I get more questions on the subject of feeding chickens than any other related to homesteading. Learn all you need to know to succeed and have a healthy happy flock in our complete guide to feeding chickens.
When you’re born and raised on the farm, things like this are second nature to you. To inexperienced or new chicken keepers, questions about caring for chickens can be overwhelming.
There’s so much information out there, how do you sift through it all? That’s where we come in. I’ll answer the questions TFL receives most often about feeding chickens, provide resources for you and your flock, and hopefully take all the apprehension away.
As you’ve often heard me quote my Papa: “There’s as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’s farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.” With this principle to guide us, we open ourselves up to learning and educating others as well as ourselves.
My family has a long history of chicken keeping going back at least 7 generations that I’m sure of. In my 40+ years of chicken keeping, I’ve made mistakes, attempted to improve on what turned out to be tried and true methods, and learned a great deal. I became successful when I went back to the basics my grandmother taught me.
A Funny Childhood Experience About Feeding Chickens
As a girl, one of my favorite jobs was taking care of the chickens and gathering eggs. I was about 8 or 9 when I experienced a day I will never forget.
Granny’s feed barrel was covered by a board with a piece of scrap iron on top to weigh it down. This was to keep the critters out, of course. It was the responsibility of whoever was last in the barrel to be sure it was replaced correctly.
I didn’t do my job well because when I lifted the lid to get the feed (I shudder while recalling), “bam” up the sleeve of my flannel shirt ran a mouse!
I ran towards the house screaming while clutching my arm. Granny thought something was killing me because of my screaming and came running.
Once I was able to blubber out what had happened, she told me to let go of my arm. It took some convincing with a serious “you better mind me” voice before I finally let go and out fell the mouse…dead!
I had squeezed it to death. She told me to get the chickens tended to while making sure I understood to put the lid back on the barrel properly.
She was laughing as she went back to getting breakfast. One reason mice and I are sworn foes.
Nutritional Needs of Chickens
- Laying Hens: Need a minimum protein of 16% and a maximum of 18%; minimum calcium of 3% and a maximum of 5%. All the other minerals are pretty standard in feeds: phosphorous, salt, fats, etc.
- Broilers (birds grown just for meat): Need a minimum protein of 18% and a maximum of 20%; minimum calcium of 0.90% and a maximum of 1.5%. The other various minerals are pretty standard.
- Chicks: Because of their rapid growth, they require a minimum protein of 18% and a maximum of 21%; minimum calcium of 1% and a maximum of 1.45%.
Feeds used as “scratch” don’t have protein and fat. Chicken keepers who use this type of feed use it as a supplement to a nutritionally balanced feed.
We don’t buy chicken feed except on extremely rare occasions. You can learn to feed chickens without buying feed.
We don’t recommend feeding pellets or crumbles to our flocks. We feel it’s better, if you are going to feed grains, to provide whole grains for them versus processed, compressed feeds. Their bodies are designed to process whole grains. Everyone has their own way, this is ours.
Listen to the TFL Podcast, “What You Should Not Feed Your Chickens”
There are standard guidelines for feeding your flock. However, you will establish your own system according to your personal experience and preferences, and the needs of your flock.
- Hatch – 8 weeks feed chick starter. Our hens have a breeding yard they hatch out in. Because of the confinement, I feed a little chick starter along with her layer. She cracks the layer up for them and teaches them how to eat.
- 8 – 20 weeks change feed to grower – especially if you are raising dual purpose or meat birds.
- 20 weeks+ feed layer to your flock
- If your flock is of mixed age, feed the whole flock grower until the youngest ones reach 20 weeks.
- If this is the case, be sure to offer your hens free choice calcium. The chicks won’t eat it and your hens will get what they need. We use their eggshells to provide calcium, but you can use oyster shells if you prefer.
Feeders vs. Scattering
Before we went to our system of not buying chicken feed, we tried several different types of feeders.
We tried a plastic feeder that you fill and place on the ground. It’s supposed to be waterproof, but we found moisture did get in and caused the grain in the corners to mold and sour.
