As a supplement to fresh forage and grazing, chicken feed options are endless. Chickens are adventurous, voracious eaters that enjoy variety as much as any creature. From providing kitchen scraps to supplementing their feed with oyster shells, there are many ways to keep your backyard chickens healthy and satisfied in between their frolicking and foraging.
It couldn't be easier to feed your flock chicken scraps directly from your home. This is a great way to reduce food waste in your house, and a quick, very efficient way to eliminate the smell of compost from the kitchen. If you decide to include chicken scraps in your flock's diet, there are a few foods to avoid.
Foods to avoid:
- Coffee grounds, tea leaves, chocolate, and anything else containing caffeine is simply no good for creatures with such delicate hearts.
- Meat can be sketchy in regards to biosecurity; there are a handful of illnesses that can transfer from meat to animal.
- Sugar lacks the nutrients that chickens need and can decrease egg production.
- Fruit and allium peels including those from bananas, oranges, lemons, onions, and garlic cannot be digested by chickens. They'll gladly polish off a watermelon, but should not consume the rind. The same goes for avocado pits; there are just certain things that a little chicken can't peck apart.
Supplementing chicken feed with oyster shells
Oyster shells, which can be purchased at most feed and supply stores, are a terrific source of calcium carbonate, which is what egg shells are made of. Hens can also get a good boost of calcium by consuming their own egg shells, but if you go this route, it‚'s important to crush or grind them up. If left intact, hens will make the great cognitive leap of realizing that the eggs they lay are a delicious source of food, and you'll soon find one or two hens fall into the habit of eating her own eggs. This is a frustrating and impossible habit to break, and a behavior that others in your flock will quickly pick up. Nevertheless, supplementing your hens' feed either with oyster shells or their own crushed egg shells helps them lay eggs with strong, thick shells. Without calcium in their diet, you may notice that their eggs break easily and have very thin walls.
How to ferment chicken feed
It's important to remember that you aren't limited to layer feed for your chickens. An organic layer feed is great––even essential––or wintertime birds, especially if their habitat is severely limited by snow. But if you're able to provide forage and a varied diet, it's worth experimenting with fermenting whole grains for your hens. Whole grains are typically much cheaper than processed feed, and can be found at your local feed and supply store, or even in the bulk section of your grocery store. Fermentation opens up the seeds and releases their nutrition value, allowing them to be digested more readily while providing higher concentrations of nutrients. The process is simple:
- Place a day's ration of food in a large container (we use a five gallon bucket for thirty hens).
- Cover the grains fully in water and let sit for 24 hours. When the 24 hours are up, they should have a slightly sweet and sour smell, just like sourdough bread or starter.
- Start by adding a small helping to your flock's usual layer feed. Alternatively, try providing the fermented grains "free choice" by adding small amounts to their feeding area, but separate from their usual feed so that they're not compelled or tricked into eating it and able to make their own decisions about what they need.
Keeping your flock's eating area clean
Regardless of what you feed your birds, it's important to keep their eating area clean. There will always be poop, feathers, and dirty chicken feet stepping in food and water bowls. Every week, I wash all water and food bowls and move the feeding area to give that part of the grass a rest. I have a filthy "chicken coop only" scrub brush that I reserve for this purpose; it helps remove anything that has caked on in the interim days. If you can't change the feeding location, spruce it up as best as you can, raking free any spots of poop and food debris at least weekly. You can also put your food and water bowls atop pieces of scrap wood to elevate them just enough to reduce debris in the bowls and save the grass from overuse.
Need some tips for keeping your hens happy during the winter? Read on for Kate's wintertime must-haves on Longest Acres Farm.
A note from Pete & Gerry's: For generations, our family of farmers at Pete & Gerry's Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that's what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It's also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.