So what do chickens eat? Most backyard chickens eat commercial chicken feed (e.g. layer pellets), at least as the base of their diet. Layer pellets provide all the key nutrients chickens need to stay healthy and lay eggs.
Feeding chickens this way is simple and convenient. It comes in a packet and you don't need to know anything about what chickens naturally eat or what their nutrient needs are.
It's sounds simple, but here's the problem.
Most people get into backyard chickens because they like the idea of free range chickens, pecking around contently in the yard eating grass and bugs. Chickens that are raised in a more natural way, with the freedom to eat, live and behave like a chicken.
Most people want free range chickens that forage on grass and bugs. But the reality is, free-ranging chickens is not easy.
But the reality is, free ranging chickens is not easy. Chickens can quickly take over your backyard and trash the place. Chickens love ripping up gardens, flicking mulch everywhere, pooping on everything and scratching up lawns.
On top of that, chickens are more vulnerable to predators when roaming around freely in the open.
Without free ranging, chickens are usually confined to a chicken run. And in the confined area of a chicken run, it doesn't take long for everything green to be stripped bare, leaving a bare dirt floor.
You might start to wonder if your backyard chickens are much better off than a factory farm
Without any grass or bugs for your chickens to forage on, all that's left for your chickens to eat is commercial chicken feed. At this point, you might start to wonder if your backyard chickens are much better off than a factory farm.
That's when people start looking for solutions, with questions like:
- What can chickens eat?
- What scraps and treats can you feed chickens?
- What not to feed chickens?
- What is toxic for chickens to eat?
Who is this guide to feeding chickens for?
This guide won't give you simple and generic answers about what to feed chickens. You can find thousands of articles like that on google and that's not what this is about.
Instead this guide goes beyond commercial feed, to help you really understand what chickens naturally eat. And it's not all theory. I'm sharing the systems and strategies for putting this into practice, so you have the confidence to feed your chickens a more natural diet.
Here's what is covered:
1. Commercial Chicken Feed (Standard Approach)
The standard approach to feeding backyard chickens is using commercial chicken feed. Commercial chicken feed is formulated to be a complete feed, that provides all the key nutrients chickens need to stay healthy and lay eggs. It comes in different forms: Mash, pellets and crumble. And there are different types of feed for chickens at different ages: Chicks, Pullets and Adults.
Grains such as wheat and corn are the main ingredient, making up around 60-70% of feed ingredients. Other key ingredients are a protein source ~20% (usually soybean meal and sometimes meat meal or fish meal), fats / oils, calcium and vitamin supplements (to ensure key nutrient needs are met).
Chicken feed is usually provided to chickens in a feeder, which is a container designed for chickens to eat from.
And the simplest way to feed your chickens is 'free choice', which means chickens are free to graze on feed all day.
The other important part of feeding chickens, is to provide a clean source of water, using a chicken waterer. A chicken waterer is a container that chickens can drink from.
2. The problem with commercial chicken feed - it's made for factory farms not backyards
Commercial chicken feed was originally developed for factory farms. It was then adopted for backyard chickens because of it's convenience.
The problem is, commercial feed is not well suited to chickens in a free range / backyard environment.
Here are the 3 main problems with commercial chicken feed:
1. Commercial chicken feed doesn't adjust to different and changing nutrient needs
As a complete feed, chickens are only able eat commercial feed based on their energy needs and can’t adjust their intake of specific nutrients when their nutrient needs change.
This makes sense in a factory farm environment where conditions are controlled and kept very consistent, which means nutrient needs are more consistent. But with Backyard Chickens, nutrient needs can vary significantly and change over time. While there is different chicken feed for different ages and different feed for layers and meat chickens, it doesn't accomodate all the other variables that can significantly change the nutrient needs of backyard chickens:
2. Commercial chicken feed is nutrient deficient
Commercial chicken feed is nutrient deficient relative to a natural diet. Pellets contain the right amount of calories and essential nutrients. But it contains none of the thousands of phytochemicals that chickens evolved to eat. And formulated feed doesn’t account for the complex interaction of all the different compounds in whole food, which is very different to the sum of its individual nutrients.
