A regular question that we get from new chicken keepers is “How much food do chickens need?”
The simple answer is that your chickens should have unlimited access to a high-quality complete feed.
How much do chickens eat?
Most chickens will eat about 120 g of complete feed per day. If their food is less nutritious, for example a grain mix or table scraps, they will often eat more because they are trying to get enough of the essentials that their diet is lacking.
Because a complete feed contains exactly the right amount of protein, energy and other nutrients, chickens can regulate their own intake and eat the right amount for them.
The exact amount your chickens eat will vary depending on age and breed, and whether they are laying or moulting. How much your chickens forage and what else they might be eating, such as scraps or treats, also influences how much feed they consume. Even the weather will influence how much chickens eat!
How do chickens know how much to eat?
Like many animals, most chickens know how much food is good for them. If they have unlimited access to a complete feed in pellet or mash form, your chickens will eat exactly what they need to thrive.
But like people, chickens are programmed to preference high-energy foods when they are available. This would have helped them survive in the wild, where they had to forage for their food.
In the modern chicken coop, high-energy foods are often low in protein or high in fat; examples include bread and grains as well as most cooked or processed foods. That's why chickens that eat a lot of scraps can have poor nutrition or become obese: they fill up on high-energy foods and neglect their feed.
Grain mix feeds pose a similar problem as chickens choose to fill up on their favourite ingredients, which are usually fatty sunflower seeds or carbohydrate-rich corn kernels.
A chicken that eats too much and becomes unhealthy on a high-quality pellet diet is extremely rare.
How much food to give your chickens
Giving your chickens unlimited access to their feed is the best choice for most flocks. This allows for differences in feed consumption from the average 120 grams per bird per day.
In order to prevent your birds from gorging on less healthy food and neglecting their feed, you should never give your birds more scraps than they can eat in 20 minutes or so. You should also avoid high-energy, high-fat scraps and treats for the most part.
If you were going to supplement your feed with grains or pulses, considering the protein and carbohydrate content of the feed addition would allow you to calculate exactly how much of it is good for your chickens.
It is a common misconception that chickens can live on scraps and foraging, supplemented with a little grain. While this may have been true of barnyard chickens in the past, modern chicken breeds need a more complete and balanced diet.
Saving money on chicken feed
Trying to save money by decreasing chicken feed consumption is usually counter-productive. There are many online forums and blogs that recommend a range of ways to decrease chicken feed consumption, but you do so at the expense of the health and productivity of your birds.
The most common way to "decrease" feed consumption is by replacing some of it with other foods. Common suggestions include oatmeal, grains such as cracked corn, bread, pasta and high-protein items such as cat food or tinned tuna. None of these foods are truly healthy for chickens, so your birds are likely to consume more of the supplement than they would if just given feed. Most are also more expensive than chicken feed, per gram and on the basis of equivalent nutrition. Plus they can cause a range of health issues.
Another suggestion is to limit access to feed to a few times a day. But this causes problems too - you can read about them here.
Free-ranging allows your birds to supplement their diet naturally and in a healthy way, but they should still be given free access to feed.
A better way to save money on chicken feed is to use a waste-reducing feeder, so no feed is spilled and wasted. You should also ensure feed is protected from rodents and pest birds, especially at night. And you should choose a pellet or mash, so your chickens aren't selectively feeding.
Do chickens with unlimited feed eat more?
In reality, limiting the amount of feed that you give your chickens is unlikely to make them eat less.
Unless you feed each bird individually, dominant birds will eat the same amount and only birds that are lower in the pecking order will eat less. This impacts the health and productivity of lower-ranking birds.
Some people believe limiting the amount of feed makes chickens forage more. But forage doesn't have the same nutritional value as feed. And more dominant birds will still eat more.
5 reasons why chickens need unlimited access to a complete feed
- Chickens confined to any sort of run or yard do not have access to enough fresh forage each day. This is particularly true of protein, as even a large area is quickly depleted of insects if it is foraged on a daily basis.
- Most chickens forage in a domesticated environment - either a backyard or maybe a on a farm. There are fewer fruiting plants and insects available than in a wild environment, meaning less protein and fewer calories.
- Chicken keepers in Australia today do not usually cull their chickens. This means birds live longer and in order to remain productive in old age (which is anything over 2 years for an ISA Brown, for example), birds need to have optimum nutrition.
- Chickens today are highly productive, with many breeds laying 300+ eggs a year at their most productive. This level of production requires ideal nutrition.
- Chickens are better foragers when raised by a mother hen who can teach them where and how to look for food. So few chickens have that sort of education, making it harder for them to survive on a limited diet.
The ideal diet for laying hens
Ultimately, if you keep chickens for eggs and want them to lay most days of the year, you need to supply them with optimum nutrition and that requires a complete, balanced diet. It is not enough to rely on what they can forage supplemented by a few “extras” or a little feed. This is especially the case when you consider that chickens can live for over 5 years and you would like them to be productive over that time!
For optimum health and egg production, chickens should be given free access to a complete layer feed.
Allow your chickens to forage freely but know that they will generally get most of their nutrition from their feed. Foraging is important for their well-being and greens especially are a very healthy addition to their diet.
Limit scraps and other dietary additions.
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia