Updated June 29, 2020
If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special chicken residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of chickens at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided. While chickens are all individuals who have their own preferences and needs, there are some general principles to consider in their physiology and nutritional needs!
When it comes to feeding chickens, you may be overwhelmed initially by the number of choices and amount of information out there. By first understanding what chickens’ essential needs are, you can make informed decisions about how to feed and supplement the flock and have the knowledge to backup your choices.
What Does A Chicken Need?
Like every animal, chickens have their own specific nutritional needs that must be met. In order to help them be happy and healthy birds, chickens require the following:
For chickens, a good protein source is essential for their muscles and overall growth. This is doubly true for hens who lay eggs: to them, a single egg laid is the nutritional drain equivalent of a human giving birth to a baby every single day! This protein loss must be made up in their diets (or can be potentially mitigated through implantation). You can mix soybeans in a dish daily for hens to provide additional protein, and also allow the hens to consume their own eggs. If they have access outdoors, chickens also enjoy eating insects and worms, which provides both a protein boost and entertainment for them.
Grains include any small, hard grass family seeds like oats, corn, or wheat. They provide Vitamin B, Vitamin E, phosphorus, and a good protein boost if you give them whole grains. If you scatter a whole grain chicken scratch across the yard, chickens get a dual benefit of food and some hunting and pecking fun! Whole grain scratch is much better than an only cracked corn scratch. However, scratch grains should only make up around 10% of a chicken’s total diet as they are not nutritionally complete sources of food. It’s critical to know that grains must not be allowed to get wet and moldy. This can be fatal to chickens.
Among many benefits, fresh greens provide Vitamin E, important for a chicken’s immune system, along with Riboflavin, Vitamin A, and Calcium. If you have a yard, greens are very simple to provide for chickens. Let them out onto your grass and they’ll get some of these benefits, but do not allow chickens onto your yard if it’s treated with pesticides! You can also feed chickens healthy greens and some green scraps, but avoid known poisonous greens (see “Things that are toxic to chickens”, below).
Not to be confused with the diner classic, insoluble grit refers to small hard rocks and pebbles that a chicken will swallow as an aid to digest food in their gizzard since they lack teeth. If birds are free range, they’ll take care of their grit needs on their own. If in confinement, you’ll have to provide them with hard grit at least once a month. Make sure that this grit is the appropriate size for the bird in your care; a chick can’t handle anything much bigger than sand! You can also leave a bucket of grit out for chickens to access freely as they desire. If chickens lack grit, they can develop digestive issues such as an impacted crop. However, large breed chickens may need to have their grit carefully rationed as some have been known to eat all the grit given to them in one sitting.
‘If a bird is eating a lot of greens or formulated food, they’ll get plenty of both vitamin A and calcium. However, you should monitor hens’ eggshells. A soft shell means they could be calcium deficient and may require supplementation to protect them from reproductive illness and osteoporosis (though there are other things that could cause soft-shelled eggs, so you should always get your veterinarian’s opinion first). Laying hens require up to three times as much calcium as non-laying hens, so it’s important to have extra calcium sources on the ready, including natural sources like black oil sunflower seeds.
Vitamin D is typically produced in a chicken’s body through exposure to sunlight (just like in people!). If you live in an area with long stretches of dark or cloudy weather such as the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to provide chickens with extra supplementation of Vitamin D, especially in Vitamin D3 form. A Vitamin D deficiency in chickens can lead to weak bones and shells. Kelp is a popular natural source of Vitamin D for chickens.
‘This should be a no-brainer, but chickens need fresh water every day! Make sure to keep the water in or near their coop so it’s always easily available and ensure that it’s clean, because (probably like yourself), they won’t drink dirty water. Consider investing in a poultry fountain if you want to prevent water waste and maximize cleanliness. In the winter, you have to make sure their water supply doesn’t freeze! Use a barn-safe water heater if necessary.
Types Of Food
There are multiple types of commercial food marketed for chickens of different stages of life and different breeds, and many of them provide complete nutrition for chickens without any antibiotics, hormones, or animal byproducts. Sadly, some foods are designed specifically with exploitation in mind, such as “broiler” food (often called “meatbird”) which is formulated to encourage rapid growth and weight gain and should never be used in a sanctuary setting. Complete diet foods typically come in pellet, crumble, or mash form and are preferable to mixed grains as they prevent chickens from picking and choosing (and missing out on essential nutrients). Many sanctuaries choose between “layer” food and “maintenance” food depending on the needs of the individuals in their care.
Feeding “Layer” Chickens
Chickens bred for egg production or “ornamental” hens who are actively laying should be eating “layer” food, because the food is specially formulated to make up for the high nutritional deficit created by egg laying. There are many high quality complete diet “layer” foods on the market, including organic varieties. One popular brand among sanctuaries is Layena. For additional calcium, consider hard boiling their eggs, mashing them into small pieces, and feeding them back to actively laying hens. Be sure to mash the eggs so that the shell is in small pieces, or they may eat around it, and this is where the calcium is!
