Chicken Basics Series, Volume 3: The Importance of Diet
In this final (for now) installment of our chicken basics series, I’d like to address some points about the importance of a healthy diet for your chickens’ health and the quality of the eggs you’ll begin harvesting after 7 – 9 months.
- Chickens love to scrounge in the compost heap. It’s good for them, and good for aerating the compost.
Before we discuss various feeds or supplements, it is important to stress one very important fact about chickens: They’re Not Natural. Chickens as we know them are completely man made (or bred as the case may be) livestock animals that have been genetically chosen and honed to provide lots of eggs or lots of meat in as efficient a manner as possible. Even the old heritage breeds are genetically evolved creatures, sculpted by the choices of generations of people. The original ‘chicken’ did not start as a chicken or an egg (har har har) but rather as a very different looking bird from your fluffy Polish or plump Orpington. All chickens are descended from a wild jungle fowl, native to the far East. Go figure, ay?
The reason it is important to know this when discussing feed is that you have to provide your fancy fowl fancy feed: Grass and bugs alone aren’t going to cut it. The original jungle fowl existed on nothing but wild food, but she also laid a clutch of eggs and sat on them to hatch chicks once, maybe twice a year. That is a very different life from our ‘lay an egg a day, please chicky’ laying hens, and very very different from the monster Leghorn meat masters we butcher at a rather young age. The jungle fowl conserved their energy and ate to survive. Our laying hens are eating to lay, and they need to be fed accordingly.
- Calcium. Extra calcium must be given to your laying hens to ensure healthy, thick shelled eggs and healthy skin and feathers. Your birds laying will be significantly reduced during their annual molt because they’re using up all their energy and calcium to make new feathers. You can supplement their calcium with oyster shells, their own egg shells and occasional delicious treats of whey or yogurt.
- Protein. Got grub worms? Got delicious treats. Chickens go crazy for grubs and mealworms, and sadly for toads, geckos, or any other living creature they can get their hands on. Give your chickens most of your kitchen scraps before they head to the compost, even meat scraps and the trimmings and innards of chicken or turkey. Trust me: it sounds morbid but they will LOVE IT. Avoid feed with added soy if you can help it, as the hormone may contribute to physical and mental issues.
- Grains. My chickens will barely touch their grain food when they have a lush, Spring yard and garden to glut on. But they need good whole grains as well, especially when the greens are slim pickings. Buy a feed that has visible whole grains and an ingredient list that includes the types of grains included. Corn is okay and good for fattening them up before the cold of Winter sets in, but oats and other grains with more protein are better.
- Greens. Give your chickens all your weeds, old veggies (*except for nighshade plants!), over ripe fruit and just about anything else that came out of your ORGANIC garden. Choose a feed that has seaweed or kelp in the ingredients. Want dark orange yolks that stand up firm when you cook them? Contrary to some claims, feeding marigolds or other orange foods aren’t what give great yolks: it’s the greens. All the cartenoids and healthy nutrients that make Kale and other greens great for you are great for your hens, too. Your eggs will taste and look better if you can provide greens to your chooks.
- Water: The most important factor in your diet’s health is clean, fresh, cool water. Change it daily or hook up to a hose for constantly freshening water. Change their water more frequently and add ice during our hot Summer days to help them cope with the heat, and keep it unfrozen in the Winter if it is cold enough to freeze. Clean out their waterers weekly, scrubbing off any algea that develops and add apple cider vinegar or poultry vitamins as occasional supplements.
- Avoid: Nightshade greens: Never feed a chicken tomato leaves, pepper leaves, eggplant leaves. Also poisonous to chickens are morning glories. You’ll be surprised at how astute your chickens are: they usually won’t touch something that’s not good for them more than once.
There are as many different feeds available for your chickens as there are fancy breeds. Organic is great if you can afford it. Non GMO is essential, in my opinion. Non soy is a bonus and whole grains versus pellets are less processed, more wholesome, and more delicious. My girls won’t touch those ‘glow in the dark pellets’ (as my feed store guy calls ‘em). Purina sells a laying ration, as do other big brand name feed companies. I’d avoid those and seek out a locally produced feed. My local favorites are Hiland Naturals and a special blend i picked up from a fellow vendor at the little farm stand i set up with.
- Feeding containers don’t have to be fancy or even store bought- i reuse old milk jugs and change them out a few times a year as needed.
- My girls come a running to my “chick chick chick!” call. It’s great for encouraging them into the coop, or entertaining neighbors and friends.
As one final note, a healthy chicken is a well fed chicken – NOT an over or under fed chicken. They can really stuff away the food and will usually self regulate the amount of greens and other feed they’ll gnosh on. Your chickens should be compact, but not skinny/ solid but not plump. Corn and other fatty feeds should be fed in strict moderation, and never as the sole diet. Have fun tossing tomatoes and peanuts to your hens. I like to roll a little peanut on the porch and watch the 4 ladies rush like football players to be the first at it, or hold the nut high above their heads and watch them leap and flap as high as they can. Feeding your chickens can be zen like or highly amusing, and should always be nourishing. Feed them well and enjoy the eggs of your labors.
More on Miranda’s hens can be read at An Austin Homestead, and you can contact her with questions about chicken basics anytime at MirandaRommel at Mail dot com.