3. Limits "whole" food (10% rule)
Pellets are designed to be a "complete" feed that makes up the majority of a chickens diet. To keep costs low, pellet feed often has the minimum required levels of essential nutrients.
The problem is, when you add additional food to your chickens diet, it mucks with the formula. There is very little buffer. Which is where the 10% rule comes from. This is a rule provided by chicken feed companies, which says anything other than pellets should be used like “treats” and limited to 10% of their diet. The idea is that to many 'treats' can cause nutrient deficiencies, which affects egg laying and can even make your chickens sick.
- One company suggests "treating kitchen scraps like M&M's."
- And warns that too many 'treats' can cause chickens to "pull calcium from their bones."
This is a real concern, especially if you don't understand what chickens eat and what their nutrient needs are.
Adding Rice to your chickens diet
As a very simplified example, let's say your chicken feed is 15% protein and that is the target amount of protein overall. Then if your chickens eat some rice everyday (which has 10% protein), they will eat less pellets feed. This means less protein and more carbohydrates overall in their diet. And unless there is a higher protein food available or they eat more food overall, then the level of protein in your chickens diet can’t possible reach the recommended 15%.
A couple of important points to keep in mind about this example:
- There is nothing inherently wrong with feeding chickens rice. The problem comes from mixing whole food with a complete feed approach. And ultimately from the lack of variety in the chickens diet.
- This is a simplified example, because nutrition is more complicated than simply looking at protein. Protein is made up of a range of essential amino acids that are higher in some foods than others. And this example would likely cause deficiencies in lots of other essential nutrients.
3. The natural diet for chickens based on their biology and evolution
When you think about naturally raised chickens, what's the first image that comes to mind?
Usually it's chickens roaming and foraging around on open grasslands. Or because chicken feed is made of grains and soy, you might think chickens naturally eat a grain based diet.
But this is totally wrong!
Chickens didn't evolve on the grasslands of Africa
Chicken don't naturally eat a diet based on grass, grains and seeds. And that's because chickens didn't evolve on the grasslands of Africa where lots of grass, seeds and grain are available.
Chickens are not grass eaters (Herbivores):
Eating a grass based diet is natural for cows, which are herbivores. But chickens aren't grass eating cows.
Chickens aren't grain eaters (Granivores):
Unlike some birds, chickens aren't granivores, which means they aren't designed to eat a grain based diet.
Chickens are not Vegan
Feeding chickens a vegetarian diet sounds healthy but it's not. Animal based protein (usually in the form of bugs) is an important part of the chickens natural diet.
And the majority of factory farmed chickens are fed pellets made with soy based protein, so are vegan anyway. So really, vegan eggs are just a marketing ploy.
So what should chickens eat?
If chickens are not granivores, herbivores or vegan, then what should chickens eat?
Chickens (like humans) are omnivores, which means they are designed to eat a variety of both plant and animal based food. However, because omnivore's are so adaptable, it makes things a bit more complicated when trying to work out the ideal natural diet.
I think this quote from Michael Pollen in Omnivore’s dilemma sums it up perfectly:
“When a creature can eat a great variety of things…the question of what you should eat becomes tricky…. This is not a problem for specialist eaters—cows eat only grass... The same is true for the koala bear: if it looks and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, it is lunch, and everything else in nature is not lunch. But if you’re an omnivore things get complicated, especially when nature offers so many possibilities…” - Michael Pollen
A natural diet for chickens, based on food they evolved to eat
Which is why understanding the food chickens evolved to eat, is really fundamental to feeding your chickens a natural diet. This is food chickens prefer, that their digestive system is designed to eat and that meets their nutrient needs and instinctive behaviours.
Domestic chickens can be traced back to the Red Junglefowl, which live in the tropical jungles of Asia.
In the jungle, there’s lots of different leafy plants and fruit to eat. And the the jungle floor is covered in leaf littler, which provides a home for all the insects, snails and small lizards which chickens love to scratch and forage on.
4. Why chicken feeding tips and tricks are not the solution
Rather than focusing on what chickens are designed to eat, the conventional approach to feeding chickens typically focuses on tweaking and optimising the standard grain and grass fed approach. There are lots of tips and tricks around that attempt to provide a more natural diet for chickens:
- Organic pellets
- DIY grain based feed mix
- Rotational grass paddocks
- Chicken Tractors on grass paddocks
- Fermenting grain
- Sprouting grain
- Garlic and apple cider vinegar
- Special herbal arrangements for your chickens or coop.
It's not that there is anything wrong with some of these approaches. Sprouting and fermenting grain increases their nutrient content. Chicken tractors and paddocks help provide pasture to your chickens without the destruction that comes with chickens confined to a single space.
But these approaches can be messy and time intensive. Do you really want to be fermenting grain and dragging chicken tractors around your property. Do you really want to be 'cooking up' your own feed mixes, chicken treats and herbal arrangements. It can be a full time job and most people just don't have time for that.
And here's the thing. These tactics only help so much, when the fundamental approach is wrong. No matter how you dress it, they are still focused on the grass and grain fed approach. And they still don't provide a variety of whole foods that make up a natural diet.
No amount of apple cider vinegar or herbal potions are going to fix a crappy diet
5. Barriers to feeding your chickens a natural diet
In an ideal world....
In an ideal world, backyard chickens would eat a 100% natural diet. They wouldn't eat any pellets and instead would only eat whole foods like fruit, greens, insects and worms.
But the Reality is....
But the reality is, we don't live in an ideal world. There are some real barriers to a natural diet for chickens. And I’m guessing you have some of these questions in the back of your mind:
- I don't have the space: There is limited space available and it's not realistic to recreate a jungle in your backyard to provide all the food your chickens need.
- I don't have the Time: There is the time and costs involved in providing whole food compared to pellet feed which is designed to be as convenient and cheap as possible.
- I'm worried about nutrient deficiencies: There is the potential for nutrient deficiencies, compared to pellet feed where you don’t need to know anything about nutrition and it’s all done for you.
6. A better way to feed your chickens
So if the standard tips and tricks aren't the answer then what is?
Despite these barriers, there is a solution and a better way to feed your chickens that's way easier and way more rewarding. In fact, I've developed a complete system for feeding chickens a more natural diet, that overcomes these barriers.
Step 1: Principles - forget everything you've learnt about feeding chickens
The first step is to forget everything you've learnt about feeding chickens, because this is a completely different approach. And it's more than just a list of foods. Instead, it's based on 3 key principles:
- Principle 1: Let your chickens balance their own nutrition
- Principle 2: Take a flexible approach
- Principle 3: Make use of Synergies
Principle 1: Chickens can balance their own nutrition
When you feed your chickens the right food and present it in the right way, they have an ability to balance their own nutrition. A good example of this is calcium. When a source of calcium is provided separately (e.g. shell grit), rather than included in pellet feed, chickens are are able to perfectly balance their calcium needs. You don't need to measure out specific quantities of calcium. Just make sure there is plenty of calcium available at all times and your chickens will get what they need. When you feed chickens this way, chickens are actually better able to meet their calcium needs (allowing for an adjustment period). Get ready for the thickest egg shells you've ever had! In a complete feed, chickens are only able eat based on their energy needs. This is because they can’t adjust their intake of specific nutrients like calcium or protein based on changing nutrient needs.
