What Do Chickens Eat? All Questions Answered

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Chickens eat many fruits and vegetables but 90% of an egg-laying hen's diet should be commercial chicken feed. This feed already contains an extensive amount of nutrients for your hens to produce calcium-rich eggs on a consistent basis.

Chickens are natural explorers and they will often peck at anything just to try it and being omnivores, they can enjoy many types of foods including whole grains, protein, fruits, veggies, seeds, and insects.

If you allow chickens to free-range, you can get an education just by watching them as they forage.

Chickens are usually kept for eggs or meat, and sometimes as companions. As a backyard chicken owner, it can be difficult to determine what to feed your chickens to ensure they are getting the complete nutrition they need.

In this article, we will cover the essentials of what makes up the bulk of their diets, and how to incorporate variety safely. We will also cover the extra supplements that they need to process food, and answer all of the questions that new chicken keepers have about feeding chickens.

What is Chicken Feed and Why do Chickens Need It?

Chicken feed is the foundation of a chicken’s diet. 90% of their total diet should be commercial chicken feed with your feed choice dependent upon the age of your chickens and their purpose.

Chick Starter

Baby Chicks should be fed chick starter. This is a type of commercial feed that is made specifically for baby chickens to eat until they are at least 6 weeks old. At this time, their nutritional needs change and you should switch to grower feed.

Chick starter contains a high amount of protein, grains, probiotics, prebiotics, vitamins, minerals and additives such as Lysine which are all the building blocks needed for their specific nutritional needs. It comes in a form that is easy for them to eat (generally as crumbles).

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Grower Feed

Grower feed has a lower protein content than chick starter, around 16 to 18 percent usually. It still contains all of the necessary vitamins and minerals that your chickens need at this time of life.

Grower feed also has a lower calcium amount than layer feed which is what your chickens will eat from 20 weeks onward. It’s important for your chickens to have grower feed as an in-between feed because it is custom-made to help your chickens transition into adults.

Layer Feed

Once your chickens reach 20 weeks of age, it is time to switch them to layer feed.

Layer feed is custom-made for laying hens (the added calcium helps develop strong egg shells) although roosters are usually able to eat it as well without any issues. Layer feed will be the primary chicken food that your chickens will live on for the remainder of their lives.

Layer feed has the perfect amount of nutrients for your adult chickens to keep a balanced diet. The nutritional value of layer feed cannot be underestimated and must make up 90% of what you feed them.

Should You Feed Mash, Crumble, or Pellets to Chickens?

Chicken Feed comes in various forms including mash, crumble, and pellets. Which you choose comes down to your specific flock and their needs.

MashEssentially an unprocessed, loose form of chicken feed.
Usually provided to young chicks, but may also be given to elderly chickens or those that have health problems.
Desirable because it is easily digestible by your flock but it also produces more waste product than other forms of feed.
CrumbleSlightly more compact than mash, but is still somewhat loose.
Most closely resembles grains like oatmeal, which are loose but still hold their shape. Many chickens prefer crumble because it can be easier to digest than pellets, but it tends to not have as long of a shelf-life as pellets.
Doesn’t seem to produce more waste than usual, and is a good choice for most pullets and cockerels.
PelletsA condensed form of feed – usually in cylindrical shapes.
Most often fed to adult chickens.
Has the highest shelf-life, although they are the hardest to digest and take more time to process than crumble.

In order to access the nutrients in any of these three forms of poultry feed, your chickens will require grit to be added to their diet.

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What is Grit and Why do Chickens Need It?

A chicken’s digestive system is not like ours. Chickens don’t have teeth, and use their beaks to pick up and swallow food. This food travels to their crop, where it is stored for up to 12 hours before moving on to the gizzard.

Once in the gizzard, the food is processed physically by way of grit. Similar to a rock tumbler, the food is rolled around inside the gizzard and broken down by grit which is a product you will buy as a supplement.

Commercial grit comes in a few varieties:

TypeDescription
Flint gritCrushed up granite particles
Soluble gritCrushed up oyster shells, limestone, and cockle shells
Mix grit50/50 mix of flint and soluble grit

If your birds are entirely free range – they may find enough natural grit on their own which often comes from small pebbles. Yet, it’s always advisable to have a container of grit available for your chickens in case they need it.

