Why You’re Feeding Your Chickens To Death And How To Stop It

We all love our chickens and want to do what’s best for them.

I know I love nothing more than spoiling them with kitchen scraps and homemade treats, but did you ever stop to think you might be doing more harm than good?

Over-feeding your girls can lead to obesity and a whole lot of health issues. Not only that, but many foods which humans eat such as avocados is actually poisonous to chickens and can do a lot of damage.

It’s hard to know at times exactly what you should feed your girls and how much to feed them.

So today, we are going to look at how you are feeding your chickens to death and how to prevent it… before it’s too late.

Obesity in Chickens

Perhaps one of the major problems our birds face today is us killing them with kindness!

We love to give them treats- it’s hard to resist when they rush to the gate expectantly to see what goodies you have for them.

If your hens range over pasture and get plenty of exercise, you are very unlikely to have fat hens. If on the other hand, your birds are confined to the coop and run, obesity can become a problem.

Free Range Chickens

What treats you give your hens is very important. If you give them healthy snacks such as greens, mealworms, fruits and veggies, make sure it is in moderation. Even mealworms can cause problems in excess!

They should not be eating the leftover pizza, white rice and breads! These are all high carbohydrate foods that the chicken does not need. The only exception to this is feeding corn to your chickens in the winter- even then moderation is the key.

How Much Food Should My Chicken Eat?

The average hen will eat around ½ cup of feed per day. In addition to their feed you should try to limit treats to about 10% of their daily intake.

Weighing Out Chicken Feed
You can start out by weighing the feed, but after a while you will get use to the amount they need.

An excessive intake of fatty foods such as suet (flock blocks) and sunflower seed can cause Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome. It is as nasty as it sounds and it can kill your hen without much warning. Fat tends to build up around the liver and the liver becomes soft and more prone to bleeding. A hen straining to lay an egg can simply bleed to death.

Typically hens who suffer from this disease are usually 20% or more overweight and are laying hens.

We mentioned meal worms earlier. They are a high protein snack that chickens love, but because they are high in protein too many can cause kidney disease and gout. A small amount is ok- but remember mealworms are about 50% protein and a laying hen needs only 20 grams of protein per day.

Note: Remember to clean up any excess feed and treats which is left on the ground overnight because this will attract pests.

Avoid These Poisonous Chicken Treats

As for garden and produce treats – there is an extensive list of no-no’s for chickens. I’m going to select just a few since these particular items are popular in the garden and can be toxic to your flock.

Don't Feed Your Chickens Poisonous Treats

There are several extensive lists of poisonous plants out there. Try not to get too paranoid! For instance, three of my new pullets destroyed the leaves of my rhubarb – they are still alive and healthy. I now simply have put a fence around the plants to keep the ladies out.

  • Avocados: It contains a toxin that can be fatal not only to poultry but dogs, cats and cattle.
  • Tomato Plants: The fruit is a wonderful treat for the flock, but leaves, stems and vines are poisonous.
  • Potato Plants
  • Rhubarb Leaves: Another nightshade family member! The leaves contain high amounts of oxalic acid which can cause kidney failure.
  • Eggplant Leaves
  • Uncooked Beans: They contain hemaglutin which is very poisonous to birds, however cooked beans are ok.
  • Lupines: As beautiful as those blue and pink spires are, keep your birds away. The plant can cause nervous system problems.
  • Periwinkle (Creeping Myrtle): It too can cause nervous system failure and death.
  • Foxglove: Contains digitalis a cardiac drug that causes the heart to slow down.
  • Holly: Ingestion of leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

This is a very brief list of some of the more poisonous things that a curious bird might eat. It is by no means comprehensive, so be sure to research your flowers and vegetables before you let your hens run wild!

Alternative, healthy snacks include cucumbers, melon, squash, strawberries, broccoli and kale to mention a few.

You can read about my girls’ favorite treats here.

What To Do With Obese Chickens

Obese hens do not generally get enough exercise. If they are confined to a coop and run, there probably isn’t enough room for them to get enough exercise. It really is a vicious cycle- the hen becomes obese, doesn’t want to exercise, so they eat more. They also have a tendency to lay oversized eggs.

Oversized eggs may sound great – who doesn’t love a large egg? However, these oversized eggs can cause egg binding, a potentially fatal occurrence in the hen. Egg binding can lead to peritonitis and the hen will die if not treated.

