Everything you need to know about scratch mix for chickens
Like most chicken questions, there are many different opinions about whether scratch mix is good for chickens. It doesn’t help that the answer is complicated.
Yes, scratch mix is good for chickens sometimes in some circumstances. But scratch mix is not good for chickens as their main source of food.
Any source that tells you to feed your chickens a scratch mix as their main source of food is just plain wrong. Even a “complete” scratch mix isn’t a healthy chicken feed and can cause your chickens to develop deficiencies and health issues.
What is chicken scratch?
Chicken scratch or scratch mix is a type of chicken feed consisting of a mixture of whole grains, seeds and legumes.
Scratch mix has many different names. It is also called scratch grains, chicken scratch, grain mix and just plain scratch.
Scratch mix usually looks a bit like bird seed or muesli. Sometimes a scratch mix is "crushed", so the grains have been broken into smaller pieces but the different ingredients are still visible.
There are many different types of scratch mix available for chickens. Some are labelled as “complete feeds” and may also contain layer pellets, and vitamin and mineral supplements.
Scratch mix as chicken feed – Why is scratch mix bad for chickens?
Scratch mix, even a “complete” scratch mix, should never be used as a chicken’s main source of feed.
In the past, chickens may have survived on grains thrown out by the farmer. But those chickens produced far fewer eggs than a modern laying hen and didn’t live as long either!
Chickens should never be fed a scratch mix as their main feed for many reasons, but the most important reason is that scratch mix encourages selective eating.
Because chickens can see all of the different grains and ingredients, they will automatically eat their favourite things first. But the seeds and grains that taste best aren’t necessarily the healthiest. In fact, chickens are a little like kids: they will eat all of the ice cream before they eat any veggies!
Chickens eating mainly scratch mix usually have a protein deficiency, which decreases egg production, because their favourite ingredients, like corn and sunflower seeds, are low in protein.
Chickens eating scratch mix can also become overweight, which also decreases egg production and causes health issues, because their favourite ingredients tend to be high in fat, like sunflower seeds, or in carbs, like corn.
Chickens whose main feed is scratch mix almost always have vitamin and mineral deficiencies too. Normal scratch mixes aren’t nutritionally balanced for chickens. In “complete” scratch mixes, vitamin and mineral supplements are added as powders or pellets. The powders usually sink to the bottom of the mix and are wasted. Layer pellets tend to have added protein as well, but usually aren’t a favourite ingredient so are mostly wasted while chickens fill up on less nutritious feed ingredients.
Other reasons why scratch mix isn’t a good choice of chicken feed are:
- It encourages chickens to scratch around, looking for their favourite parts, leading to spillage and waste
- Feed spilled on the ground can become contaminated with faeces and spread disease
- Spilled feed is a main attractant for rats and mice, and requires daily cleaning
- Because you cannot control what mixture of ingredients your chickens consume, they will never get a properly balanced diet
- Modern chicken breeds have been specifically developed to thrive on a complete feed, not chicken scratch
- Chickens living on scratch produce fewer eggs and have more health issues
With all of the problems, it is amazing that feed stores will often recommend scratch mix to new chicken keepers. The problem is that people buy scratch grain because it is cheap, so store employees think it is a best seller. They don't have any idea how bad scratch mix is for chickens!
When is scratch mix good for chickens?
Although scratch mix absolutely should not be used as a chicken feed, that doesn’t mean it’s actually bad for chickens.
Scratch mix is a great treat for chickens and can actually have health benefits if it is fed as such.
Studies suggest that feeding chickens some scratch mix, along with a complete feed, can improve digestive health and feed conversion. However, these studies are primarily of young broiler chickens, not egg layers. Also, in the studies the whole grain was “removed” from a complete feed, so the chickens' diet was still carefully balanced.
How to use scratch mix as a treat for chickens
Keep your chickens healthy by using scratch mix as a treat. Just remember these tips:
- Treats should be no more than 10 % of your chickens' diet
- Feed treats later in the day, after your chickens have already eaten plenty of feed
- Give no more treats than your chickens will consume in 20 minutes
- Always clean up any leftover feed
Although we don't normally recommend feeding chickens on the ground because contaminated feed is a common cause of disease, scratch mix is great for throwing into a grassy run to encourage natural foraging behaviour.
Scratch mix is also recommended as an afternoon treat to help fill your chickens' crops overnight.
Can I make my own scratch mix for chickens?
If you use scratch mix as an occasional treat, there is no harm making your own scratch mix for your chickens from scratch!
There are plenty of scratch mix recipes available online, or your can just throw some ingredients together. Just remember to use feed-grade whole grains. You won't get the same benefits if you use crushed grains!
However, we never recommend making your own chicken feed if it is your birds' main source of nutrition. This is because you need to carefully balance feed components to ensure your chickens are getting everything they need to thrive. Even feed recipes from popular chicken keeping websites can have a negative impact on your chickens' health!
You can learn about the nutritional value of different chicken feed components here.
The ultimate verdict: Should you feed your chickens scratch mix?
We think scratch mix is a great treat for chickens. Give them a handful or two in the afternoon, even use it to get them to come into their coop to roost.
But never use scratch mix as your chickens’ main feed.
Happy Chicken Keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia