What To Feed Chickens (And What NOT To Feed Them...)
You’ve chosen what breeds to raise, you’ve built a coop in your backyard… the brooder boxes, bedding, waterer, feeder - all set!
You even have a chicken first aid kit!
But, wait a second… what do chickens eat?
We’ve got you covered with our ultimate guide on what to feed (and not to feed) your chickens!
A quick history
Thousands of years ago, the current domesticated chickens’ ancestors were ambulating around Asian jungles, foraging and hunting for food.
Their job was to scratch the forests’ ground to find seeds, insects, and worms, to walk around munching on leaves, and to occasionally catch small animals and reptiles.
Now, you don’t need to watch chickens closely to notice that this is still exactly what they do. In fact, feral chickens are known to feed themselves similarly to their foregoers, the jungle fowls.
In an article titled Making Your Own Poultry Feeds: Part One, Harvey and Ellen Ussery explain how they learned to feed their flock naturally by taking a look at how their grandmother used to feed hers.
They mention how she used to let her flock range freely across a colossal 100-acre farm and how the chickens’ would always opt for green plants, wild seeds, and animal foods… all of which shared one common trait: they were alive.
With that in mind, we know that the correct chicken diet is composed of a vast array of living plants, seeds, and animals!
A brief Look At The Chicken’s Digestive System
This diagram may help you understand the WHY we can and can not feed chickens certain things...
Chickens have a simple, yet efficient digestive system.
If we were to put the workings of these wacky little omnivores’ food canal in a nutshell, it would be fair to say that they swallow, store, digest, chew, and then expel what they don’t need… yes, all in that peculiar order.
Food passes through their toothless mouths and enters the esophagus, which drives it towards a little storage pouch called a crop that is able to hold it for no more than 12 hours.
When released, the food makes its way to the chicken’s stomach, or proventriculus, where it is broken down into nutrients.
The gizzard then takes over and, in its chambers, grinds up the food by using muscle power along with little stones or grit.
From there, nutrients are absorbed while crossing a long-tubed small intestine and what is left goes to the cloaca. Here, food leftovers mix with waste coming from the urinary system, as they wait to be expelled.
Check out Poultry Hub’s article on the chicken’s digestive system for a more detailed explanation.
The issue of confinement
Confined-ranging chickens usually roam freely within a fenced yard. These birds can eat whatever they find in their surroundings.
Therefore, the amount of food they eat from the feeder will vary from day to day, because it will depend on factors such as the weather, state of the backyard, and type of backyard.
By managing your flock this way, the nutritional needs of your chickens are more likely to be met as a result of a more diverse diet.
Full-time confinement refers to when chickens are constantly kept in a coop and run. These birds are dependent on the feed they are provided with, plus the occasional worm or bug that crosses their way.
Therefore, they need an assorted diet in addition to grit in order to keep healthy, as they won’t be able to find it for themselves.
In addition to the type of diet you provide, you also need to have a mechanism that allows for the feed to be released when chickens are in confinement! Check out our top 6 chicken feeders right here.
Remember, chickens are foragers.
In a natural environment they would keep busy eating greens, hunting for protein sources, and seeking grains. Or, if you're introducing new chickens, free ranging allows them to interact with each other.
When in full-time confinement, we want to recreate this diet and way of life as much as possible.
What to feed your chickens
The easiest way to formulate a healthy chicken diet is to reproduce their natural eating habits as much as possible.
We know that they usually intake loads of greens like broadleaved weeds, grasses and clover, seeds, and protein in the form of insects, earthworms and slugs.
In other words, just as Harvey Ussery, author of the book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers explains, chickens eat live foods – only.
So, a good way to plan a hearty diet for your feathered friends is by making sure that all these live bits and pieces are included in your scheme!
Plus, if you’re feeling intimidated about coming up with a nutritious diet for your birds all on your own, take a look at Ussery’s article, Feeding the Homestead Flock.
Many people choose to give some extras in the form of chicken treats or kitchen scraps, too.
Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily has put up an extensive list of healthy treats for chickens, which can be used as a guide.
If your looking for some common solutions here are some of the most common, safe scraps you can feed to your chickens:
- Cooked or Raw Asparagus – Asparagus is safe for chickens any way you want to feed it to them.
- Apples and Applesauce – If the small quantities of cyanide in apple seeds concerns you, remove the seeds and/or core before feeding. However, it is not a dangerous amount.
- Cooked Beans – Do not feed dry!
- Peeled Bananas – Remove the peel and provide your chickens with this tasty potassium supplement.
- Berries – Any variety of berry is safe for your birds.• Beets – The bulb or the greens are both safe to feed to chickens.
- Broccoli – A favorite of chickens, it can provide them with entertainment as they work on eating it, too.
- Stale Bread – You can feed your chickens fresh breads, too, but they are a great way to use up old breads
- Cabbage – A cabbage suspended from the ceiling of the coop can be as entertaining as it is delicious.
- Non-sugary cereal – Grains are great chicken treats, but don’t give them sweets.
