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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Healthy Treats for Chickens
In moderation, treats can be healthy and beneficial to your chickens. As long as you avoid the poisonous or toxic treats, you can still enjoy giving your flock some goodies from time to time. Here are a few treats that your hens will love, and will benefit them (and your eggs) nutritiously.
- Mealworms – a great source of protein, but make sure you don’t over-feed.
- Black soldier flies – a great source of protein, but make sure you don’t over -feed
- Scrambled Eggs – I know this sounds strange, but if your chickens need a protein boost, and you have some extra eggs laying around, scramble them up and serve em!
- Corn – chickens love corn, and if they have the choice, they will probably eat the corn out of their feeder before their crumble. So, feed sparingly and separate from the regular feed
- Watermelon- chickens go crazy for watermelon! They love it, and it’s a great treat for a hot summer day. The extra hydration is a bonus!
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…