur in winter when the water supply freezes. To solve this problem, a number of different water-warming devices are available from farm stores and online livestock suppliers. Another solution is to bring your birds warm (not steaming hot) water at least twice a day.
Unpalatable water can cause water deprivation by discouraging drinking. The best solution is to furnish your backyard chickens only water you would drink yourself.
2. Inappropriate Ration
One of the most common errors in feeding poultry is to use a ration that is inappropriate for the flocks’ species, stage of growth, or level of production. For instance, what do ducks eat? What do chickens eat? The nutritional needs of ducks differ from those of chickens. And the needs of baby birds of any species differ from those of laying hens, which differ again from the needs of a breeder flock.
Furnishing an appropriate ration is easy if you purchase ready-mixed feed from the farm store since most brands print essential information on the bag or on the label. If you choose to mix your own rations, you will need to thoroughly research your facts about chickens and your other poultry for the nutritional needs at each stage of their lives.
3. Old Or Stale Ration
From the moment a ration is mixed, it starts losing nutritional value through oxidation and other aging processes. Feed that sits around too long goes stale, loses nutrients, and becomes unpalatable. In a warm storage area, the process speeds up.
Ideally, any prepared feed should be used within about 4 weeks of being milled. Allowing a week or 2 for transport and storage at the farm store, buy only as much as you can use within a couple of weeks. During cold weather, you can stretch the storage time, as I often do during the months when winter storms threaten to make our rural roads impassable. Storing feed in a cool place, and in a closed container, slows the rate at which it gets stale.
If you mix your own rations, it’s good to know that a vitamin premix has a maximum shelf-life of about 6 months. Purchasing a premix in bulk is therefore not a money-saving option for a small flock of backyard chickens. Either purchase premix in quantities small enough to feed out without 6 months, or arrange to share with like-minded poultry keepers.
4. Over Supplementation
Feeding poultry excessive amounts of supplements — such as vitamin/mineral supplements or electrolytes — can cause a serious nutritional imbalance. Some vitamins interact synergistically with each other or regulate the use of certain minerals. Some minerals require the presence of other minerals to be effective. On the other hand, an excess of some minerals can interfere with the absorption of other minerals, and an excess of some vitamins can interact detrimentally with minerals or may themselves be toxic.
So, instead of making backyard chickens healthier, the unnecessary use of packaged vitamin and mineral supplements or electrolytes can have opposite to the desired effect. Do not routinely give electrolytes to healthy poultry. And never use a supplement, including electrolytes, for more than 10 days (unless advised by a veterinarian).
Electrolytes and vitamin/mineral supplements can be helpful for boosting the level of nutrition in a breeder flock just prior to hatching season, especially when the birds don’t have access to fresh forage. And supplements can help reduce stress when offered to poultry for several days before and after a show. However, do not use any supplement during a show — the taste may cause a bird in unfamiliar surroundings to go off feed or water, increasing its stress level.
If you formulate your own rations, the best way to guard against vitamin and mineral deficiencies or excesses is to include a commercially prepared premix (such as Fertrell Nutri-Balancer). Premixes are available in both standard and organic poultry feed formulations. Since using too much is as detrimental as using too little, carefully follow the directions on the label to avoid overdosing your backyard chickens.
5. Too Many Treats
We all love to see our backyard chickens come running when we bring them treats. But overdoing treats falls under the category of “killing with kindness.”
The most commonly overdone treat is feeding too much scratch grain. Feeding a little scratch each morning to keep your backyard chickens friendly is fine. Feeding a little in the evening to encourage them to enter their coop so you can close them up for the night is fine. In cold weather, a little scratch at bedtime will help keep your birds warm on the roost overnight. But feeding a backyard flock scratch grains as their primary source of nutrients does not provide a balanced diet.
Similarly, most kitchen scraps are good for backyard poultry. The birds enjoy fresh produce, the scraps add variety to their diet, and scraps are a healthful source of nutrients. So, as with scratch, feel free to treat your birds to kitchen scraps, but only in moderation.