The Backyard Chicken Diet: Striking the Perfect Balance with Kitchen Scraps
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The Backyard Chicken Diet: Striking the Perfect Balance with Kitchen Scraps

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As a backyard chicken owner, you may have heard that feeding your chooks kitchen scraps is an excellent way to reduce waste and provide your feathered friends with a varied diet. While this is certainly true to some extent, it's crucial to understand that chickens have specific nutritional requirements that must be met to ensure their best health and egg production. In this article, we'll delve into the do's and don'ts of feeding chickens kitchen scraps, providing you with the knowledge you need to keep your flock thriving.

 

The Importance of a Balanced Diet:

Chickens are not merely feathered garbage disposals; they require a carefully balanced diet in order to maintain their health and produce high-quality eggs. A chicken's primary feed should be sufficiently high in protein (18%+), and contain essential micronutrients such as vitamins, amino acids and trace elements like iron, selenium, zinc, iodine and manganese. These nutrients play vital roles in various bodily functions, from maintaining strong bones and healthy feathers to supporting a robust immune system.

While kitchen scraps can provide some variety and additional nutrients to a chicken's diet, they should never be relied upon as the primary food source. In fact, over-feeding chickens with kitchen scraps can lead to nutrient deficiencies and health issues as many scraps simply don’t contain the right kinds of nutrients that chickens actually need. The correct balance of nutrients is only found in a high-quality feed that has been formulated specifically for them.

I had little (no), idea of poultry or poultry nutrition when I first started Talking Hens and sold free range eggs with my wife Giuliana back in 2012 in Keysborough. At times, we were offered a range of vegetables and bakery leftovers which I thought was a great opportunity to reduce our expensive feed bill each week. However, Giuliana, who was constantly assessing the number and quality of eggs each day on the grading machine, quickly noticed that egg production was down following a scraps being fed to the flocks. Not only this, but we started seeing signs of more aggressive feather-pecking behaviour from some of the hens.

After consulting with our avian veterinarian, Dr Grant Richards, we learned that the most probable cause of the issues was an imbalance in their diet from feeding them scraps. The behavioural issues were likely to stem from hens being keener than others in eating the scraps and therefore becoming relatively more “unhinged”. Once back on their previous chicken feed diet without scraps, the flock’s behaviour, egg quality and laying frequency all returned to normal.

 

The Chicken and Scrap Connection:

There are several reasons why it is common practice to feed chickens scraps. Historically, chickens were kept alongside other farm animals and naturally scavenged for much of their food by grabbing any leftovers. With this basic form of nutrition, these chickens laid far fewer eggs than modern hens and it was expected that few, if any, eggs would be laid in the autumn and winter months.

Many backyard chicken owners today are more conscious of responsible feeding practices, good diets and prioritising their chickens' health, wellbeing and eggs. Still, chickens are happy to eat a range of food scraps which helps divert household food waste away from landfills and reduces the environmental impact of modern food production and transportation.

 

Treat Sizes and Frequency:

One of the keys to successfully incorporating kitchen scraps into your chickens' diet is moderation and watching closely for signs of overfeeding. A good rule of thumb is to offer a small handful of scraps per chicken every other day or a medium-sized bowl for the entire flock each week. This limited quantity ensures that your chickens don't fill up on fibrous or calorie-laden kitchen scraps, which are unlikely to provide the necessary nutrients that they need. Remember that the healthier your scraps the greater the frequency and volumes you can give to your chickens (within reason).

When providing scraps, it's best to do so in the afternoon, after your chickens have had ample time to consume their primary laying feed. This way, you can ensure that they're getting the balanced nutrition they need before indulging in treats.

