What Do Chickens Eat? A Guide On What To Feed Your Chickens

Many people mistakenly believe that chickens can eat almost anything. They forage, after all, and pluck bugs from the grass and scraps from the compost bin. But there are things your flock shouldn’t snack on, and some of them might surprise you. 

Here’s what to feed chickens (and what to avoid) for a healthy henhouse.

What Type of Chicken Feed Should You Give Your Flock

When it comes to daily feeding for your flock or layer hens, you can pick from starter feed, pellets, and other chicken feed types.  

Pellets

Most people know to feed their chicken pellets and assume they’re the best chicken feed option. But not all pellets are alike, and there can be many various ingredients in specific brands. In general, pellets include wheat, soya, salt, and calcium (1).

Shell Grit

anatomy of chicken

Providing your chicken with shell grit works to help break down the food in the gizzard. It also offers necessary calcium in the chicken’s diet for good bone health and strengthens the chicken eggshells (2).

But, what exactly is a shell grit? 

It’s basically a mix of shells and rocks available in three primary types: soluble, insoluble, and mixed variety. Insoluble is made from crushed granite while soluble consists of finely ground oyster shells and other seashells. The last kind of shell grit is a combination of the two. 

When feeding chickens with shell grit make sure that is finely crushed to avoid choking. 

Some chicken owners add finely grounded eggshell to the ground oyster shell mix to boost calcium levels in any of these situations (3).

Crumble

Crumble has the same balanced nutrition that pellets provide. But since this type of feed has smaller pieces, they are a good choice for juvenile chickens who are just beginning to eat pellets instead of mash. 

Many backyard keepers also give crumble feed to hens and laying chickens and chicks, but it may need to combine with mash for the best, most nutrient-dense results (4). 

Poultry require the presence of at least 38 dietary nutrients in appropriate concentrations and balance.

If you have laying hens and plan to use crumble, it’s ideal to have mash layer feed to supplement their egg production nutritional needs.

Mash

Chicken mash is a protein meal mixed with various supplements to sustain the nutritionary needs of chickens. This food is ideal for younger chickens, and it is easy for chickens of all ages to digest. Much like pellets, this is an all-in-one type of food designed to provide plenty of nutrients and minerals they need to grow and be healthy.

Fermented

Fermented feed probiotics for your chickens. It is a moistened chicken mash that ferments with lactic acid. This process creates lactobacillus, pediococcus, and leuconostoc, all beneficial for the chicken’s digestive system (5).

This type of chicken feed can easily be made at home and has the benefit of helping detoxify the chicken’s system and boosting the immune system. 

Whole Grain

Whole grain doesn’t contain fillers. Some of the most common grains featured in chicken feed include barley, corn, rye, wheat, and sorghum. Feeding your chickens whole grain feed can aid in better gut health (6).

Healthy and Safe Treats For Layer Hens And The Entire Flock

Just like any other animal, backyard chickens love an alternative food source. Aside from layer feeds, have some of these tasty table scraps, scratch grains,  vegetable peels, and treats in stock to meet their diet, nutrition, and energy requirements for development, egg quality, and egg laying production. 

Healthy food for chicken
  • Watermelon – Since watermelon is 90% water, you can use this fruit to boost hydration in chickens during hot summer days. 
  • Cantaloupe – Just like watermelon, cantaloupe has high water content to keep birds stay cool and hydrated. Plus, it is edible in its entirety, but chickens may avoid the outer rigid. Consider grinding the seeds and cutting the melon into smaller pieces to make it easier for them to eat.
  • Leafy greens – Filled with essential nutrients, leafy greens are great for chickens too. Consider feeding your chicken watercress, lettuce, carrot tops, dandelion greens, and raspberry leaves. You may also consider feeding them herbs for chickens
  • Broccoli – Broccoli is another chicken favorite. Don’t forget to cut the stalks into small pieces because it is difficult for them to eat. You can also feed chickens cooked broccoli, which is easier for them to eat.
  • Cherries – Cherries are one of the best fruits you can feed to chickens. They are loaded with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, calcium, and potassium. Be sure to remove the pits from the cherries so they won’t choke!

Fun Treats

Chickens love the following treats, and it can be enjoyable for them to scratch and peck. 

  • Flaxseed – Flaxseed is a fun treat for chickens. It is high in Omega-3 (7) and provides a good supplement to their diet. Always give flaxseed in moderation, however, to avoid a strong egg taste.
  • Rice – Rice contains iron, niacin, potassium, and other healthy nutrients. Chickens can have cooked and uncooked rice and many varieties such as long-grain, short-grain, or specialty. 
  • Pasta – Keep in mind that this treat is high in carbohydrates and low in nutrients, so you want to only feed them pasta as an occasional treat.
  • Seeds – There are a few seeds in particular that are not only nutritious for them but delicious. Consider feeding your chicken sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
  • Bread – Bread is good as an occasional yummy treat for chickens; however, avoid feeding them moldy bread or buttered bread in addition to anything else like spreads or seasonings. Mold contains mycotoxins that are harmful to chickens (7)

Protein Sources 

Just like most other animals who are omnivores, chickens need a source of protein, and these treats can help provide it to them. 

Worms and insects are popular choices since chickens regularly forage for them in the wild. Some backyard chicken keepers also offer fish, beef, and other meat scraps for an extra protein boost.

