With backyard flocks returning from their long absence, there is a lot of confusion on what a chicken’s needs actually are. Compounding this problem, are the individual traits of some of the newer breeds that even the ‘ole-timers’ have never seen before. Consequently, what might have worked in the past, isn’t guaranteed now.
However, when it comes to feeding your birds, it’s probably going to be more of a challenge knowing what to feed them rather than how much to feed them.
With a few exceptions, chickens should always have access to high quality food as this is the best way to ensure that your birds are getting adequate nutrition.
To understand why this is so critical, it pays to look at the original chicken. The Red Junglefowl is a bird that originates from Asia (at least 5,000 years old), where insects, seeds and fruits are plentiful year round.
In comparison, today’s Barred Rock first appeared in the mid 1800’s, in Boston, Massachusetts where the environment is significantly different.
Domestication has produced dramatically different birds from the original Red Junglefowl. With a newer and vastly wider range of traits, today’s average backyard chicken relies on constant support from their human benefactors – without which they would be at risk.
Can You Overfeed Chickens?
You probably have a friend or know of someone with a rather ‘plump’ companion animal. This generally comes from a lack of exercise and too much food. And while this caretaker may have the best of intentions, indulging their companion in such a way can lead to health issues and even shorten the life of the animal. In this situation, a diet may be in order.
The average backyard chicken, however, isn’t really prone to this.
Generally speaking, there should not be any need to ration a chicken’s calorie intake. These birds will simply eat as they feel the need. However, there is one notable exception to this.
Broilers, aka meat birds, have a strict feeding schedule that must be observed. Should you provide a constant source of food to these breeds of chicken, the birds can eat themselves to death. And they will do it much faster than any companion animal.
### Important Note ###
To know whether or not your particular breed of chicken should be rationed, simply refer to the hatchery where you purchased the bird. Every good hatchery will have their recommendations posted online and if you can’t find this info, contact them. It’s been my experience that these companies are more than happy to help you.
Chicken forums are another valuable source of information. The help that I have received from other ‘flock herders’ like myself, has been absolutely incredible. I highly recommend that you join a forum if you’re planning on starting a flock.
What Is The Best Food For A Hen?
As mentioned above, through domestication, careful breeding has produced an incredible range of traits. From plumage to purpose, chances are there is a chicken breed for just about everyone. But with these unique traits comes specific demands and it is critical that you understand the needs of your flock.
For example, I have a pair of Barred Rocks hens that are both laying one egg a day. Egg shells are made of calcium. To put that in a perspective, think of your a one-a-day vitamin and just how big it is. Then think of the mass involved with just one egg shell. Clearly, their need for calcium is significant.
While my flocks are primarily free-range, I still make sure that their feeder is always full. And the feed that I always provide my egg-laying hens is ‘Layer Feed’. This layer feed has a specific ratio of protein and calcium that is formulated for their unique needs. To give them anything else, invites health risks.
And this is a fact worth dwelling on.
Domesticated hens lay a lot of eggs. They need the extra calcium that Layer Feed provides. Broilers, aka meat birds, do not need this extra calcium. They do, however, need a high amount of protein (somewhere around 20%). To give a broiler breed of chicken Layer Feed is to deny them the appropriate level of nutrition. In the same manner, to give your hens Broiler Feed, with its high protein concentration, will also cause health issues.
And then there are chicks, which get a completely different kind of feed.
For these reasons, it is absolutely vital that you KNOW YOUR FLOCK!
What Is The Natural Diet For Chickens?
Chickens are omnivores, meaning they can obtain nutrition from both plant and animal matter. This really expands the concept of an ‘all you can eat’ buffet!
Much like the original Red Junglefowl, today’s backyard chicken will find great value in consuming bugs, seeds, grasses and whatever else is growing around them. In other words, if it is natural to their environment, then it’s probably on the menu.
I’ve seen chickens zealously consume everything from toads to plant roots. They will turn their beaks up at solid things such as wood, but they will eat small pebbles. Incidentally, small amounts of sand and dirt are good for a chicken as they use this abrasive material to help digest their food.
Do You Have To Feed Free Range Chickens?
Allowing my flock to forage, especially over a large area, is something I feel very strongly about. Not only are these birds more active, but some of the insects that they consume are actually detrimental to me and my family – case in point, the Tick which can transmit Lyme disease.
But despite having several acres to forage, I still make feed available to them. Why?
Domesticated chickens are not native to the environment and as such need supplemental feed everyday.
Your average backyard chicken is not the result of natural adaptation but rather selective breeding. Consequently, the environment that they find themselves in, does not usually provide everything that they need to sustain the characteristics they were bred for.
This is not to say that it is impossible for a domesticated chicken to survive in the wild. Just very unlikely. And for those that do, should they reproduce, they would eventually grow into a new form that would have better capabilities of surviving on what is available.
In other words, the wild would breed the domestication out of them.
Consequently, the desired results, achieved through careful breeding (egg production, size, plumage, ect) would diminish and you’d end up with a significantly different animal.