The Dine a Chook Guide to Feeding Backyard Chickens
A balanced diet is essential for healthy, happy chickens. And if you keep chickens for the fresh eggs, you know that the quality and quantity of eggs is influenced by the diet of your layers. But what is the best diet for laying hens?
I cannot count the number of times a customer has complained to me that their hens are not laying well. While there are many possible explanations for why chickens aren't laying, diet can be a key contributor. Think about how much energy it takes to lay a healthy egg - a nutritional or dietary deficiency can have a huge impact!
At Dine a Chook, we are dedicated to reducing the work of keeping chooks for our customers everywhere. We have spent over 10 years working with backyard poultry keepers to keep their hens healthy, happy and laying well, and have kept chickens ourselves for much longer than that. We have consolidated everything we have learned into this handy guide.
The Dine a Chook Guide to Feeding Backyard Chickens is based on our customers' most Frequently Asked Questions and on the most common mistakes made by new chicken keepers. Please note that every flock is unique and not all advice is applicable to everyone, everywhere. If you would like information specific to you, or have a question that is not answered here, please feel free to get in touch!
What is the best diet for chickens?
Based on customer feedback, the most common diet for backyard chickens is some type of grain mix supplemented with lots of leftovers, kitchen scraps and garden waste. While this sounds like a "natural" diet for a chicken, it is NOT recommended for laying hens.
Layers need a high-protein diet for egg production. Not only are most commercially-available grain mixes low in protein, hens are constantly distracted from what should be their main source of energy and nutrition by a smorgasbord of treats in the form of kitchen and garden waste, which may be tasty but is unlikely to meet their dietary requirements.
That is not to say that chickens cannot have kitchen scraps and garden waste, nor that grain mixes (also known as a scratch mix) should be forbidden. However, for better health and egg production, it is generally recommended that chickens are fed a complete feed, in crumb or pellet form, supplemented by no more leftovers, kitchen scraps, garden waste or scratch mix than can be consumed in about 20 minutes.
Limiting garden waste and kitchen scraps will not only ensure that laying hens are getting the balanced nutrition that they require, it may also help to control rodents in the chicken coop by removing an easily available food source in the form of rotting scraps.
How do I choose a chicken feed for laying hens?
So many of our customers start out using a mixed-grain feed, as these are often the tastiest looking feed on the market. But there is a reason why it is usually also the cheapest option. “Scratch” mixes are aptly named – the attractive variety of grains encourages your chickens to “scratch” the feed around in order to consume only their favourite morsels. Not only does this lead to mess and waste, which will attract vermin to your chicken coop, it also means that your chickens are not getting the balanced diet that they need!
We recommend a complete feed as the best option for laying hens, in order to ensure they are receiving the ideal proportions of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and fibres. The best type of chicken feed is usually crumbed or pelleted, as the uniformity discourages selective feeding and should prevent waste. If you prefer a feed based on whole grains, choose a crushed product or a mash, rather than a scratch mix.
What is the best commercial chicken feed for laying hens?
Most commercial chicken feeds are designed to provide everything a bird needs. But of course starchy fillers are far cheaper than high protein seeds, so it is important to read the Analysis panel on the bag. When choosing a commercial chicken feed, look for a mash or pelleted feed that contains:
- 16-18 % protein
- At least 2.5 % calcium for egg-shell production
- A maximum of 10 % fibre
Ideally, unless you are providing a supplement, you also want your feed to be fortified with essential vitamins (especially A, E, D3 and B vitamins), minerals (including iron, iodine and zinc) and fatty acids.
Are kitchen scraps good for chickens?
Kitchen scraps are good for chickens IN MODERATION. But they definitely shouldn't form the majority of a bird's diet. Like anything else, too much of a good thing can have a negative effect. Leftovers may be tasty, but they are unlikely to have the balanced nutrients that your chickens need for good health and consistent egg production.
The main diet of laying hens should be a high-quality, completed feed. Kitchen scraps should be a treat - don't feed your chickens any more scraps than they can consume in 20 minutes, so that the majority of their daily diet comes from their nutritionally-balanced feed.
Is a scratch mix good for chickens?
Scratch mixes are usually not as nutritionally-balanced as other commercial chicken feeds. As the grains are highly visible, unlike in crumbed and pelleted feeds, which encourages selective feeding. Wouldn't you pick out your favourite bits first, like corn and sunflower seeds if you are a chook, if you could see them sitting there? Not only does selective feeding lead to a less balanced diet, it can also create additional waste and mess in the chicken coop that may attract rats and other pests.
We recommend using a crumbed or pelleted feed for laying hens. Use a scratch mix as a treat for your birds in order to encourage foraging (and scratching), rather than as their main source of feed. As with scraps, don't feed them more than they will eat in about 20 minutes.
Why aren’t my hens laying?
There are many reasons why a chicken may not be laying well – it may be broody, moulting, too old or too young. But often the underlying cause of poor laying is a nutritional deficiency. If your hens are not laying well, check the nutritional content of their diet to ensure that they are receiving enough protein and calcium.
If your chickens are eating a balanced diet, poor nutrition may be an issue of access; watch your flock to ensure that more dominant birds are not preventing the weaker ones from feeding. If they are, we recommend installing a second feeder in a different area so that all birds have equal access to feed.