The C files are an article series I started on how-to-keep chickens. This will be another regular feature about backyard chickens that I will rotate with the existing how-to-grow series. Here I will cover chicken feed and water provisions.
Biology – Chickens are a prey species and have evolved a digestive system that allows them to eat a lot now and digest later when they are safe. Most foraging occurs at dusk and allows digestion of food while they roost. This also means that most of the littering occurs at night.
Food goes into the crop, an expandable organ, where food is stored. Afterwards food moves to the stomach (pro-ventriculus) where enzymatic digestion takes place. It passes into the gizzard (ventriculus) where food is digested mechanically by the strong muscles lining the pouch and the pouch is filled with small stones (grit).
Types of Feed – Chickens are omnivores. Thus they require proteins (insects, green forage); starch (grains, pellets) and greens (leaves, plants). Most of the chickens’ dietary needs are fulfilled with pellets (growing for young chickens, layer for hens and broiler for meat birds).
Mash: Ground chicken food. I prefer to give chickens pellets – it’s easier to peck, less messy and wasteful.
Pellets: Mash that has been compressed into pellets. Pellets that have fallen on the ground around the feeding area are more likely to be pecked up and not wasted.
Crumbles: Crushed pellets. Can be given to younger chickens, but are also more likely to become wasted if they fall on the ground.
Growing pellets: These are for young birds that have not started to lay eggs. There is more protein in this than normal layer pellets and the additional protein is required for growth.
Layer pellets: Hens can be fed layer pellets from about 16 weeks to build up calcium reserves for laying. Thus laying pellets have more calcium for egg production.
Broiler pellets: Cocks get fed broiler pellets to put on meat and thus these pellets have more protein and energy.
Protein level (%)
Age of Bird (weeks)
20 – ∞
6 – slaughter
Since the feed is nutritionally complete, chickens only need to eat a small amount of food for their nutritional requirements – this is problematic for chickens that are cooped up all day, since they are bored the rest of the time and peck at each other for entertainment.
Therefore, providing some leafy greens hung in bundles or green forage (alfalfa hay or grass) around the coop, and by providing some scratch/scraps inside should keep them from misbehaving. Boredom is not a problem for chickens who are allowed to forage as they find more than enough things to keep them busy. Another factor to consider for cooped chickens is grit – this need to be made available for them since they can’t get out and find it for themselves.
Scratch: A feed supplement that contains grains. A common formulation is equal portions of wheat, corn and oats. Barley is sometimes hard to digest. You just scatter some on the ground and the chickens will swoop in and start scratching up the place. Scratch is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. Too much makes for fat hens and reduces egg production, so should be fed sparingly. Scratch is reduced in summer and can be substituted with whole oats that improves water retention by chickens during hot weather.
Table scraps: Usually any leftovers from the kitchen or plant matter from the vegetable patch. In general chickens know what they can and cannot eat. This means that you can give them just about anything.
The exceptions are raw potato peels and raw legumes. Legumes (peas and beans) need to be cooked before given to chickens as they contain trypsin inhibitors (trypsin is an essential amino acid). The inhibitors are deactivated during the cooking process. No onions or too much of the cabbage family as they impart disagreeable flavour in the eggs. No avocadoes, the brown seed cover contains persin, which is lethal to chickens. No fried or fatty foods – fat chickens are unhealthy and don’t lay well. No caffeine or alcohol (obviously) and no foods with high amount of sugar or salt.
The compost heap makes for a great scratch patch – chickens get extra bits to eat and the compost gets aerated and de-bugged in the process. Chicken poop makes for excellent compost.
Green forage: This is plants specifically planted on for livestock (or chickens) as forage and the green parts are consumed (leaves, shoots). Some also double as green manure. Several green forages are available for planting, but I suggest Alfalfa.
Clover is also popular chicken green forage, but make sure you get the correct species. Spoilt or damaged Melilotus clover species (Melilotus officinalis, yellow clover, or M. alba) contains dicourmarin (gives clover their distinct odour). Dicourmarin is a derivative of courmarin, which is an anticoagulant (antagonist of Vitamin K needed for blood clotting) and may cause haemorrhage in chickens. Low-courmacin containing feeds have been cultivated, such as M. dentate known as Polara or Artic clover.
Clover best for chicken forage is white clover (Trifolium reprens) and allows good weight gain in chickens. Red clover (T. pratense) contains more phytotestosterone that white, but seems to be only a problem for sheep. T. subterraneum (Subterranean clover) and T. hybidum (Alsike clover) are also used as green forages.
Courmacin poisoning is not associated with Alfalfa (Medicago sativa). Alfalfa is a legume species and the young leaves and shoots are used as chicken forage. It is a good winter supplement of protein when insects are scarce. It can withstand grazing after it has formed a ‘crown’ with 5 week rest intervals. It contains 18% protein and a range of amino acids, vitamin and minerals (Vit A, Vit E, Vit B1/B2/B6/B12, Vit K, Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Niacin, Folic Acid, Chlorine, Magnesium, Copper, Sulphur, Cobalt, Boron, Pantothenic acid, S-methyl methionine, Inocitrate, Molybdenum and trace amounts of Nickel, Strontium and Palladium). It does however contain saponins (used in plant pest resistance) that may affect egg production and growth performance, but a balanced diet should prevent this.
Chicken Green Forage includes:
Brassica species (kale, rape, swede, turnip, beet) *
Grit: AKA chicken teeth! This is essential for chickens that are given grains or green forage, chickens that feed exclusively on pellets don’t need grit. You can buy chicken specific grit with small insoluble stones and pieces of oyster shell (extra calcium). Our chickens round up stones and even their own egg shells (extra calcium) in the compost heap (no wet eggshells should be fed to chickens as to prevent bacterial infection or induce egg eating).
Routine – Chickens are creatures of habit. Being a chicken is quite stressful and routine helps to manage this. Our chickens get fed snacks in the morning (05:30 weekdays, 07:00 weekends) and let out for the day. They have learned to recognise the container that is filled with foodstuffs for the compost heap and run after us all the way to the heap to get first share. Pellets and water are always available during the course of the day. Another round of snacks is in the afternoon (17:00 in summer, 16:00 in winter – daylight restrictions 😉 ), which usually consists of grains and seeds (scratch – usually a mixture of sorghum, crushed maize and sunflower seeds).
Snacks: Tomatoes (chickens looove tomatoes – keep them away from tomato plants, ‘less you not want tomatoes!), Squash (this being all the fibrous flesh with seeds), smashed bananas, pears, milk and rice mix, yogurt (chickens do well to have some dairy in their diet), tinned cat food (once a week during moulting, extra protein to assist with new feather production) and warm oats (winter for warmth and prolonged digestion to keep them fuller for longer).
Mouldy or spoilt food should not be fed to chickens to prevent disease – food not yet spoilt, but not preferable for human consumption can go to the chickens.
Water should be available throughout the day. Too little water means egg production decreases and even stops. A chicken requires just as much water as feed. Chickens are lazy and won’t want to walk too far for water. Therefore you should have a waterer about every 10-20 meters, preferably in the shade. Water should be clean, because if they don’t like the taste, they don’t drink – water medication or vitamins should therefore be placed in all waterers to ensure that the chickens get the treatment. A mixture of vitamins and electrolytes in the water during summer months reduces heat stress. Water heaters can be used to keep water from freezing in countries with very cold winters.
Water requirements of 12 birds per day
12 weeks +
I get all of my chicken supplies for food and water at Farm City: