Updated September 13, 2021
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 back up 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:
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 exploitationExploitation is characterized by the abuse of a position of physical, psychological, emotional, social, or economic vulnerability to obtain agreement from someone (e.g., humans and nonhuman animals) or something (e.g, land and water) that is unable to reasonably refuse an offer or demand. It is also characterized by excessive self gain at the expense of something or someone else’s labor, well-being, and/or existence. 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 Non-Large Breed 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, some sanctuaries cook and feed back the hens’ eggs, shell and all. You can read more about what to consider when deciding whether or not to feed residents’ eggs back to them here.
If you are feeding non-large breed 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.
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 foods that contain potential toxins or substances chickens cannot digest or tolerate. You can find our list of potentially toxic foods here.
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
- FlaxseedWhen using flaxseed as an animal supplement, it should be ground, not served whole. Consider using a clean coffee grinder and grinding the seed right before feeding for greatest effectiveness! 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!
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