Modern laying hens and the ‘complete’ chicken feed
Egg-producing chickens need a good diet to produce well and stay healthy. Constant laying takes a toll on their health if they do not have good nutrition. Although people have been keeping chickens on scraps and whatever the birds can forage for thousands of years, this isn’t a good diet for a modern chicken. We explain why.
A natural diet for chickens
Chickens are naturally foragers. Jungle fowl, the wild ancestors from which modern chickens are descended, are omnivores and opportunists. They will eat whatever is available, from green forage and seeds, through to insects and even meat.
The standard daily diet of a jungle fowl would include green forage, fruit and seeds. Insects would be the main source of protein, but if given the opportunity the birds will kill and eat small mammals and reptiles.
After domestication, for hundreds of years chickens were fed scraps and a little grain if available, with the majority of their diet being what they could forage.
Why modern laying hens need more protein
Modern laying hens need a balanced, high-protein diet. Although they look the same as the chickens that survived on foraging, scraps and a handful of grain in the farmyards of the Middle Ages, they are very different.
Over the last century, intensive breeding has resulted in modern chickens which are capable of producing an egg a day. The chickens we think of surviving on scraps and forage in the past didn't lay this intensively, and jungle fowl only average 15 eggs a year!
It is no wonder modern hens don’t thrive on a diet of free-ranging and scraps! They need far more protein to sustain such high levels of egg production and remain healthy! Even a small dietary deficiency can cause major problems. This is true of both modern hybrids, such as ISA Browns, and even more traditional heritage breed chickens that may not lay as intensively as the hybrids.
The best diet for laying hens
The best diet for laying hens is simple:
Unlimited access to a complete, pelleted layers feed with a minimum of 16 % protein plus shell grit
The addition of scraps to your chickens' diet can actually dilute the protein, vitamins and minerals in the feed, and lead to deficiencies.
If you are going to feed your chickens scraps, you will need to add a protein supplement as well to ensure your chickens are getting everything they need to be healthy and productive.
Why choose a pellet feed?
You may be wondering why a pelleted feed is the best option for chickens.
Scratch mixes, which contain a bunch of different grains, definitely look more appealing. But their appearance actually causes a problem. They encourage your chickens to eat the things they like and ignore others. So even a scratch mix that is sold as a "complete" feed isn't complete once your chickens have picked through it.
Not only do scratch mixes cause more waste, as chickens won't eat what they don't like, over time they can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health issues for your chooks, not to mention lower egg production!
Because pellet feeds are homogenous, your chickens don't have a choice about which parts they eat. This leads to better health, nutrition and egg production.
If you want to give your chickens something more appealing, add forage, Mealworms or other scraps (the healthy way). But don't replace their feed with a scratch mix!
Feed your chickens scraps the healthy way
There is a way to make scraps work in the diet of a modern layer - supplement them with protein.
Dried Mealworms and Black Soldier Fly Larvae are two great protein-rich, insect-based supplements. When combined with scraps, they stop the scraps from having a negative impact on diet by boosting protein and providing extra vitamins and minerals.
As with all treats, scraps should be fed in moderation. Feed no more than you birds can eat in 10-20 minutes, use a dish and dispose of any uneaten scraps. See our blog post on the Dos and Don'ts of Feeding Scraps to Chickens.
Do you want to know more about chicken nutrition?
Check out these other blog posts:
- The Dos and Don'ts of Feeding Scraps to Chickens
- The Best Diet for Laying Hens
- Do My Chickens Need a Vitamin and Mineral Supplement?
- What Not to Feed to Chickens
- The Best Forage Greens to Plant for Chickens
All of our chicken keeping advice is based on our years of experience keeping chickens and helping out backyard chicken keepers, as well as extensive research. If there is something you'd like to know, Contact Us.
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael - Dine a Chook Australia