You can help them to exercise with games such as cabbage tetherball. Throwing a handful of corn or scratch around will encourage them to hunt and peck for their treats. A suet cage filled with greens hung at just above head height will tempt them to do some jumping jacks! A rolling treat dispenser will promote a game of hen football.

Feeding Chickens Lettuce
Chickens Playing Cabbage Tetherball

Even just allowing your birds to wander over the pasture looking for bugs, greens and other tasty bugs is so much healthier for your hen, both physically and mentally.

It’s very important that they remain as active as possible over the long winter months. Boredom and inactivity can lead to some very nasty habits such as picking, feather eating and a general feeling of unrest!

The Right Way to Feed Your Chickens

The chicken diet of today is much different from the way our grandparents raised chickens.

Chickens are omnivorous and the barnyard hen of yesteryear survived on hunting for bugs, grains and the occasional table scraps from the farmer. Essentially it was a subsistence diet and the hen produced fewer eggs per week.

Hens of today have a luxurious lifestyle by comparison because we recognize that good nutrition is important for the production of eggs, meat and baby chicks.

This is why we feed our chickens commercial pellets; it gives our girls a complete source of essential nutrition.

Take a look at the table below to work out exactly how much feed you should be giving to your chickens. It is very important to feed the correct mix to your birds as chicks and growing birds need more protein than laying hens.

Chicken Feed Chart
Chicken Feed Chart

Don’t worry if you happen to run out of a particular feed, the birds are not going to suffer if you give them a different type of feed for a few days! However, make sure to resume the correct feed as soon as possible.

Some people prefer to mix their own feed for their hens. This is typically cheaper than buying ‘pre-made’ chicken feed however if the homemade feed doesn’t meet their nutritional requires your girls won’t be as healthy or lay as many eggs.

The homemade receipt needs to ensure the correct amount of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and trace elements are being provided.

As with humans, deprivation of certain vitamins or minerals, can lead to serious health problems.

If you decide that you want to mix your own feed you need to ensure the birds get all of the necessary nutrition, whether it is from the feed or as a water soluble vitamin supplement. Although it’s rare for a hen to die from malnutrition, they can die from depletion of vitamins necessary to their good health.

Another thing we rarely think about is ensuring your feed is fresh, whether it’s store bought or home-made. Vitamins start to degrade over time, so feeding old, out-of-date feed can lead to deficiencies.

Moldy grain can also cause sickness and death in chickens. Remember if your feed doesn’t look or smell quite right, throw it out and get some new feed.

Conclusion

Feeding your chickens should be enjoyable and fun!

However over feeding your chickens or feeding them poisonous food such as rhubarb leaves can be incredibly bad for their health.

Making sure you not only feed them the correct food but also the right amount of the food is your most important job as a backyard chicken keeper!

In addition to this, keeping your girls active and letting them roam around will do wonders for their health and wellbeing.

Let us know how you keep your hens active in the comments below…



Comments

  1. Lena Swanson says

    Great article! Learned a lot. We have 27 hens and four two month old chicks which are separated. Don’t know anything about raising hens and getting good egg production. We are feeding them organic feed plus scraps from the house. I like the idea of hanging a cabbage from a rope and letting them jump on it. How often can I give them a flock block? It keeps them busy

  2. Ximena says

    Hi I have 9 hens who sadly don’t have access to a grassy yard large enough to sustain them. I was thinking about giving them lots of chopped alfalfa and lentil sprouts to add green to their diet but I don’t want to over feed them. Can you give a chicken too much greens

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Ximena,

      It’s surprisingly hard to over feed them!

      If they don’t want it they simply won’t eat it- so don’t worry about giving them too many greens,

      Claire

  3. Austin Murri says

    We have six red sexlink hens and I fashioned two PVC pipes vertically as feeders. Each feeder holds around 8 cups of feed and I have to refill each pipe everyday as they are empty. A large amount ends up in the dirt and never eaten. I have been buying Country Companion Layer Pellet from a local ranch store. Why are they waisting so much?

      • Austin Murri says

        It was the same with a traditional feeder too. They peck through it to find what they want and leave the rest in the dirt. Do I need to get different feed?

        • The Happy Chicken Coop says

          Hi Austin,

          Hmmm- it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try.

          Let me know if you’re still having any problems after changing the feed.

