What do Chickens Eat?

by Jeannine Tidwell

What do chickens eat? I ask myself this question often as I have a small flock of chickens and I'm continually asking myself how I can help them be the healthiest chickens they can be. Even though today's chickens are domesticated, they originated from wild jungle fowl and still have in them those roots of wildness. Their appetite for eating proves it. And while there are many, many ways to feed and nourish your domesticated chickens, some are healthier than others. Let's take a closer look...

What do Chickens Eat

What do chickens eat, and what do chickens drink?

There is a teaching from traditional, indigenous cultures that says, water is the first food. Water is at the top of the list for answering the question what do chickens eat. If it weren't for the miracle of water, chickens would not be able to cool down or digest and assimilate their food as easily. Not only does water help with digestion, it helps carry along food and remove waste. Chickens normally drink 1 - 2 cups of water a day, depending on the weather and season. Hens don't lay eggs as well unless they have an adequate supply of fresh water to drink. Now chickens aren't always choosy about what water they drink. I've seen chickens drink from puddles in the dirt. You always need to have fresh water available for them despite this tendency. The quality of your chickens is only as good as the quality of their water.

In terms of water containers, there's no perfect water container. There is only what will work best for you and your needs. A fantastic permaculture method for supplying your chickens with water is to get a rain barrel and funnel rain water into it. With a simple hose or spigot the rain barrel can then provide your chickens with water. All that said, consistently wash your containers to prevent chicken waste and debris from getting in to the water. This is a great way of not only incorporating permaculture into delivering your chickens water easily, but it also gives you the opportunity to connect with nature by observing and watching the weather.

Patterns of inclement weather like rain come in seasonal and other cycles. What a great opportunity for you to not just fulfill a simple task like giving your chickens water but you get the gift of expanding your awareness of the world in the process, too.

The permaculture way of feeding chickens

The permaculture way of feeding chickens doesn't just answer the question what do chickens eat, but also the question what do chickens not eat. If you let your chickens roam around freely they'll eat everything in sight that's edible. That said, remember there are many poisonous plants your chickens should not eat. These include rhubarb, hemlock, tomato leaves, potato leaves, horseradish seeds, and dock seeds.

Usually the most common answer to what do chickens eat is to feed them dry grains. I'm here to tell you that there is another possibility. While dry grains are a good start, ask yourself if you would like to just eat dry grains for the rest of your life? Probably not. So the first thing we need to do is shift our perception of what do chickens eat to a broader picture of what chickens eat in accordance with their living in harmony with their landscape.

Elements of good nutrition

One of the most important answers to "What do chickens eat?" is a balanced diet. A balance of water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. While many feeds have all these elements in them, let's look at ways we can raise the bar on giving your chickens the utmost best. They're worth it.

  • Protein: Chickens are not vegetarians and sometimes they might like meat. If you want to take it up a notch from grains then feed them meat, milk, fishmeal, insects, worms, seeds, mosquitos, slugs, or grasshoppers. Every summer my kids absolutely love to catch grasshoppers and feed them to the chickens. It's a way for them to intimately connect with nature by not only learning about grasshoppers in all the ways they do including catching them, but also about learning more about the food chain relationship that chickens have with them. One time my son was trying to catch a grasshopper and the chicken got it first! Now that's a powerful way to lean the answer to what do chickens eat! And all of this rich protein like grasshoppers helps chickens grow and lay eggs, restore their body tissues, and create heat and energy for them to stay warm.

    The permaculture teaching here is that you're using a small and simple solution like turning your chickens out onto the lawn to get food. Chickens have been alive for thousands of years, surely they know how to get out there and forage on their own. There is a simple and ingenious way of supporting them to do just that. It's called the paddock system and we'll get into that shortly.