If you are feeding “layer” chickens who are no longer laying due to age or who have been implanted, you may need to adjust their nutrition in terms of overall calorie or protein ratios. Roosters also do not typically need the extra protein and calcium that “layer” food provides. Some recommended options for non-large breed chickens who are not laying include Roudybush Low Fat Maintenance, Purina Game Bird Maintenance Chow, or an “All Flock” food. Roudybush is a high quality food, but is expensive, so may not be an option for everyone. If choosing an “All Flock” food, be aware that different brands have very different formulations, with some containing very high protein amounts. Always be sure to look at nutritional analysis before deciding on a food.
Non-large breed chickens should be fed free choice, meaning they can have access to unrestricted amounts of food for most of the day. In addition to their primary food, scratch can be served as a treat or motivator for chickens, but should comprise no more than 10% of their diet as it is not nutritionally complete. A scratch grain-only diet may result in nutritional deficiencies. Consider also offering supplemental fresh produce such as daily greens and the occasional treat.
Feeding Large Breed Chickens
As a special note, if you are caring for large breed chickens, it’s very important that you closely monitor the amount of food you’re providing for them as they have been selectively bred to grow very rapidly to the detriment of their health. You should plan on weighing a large breed chicken each month and monitoring their overall body condition to ensure that they maintain a healthy weight. A mature male large breed chicken will typically weigh about 10-18 pounds, and a mature female large breed chicken will typically weigh about 8-12 pounds, though some may be naturally bigger or smaller. Because each individual will have their own healthy weight range, paying attention to body condition is very helpful. A healthy large breed chicken will have significant muscle mass on either side of their keel bone. The keel will not be prominent and may be slightly recessed in relation to the breast muscle.
Large breed chickens must not be fed “free choice” as they will eat everything in sight. As a result, you may need to keep them in a separate living space from other breeds of chicken who are on a free choice diet. Large breed chickens are highly prone to arthritis, obesity, gout, and heart attacks. Be sure to monitor their health and weight closely as little is known about what they require nutritionally for long term care. You may need to modify their food amounts throughout the year, such as in the springtime when they might have more vegetation and bugs to eat in their outdoor space. Large breed chickens should receive pellets twice daily and can also receive supplemental greens. A good starting point is to offer roosters 1/3 cup of food and hens 1/4 cup of food per feeding along with a handful of greens. While you don’t want to overfeed them, feeding them too little is also dangerous for their health and nutrition, so try to find the ideal weight maintaining amount of food for each of the large breed birds in your care. Because of how quickly and enthusiastically they eat, large breed chickens have been known to inhale small particles of food. Therefore, it may be best to always soak their food if using a crumble or mash food and to avoid offering dry pellets if they appear to be powdery.
If the birds are laying, you can feed them a “layer” food (like Layena) in managed portions, or if not laying, they can be fed a low protein and low calcium food such as Purina Game Bird Maintenance or Roudybush Low Fat Maintenance. If you plan to change their food when seasonal egg production begins or ends, transition them slowly to the new food and closely watch them to ensure they do not suffer adverse health reactions from the new food formula.
Ensure that there are enough spaces with the feeders you use for every large breed bird to get their fair share of food. If anyone is being left out, you must provide more space so that nobody suffers from malnutrition or complications from overeating.
Large breed chickens have been known to eat free choice grit until they’ve completely filled up their crops, causing serious digestion issues. Carefully monitor their intake, and limit their grit to managed portions if the large breed birds seem a bit too fond of pebbles! Most recommendations about insoluble grit pertain to non-large breed chickens, and therefore recommend free choice access. In speaking to some experienced large breed chicken caretakers, it seems that if the birds have access to an outdoor space containing small pebbles, even for only limited periods of time, they will likely find enough natural grit to ensure proper digestion year round. If you feel your large breed chicken residents need supplemental insoluble grit, but have found you cannot offer it free-choice, you may want to discuss how to safely supplement with your veterinarian. Based on anecdotal information from the sanctuary community, we suspect you likely only need to supplement with a small amount, and can offer it rather infrequently.
Feeding Chicks And Young Chickens
If you’re rescuing chicks, it’s important to feed them a nutritionally appropriate “starter” food, which can come in crumbles or mash. Starter food typically comes in non-medicated and medicated, which helps prevent Coccidiosis.
“Layer” chicks should remain on free-choice starter food until they are 8-12 weeks or so (depending on how the chick is doing), when they can be switched onto “grower” food which contains less protein. This is important because all the extra protein in starter food can damage their teenage liver. Using grower food is recommended between 8 and at least 18 weeks of age because it contains the proper nutrients for a growing chicken without the extra supplementation that egg-laying chickens require to live. After 18-20 weeks (or if they start laying), it’s good to move onto layer food.
Free feeding large breed chicks can lead to crop issues and obesity, so it’s best to offer frequent small meals throughout the day, waiting for their crop to empty before offering more food. Be careful not to restrict their diet too much as they grow, because this can cause nutritional deficiencies and subsequent health issues. Unfortunately, not much is known about the nutritional needs of large breed chickens. You may choose to follow the same schedule as outlined above for “layer” breeds, or you may opt to skip the grower food all together and simply use chick starter followed by whatever diet you have chosen to feed the adult large breed chickens in your care.
