What Can You Feed Chickens?

How Much to Feed Chickens to Keep Them at a Healthy Weight

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Originally published in Backyard Poultry April / May 2017. Subscribe for more helpful tips like this!

What can you feed chickens? is a common question and many beginning chicken keepers wind up on the wrong foot with their bird’s nutrition. One of the problems I run into is people feeding their birds to death, which you can do without knowing it. The negative physiological impact of overfeeding can be easily avoided, but let me explain what that impact is first.

Obesity in Chickens

Unlike humans, chickens store their fat internally in what we call the “fat pad.” This fat pad lives in the body cavity, sharing space with critical organ tissues. When chickens find an abundance of energy-rich food, their body stores it as fat to serve as an energy reserve. This is a great mechanism for wild birds that may experience an abundance of foodstuffs during the year, especially if they can expect a shortage of food availability over the winter. For our chickens, however, that lean season never comes and their stored energy never gets burned up.

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Results of Overfeeding

As the fat pad begins to crowd internal organs, a chicken’s body responds with physiological changes. Just like the human body will prioritize bodily functions, a chicken’s body will make decisions based on survival needs. In this case, the bodily function of reproduction is the first to go, causing the reproductive tract to shrink to save internal space. Hens that are being overfed will stop laying to make room for more important functions.

Fat may weigh less than muscle, but added fat does weigh down chickens. This means more effort is required to mobilize themselves, which causes the heart and lungs to work harder. This added effort can become taxing.

Chicken lungs are a rigid structure, unlike the elastic balloon-like lungs of mammals. Still, chickens need to move air through their lungs to absorb oxygen into the bloodstream, and they use air sacs to do so. Air sacks are thin, fragile structures that occupy the free space within the body cavity, and chickens use them much like a bellows for a fire, by compressing them with their breastbone. As fat intrudes into the body cavity, space and capacity are lost, and your overfed hens will have a harder time breathing.

Very much like humans, a chicken’s heart has a hard time coping with all this added stress. The job of moving blood through the body becomes more and more of a chore, and much like how your biceps grow in response to heavy use, your chicken’s heart muscle grows. Unlike your biceps, the heart of a chicken will grow and expand, until it can’t close its valves anymore. When that happens, blood stops moving and you now have a dead chicken. Sad day for everyone.

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Scratch grain is a holdover from the old days before livestock nutrition was really understood.

What Can You Feed Chickens?

Classic scratch feed (not to be confused with a balanced ration) is the chicken’s equivalent of a candy bar. Scratch feed, or scratch grain, is a treat and you must feed it sparingly if at all. Scratch feed has been around since before balanced feed rations existed. Nutritionists have since learned that scratch feed is terrible for birds, but tradition has kept it alive and selling. If you don’t already feed this stuff, then don’t. If you do feed scratch, then feed it sparingly. A 25-pound bag should last 10 hens a year or more in my opinion.

Corn is also not a healthy thing to feed too much of. I don’t have a need for it and haven’t fed it to my birds for years, but cracked corn makes a good distraction, gives birds an extra calorie boost for a cold night, and it works well as bribery. The commercial feed you purchase at the store is already predominantly corn or soy based, so they really don’t need more of it. If you opt to feed some anyway, then use cracked corn since chickens have a hard time crushing whole kernel corn in their gizzard.

The long list of what chickens can eat includes many things, including chicken! As far as feeding chickens scraps go, feel free to feed them meats, cheese, vegetables, fruits, bread, French fries, boiled eggs and most anything else in small quantities. What not to feed chickens; onions, chocolate, coffee beans, avocados and raw or dried beans. These things can cause health problems in chickens.

How Much to Feed Chickens

With the exception of modern meat type birds, you shouldn’t be worried about how much to feed chickens, but you should instead be more concerned about what chickens can eat all the time. Ideally, for top performance, chickens should be fed a balanced ration (such as a layer, grower or starter feed) as “free choice” (always available, all the time). That balanced ration is everything they need, but if you desire to give them treats or use them as a replacement for your InSinkErator; don’t let the treats or scraps constitute more than 10% of their daily diet. Even at 10%, you are running the risk of loading them up with too much fat and not enough of the good stuff they need to live a happy, healthy, long-lived life.

What Treats Do You Use

I’ve seldom found a backyard chicken keeper that does not give their chickens some form of treat. So what’s your chicken’s favorite offering? Let us know in the comments below!

Originally published in Backyard Poultry April / May 2017. Subscribe for more helpful tips like this!

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Comments
  • We like to train and feed them Ritz crackers or one of their own eggs to bribe them into the coop early.

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  • Our chickens are pets and we are very careful about their food. The give us laughter and fun.

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  • You put frech fries in your snacks. Potatoes are a member of the night shade family and therefore a big no no at my house.

