SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

What to feed your backyard chickens

To keep your chickens as happy and healthy as they deserve, they need a lot of dedicated care. There is a lot to consider before making the decision to start your own backyard flock.

Chickens need fresh feed and water daily. Any food found in their coops that is old, mouldy, or stale should be cleaned up and thrown away to prevent rats and mice being attracted into the coop. Chickens need good, quality commercial layer hen pellets, as well as supplemental fresh food. Commercial chicken pellets contain an important and balanced mix of vitamins and minerals you’re your chickens need to produce eggs and stay healthy and grow well. This balance can be missing if you feed your chickens on a diet that consisting simply of kitchen scraps. When feeding kitchen scraps, be aware that certain plants and foods can be toxic to chickens. For example, you should not give your chickens raw green potato peels, dried or undercooked beans, or avocados. It is better if chickens are given mostly fresh foods that are not too energy dense or sugary. For example, give them plenty of leafy greens, and limit treat foods, such as corn and fruit, which have a high sugar content.

Hens also need extra calcium once they start laying and especially as they get a little older.

You can get soluble calcium grit which can be given to your hens in a separate feed container or you could use dried eggshells. To do this, bake the empty shells in the oven and crush them before adding to a separate container for you hens to select throughout the day. However, if you hens are lacking calcium, the probably do not have enough calcium in their eggs either. Another option can be to use crushed oyster shell. This helps provide the ladies with extra calcium for their bones and eggs.

You should provide the following:

  • If your birds do not have access to an outdoor area, or the outdoor run consists entirely of soft dirt or grass, you should provide them with a small container of ‘grit’. Chickens need grit, such as small bits of stone or gravel to help them to digest their food. Remember chickens, do not have teeth to help them chew their food, so these small stones help to grind up their food when it is in their gizzard.
  • Clean, fresh water from a watering system that is easy for the birds to drink from. Birds do not have lips, so it can be hard for them to drink water when it is down low. The water container should be placed somewhere where it is out of the sun (so it does not get too hot). Hanging drinkers can be a good way to achieve this.
  • Good quality commercial chicken feed in a feed container that is not accessible to other birds.
  • Enrichment, such as green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale or brussel sprouts) strung up in the coop so the birds can peck at them. Watermelons, food toys, ramps and different levels within the coop, areas, in which your chickens can scratch and peck, are all great ideas for enriching your chicken coop. There are lots of fun ideas out there for behavioural enrichment of your chicken coop.
  • Grit, calcium, water and feed containers should be placed somewhere where they cannot be tipped over, dirtied or walked in by other birds.

If it is not possible for your chickens to free-range then it is of even greater importance to provide them with enrichment and a varied diet, including calcium and grit, as well as a balanced commercial chicken feed, fresh vegetables and limited fruit.

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