Be aware, that whenever you change a bird’s diet, it is best to make the change gradually. This can be done by mixing in the new food so it is 25% of the diet for about a week, followed by a 50/50 split for a week, and then 75% new food to 25% old for another week before offering only the new food.
Suggestions For Food Storage
In addition to feeding a high quality food, you must be sure to store the food properly to ensure your residents reap all the nutritional benefits. Food will keep best if kept in a cool, dry, dark place. All food, including unopened bags, should be stored in tightly sealed metal cans or bins to prevent rodents from getting into food. You can contact the supplier to determine their food’s recommended shelf life, but in general properly stored bagged food will last about 3 months. Storing food too long or in undesirable conditions can not only lead to rancid or moldy food, but can also cause food to become depleted of vitamins and minerals. Be aware that you should never feed rancid or moldy food to chickens as it can make them very sick.
Things That Are Toxic To Chickens
There are a number of plants and human food that should absolutely not be fed to chickens, due to toxins and substances that chickens cannot digest or tolerate. Do not feed chickens the following:
- Avocado, any part- contains the toxin persin
- White potato, any part- contains the toxin solanine
- Green tomato, as well as tomato leaves- contains the toxin solanine
- Eggplant and pepper leaves- contains the toxin solanine
- Green potatoes- contains the toxin solanine
- Apple, apricot, cherry, peach, pear, plum SEEDS/PITS (fine if cored)- contains cyanide
- Rhubarb, any part- contains oxalic acid which can lead to soft-shelled eggs. Toxic leaf.
- Dried beans, raw, and bean plants (fine if sprouted)- contains phytohemagglutinin
- Raw peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans- may inhibit protein absorption
- Dry rice- can cause gut problems
- Onions, any part- contains the toxin thiosulphate
- Chocolate- contains the toxin theobromine
- Coffee or tea- contains caffeine which is dangerous to chickens
- Anything visibly moldy or rotten
- Processed human foods, especially greasy, salty, or sweet foods
- Anything sprayed with pesticides or herbicides
Additionally, you should limit feeding chickens the following things:
- Spinach- the oxalic acid interferes with calcium absorption
- Citrus- can interfere with calcium absorption
- Iceberg lettuce- can cause diarrhea in large amounts, has little nutritional value
- White rice, pasta, and bread- not very nutritious
Appropriate Treats For Chickens
It’s good practice to have the occasional treat for the flock. This keeps them happy and can also serve as a motivator if you need them to go to a specific area. Some good treats include:
- Fruit and vegetables (but avoid toxic, moldy, or rotten fruits and vegetables!)
- Oatmeal and other scratch grains like cracked corn in moderation
- Fresh tomato, cut lettuce and kale, cut apple, toast bits, certain seeds
- Warmed (but not hot) frozen corn
- Cabbage, kale, or lettuce heads hanging on a string as an entertaining treat
- Butternut squash and brown rice cooked and mashed together as a special treat
Natural Supplements For Chickens
You should always consult with a veterinarian or avian expert when deciding how to treat chicken health issues, as natural remedies rarely will work as the sole solution for many ailments, especially when it comes to pain or infections. However, there have been reported benefits from certain supplements added to a chicken’s diet. Here are some natural supplements that you can employ alongside medical treatment in order to help out the flock:
- Cinnamon and Epsom salts can help slow diarrhea
- Flaxseed and turmeric sprinkled on chopped grapes can help as an anti-inflammatory treatment and has been found to help shrink ovarian cancer tumors
- Chopped or powdered garlic can be fed to help eliminate worm infestations
- Aloe vera (3 tbsp in a gallon of water) can help treat coccidiosis
- Apple cider vinegar in water can help eliminate internal parasites
Should Chickens Take Probiotics?
The short answer is, “only if the chickens need them”. Probiotics are a dietary supplement that increase ‘good’ gut flora that help process food in the intestines. Good gut flora also combats dangerous bacteria before it can take hold across a body. It also can reduce Salmonella and E. coli presence in eggs. However, if you have a healthy adult chicken, there’s little reason to modify their gut flora with probiotics. If a chicken is on antibiotics to fight a gut infection, the good gut flora will likely be killed as well, so probiotics can be a good measure to keep them healthy. Once they’ve completed their antibiotic regimen, you can give them probiotics for a week or two. This can also stimulate a recovering chicken’s appetite, nutritional absorption, and immune response. There are a number of chicken probiotics on the market in many forms.
There are many considerations when it comes to the daily needs and desires of a chicken, but don’t get too stressed out over it! Stick with the basics at first and modify depending on what the birds in your care are looking for. They’ll let you know if changes have to be made!
Caring For Pet Chickens | For The Birds (Non-Compassionate Source)
Plants That Are Poisonous To Chickens | For Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)