We also tried steel feeders with pans attached that hang from the ceiling or roof. You fill the top with feed and it comes down into the tray. I wasn’t actually unhappy with this one, but I did notice wasted food.
If you’re like me, you hate waste of any kind. I was thinking one day, “Ya know, Granny never used a feeder and it worked for her. Why wouldn’t it work for me?”
So I called her to talk it over (boy, I would love to still be able to do this).
I did some experiments to see which feeding system the chickens would prefer. I put feed out in the plastic feeder, the metal feeder, and scattered feed on the ground.
I discovered my chickens are most happy when they scratch and peck for their food. They would eat out of the feeders when they came in from free ranging if there was no feed on the ground. Mostly they left the feeders alone.
How Much Feed Do Chickens Need?
To decide how much feed their flock needed, the old-timers would scatter grain and see how much the flock could clean up in 30 minutes. What they ate in that amount of time is what they would feed them once a day.
Most of them fed their flocks in the coop or yard every evening when they came up for the night. This gave them the chance to see the flock and gave the flock an incentive to come on in.
If you prefer a measurement, I have that for you.
- A chicken eats 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup of feed each day. That’s 2 to 3 oz per bird.
- If you free range your flock, you can feed half this amount in the evenings to teach them to come in for the day.
I’ve trained my chickens to come to a white bucket.
I did this by using the same bucket each time I went out to feed them from the time they were chicks. They will run in from the woods when they hear me and see the white bucket no matter what time of day.
Now that we rarely use chicken feed, I use the white bucket to take kitchen or garden scraps to them or to the compost pile they are working on.
If you teach them to come in using the bucket method, it’s easy to check on them, count them, and after they roost to shut the coop knowing they’re all in for the night.
How Much Feed Do Chicks Need?
Of course, chicks eat considerably less than older chickens.
- They need 1/8 cup or 1 oz per chick a day.
- Keep food constantly available for chicks the first 4 weeks.
- From then on, feed them twice a day. For the second feeding of the day, I take them garden or kitchen produce.
- When they’re 8 weeks old, I begin to feed them adult portions of grower and garden/kitchen produce.
- At this age, I’m fattening up the ones who will be processed for food and making certain the ones who will be introduced into the flock as layers are a good size and in good health.
- Once they’re out of their grow out pen and join the main flock, they don’t get feed at our farm.
How The Old Timers Fed Chickens
Believe it or not, it’s not necessary to provide your flock with any grain at all. Well, let me rephrase that…if you free range your flock, it isn’t necessary to use grains to feed them.
For so many thousands of years, chicken keepers kept their flocks without it. In many countries, there are flocks of feral chickens and no one feeds them.
Some old-timers made their own feed. Today there’s a move towards doing this and towards eliminating all grain feeding from the flock.
They also bartered with their neighbors for grains and gave the flock kitchen and garden scraps along with free-ranging.
Chickens aren’t herbivores (plant eaters)! They’re omnivores, they eat meat and plants. Chickens aren’t picky, my flock loves mice, worms, and all manner of insects.
If the old-timers used grains, it was usually just a small amount of cracked corn in the evenings to call them in. Most of them were free-ranged, as my grandparents did.
It was always funny to me to see the chickens running down the dirt road from their foraging when it was time to get their evening scratch.
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series, Mrs. Boast gave Ma a hatching of chicks and they fed them some cracked corn. They lived in a time when the farmer grew their own animal feed and free-ranged most all their livestock. This is our goal for our homestead and livestock.
The availability of commercial feeds made it easier for people in all kinds of places to keep backyard chickens. For the hobby farmers or those in urban settings, there isn’t room to grow their own food or to free-range the flock. In some places, it’s against the law to free-range any type of livestock.
Even for those who do free-range, supplementing the diet of your flock with a well-balanced feed isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It can make winter and times of stress a little easier on your flocks.
How do I Know They’re Getting Enough to Eat?
It’s kind of odd to me how my chickens always seem hungry.
They may have just been fed, or out free-ranging, but they act like they’re starving! They run as fast as their little legs will let them and talk as loudly to me as if I hadn’t let them have anything all day long.
The best way to tell if you’re feeding them enough is to look at their overall health.
If your hens are regularly laying healthy eggs, I would say they’re doing well. A healthy egg has a well-formed shell with a nice shape and color. You may get some abnormal eggs every now and then, but as a general rule, their eggs will be healthy.
When a chicken is healthy, it’s inquisitive, lively, and has nice red cones and wattles.
The exception to this is when they are molting or not yet laying. They will have dull pinkish cones and wattles during these times.
They will have healthy feathers, beaks, legs, and feet. A good check is to see if they’re about the average size for their breed.
You can pick them up if they are used to being handled or you can wait until they go to roost then pick them up to check. You can tell if they’re plump or frail. If you follow the guidelines above, you shouldn’t have any problems.
The more you know your birds, you’ll find you can spot a problem quickly just by watching them. When Fat Hen had her run-in with a hawk earlier this year, I knew something was wrong with her by the way she walked. She had developed an abscess.
We noticed she was acting differently and were able to take quick action. Her wound healed well and she’s laying again.
Learn how to recognize the signs of common illnesses in backyard flocks.
How to Train Chickens to Come In From Free Ranging
I train my flock to come to me with a white bucket. When they’re chicks their food is brought in a white bucket. Anything I take to the chicken yard is taken in that white bucket.
They associate the bucket with goodies and they come running to me as early as 3 weeks old!
Should I Offer My Flock Supplements?
This is a very controversial subject and one which, again, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
As for us, we don’t “supplement” our chickens’ diet in the sense of giving them commercially produced nutritional aids.
There are many products that are advertised as “must-have.” This is a red flag for me to stay away from it.
Some that are commonly pushed by commercialization are electrolyte powders, vitamin and mineral compounds, performance enhancers (yea, who knew?), chemical wormers, vaccines, on and on the list goes.
I’ve never had the need for any of them and am basically against them. For thousands of years, chickens have been able to survive without us “helping” them along with all these chemical supplements.
We strive to live as natural a life as we can and we want the same for our animals, after all, “We are what our animals eat.”
We do a few things for our chickens in the way of natural supplementation.
1. Free Ranging
This isn’t technically a supplement. It is a way of allowing the chicken flock to feed itself. They will find what they need, it is given to them by God as instinct. There are pros and cons to free-ranging your flock.
If you’re unable to free-range your birds, you can still offer them natural supplements, like greens and worms.
You may consider keeping some form of litter in their yard to scratch through. The decaying litter will attract critters they like to eat.
You can also place logs, planks, or other pieces of wood in their yard; let the wood sit for a while and then move it. You won’t believe the different critters that will be living under there and your chickens will chase, scratch, and gobble them up.
That’s actually how I discovered chickens like mice. I turned over one of the logs my husband had put in the yard for me and there were all kinds of baby mice. They went wild gobbling up those little varmints!
2. Crushed Eggshells
We offer their own eggshells for calcium. Calcium deficiency is hard on a hen as she uses calcium in making eggshells. A deficiency will cause them to become thinner and decreases the number of eggs she lays.
- I keep eggshells until my 12 cup bowl is full, this doesn’t take long for us.
- Then I bake them at 250 degrees for about 15 minutes. You’ll know they are ready because they will look very dry and start to darken up on the inside of the shell.
- Some people don’t bake them and seem to have no problems, but since they have been sitting in a bowl for a while, I bake them just in case something creepy has decided to live there.
- After they bake, let them cool for a few minutes, then crush them into chicken bite size (very small) pieces. Once they’re heated, they break easily like glass.
- I store them in glass jars in my pantry until I’m ready for them.
A Word of Caution in Feeding Eggshells
Another reason I bake them and make sure the bites are so small is that I don’t want the hens to associate the shells I give them with the eggs they lay.