          • Serenity says

            We had the same problem and this is how we fixed it: Add a two inch extension of the same size PVC pipe to the mouth of the feeders. That is enough for them to reach the feed and prevent their natural instincts to spread the feed with their beaks from leaving the feeder. I also guessed your pvc feeder openings were of the “y” shaped variety…

  4. Susan Hulet says

    I loved this blog and learned so much. I have just created a coop and have 9 new layers that are just getting started. They have only been here 5 days and we have had 3 eggs. What might be a realistic expectation of egg production and when? I am sure the trip was a bit traumatic. We do have a rooster also.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Susan,

      I’m so happy the website is helping you 🙂

      It really depends on what breed they are. If they are a ‘good layer’ you should expect a minimum of 7 eggs a day!

      Best of luck,

      Claire

  5. Regina M Burnett says

    I fear my kid’s may have overdone the meaworms. I have a pretty sick and lathergic hen (maybe it’s just coincidence), but she’s has occasional clear liquid coming from her beak, and a greenish liquidy poop. I saw her eating today which is progress… curious how long you all typically ride it out when a chicken seems to unwell.

  6. Goldie says

    Hi. Thank you so much for your input and advise. I do have one question though. I have 19 hens (a mixture of all different breeds) I used to feed them in a pvc pipe as well, but when I got my second batch of chicks I had to separate the older ladies from the young, so I started feeding them by scattering feed on the ground. Now that all the ladies are together and eating the same feed I tried to fill the pvc pipe again. But they eat all the food right away and their crops are huge and swollen. So I’m back to feeding them by scattering the food twice a day. I’d like to go back to just filling the feeder but without them eating the whole thing. If that makes sense… I just don’t know how to do it. Winter is coming and their run isn’t covered. So I’d be throwing their food in snow :/

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Goldie,

      I would try again using the PVC pipe. Hens generally won’t overeat so they should be fine.

      Claire

  7. Debbie bradshaw says

    Hi
    I was wondering about my bird feeder with winter upon us, this is my first year with my 3 hens and the free range in the afternoons when I’m home from work, but is there anything I shouldn’t put in my bird feeder this year e.g fat balls, nuts, that when they drop my hens may pick up..love this site by the way helped me so much in my first year with my girls !

  8. Amanda says

    In addition to daily free ranging I’ve made chooks a wicking bed in their coop. Like a big self watering pot (vegie box- lots of diy on web), but there’s a headspace of 15 cm between the soil level and the top which is coverered in a sheet of weldmesh. The chooks can walk on the weldmesh and peck the greens without trashing them. By the time they reach the top most plants have strong enough root systems to avoid being pulled up. I used a mix of self seeding annuals and perennials. Sometimes i make sporuts, throw half to chooks, and throw a handful into box to top up plant desnity.They can’t scratch etc for bugs, so it’s not a be all end all, nor is it menat to be, it gives them some resilence if we go away for a weekend, etc.

  9. Adrienne says

    Hello,
    This week we received a malnourished hen (she was a rescue). She is about 15 weeks. This is our first time with a chicken so we feel a little out of water. She eats all the time, anything we give her. To my surprise, she eats it all! Yesterday she eat about 8 broccoli florets, 6 greens beans, 1/3 of a banana, and organic chick feed. She’s drinking lots of water, happy, and buzzing around. I left for work today with the feeder available for her. Should I be worried with all this and high amount of fiber she has eaten?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Adrienne,

      You can’t change her past so don’t worry about that. Just keep doing what you’re doing and feed her a complete layers pellet and then supplement this with healthy snacks 🙂

      Claire

  10. Elizabeth says

    I have a house chicken who practically eats what I eat, as well as her main diet of regular chicken feed. She goes insane over noodles. She’s almost had avacado so I’m glad to have read this before I made this mistake.

  11. Kay says

    I have a bushel of green beans that won’t be used by my family. Can I give green beans to grown chickens?

  12. Tiffy says

    Good morning Claire, love the site and blog. Really helpful as I have just started out with two gorgeous Vorwork chickens. They are free range and do not seem to want to eat their pellets. How can I ensure that these two wonderful layers are getting a balance diet, please?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Tiffy,

      You can ensure this by not over feeding them with snacks and making sure they have access to pellets throughout the day. They will figure the rest out themselves 🙂

      Claire

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