- Carrots – You can give chickens carrots that have been cooked, or feed them raw. They can even eat the greens!Carrots – You can give chickens carrots that have been cooked, or feed them raw. They can even eat the greens!
- Cheese – Too much cheese can cause chickens to gain weight, but they can get calcium from enjoying cheesy treats.
- Cucumbers – Large cucumbers provide a tasty and refreshing treat.• Corn – A classic chicken favorite, corn can be given raw, cooked, canned (rinsed of salt), or on the cob.
- Corn – A classic chicken favorite, corn can be given raw, cooked, canned (rinsed of salt), or on the cob.
- Cooked fish – Never give raw.
- Fresh flowers – Chickens will happily gobble up flowers! Just be sure they haven’t been sprayed with anything, but instead are completely organic.
- Seedless grapes – Baby chicks love these when they are cut in half for easy pecking
- Peaches and pears – These softer fruits are great choices for chicken treats. Remove the pits if you’re worried about them, but they can be given whole.
- Leafy greens – Giving greens to your chickens makes them very happy and healthy, too.
- Flax – Like cereals, flax and other similar grains are healthy options.
- Melons – Cantaloupe is a particular favorite, but other types of melon are safe for chickens, too. They can eat the seeds but not the rinds.
- Meat – Don’t give chickens meat daily, but they can eat it every now and then. Although they can eat cooked chicken, you may feel strange giving it to them!
- Pasta – Chickens can have cooked pastas, and they enjoy eating them, but there isn’t a lot of nutritional value.
- Oatmeal – Raw or cooked oatmeal can be a great dietary supplement for your birds.
- Popcorn – Popped popcorn with no salt or butter is a good chicken treat.
- Raw pomegranates – Scrape out the seeds and feed them to chickens, just like humans eat them!
- Peeled potatoes – These can only be fed if cooked. Do not feed the peels
- Pumpkins – Cook or give raw pumpkin to your chickens. They can have the seeds, too!
- Sunflower seeds – Some people believe that feeding sunflower seeds can help hens lay eggs. Feed shelled or still in their shells.
- Rice – Cooked rice is edible by chickens, but there is not much nutritional value.
- Watermelon – An excellent way to hydrate your birds when it’s very hot outside! They can have the seeds.
- Tomatoes – Serve raw or cooked. You can give them canned as long as tomatoes are sodium-free.
- Yogurt – Plain or flavored yogurt is always a big hit and can help chickens digest their food more easily, too.
What to not feed to your chickens
Now we know what scraps can be fed, be sure to stay away from the following foods:
- Raw potato peels – These can be toxic to chickens.
- Salt – Too much salt can poison a bird.
- Avocado – Like potato peels, these can be toxic to animals.
- Chocolate – Just like dogs and cats, chickens should stay away from chocolate (Find out more on feeding your chickens chocolate, here).
- Raw eggs – Chickens may begin eating their own eggs if they get a taste for them.
- Sugar – This can be bad for the chickens’ organs.
And just in case you're a visual learner - here's a pretty guide:
Keep in mind that not all food scraps are healthy, or even safe, for chickens!
For example, try to stay away from avocados, tomato or eggplant leaves, apple seeds, rhubarb, onions, chocolate, caffeine or tea bags, moldy foods, citrus, and spinach. Read this article to learn why.
Can I feed my chicken X? (FAQS)
Can chickens eat...
Why or Why not?
Of course, and they love them! Just make sure to get rid of the pesticide-infested peel if it isn’t organic.
Without the seeds only!
Yes, it is safe to feed both cooked and uncooked rice. Have in mind that whole grain rice has a far greater nutritional value than that of white rice, though.
Yes, chickens can eat asparagus. However, it is recommended to keep it to a minimum, as it may spoil the taste of the eggs when eaten in large amounts.
Only when completely ripe and without leaves
Sure, some people even hang it from the coop’s ceiling so that the birds get to play a little… while they munch.
No. The toxin theobromine, which is present in chocolate, is toxic for birds and other pets including dogs!
Without any salt, butter, or oil only!
Just cut them in half to keep them from choking!
As omnivores, they may occasionally eat mice… as well as small reptiles and even birds.
Yes, and just like with the cabbage, you can try hanging it from the coop’s ceiling so they can play with it!
Stay away from feeding white potatoes, as they contain a toxic called solanine. This includes cooked or raw flesh, skins, vines, and leaves.
Both seeds and flesh are safe to feed.
Go for it!
Without the leaves - only!
Only if sprouted, or soaked and cooked. Raw dried beans have the natural insecticide called phytohemagglutinin which can be dangerous to chickens.
Just in moderation.
They love it both as a food and toy, when hanged from the coop’s ceiling.
Go for it!
Without the leaves - only!
Sure, just make sure not to feed apple seeds, which contain cyanide.
The Bottom Line – What To Feed Chickens?
Beyond all the puzzling information on what to feed one’s chickens, the answer is simple: keep their diet as close as possible to what it would look like if they were ambulating around by themselves!
Would you feed ice cream to a wolf?
Of course not… so let’s not make this kind of mistake with our funky feathered friends.
Please share this article to your chicken-curious friends and discuss your thoughts or doubts on the comments below.