Principle 2: Don't ditch pellets completely - a flexible approach that can be scaled up and down
The second principle is: don't ditch pellet feed completely. But hang on a minute, didn't I just say that pellets aren't natural? It's true, in an ideal world chickens wouldn't be fed pellets. But the reality is, a 100% natural diet for your chickens can be difficult to achieve, especially if you have limited space in a residential backyard. Instead of aiming for perfection, the simple goal is to provide as much natural whole food as possible, decreasing the amount of pellet feed your chickens eat. This works because chickens have a natural preference for whole food over pellets, so they will generally eat whole food when available over pellets. So if the right amounts and type of whole food is provided, then the chickens will eat little to no pellets. On the other hand, pellet feed is always there to ensure basic nutrient needs are being met. This makes the system scalable and flexible, because you can adjust it based on your own situation. Some people might work up to almost completely eliminating pellets. While someone else might be happy to just top up their chickens diet with healthy food when available.
It's important to note: You can't just provide any old pellet feed to make this work. To accommodate a whole food diet, the right pellet feed and supplements must be used and they must be fed to your chickens in the right way. And a good variety of whole foods must be made available for your chickens to eat.
Principle 3: Synergies
In a system, the interactions and synergies between each of the elements make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. One of the reasons backyard chickens make way more sense than large scale farms, is there are loads of synergies in your home between chickens, plants and food.
These synergies make it easy to feed your chickens in a more sustainable way, with lower costs, less waste and much better outcomes for you and your chickens.
This is compared to the conventional approach to chickens which doesn't take advantage of these synergies. The standard approach relies on pellet feed, which is an energy intensive external input. Meanwhile food scraps go to waste.
Step 2: Convert pellets to whole food
The right pellet feed, provided in the right way, provides a foundation or a starting point for a transition to more whole food and a more natural diet.
- It’s what your chickens are used to and it helps chickens adapt to a gradual transition to more whole food
- And It makes the system flexible, filling any gaps and essentially providing a backup
For most people, the end goal is not to replace pellets completely. The goal is to increase the amount of nutritious whole food, while avoiding nutrient deficiencies.
The solution is to convert pellet feed into more of a "whole food".
Watch this video to understand how to put this into practice.
Step 3: Add Whole Food to your chickens diet
In addition to pellet feed, add a variety of whole food to your chickens diet.
Generally, the more variety, the better. And an important part of this is providing a balance between plants, fruit and animals.
7. Next Steps: Feeding Chickens Naturally
You've learned what chickens naturally eat, along with some systems and strategies for putting this into practice.
- To start with, we covered the standard pellet fed approach, along with its problems and limitations.
- I explained why pastured, grain fed chickens are not 'natural'.
- We learned about the natural diet for chickens based on their biology (as omnivores) and the diet they evolved to eat.
- I explained why most tips and tricks are not the solution because the fundamentals are still wrong.
- I walked you through a 3 step approach, which provides the foundation for feeding your chickens a more natural, whole food diet.
I hope this guide gives you the confidence to start feeding your chickens in a more natural, healthy and sustainable way. Whether you want to simply top up your chickens diet with a few kitchen scraps, or ditch pellet feed completely, you can do it! And with the right guidance, it doesn't have to be hard.
To learn more, I provide lots of free materials on feeding chickens. I even have a full course, that provides a step by step guide for feeding your chickens naturally.
Feeding Chickens Naturally
Proven, low maintenance approach to feeding backyard chickens NATURALLY... For Happy, Healthy Chickens and the best eggs you can get.
This course shares every detail of the foolproof system I've developed, used and refined over the last few years, for feeding chickens naturally. It teaches you a better way to feed your chickens, that's way easier and more rewarding:
- Learn about the food chickens evolved to eat and that meets their nutrient needs and instinctive behaviours.
- Make use of the synergies in your home between chickens, plants and food. These synergies make it easy to feed your chickens in a more sustainable way with lower costs, less waste and much better outcomes for you and your chickens.
- Develop plant and protein feeding systems, that take very little effort to maintain.