What you feed your chickens is vitally important to their health, as well as to the quality of their eggs – so, even if your chickens are ‘free-range’ birds, don’t think that just because they’re scratching around on the ground they’re going to get all the nourishment they need. You need to help!
Commercial feed comes in three forms: pellets, mash, and crumb. Pellets are compressed units of feed, and the bird has to eat the whole of the blend rather than picking through it for the tasty bits, which means they get the correct balance of nutrients. Crumbs are broken pieces of pellet, fulfilling the same function but being easier for smaller birds to manage. Mash is a simple milled product and is thus cheaper, but in an outdoor setting more of it ends up on the ground, which will attract rats. Mash is, however, handy for mixing medication into.
The type of feed to give depends on the purpose of the poultry. Chicks should be started off on chick crumbs (or ‘starter feed’) which should have at least 16% protein. Some manufacturers also offer ‘grower/broiler starter’ crumbs with a higher protein content which is perfect for meat birds.
When they’re big enough to manage them, the chicks can be moved on to grower (or ‘developer’) pellets, but this isn’t essential as the protein levels are very similar to the starter feed. Meat birds can stay on this until maturity, but as soon as laying begins egg birds should be moved to layers pellets, which contain less protein and more calcium. Each of these feed changes should be made gradually (mix the two feeds for two weeks) to avoid upsetting the birds.
Just to complicate matters, each of these feed types is available as standard or organic (presently quite a bit more expensive), but in some countries you can also get certified non-GM which avoids genetically modified ingredients: GM was introduced very swiftly in the USA with little fuss, fanfare or safety testing, and as with pesticides and herbicides it may take decades for the full implications to emerge.
Mixed corn (or ‘scratch feed’) is a popular way to reduce the feed bill during the winter, when the chickens are laying less often and so need fewer nutrients. You should avoid mixing it with their regular feed as they’ll make a mess trying to pick it out of the mix: just toss them a handful when you let them out in the morning, and perhaps again mid-afternoon. This quickly becomes the highlight of the flock’s day!
Grit is used in a chicken’s crop to ‘chew’ with, vital for helping birds to digest food that is too big or too fibrous to go down in one go. Shop-bought grit may or may not contain oyster shell fragments: although not vital for meat birds, layers need all the calcium they can get. If you can’t see shell fragments in the grit, buy a bag of oyster shell for them too. Both types of grit can be scattered in the tray at the bottom of the feeder now and again, or a little pile of it left in the run from time to time. The birds will take it when they need it. You can also grind up eggshells with a pestle and mortar, and add that to the feed.
Keeping bags of mixed corn etc around is likely to attract rodents. A metal dustbin or two for storage is well worth the investment.
Blending your own feeds: this page gives some recipes, for an easy way to save money for larger-scale poultry keeping.
Kitchen scraps are a traditional treat for chickens, but be clear about the legality in your country as some nations have outlawed this practice due to the possibilities of spreading salmonella and other such bugs. If you do feed your birds scraps, don’t overdo it. Remember that the commercial feed is balanced to provide them with all the nutrients and minerals that they need to stay healthy, so it needs to be their main feed.