Yes, chickens will eat their eggs. While I’ve never experienced it, a friend told me it happened in her flock and she had to cull several hens who “caught the idea.” She thought that it started because she had not been able to free-range them and had not given them calcium, so they started getting their own from their eggs.
I also think it’s important to note that I would not give my hens any shells from store-bought eggs, organic or not. The risk of them getting something harmful to them and/or us is too great. They’ve been washed in chemicals, handled in ways unknown to me, and you can’t really know how old they are.
This photo shows an egg that is perfectly formed except for the shell. The inner membrane formed, but the shell didn’t. When you reach in the nest and grab one of these, it feels icky. It will be squishy.
This usually happens in a chicken who is just beginning to lay. I have only had this happen 4-5 times in all my years of chicken keeping. If you have more than one of these or find them frequently, be sure you are feeding your chickens are getting a balanced diet, and supplement by adding calcium.
Do Not eat this egg. You can give it to your dogs or hogs, but not to humans. Since the protective shell didn’t form, it’s very probable that bacteria has gotten through the membrane contaminating the egg.
Most chicken keepers use oyster shells as a source of calcium and grit. I don’t offer grit unless the chickens are not going to be free ranged for a few days because we’re out of pocket or some such thing.
Not only will they find their own grit when free-ranging, but we have gravel on our road and on the land itself so they easily find what they need.
If I ever do offer grit, I Scratch and Peck Feed’s Cluckin’ Good Grit.
4) Diatomaceous Earth
The only other thing I offer our flock is food-grade diatomaceous earth. We use this for so many things here on the farm from our own personal use to a wormer for the dogs and other livestock.
As a Wormer for Chickens
When we use it as a wormer for the chickens, we mix it in with their food for about a week. Mixing it with their feed is a great way to be sure they all get enough to kill internal parasites.
If you need a more accurate measurement, the official instructions say: “Add to poultry feed up to 2% for weight of feed (up to 2lbs DE per 100lbs of feed) for the most effective internal parasite control. Sprinkle on top of feed or add directly to the bag of feed shaking to mix thoroughly.”
Studies show that feeding DE to your chickens improves the number of eggs they lay, the quality of their eggs, and their overall health.
For Mite Control
We also use it for the chickens in their dusting spots, in their nests, and on their roost, because it’s great for killing and preventing mites.
Caution for DE Use
Be sure you use caution when you are putting out DE. It is very fine dust and can be easily inhaled causing eye, throat, and lung irritation.
You may want to wear a mask, goggles, and definitely gloves. I tie a large handkerchief around my nose and mouth. Be sure you are only using food-grade DE around people and animals!
5) Dairy Products for Extra Protein
Yes, I know, whenever I share this in a talk or a casual conversation, someone in the group is always shocked. But it’s true, chickens love milk, yogurt, ice cream, most any dairy product.
If you have milk, yogurt, or ice cream going bad or just want to give them a treat, you’ll not believe how they gobble it up. Almost like a pig!
Of course, we are organic, non-gmo here. We use raw, grass-fed A2A2 milk. If this is not part of your farm philosophy or goal, then use what you choose. My girls prefer yogurt, it’s their favorite!
We grow mealworms for our chickens. They are a supplemental food source, not a sole source of food for chickens. We usually use Black Soldier Fly larvae because they are cheaper and we think easier to produce.
Learning how to grow mealworms as a cheap source of food for your chickens will help lower your feed bill. Your flock with love it!
Which Chicken Feed I Recommend And Why
As you know, we’re non-GMO, organic based homesteaders. In 2010, we began learning about GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and immediately began the process of removing them from our home. We immediately saw improvements in health and well-being.
Then we thought, “We are what our animals eat. So if they eat GMOs, then we’re still eating GMOs…” We immediately began searching for an option for our usual chicken feed because we were still using feed at this time.
After several weeks of research, we found we could identify with the princles and philosophy of Scratch and Peck Feeds. Our local feed store didn’t stock it but they were willing to order it and see if they had a market for it.
Turns out we weren’t the only ones looking for it. They found a market was there. They told me they had customers that drove three hours for it and would load up their pickup truck beds with it.