  • Fats and Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates and fats also provide warmth to your chickens' bodies, and they are an essential part of the answer to the question what do chickens eat. Not only do they need fat to stay warm but it helps them deal with heat loss or other times of needed energy. Grains, for example, are an easy a way of giving them all the carbs they need. I give my chickens fresh roots and tubers as a way of supplying them with the carbs they need. Sweet potatoes and other grains are an excellent source. Chickens love milk and would get some good fat from drinking some from time to time.

  • Vitamins and Minerals: Vital for overall health, growth, reproduction and disease prevention, this looks like none other than fresh green grass. It is a staple, it's free, and its an essential answer to what do chickens eat. Chickens love fresh greens and it's a natural instinct for them to eat it. Early green plants, chard and kale from the garden and even grass clippings after you've mowed the lawn are all packed with vitamins and minerals. Fish oils and kelp meal are great supplements filled with vitamins, minerals and amino acids. I love giving my chickens' kelp meal in the winter when they're not able to forage as much. Bone meal and oyster shells offer excellent calcium and don't forget that good old Vitamin D sunshine is good for them, too.
What do Chickens Eat

What do chickens eat? Now for a closer look...

Chickens need a variety of foods to be healthy. They need this variety for good nutrition. Returning to the question of what do chickens eat, it's important to note that should you choose to feed your chickens' grains know that they would enjoy the freshest grains possible. This could include live growing alfalfa, wheat or even sprouted grains. Cracked or whole corn is nutritionally poor compared to other grains and is not recommended as the pillar of life for a chicken.

Since we broke down all the different components of a chicken's diet already, let's look again at the way permaculture would feed your chickens using the paddock system. The paddock system is a simple and ingenious reposne to what do chickens eat. This system gives chickens the opportunity to express their true "chickenness" by foraging freely, moving about and getting exercise and getting a knock out diet all at the same time.

Depending on the amount of land you have available, designate five or more fenced off areas all connected with each other and rotate your chickens through them. If you are going with a coop as the shelter for your chickens its ideal to have the coop be accessible within the range of these paddocks. In these five areas plant an abundance of healthy vegetation for them to forage and graze on including food trees that will offer shade in the summer months. The chickens can also roost in the trees if they feel inclined to do so. Rotate your chickens once a week so they haven't completely cleared the ground where they've been grazing. You can lay in grazing screens on top of your plants so the chickens can have access to fresh greens but not tear at the roots of them or pull them out of the ground completely.

With this kind of rotation, the grazed areas have a time of rest and plants can grow back. Not all plants and insects are eaten and chicken poop is not completely localized to one area forever. If you live in a colder climate and have a chicken coop you will be cleaning it less. If you live in a warmer climate, you can have a roof and fencing for your shelter and virtually not be cleaning up after your chickens at all.

Chickens don't have teeth, they have a gizzard that helps them mash food. They especially need grit in order to break up and digest food like grains and beetles. The paddock system can fulfill this need if the ground has small pebbles there. They'll eat the small pebbles or tiny rocks and it will help them grind it all up in their gizzard.

The paddock method is a wonderful way to feed your chickens what they love to eat the most. A variety of live, fresh food with all the nutrients they need. If you can't do this with a paddock you can still do it with a chicken tractor but you are moving it around more frequently so your chickens aren't foraging in one area for very long. If you find your chickens are foraging over a quarter of the vegetation in one area for the time they are there then you either have too small of a foraging area or too many chickens for that space.

Here are some elements to factor in when you go about planting things in your paddocks:

  • Plant perennials: Plants like chickweed, dock, plantain, yarrow, and comfrey come back year after year and chickens love them. Learning about these plants and planting or encouraging them to grow in your paddocks gives you the chance to more deeply connect with nature by also learning about native plants or plants that are medicinal like plantain.
  • Plant for different heights: In permaculture this is called guild planting. The value of guild planting is that if you plant a really tall plant like sunflower the seeds will fall and your chickens will get to eat them. If you plant fruit and nut trees your chickens get to eat the fruit that falls right to the ground. And yet again if you plant peas or other shrubs you are giving your chickens some great legumes that they need nutritionally speaking.
  • Knowing your landscape: How cold does it get where you live? What plants are hardy enough to survive through the cold and snow of the winter? What is your soil like and what plants thrive in that particular type of soil? How much dos it rain and how much will you need to water? Some plants give food for a short period of time and some produce abundance for several months.
  • Plant for the seasons: Take winter forage into consideration and plant annuals like rye, oats, winter peas and mustard greens. This can also give the ground the opportunity to have a nice protective cover over the winter.
  • Plant ecologically: Plants like bee balm and butterfly weed attract other important species into your area like hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and other life. Grasses like ryegrass and fescue contain seeds that birds will enjoy as well. Consider the larger web of life.

If the paddock system isn't something you want to set up then why not set up a simple greenhouse and have your chicken coop inside it. The chickens can be let out to graze on fresh food in a non-snowy atmosphere and fertilize your soil at the same time. In turn, they are heating your green house for you. If you plant herbs like mint, catnip, oregano and lemon balm your chickens are getting some nice green plants to nibble on and you get the pleasure of gathering herbs for tea and other uses.

Quantities and Regularity

Besides "What do chickens eat?", other essential questions are "When do chickens eat?" and "How much do chickens eat?" There are many reasons a chicken eats the amount of food that it does. The type of breed that it is, its' gender, the season, climate, and environment it lives in, how long they're outside in the course of a day, and more. Some breeds eat more than others, at different ages a chicken will eat more or less, and it will eat more in the winter than in the summer. Molting chickens or those at the bottom of the pecking order eat less than others. With all these factors in mind, a standard size hard working hen eats approximately ½ to 1 cup of food on top of ¾ ounces of carbohydrates a day. In the winter you may want to increase their amount of carbohydrates by 1 extra ounce in the evening. Speaking of evening, chickens need to retire with a full crop to provide them with a good night's sleep. Through the night their crop clears out and the hens digest all the food that is stored in it.

If you feed your chickens consistently at the same time each day they have a pretty good chance of putting on weight steadily and laying eggs consistently. A laying hen should mature slowly so her body can grow resilient through times of stress and through the hard work of egg laying. If your chickens are outside grazing through the winter months it's probable they'll have less to forage on depending on where you live. Take this into account if you are estimating their food intake.

Food storage

However you choose to answer the question what do chickens eat for your particular chickens, you will need proper storage for your chicken's food. Proper feed storage helps ensure food stays dry and/or moist for as long as possible. Plastic or galvanized cans keep rodents or pets at bay as they won't be able to chew through them. Be mindful of keeping your feed under cover to avoid inclement weather and don't leave your feed out overnight!

Nourishing your chickens for a greater relationship with them

It's natural and in our make-up to want to live with the land and be caretakers. Our ancestors were living this way for thousands of years and it's our instinct to carry on this heritage. With this in mind, chickens ask of us to be truly responsible for them and feed them well.

Chickens teach us about connection. Food is so basic yet so important to everyday life. When my family first got chickens and one of my children asked me, "What do chickens eat?" it was an opportunity to go deeper beyond the same old same old and seek to find an answer that not only makes sense but teaches them something deeper about life itself.

Cultivating a greater relationship with chickens means stepping into the possibility of authentically learning about them and their unique needs, learning about the earth and where we live, and learning how to participate in the web of relationships in a way that is altruistic and life affirming.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources for you to explore as you continue to answer that all important question of what do chickens eat. May your chickens always be fed!

  • How to Raise Chickens Naturally - Learn how to raise chickens holistically, by nature's design. Chicken raising can be simple and fun, and through it you can develop a deep connection.
  • The Joy of Keeping Chickens by Jennifer Megyesi and Geoff Hansen
  • Folks, this ain't normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a better world by Joel Salatin
  • Pastured Poultry Profit by Joel Salatin

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