 

Toxic Foods to Avoid:

While many kitchen scraps are safe for chickens to consume, there are several items that should be avoided entirely due to their toxicity. These include:

  1. Avocado: All parts of the avocado plant, including the fruit, leaves and bark, contain persin, a fungicidal toxin that can be harmful to chickens.
  2. Green potato peelings: The green parts of potatoes, as well as potato sprouts, contain toxic alkaloid solanine, which can cause digestive issues and other health problems.
  3. Rhubarb leaves: While the stalks of rhubarb are safe for chickens to eat, the leaves are high in oxalates which can lead to health issues if consumed in larger quantities.
  4. Mouldy food: Any food (commonly mouldy bread), that has started to mould should be avoided as the toxins produced during the breakdown process can be detrimental to chicken health and even cause death.

In addition to these toxic foods, it's best to avoid feeding your chickens large amounts of citrus or onions as they may affect the taste of the eggs which some owners might not like. Processed foods are often high in salt and sugar so should also be limited as they provide little nutritional value and can be harmful to both humans and chickens alike.

 

Other Foods to Keep Out of the Coop:

In addition to toxic foods, there are some common scrap food items that should be kept away from your chickens, even if they may unintentionally end up in the coop. These include:


  1. Chocolate: All forms of chocolate contain theobromine, a compound that is toxic to chickens and can cause symptoms ranging from digestive issues to seizures and even death.
  2. Coffee grounds: While some people believe that coffee grounds can be beneficial for chickens, they can actually be harmful to their digestive systems and should be avoided.
  3. Dairy: Many dairy products including butter, cheese, milk and icecream can contain high levels of fat, lactose and sugar. These can cause digestive issues and can lead to health problems if consumed in larger quantities.

By being mindful of these items and keeping them out of your chickens' reach, you can help ensure their safety and well-being.


Scrap Feeding Tips:

When offering kitchen scraps to your chickens, there are several best practices to keep in mind:


  1. Use a scrap tray: A dedicated scrap tray that bacteria won't live on, such as a stainless steel one, is an excellent option for feeding scraps. It allows you to easily remove any uneaten food before nightfall for placing into your compost, preventing the attraction of rodents and other pests.
  2. Don’t feed scraps inside your chicken coop or run: It is always a good idea to provide scraps in an area that is well away from the coop and run. This greatly reduces pest attractants near or in your chicken coop which is always a good thing.
  3. Offer cool treats in summer: During the hot summer months, frozen treats like watermelon can be a refreshing and hydrating option for your chickens. Simply freeze some watermelon chunks and place them on a scrap tray in a shady location on particularly hot days.
  4. Create boredom busters: Chickens can get bored just like any other pet so it's important to provide them with engaging activities. One way to do this is by suspending treats like cabbage or silverbeet with string, creating a fun and interactive treat that will keep them entertained. Another option is using a healthy peck block which chickens love. As I mentioned previously, try to provide these treats away from where your coop and run are located.
  5. Prioritise dark leafy greens: When offering kitchen scraps, try to prioritise dark leafy greens over other items. These greens, such as kale, spinach and collard greens, are packed with nutrients and are generally more beneficial for your chickens than other scraps.

I’ve heard from a number of customers who have tried hanging bunches of kale or silver beet from a tree branch in their flock’s ranging area with great affect. Not only does it provide them with healthy entertainment but provides plenty of laughs for their owners watching them pecking, hopping and competing for the treats.

Incorporating kitchen scraps into your chickens' diet can be a great way to reduce waste and provide your flock with some extra interest and variety. However, it's essential to do so with care and moderation. By understanding the nutritional needs of your chickens, being aware of toxic and harmful foods and following scrap feeding best practices, you can ensure that your flock stays healthy, happy and productive.

Remember, a balanced diet is crucial for the well-being of your chickens and their primary, high-quality chicken feed should always take precedence over treats and scraps. As we discovered in the Talking Hens 2023 survey of 165 backyard chicken owners, raising backyard chickens has been one of the most rewarding experiences for many owners. By being a responsible and informed chicken keeper, you'll be rewarded with the joy of watching your flock thrive and the satisfaction of collecting fresh, nutritious eggs daily.

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