You can also purchase it on Scratch and Peck products on Amazon if you can’t get it locally.
Should I Ferment Feed and How Do I do it?
Fermenting feed is not new. People have been doing it for a very long time.
Back when we were still using chicken feed, we noticed that the animals here on the farm, livestock, and wildlife, were behaving in a way that indicated we were going to have a hard winter.
As it got closer and we realized it was closing in, we wanted to boost their immune systems by fermenting their feed.
Benefits to Fermenting Feed
- Chickens love it. They don’t know they’re getting a nutritional boost…or do they? They gobble it up.
- The feed is more nutritious as the nutrients are more readily available for their digestive systems. Especially in the winter when they need more nutrients to keep them warm.
- Helps them to eat all of the feed, especially the fine particles in the feed. Many feeds have nutrients mixed in with them and since they are fine particles, they will sometimes get missed by the birds. The fermenting process swells the grains and adheres the particles to the feed.
How to Ferment Chicken Feed
- You’ll need three buckets – use what you have, five-gallon buckets, one-gallon buckets, just use three the same size if possible.
- Pour into bucket number 1 the amount of feed that your chickens eat in one day.
- Cover the grain with 3 parts water to 1 part feed. Don’t use chlorinated or flouridated water.
- Let the bucket sit for three days. Don’t worry when you see bubbles, that’s just part of the fermenting process.
- On day three, when you feed it to your chickens, you’ll be able to smell it, trust me.
- On day 2, start a new bucket, bucket number 2, using the same process as for bucket 1.
- On day 3, start a new bucket, bucket number 3 the same way.
- On day 3, the day you start bucket number three, you will have three buckets.
- Bucket 1 that is ready to feed
- Bucket 2 that will be ready tomorrow
- Bucket three that will be ready the day after that.
- Keep the process going by starting a new bucket every day, for as long as you want to keep your chickens fermented feed.
- When you feed a bucket, strain it and pour the liquid into the new bucket then add enough water to have the 3:1 ratio.
Chickens Do Not Require Grains
Contrary to what we may think, chickens do not have to have grains to live.
What may be shocking to you is that they are omnivores! Meat and fat is part of their natural diet. Just watch them free range and see what they go for first. It’s the mice, grasshoppers, crickets, and the like.
It’s true that offering them grain encourages them to grow quickly and to lay plenty of eggs, but there are those who don’t feed any grains at all and their chickens are healthy, happy, productive birds. Again, it comes down to you deciding what’s best for you and your way of life.
Many people who do feed grain offer their flock a wide variety of things to eat. You know I free-range and that really saves on feed and supplements, but what if you can’t free range and you want to offer your birds a grain-free diet?
We use a compost method to feed our chickens.
Many who feed a grain-free diet offer their birds venison, beef, rabbit, worms, pork, and the like.
I would never feed my birds other birds – it just seems wrong to me and cannibalism is a whole different thing from being a omnivore. At least I think so.
My oldest son still doesn’t like the chickens too much. Since he was a little fellow he has said that “chickens are like little velociraptors and they would eat me if they could.” Yes, if they were big enough, they probably would. Whew…scary thought.
Those who follow this way of caring for their birds also offer them a variety of garden scraps, fruits, and dairy products. You can learn more about what not to feed chickens by listening to our podcast about this question.
Be careful not to give your chickens avocado pits because of the chemical persin in them. It is toxic to birds.
I don’t give mine onions or citrus fruits because they don’t like them, but some people say their chickens like citrus so give it a try and see.
Don’t stress about the many options that are available. Choose what’s best for you and your lifestyle.
If you’re just starting out, pick a feed you feel comfortable with and go from there. That’s one of the greatest things about this way of life, you start out where you are and grow from there.
Growth never stops on the farm or homestead, for your flocks, herds, or for you.
Chickens are resourceful, they have survived thousands of years, and barring not feeding them or supplying their basic needs, you won’t kill them off overnight.
As always, we’re here to help.