If there is one thing that is relatively easy about keeping backyard chickens, it’s feeding them. They are natural foragers, meaning they will find their own food.
Many who keep chickens give them store-bought feed, and while that is acceptable, it is entirely possible to do without this, as long as they have plenty of access to the outdoors. Have you wondered if free-range chickens need feed?
Do Free Range Chickens Need Feed?
For the most part, free-range chickens do not require feed. As long as they have a proper balance of nutrients and protein in their diet, they can do just fine on their own.
This article will discuss a chicken’s diet and help you decide if a store-bought feed is best for your flock.
What is a Chicken’s Diet Like?
Chickens enjoy an array of food, including:
- Rodents and small reptiles
- Fruits and Vegetables
Chickens will eat just about anything you put in front of them. While pecking away in the yard, they have access to many yummy foods, including seeds, vegetation, bugs, and grubs.
Don’t be surprised if you see the pack partaking in such fare as the occasional mouse, toad, or snake, though this may not be their favorite.
Chickens will also happily eat fruits and vegetables offered to them and will help in ensuring they are getting enough nutrients. Beans, leafy greens, corn, apples, and berries provide many valuable vitamins for their diet.
During the warmth of the spring and summer months, a chicken should be able to find most of what she needs in your backyard. However, this may be more of a challenge in the colder weather.
Can I Raise Backyard Chickens Without Store Bought Feed?
We know there wasn’t always commercial feed available if we think back to how long chickens have walked the earth (they are ancestors of the dinosaur!). Chickens have managed to survive and adapt over thousands of years, so it is entirely possible.
There are some minor exceptions, such as baby chicks without a mother hen and cold temperatures.
Let’s look at some of the steps required for keeping your chickens off of feed.
Research, Research, Research!
While it is possible for your flock to survive without store-bought feed, you also need to know the key parts of their diets.
There are essentially five basic requirements for a healthy diet for your girls.
Protein in a chicken’s diet is essential, especially for maturing birds and those going through a molt. During these stages in their lives, they may need a higher than usual amount of protein.
Protein remains one of the most critical parts of a flock’s wellbeing.
Chickens Will Overeat
They are a lot like dogs in this regard. They will overeat, and much of what they are eating may not be rich in protein. So it’s a good idea to ration non-protein foods, such as treats.
Overall, most chickens will get enough protein on their own. However, a good rule of thumb is to make sure their diet consists of at least 18 – 20% protein.
A chicken’s diet should be made up of various vitamins and nutrients, which they can obtain from many sources. But it’s essential to be sure they are getting the proper daily amount.
Easy on the Treats
While it’s fun to give any pet treats, they should be for special occasions, especially for chickens. Like most of us, they would much rather eat treats (aka junk food) over healthy food. So, while treats are fine, don’t overdo them and keep a healthy diet as your priority.
Egg Production Can Be Affected
If the macronutrients of the flock’s diet get thrown off, their health will be affected. The first thing to be poorly affected will be a hen’s egg production. A drop in production can result from too little or too much of any essential vitamin or mineral.
Chickens are also susceptible to avian influenza and Newcastle disease, leading to a decrease in egg production. These diseases can quickly spread through a flock, so it’s essential to keep an eye on their health and get veterinary care if you notice any symptoms.
How Much Are You Willing to Invest in Your Flock?
You don’t have to overthink it if you feed your chickens store-bought food. Instead, you buy a bag of feed and make sure the feeder is full each day.
But it’s different if you are not relying on commercial feed. Chickens may be able to survive on just about anything, but they will not thrive as a flock.
Feeding your chickens wholly on natural resources will require more out of you. And you need to decide how much you are willing to put into it.
Some of the ways to feed store-bought free can be time-consuming or expensive, and others will require a lot more work from you. So let’s look at some of the ways to do this.
Make Your Own Feed
By purchasing the right ingredients, you can make homemade feed. It is usually cheaper than commercial feed, and you have the added benefit of knowing what is in it.
This can make it easier to customize the feed to meet your flock’s individual needs.
You’ll want to find a chicken feed recipe with the right ingredients. Keep in mind that different age groups and stages of life will require different types of feed.
For example, laying hens need more calcium than young chicks. So, you’ll want to make sure the recipe you choose has enough calcium for your laying hens.
Grow Your Own Feed
By growing your own vegetables, herbs, and perennials (they love sunflowers), your flock can get a lot of what it needs. Likewise, feeding your chickens what you grow (along with the pesty weeds) is great as long as everything you provide is chicken safe.
Find Food From Other Sources
It’s not too hard to find free or low-cost food sources for your flock. Grocery stores often have to throw out fruits and vegetables that can not be fed to the public but would gladly be eaten by chickens.
Other places to check for free food include:
- Farmers’ markets
- Local bakeries and restaurants that have excess food from their day-to-day operations.
Contact them beforehand, and let them know you are looking for something to feed your chickens. See if they can save some scraps or extra products for when you are ready to pick them up.
It doesn’t hurt to ask if they would be willing to give you some before just throwing it out.
You can also use your own food scraps, or that from a local farmer’s market, or even your neighbors.
Use Fermented Grains
Fermented grains and soaked mash are chock full of nutrients and can be fed to your flock when done correctly. This is a great way to provide your chickens with the probiotics, vitamins, and minerals that they need.
You can buy fermented feed from some companies or make your own using a grain such as oats, wheat, barley, or rye. Garden Betty has a great homemade soy-free, corn-free chicken feed recipe you can try.
The More Bugs, the Better
Chickens love bugs and lots of them. Consider starting a bug or worm farm. Chickens also love mealworms, maggots (gross!), and beetles.
These are all excellent sources of protein. Chickens will also eat those parasite carrying ticks, which are a problem in almost every US state.
Start a Compost Pile
A compost pile and backyard chickens go hand in hand. Chickens love to peck and scratch, which means keeping that soil in your compost pile turned.
They will also eat the leftover food and any bugs, leading to faster compost for you and your garden.
What About Chicks and Molting Birds?
If you have a mother hen and she is used to free-ranging, she will teach her babies how to forage. You must make sure the food is in much smaller pieces and be careful with any big seeds.
Growing chicks will need about 20% of their daily calories to be protein. If you can’t be certain about this, you may need to add some starter feed to their diets until they mature slightly.
The same goes for chickens going through a molt. Again, this can be stressful for them, and they will also require more protein in their diet.
Do I Need to Supplement in the Winter?
Chances are, you will need to add some commercial feed in the winter. Once that cold weather and snow set in, a chicken’s diet is very limited. So feeding commercially through these months will ensure they get the nutrients they need to survive.
For the most part, free-ranging chickens can go without a commercial feed as long as you are vigilant about their diets. However, chicks and molting birds will require some extra care, and you should add a feed in the winter months.
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