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    • but be cautious … apple seeds contain arsenic so they are poisonous

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      • apple seeds contain very small amounts of a cyanogenic compound—not “arsenic”. as do many plants. since chickens are small animals i would be careful about the possibilty of them eating them, but even so it should take more than a couple stray seeds to hurt them. we put apple cores in the scrap bucket for years before it even occured to me—not that i would recommend it, just to put it in perspective. They also taste horribly bitter, so few animals voluntarily eat them. There are plenty of gnarly toxins to be concerned about, but apple seeds are pretty low on my list… 🙂

        Also, we feed avocados. despite many claims they “arent good for chickens (and other animals)” i have not been able to find a legitimate explanation anywhere of why they woukd be toxic—except the pit and skin, which they will not eat. if anyone has data to the contrary, please share. the flesh is rich and nutritious, and since we have several trees its a free feed source. wild birds eat them readily as well if they get the chance, and rarely have i observed wild animals to seek out foods that are poisonous.

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  • For our free range chickens’ fun times we feed raisins with sunflower seeds, and to get them back into the coop at night we give them mealworms. They LOVE all of that and especially the meal worms.

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  • i only have two girls and they are still pretty young but they love finely chopped carrots, celery and tomato…. i tried giving them one of the small tomatoes whole… thought they would play with it but they just kept looking at it and then walking away..once i put it in the chopper .. they gobbled it … they also seem to like a few rice krispies with me each am… only a half dozen or so pieces seems to be a great treat for them

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  • Yep on apples. I core them and throw in the slices. My hens go crazy for them.

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  • I didn’t actually feed it to them, but my four girls sure had a great time with a mouse they found in the coop! (yikes! little dinosaurs!)

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  • Thanks for this article. My girls love canned garbonzo beans. I hope they are good for them. Please let me know.
    thank you.

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  • I feed my 22 birds about 8 cups of “treats” twice a day. The treats are a 3 part mixture of sprouted grains (Oats wheat lentils corn), shredded cabbage and layer crumbles. To this I add 1/4c mixture of herbs and spices DE probiotics and beneficial yeast. I know what I am doing for my birds is overkill, but I know that along with apple cider vinegar in their water I won’t have to worry about their health. My concern is, am I feeding them too much when they have layer crumbles as free choice and are consuming quite a bit of it. I guess I assumed that they would stop eating as necessary. It doesn’t sound like they will though. I would appreciate some help. Thank you.

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  • Darrell L.

    Their fav treat is black oil sunflower seeds, they also love any kind of breads. Most kitchen scraps especially veggies with seed such as melons and bell peppers. They like corn both cracked and whole a little better than their layer pellets which they eat but it’s their least favorite.

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  • My chickens love scratch a little before bed and dried meal worms. They will follow me to the moon for a piece of multigrain bread used when I need to get them back into their run.

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  • We have two going on three years. One has stopped laying this spring. They love meal worms. All the wild birds anything they drop or walk away from.

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  • My flock will eat whatever they see me eating. They love for me to hand feed them things. This way they will more readily try new things. They had rather be hand fed than for me to broadcast their feed. A flock of spoiled babies…

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  • I give my hens and rooster meal worms and grass cuttings and alfalfa and all of our raw food scraps and cooked meats from our fridge that would otherwise go on the compost pile. Occasionally and only in the winter months when temps get down in the low 20’s or teens, I’ll give them scratch grains late in the evening just to keep their body temps up a bit.

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  • My beautiful girls are California Girls…. little bit of organic scratch with mealworms only on cold evening in winter, now that it’s spring, they have organic feed, but I also feed them about 2 cups of chopped organic greens sprinkled with about a tablespoon of raw sunflower seeds. I also grow small flat of wheat grass and other various sprouts That I’ll put out a couple times a month so they can forage and eat the greens. I only have three, so I hope I have a good handle on their diet. I never give them scraps or anything that I myself would not eat. No meat eggs bread crackers cookies nothing like that. Thanks for the information that I’ll put out a couple times a month so they can forage and eat the greens. I only have three, so I hope I have a good handle on their diet. I never give them scraps or anything that I myself would not eat. No meat eggs bread crackers cookies nothing like that. Thanks for the information regarding The fat pad. Makes 100% sense.

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  • Since we don’t want our ‘girls’ to be “coyote bait” – they can’t free range. To give them some entertainment ( & exercise! ) – we ‘drill’ a hole thru a head of cabbage with a long screwdriver – thread a piece of baling wire thru it & hang it just above their heads. The jumping contest is a riot to watch – & a head lasts 2-3 days with our 4 hens & 1 rooster. ( It also gives them something to ‘fuss’ over – rather than pick on each other ~ )

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  • My girls are crazy for beets, buttermilk with oatmeal and sunflower seeds.

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  • My 3 Vorwerks and 3 Old English game bird bantams love corn for their treat. They have access to oyster shells all the time. They know where their stuff is stored; if I’m anywhere near it they make haste clucking in expectation. They also love the occasional strawberry and will peck at a cabbage for ages.

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  • Pat M.

    When we had chickens in Colorado, they loved, loved, loved melons – cantaloupe, watermelon. There would be a big piece of leather left when they were done.

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  • Renee S.

    I make a custom mix of Cackle berries, mealworms and cracked corn or scratch feed. I have been giving that as a late afternoon treat, but, think i will be decreasing the amount I offer. Thanks for the info

    Reply

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