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.
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.
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!