Chicken keepers love their birds and are generally concerned about the health of their flocks. That said, they are also concerned about the costs associated with feeding flocks of layers. Many people over the years have talked to me about the cost of feed and the equated cost of the eggs they eat.
Such discussions get more pointed when eggs are on sale at the grocery store for less than $1 per dozen. In practice, I rarely see experimentation or study on feeding flocks or seeking efficiencies in the operation and economics of owning chickens. Instead, I usually see people searching for a cheaper feed source. While I believe we can mitigate the costs of feed, the real savings are in efficiencies we can employ in the feeding process.
Chickens are omnivores and, as such, eat just about anything. Their digestive systems are very simple and allow for the consumption of many food types. As chicken keepers, it’s important to take advantage of the wide range of food items and sources at our discretion when feeding them. While most of your chickens’ diet is feed ration that you provide, recognize the many options available.
Depending on the time of year, many low cost or even free food sources are available beyond kitchen scraps and the gardening leftovers your chickens love. While there is great value in letting your chickens graze on fresh pasture in the spring, many people don’t have the acreage to do so.
“The amount of complete feed consumed may be reduced by supplementing with pasture or lawn clippings,” states the Suburban Rancher bulletin on feeding chickens by the Cooperative Extension University of California Division of Agriculture Sciences. “Young, tender plants provide valuable nutrients for chickens, but old fibrous plants are not well digested and are of little value.”
That said, make sure these are fresh clippings not from areas sprayed with pesticides.
In the summer, many growers need to get rid of extra squash and zucchini. These can be great sources of nutrition for your flock while stretching your purchased feed. Summer also provides a special treat for chickens in the form of watermelon and cantaloupe rinds.
In the fall, many people need to discard withering pumpkins and gourds that were used as decorations in October. Chickens love the soft insides of pumpkins. Just slice the pumpkin like a loaf of bread so chickens can get to the insides in a ring form.
All these supplements are great for chicken health as well as our feed budgets. That said, supplements should make up no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of chickens’ diet. The main feed—grain—makes up the largest percentage. As such, it requires our greatest attention.
To Feed or Not to Feed
You can safely feed these supplemental foods to your chickens in moderation:
- cooked meat, bite-size
- corn on the cob
- melon rinds
- pumpkins and other gourds
Don’ t feed these food items to your flock, as they can be potentially hazardous to poultry.
- greasy foods
- processed foods
- raw meat
- raw potato peels
- spoiled/rotten food
In Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (2010), author and chicken-keeper Gail Damerow writes that “a layer eats about 4 pounds of ration for every dozen eggs she lays, which works out to between 4 and 41⁄2 ounces of feed per hen per day, or just less than 2 pounds per hen per week.”
Starting with an estimated amount of feed per chicken per day lets you be much more efficient in feeding. Know the exact amount you should dispense at each feeding. Many dollars are wasted every day dispensing rations without regard for the amount that’s truly needed.
As you take the number of chickens and multiply it by 4 ounces, you get the amount that you should feed each day. To avoid weighing the feed each time, weigh the appropriate amount one time and mark the container in which you dispense the food.
This brings us to continuous feeders. Continuous feeders are handy for time management, but they are the least efficient way to feed. The use of a trough-style feeder is the most efficient tool to use in feeding your flock. The trough lets you feed exactly the amount your chickens need and lets you keep their feed fresh and cleaned up. Here are a few key issues when using a trough-style feeder.
- Each bird should have around 4 inches of space at the trough to eat. This might require constructing multiple trough-style feeders if you have a large flock.
- Never fill your trough feeder more than one-third full. According to Damerow, chickens will waste nearly 30 percent of the feed in a full trough, while wasting only 10 percent of one that’s two-thirds full, and only about 1 percent of a trough that’s one-third full. In my experience, if you can hear the birds sneezing because they have buried their beaks past their nostrils, then you have the feed too deep. You save money by having a greater number of troughs with less feed in each one. You can also provide some moisture to your grain.
- Make sure your trough isn’t open to roosting on the sides and doesn’t let chickens stand inside it. These situations can contaminate the feed and require greater work for cleaning. Use a trough-feeder design that keeps chickens from roosting on or entering it.
- Don’t combine fresh feed in a trough with old feed. Trough feeders collect moisture and create packed spots where feed is continually dumped without regard for the old feed.
- Store feed in a dry, rodent-free area. A clean metal or plastic garbage can works well. Use all the feed in the container before adding more; prolonged storage can cause rancidity and destroy vitamins and minerals. It’s far easier to have two cans. This lets you finish all the grain in one can while having fresh grain in the second.
When efficiently providing a specific amount of ration, feeding chickens more than once a day gives them the optimum daily nutrition. Fill their crop multiple times a day to best aid in the creation of the egg.
The egg-development cycles lasts about 25 hours, with about 20 hours dedicated to the formation of the shell and the bloom. As you disperse your feed to your flock throughout the day, you force them to clean up the food allowance each time they are fed.
Pioneering poultry scientist Gustave F. Heuser of Cornell University found this to be the case, too. In his classic guide to poultry nutrition, Feeding Poultry (second edition, 2003), he cites several studies that speak to feeding chickens twice a day for good results. The best results were shown when the chickens were fed half their ration in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.
Finally, for efficient feed utilization, provide your chickens with adequate, clean, fresh water. Chickens drink a little bit of water multiple times a day to keep their systems hydrated. Their bodies are about 50 percent water, and eggs contain nearly 65 percent water. Clearly, the most important ingredient in your chicken’s diet is water.
If your hens don’t get enough water, they don’t lay well. It doesn’t matter how much you feed them. If you want an efficient feeding regimen, provide a continual source of water.
Each of us raises chickens for reasons dear to us. There is no established blueprint for the feeding of chickens in the most efficient manner. However, approaching the subject of feed for your chickens armed with the right kind of feeder and dispensing feed according to prescribed amounts will keep your birds happy and healthy while minimizing your feed costs.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.