Starting a small backyard farm and raising chickens can be a great idea, especially if you’re trying to start a business or learn how to be more self-sufficient. This is one of those things that you can teach yourself with some trial and error and then pass down for generations to come. Luckily, there is an entire chicken community full of members, like us, that are always more than willing to help with any questions that may arise or issues you may encounter.
It’s important, if you decide to take on the task of raising your own flock of chickens, that you know how to care for them properly. Having a general idea of what and how to feed chickens properly should really be the top priority when first starting your chicken-rearing adventure.
Feeding your chickens the wrong food can lead to digestive issues, and possibly even death. There are some foods that you can never go wrong with, and some that are big no-nos. We will discuss both here, as well as when and how to feed your flock.
First, you should learn exactly how a chicken’s digestive system works.
Chicken’s Eating Habits And Digestive System
One reason why many people enjoy raising backyard chickens is because they’re highly self-sufficient. If allowed to roam freely, they will spend all day happily eating grass and insects. They love to forage, but sometimes we don’t have the luxury of providing them with a lot of area to wander about in and find bugs to eat, so we will be required to step in and provide some extra feed and nutrients.
The beak is where the digestive process starts, obviously. Once the bird has ingested its food it will moisten it and send it down the esophagus to the crop. The crop aids in grinding the food down a bit and holds it. After a little while the crop will slowly release the food to the stomach (or proventriculus and gizzard). The proventriculus holds the food, while the gizzard, along with grit, work together to break down the bits of food into tinier pieces for easier digestion.
It will then be sent to the small intestine (or duodenum, if you’d rather). Here it will absorb any and all nutrients that can be found in the food. After that part is done it will be passed on to the liver, which is responsible for metabolizing the fats, carbs, and proteins in the food. The ceca will follow and use good gut bacteria to break the food down even more and move it to large intestine. Any water leftover will be absorbed from the mix here, and the rest will be passed out of the cloaca as urine or feces.
In short, the journey of any morsel your chicken eats will go something like this:
It starts at the beak -> esophagus (also called the gullet) -> crop -> proventriculus -> liver -> duodenum (also called the small intestine) -> ceca -> large intestine -> and then out the cloaca (also called the vent).
That was fun, right? Now that you know the process involved for your chicken’s digestion, it’s time to look at what and how to feed chickens properly.
What To Feed (And Not Feed) Your Chickens
Luckily chickens aren’t picky eaters. One aspect that chicken owners love is that chickens will pretty much eat any scraps that are left over after dinner. It inevitably helps reduce food waste and helps to provide your chicken with a more diverse diet.
Typically chickens will eat whatever they can find in the backyard. This includes insects, worms, snails, grass, and other weeds. Sometimes, if given the opportunity, a chicken might even eat another animal, like a small mouse. Besides what they can forage for themselves, the number one thing that you will need to be stocked up on for your chickens is scratch feed or pellets. This is a mix of various seeds and grain, which usually feature items like sunflower seeds, corn, and wheat. It’s a fattening mix, so you don’t want scratch feed to be all they eat, but it does help to keep their fat and carbohydrates up.
Chickens also love fruits and vegetables. Leafy greens are a great source of vitamins for your flock, with kale and spinach leading the list. Giving them some sweet fruits, like apples, grape, and berries, will also provide them with some excellent nourishment. These vegetable and fruits don’t even need to be fresh or homegrown. In fact, when it’s hot outside, a bag of frozen peas or watermelon, can work wonders to keep them cool and active.
A few other items that a chicken enjoys, and always causes quizzical looks when you tell someone, include scrambled eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, pumpkin, cooked pasta, and oatmeal. While you might not expect a chicken to enjoy these treats from time to time, trust me, they’ll become your new best friend if you start freely handing any of them out.
The Need for Grit
One big thing to mention at this point is grit. We briefly mentioned it before, but for those that don’t know, grit is not a food, but it is necessary in order for your chickens to have a healthy digestive system. Grit, to put it simply, is a mix of little rocks and minerals. Grit gets ingested by your chicken and then kept in the crop and gizzard. It is essential because these little pieces of rock work together with your gizzard and crop to grind and break down the food as small as possible.
Most times chickens can locate natural grit, like little pebbles, around their run, but it may not be enough. If your chickens do not have an adequate amount of grit in their diet it could cause issues with one, or more, parts of the digestive system. This could lead to crop impactions, blockages, and possibly even death.
Foods to Avoid
Although your flock will likely eat anything you put in front of them, there are some foods that you should never give to your chickens for various reasons. These include onions, avocados, dairy, dry beans, chocolate and sweets, or anything with mold on it.
How To Feed Chickens The Right Way
Chickens should be fed at least twice a day. If you are home most of the day you can spread it out into three of four smaller feeding sessions, but if you work they should be fed before you leave for the day and as soon as you get back. You also need to ensure that they have a constant source of clean water, especially if it’s summer, or the temperature is over 90° F.
As far as the pellets or scratch feed are concerned, they ought to be placed in one or two large bowls, near their fresh water. They’ll inevitably end up getting dumped around on the ground anyway, but having it in a bowl will help to ensure they can eat as much of it as possible.
Most of the other items mentioned above can be either spread out in bowls around your run, or simply tossed out into the grass, this is provided that the area is relatively clean from droppings. Chickens tend to get bored fairly easily, so tossing it about the run will help to keep them active. This will have them darting all over the place trying to get the small treats.
If you’re in a small urban area, and the floor is covered in feces, it’s best to feed them from a bowl. This will help to ensure that they’re not ingesting too much of their own waste. The last thing you will want is your flock becoming ill from eating tasty treats that were infected by bacteria. If your chickens are friendly towards you, and enjoy a little rub on their head sometimes, you can even offer them some treats by hand. This will allow for some bonding time between you and your flock.
In the end, as long as the flock has access to the food, they will figure out how to eat it. For the most part the chickens will get much of their nutrients from the bugs, worms, and grass they’ll find around the yard. That’s one of the big perks of owning such a self-sufficient animal.
Ultimately, the diet of our chickens is our responsibility as owners and breeders. Their nutrition and health is greatly dependent on what they eat, how often they are fed, the amount of food, and water intake. Even if chickens can feed themselves in the backyard by just scratching and pecking at all the critters they will unearth, it may end up being more practical if you feed them food that you know will help with a balanced diet. In return, you will have healthy chickens, a productive flock, and a happy farm.
Raising backyard chickens is both challenging and rewarding. It’s challenging because there are a lot of things that need to be watched for and to regulate, yet it is rewarding because you will have a good source of food, maybe some income, and plenty of joy.