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.
Most chickens will eat about 120 g of complete feed per day. 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.
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.
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