Toxic And Deadly Food: What To Not Feed To Your Chickens

Chickens may seem like tough foragers with guts of steel, but they’re more vulnerable to food-related issues than their owners often assume.

toxic-foods for chickens revised

Chocolate

Chocolate is toxic to chickens due to the compound theobromine (8). Most people wouldn’t try to feed chocolate to chickens, and they probably might not eat chocolate, but children may want to share a special treat with their chicken friends.

Avocado Skin and Pit

Another food no-no is avocado. The fruit’s seed and skin contain persin, a highly toxic fat-soluble compound. After 15-30 minutes of indigestion, adverse effects like breathing difficulties can kick in (9).

Onions

Onions aren’t toxic to chickens, but the strong flavor affects the flavor of chicken eggs and can create an unpleasant result.

Junk Food

Don’t be tempted to feed chickens junk food. You may have seen others do it, but it isn’t designed for their system to digest and can make them very ill as well. 

Citrus

Citrus fruit is not a chicken’s favorite usually, and they may not eat it.

Dried Beans

Dried beans contain phytohaemagglutinin, which is highly toxic and kills poultry very quickly. Keep all dried beans and bean plants away from chickens. (10)

Apple Seeds

Apple seeds contain the potent poison called cyanide. Just like an unripe tomato, avoid feeding apple seeds to chickens at all costs because it can kill (11). Learn more about why chickens shouldn’t eat apple seeds here:

Unripe Tomato

Unripe green tomato contains solan and chaconne. These toxins will kill chickens rather quickly, so be sure to keep tomato plants and loose unripe tomatoes away from where your chickens wander. 

Eggplant

Chickens shouldn’t eat eggplants because they are a nightshade family member and contain a toxin called solanine.

Green Potato

Green potatoes and raw potatoes have toxins called chaconne and solan in the peels and throughout the flesh and sprouts. But it doesn’t mean cooked green potato is safe. Chickens can have thoroughly cooked white potatoes that are mashed; however, if any part of the potato is green, cooking won’t alter the toxic effects.

The Bottom Line – What To Feed Chickens?

Chickens eat almost everything that you hand them, but it doesn’t mean you should. Always feed your chickens with nutritious treats and feeds if you want your flock to stay healthy and alive. 

Avoid toxic and deadly food at all costs, even if one of your hens is alive and kicking after accidentally eating chocolates – you don’t want to take any chances!

Let us know in the comments section what type of feed and yummy treat your chickens love. Also, make sure to share this article with other backyard keepers so they, too, can keep their flock happy and healthy! 

FAQs

You should feed young chickens mash because it is much more refined and easier to digest. Although they can start to eat crumble or pellets after a few months, you may still want to supplement with mash and make sure they have the right size grit to help them digest any pellet food or other scraps you provide to them regularly. Having mixed grit available for younger chickens is generally a best practice.

You should feed older chickens pellets and mash. Having the right size grit is also essential. It may be less of an issue if the chickens have been free-range their whole lives. Be sure to avoid feeding them any junk food or any of the toxic food mentioned previously in the article. 

Yes, moldy food is dangerous for your chicken. Be sure to keep all pellets and other food in plastic, sealable containers appropriately labeled and dated. Try to store the food in a climate-controlled area to prevent mold growth and always clean out the containers with a scrub brush and mild soapy water to kill any mold spores adhering to the side of the container. This process prevents cross-contamination from other batches of feed.

Make a note of how long you store food for chickens because mold may not always be visible.

  1. Chicken Nutrition. Retrieved from: https://www.bhwt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/VETN_2016_7_5_273_277.pdf
  2. Shell Grit As A Source Of Calcium. Retrieved from: https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2008.725
  3. The Effect Of Dietary Calcium Source. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17364543/
  4. Nutritional Requirements Of Poultry. Retrieved from: https://www.msdvetmanual.com/poultry/nutrition-and-management-poultry/nutritional-requirements-of-poultry
  5. Fermented Feed For Laying Hens. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19373724/
  6. Feeding Whole Grains To Poultry Improves Gut Heath. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/289212513_Feeding_whole_grains_to_poultry_improves_gut_health
  7. The Cardiovascular Effects Of Flaxseed And Its Omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989356/
  8. Theobromine as undesirable substances in animal feed. Retrieved from: https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2008.725
  9. Avocado Poisoning In Birds. Retrieved from: https://www.greensboroughvets.com.au/stories/interesting-animal-facts/339-avocado-poisoning-in-birds.html
  10. Phytohaemagglutinin. Retrieved from: https://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmcphc/Documents/nepmu-6/Epidemiology/FDA-Food-Borne-Pathogens/Natural-Toxins/Phytohaemagglutinin.pdf
  11. Cyanide Poisoning. Retrieved from: http://www.poultrydvm.com/condition/cyanide-poisoning
Chicken Feed

2 thoughts on “What Do Chickens Eat? A Guide On What To Feed Your Chickens”

  1. My 2 chickens are 10 yrs. old and still laying. They are free range but get lots of treats and layer feed, grit and some cracked corn. They love Chia seeds and sesame and millet. I’m going to give them sunflower seeds today and kale.Remember everything in moderation. Take care of your girls and they will take care of your egg supply!

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