Without grit, a chicken can’t digest their food. Food sits in the crop and spoils, which causes Sour Crop, and can cause impaction which can kill your chickens.

Always provide grit to your chickens and allow them to eat as much as they want. They will self-regulate depending on what they need.

Do Chickens Need to Eat Oyster Shell?

Oyster shell is a type of grit that is recommended for all adult chickens. It is particularly beneficial to egg laying hens and you should make this available as needed.

Oyster shell is ground up shells from oysters, and serves as an excellent source of calcium. This extra calcium boost is just what your hens need to produce firm, thick eggshells when they lay eggs and help with overall egg production.

Oyster shell can be stored in a chicken’s gizzard and used as needed. Chickens who are molting also will make use of oyster shell to regrow all their feathers.

Should You Feed Insects and Worms to Chickens?

Another food source that chickens and other birds such as turkeys eat in the wild are grubs and worms. They typically eat them as a source of natural protein.

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chicken eating a worm on grass
Free-range chickens enjoy sourcing their own worms

Mealworms can be bought either fresh or dried, and given to your chickens as a substitute for what they would naturally forage. You can offer 5 to 10 mealworms per chicken per day.

Mealworms are not something that you have to provide, but your chickens will find them irresistible, and would appreciate them being added to their diet!

Can You Feed Fresh Fruit to Chickens?

Chickens will appreciate being fed fresh fruit on occasion. When you provide fruit to chickens, you need to be sure that you are preparing it correctly.

Some fruits cannot be fed without cooking while some parts of fruits may be unsafe. Always research whether a particular fruit is okay to give to your chickens, and take care to follow the instructions to provide it safely.

Some fruits that chickens love include blueberries, watermelon, banana, peaches, and grapes!

You should always feed your chickens treats in moderation – never more than 10% of their total diet.

Can You Feed Vegetables to Chickens?

Yes! Chickens love many different types of vegetables. Most veggies are perfectly safe to provide to your backyard chickens.

As with any fresh produce, you will need to research if it is safe to give it to your flock and pay special attention to preparation instructions. Some veggies should only be fed raw or will need to have the seeds or stems removed.

Chickens love cucumber, leafy greens, and asparagus. You just need to remember to feed in limited quantities, the same as with fruits.

Can Chickens Eat Table Scraps?

Your backyard flock can be fed certain table scraps but you will need to take extra care in ensuring the scraps are safe. Many foods that people eat are laden with seasonings and extra fat, which your chickens should not eat.

However, if you are preparing fresh ingredients and have some peels or small pieces leftover, those are usually a good idea. But as with anything, make sure it is chicken-safe food first!

Can You Feed Seeds to Chickens?

Some seeds are safe for chickens to eat such as sunflower seeds, while others such as apple seeds are unsafe as they contain cyanide.

You can provide chicken-safe seeds in small amounts if you sprinkle them in the chicken run or in the feeding area inside the chicken coop, but be sure that they are served as a treat only!

What Foods are Not Safe For Chickens to Eat?

Many foods are not safe for chickens to eat. That is why it is so critical that you research any new food before you give it to your chickens.

Some of the worst foods that you should never feed chickens include:

  • dried beans
  • rhubarb
  • citrus
  • chocolate
  • coffee grounds
  • moldy foods
  • highly processed food

Sometimes, even safe foods will need special preparation (or have parts removed) such as with cherries. The fruit is fine for chickens but the pit and stem are not.

This is an extensive guide on what NOT to feed to chickens:

For the safety of your flock, always double-check before offering them a treat. After all, chicken feed should always make up 90% of a chickens diet, and 10% of their diet can include things like fruits, veggies, seeds, and mealworms.

Christina

A longtime resident of Southern California, Christina recently moved across the globe to Austria, where she bought land specifically to build a small house with room for a backyard chicken coop. Christina spent her childhood summers on a farm, raising and caring for a flock of hens owned by her grandparents, which prompted a lifelong love of chickens, and other farm animals. Christina is passionate about writing, having written hundreds of articles for well-known websites, and uses her English degree in service of her love for animal welfare, most recently taking on a writing position at Chicken Care Taker in 2022.

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