April 2016
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How I Feed Chickens Has Evolved

When we first got baby chicks, I was a novice and had so much to learn. Over the course of the 3 years since, I’ve learned a lot about the care and feeding of the flock. In this post, I’ll describe the evolution of how we feed the chickens.

Types of Feed

When I started, I knew nothing so I learned from what I read in books and on the internet. The first challenge was what to feed the baby chicks. As happens with so many new ventures, I got conflicting advice. Some said it was critical to feed them only chick starter feed. Others said it was fine to feed them layer feed but to make sure it was finely ground. I played it safe and use the chick starter for the first few weeks.

Then it was time to move them up to grower feed. Again, there was conflicting advice. Some people get very scientific about how much protein is in the feed during the pre-laying phase. At the local feed store, I found different feeds for growing hens and laying hens. At first, I tried the grower feed they sold. I also tried feed in the form of crumbles and pellets. Our hens did not like the pellets, and they didn’t exactly get excited about the crumbles. Not being too excited myself about the feed I was finding, I went searching for something better.

I tried organic feed from the local feed store. That didn’t go well. Quite often they didn’t have any in stock. One time when I went there, they had some but they wouldn’t sell it to me because “it had bugs in it.” I thought that was odd because don’t chickens love bugs? They should be charging extra for that – like sprinkles on ice cream. But I kept looking for another source.

I got lucky and found a source in downtown Atlanta. It’s a pet store that focuses on the environment and sustainability. They carried Countryside Organics layer-grower feed. The price was quite a bit higher than non-organic feed but actually less than the organic feed from my local feed store. The Countryside feed is non-GMO, non-soy feed, which was important to us. The first thing I noticed was that it was full of seeds which the chickens like. We’ve had them on that same feed ever since I found it.

I always thought it was interesting that one store sells two different types of feed for growing and laying hens, while the organic feed we use now is the same feed for both. I seriously doubt that free range chickens can find the perfect protein percentage in nature, but they are quite happy foraging for weeds, seeds, and bugs. Sometime things can be too scientific.

How Much to Feed Them?

When I first started, I fed the chickens all they could eat. And they wasted a lot of it. It seemed like half the feed would end up working its way through the fence around their run and piled up outside. I’ve always heard that chickens waste a lot of feed, and this was expensive feed.

After a few months, I did the math and realized how much we were spending on feed. Some research resulted in a conclusion that I needed to start measuring their feed. Rationing was necessary to keep the cost down. I found recommendations ranging from 3/8 to ¼ pound of feed per bird per day. I started at 3/8 of a pound and worked my way down to ¼, keeping track of their egg laying results during the process. I didn’t see any drop off in production when I lowered their ration to ¼ pound, so I have stuck with that ever since.

To measure the feed, I got an electronic hanging scale for about $10 on Amazon. I hang a bucket from the scale and zero it, then measure it out. To avoid having to measure feed every day, I make a week’s worth in buckets every weekend and stack them up. Since they aren’t very full, the whole stack isn’t very big. If we had a really large flock, I would probably be doing this full time and wouldn’t mind measuring it every morning. One lid on the top bucket keeps flying bugs out of the feed.

Supplements to Commercial Feed

All the wasted food bothered me until one day I noticed the old feed was teaming with black soldier fly larvae. I scooped that up with a shovel and tossed it back in to the run, and the chickens went crazy. That led me to more research and subsequently building a black soldier fly larvae composting bin. Ever since then, I throw food scraps and coffee grounds in the bin during the summer, and give the larvae to the chickens. Black soldier flies just seem to show up in the hot part of the summer. The larvae are high in protein and fat, which makes them a great food source for the chickens. The chickens go after them like dollar bills dropped from a helicopter.

Experts say it is bad for hens to have too much calcium before they start laying. That’s why some grower feeds don’t have added calcium, but layer feeds do. Even with the added calcium, laying hens need access to supplemental calcium. The easiest way to get this is crushed oyster shells, which we get from Tractor Supply. We also dry their egg shells and crush them up. We just keep egg shells in a container in the kitchen until the oven is being used for something else already. Then when the oven is cooling down, we spread the shells on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven as it cools. The crushed up shells are mixed in a bucket with the oyster shells. I made a PVC feeder in their coop to dispense the shells. I only have to fill it every few weeks.

Another supplement to their feed is sprouted black oil sunflower seeds. I use a five-bucket rotation during the warmer months. I don’t bother during the winter because they won’t sprout. The buckets have holes drilled in the bottom to allow the water to drain through. Every morning the oldest bucket is given to the chickens, then a bucket of seeds that has been soaking overnight is dumped into it and moved to the back of the line. The other four buckets are rinsed with water to keep the seeds damp. Sprouts are healthy foods for humans, and chickens too.

The chickens get grass clippings during the spring and summer. They get food and we get processed compost. You can read all about the operation in this post: Composting with Chickens. The chickens especially like the clipping when they’re full of weed seeds. So now when I see weeds in the yard, I see opportunity. We also give them some of our kitchen scraps in the compost area. The rest go to the black soldier fly larvae bin.

Chicken Composting

Chicken Composting

I gave the chickens access to our garden beginning last year. They did a great job cleaning up the growth after the summer gardening season. Since then I have moved our annual garden to some new beds in another area and also in the swales. This year I’ve sowed seeds in the garden specifically for the chickens. Once everything starts to take off, I’ll let the chickens in there but only with supervision. We still haven’t forgotten about the tragedy we experienced when hawks killed five of our hens in the garden.

Chickens Cleaning Up Garden Beds

Chickens Cleaning Up Garden Beds

Sometimes I give them random treats from our property. We have a lot of wild blackberries on our property. When those ripen in July, I pick some and give to the chickens as a treat. They love berries and will eat as many as I can pick. A grasshopper or a cricket is a crown favorite. Or even just a handful of tasty weeds.

Don’t Over Think It!

Feeding chickens is not an exact science, regardless of what you read. The more diverse the food sources they have access to, the better. Try some of things I’ve mentioned here. Do your homework, then experiment. The chickens will let you know what they like and what they don’t.

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