Feeding chickens is a lot more than just tossing a little cracked corn on the ground. Like any animal they have essential dietary needs and requirements. There are commercial feeds available that claim to provide all the nutrition a chicken needs. After looking at the ingredients and noting the heavy use of corn and soy, distiller by-products, animal by-products including hydrolyzed poultry feathers and chicken fat, medications, and an array of added “supplements” of questionable origin I decided I would make my own feed.
For a year before I bought my first batch of chicks I did a lot of literature research on the nutritional needs of chickens especially those kept for laying eggs. I learned that corn and soy need not be the basis of good chicken nutrition. Wheat, which has more protein than corn (about 12% vs 9%), is a very good chicken food. By itself wheat cannot be the sole source of protein in a chicken’s diet. Wheat may be 12% protein but that protein is low in the essential amino acid lysine. Without sufficient lysine a chicken will slowly starve to death on wheat (or on any other true grain for that matter). Other grains and seeds can also be feed with wheat to balance the amino acid profile and make the protein complete.
Soybean, a legume, is high in protein, up to 46%, and can make up for the missing amino acids. The protein quality of soybeans is very good but in their raw form they are not easily digested. Soybeans must be cooked to make them digestible because raw beans contain chemicals (anti-nutrients) that inhibit digestion. Roasting or heating whole soybeans is one way to make them more digestible. But roasting is not without nutritional consequences. During roasting a considerable part of some essential amino acids is lost. In particular, roasting reduces the percentage of the sulfur containing amino acids methionine and cysteine that must be in the chickens’ diet for optimal health. Wheat and other grains do contain methionine and cysteine and adding a little sunflower seed and buckwheat, both very high in these, makes sure there is enough.
Field peas, although lower in protein than soy, are a good legume to compliment the amino acids in wheat. Also, unlike soy bean, they have fewer anti-nutrients and so need less processing. Peas have their own anti-nutrient problems particularly in varieties with dark skins but these are not as serious as with soybeans. Peas also have no fats or oils unlike soy so these must be provided from another source. Flax seed and sunflower seed are two sources.
Because wheat ties up the availability of biotin, an essential vitamin for chickens, it is necessary to provide other food sources for this. Biotin is often claimed to be available only from animal sources but peanuts and green leafy vegetables like chard are good plant sources. Chard is a variety of beet (Beta vulgaris). Dried sugar beet pulp can be bought at feed mills making it a convenient nutritional supplement when fresh greens are not available in the winter.
Chickens need vitamins (besides biotin) and minerals some of which, but not all, are provided in the grain, seed, and legume mixture. These can be gotten from pasture plants and garden surplus during the warm months. In the winter other sources need to used. Winter squash and potatoes, both very easy to grow and store, are good sources of calories, several B vitamins, and vitamin C. Squash is rich in carotenes which can be converted to vitamin A in the chicken’s body. Squash and potatoes have a small amount of protein and they supply minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. Sodium and extra calcium (important for egg shells) can be supplied using kelp, salt, and ground limestone. I use grit from the local soil so the minerals in the rocks (granite, basalt, sandstone, slate) in the grit will be absorbed by the chickens as it wears down in their gizzards. Chickens need vitamin D to properly use calcium but if they are allowed to go outside every day even in the winter they will get all the vitamin D they need from exposure to the sun.
I feed my chickens dried sugar beet pulp soaked in water in the winter. Sugar beet pulp has some protein (7% in the dried state) and several vitamins and minerals so it is a good winter food, too. I would like to grow these or their relative the mangel this summer to be less dependent on the feed mill for beet pulp. I would just feed the chickens chopped fresh beet or mangel roots instead.
Right now, I am feeding my chickens a wheat-based diet with cracked yellow corn and roasted soybeans in a ratio of 2:1:1 with a protein content of about 16%, a good number for laying hens. I would like to eventually stop using soy and corn because they are over planted in this country, require huge amounts of water, and because almost all the corn and soy grown in the United States is some kind of GMO with resistance to the herbicide glyphosate. Soon GMO corn varieties resistant to the dioxin contaminated herbicide 2,4-D may be approved by the USDA. Wheat uses less water, is higher in protein than corn, and at this time is not a GMO crop (but that could happen as a variety was recently introduced for approval). Field peas are preferable to soy for the same reasons. Homegrown mangels may become a necessity, too, now that GMO sugar beets are a reality*.
During the warm months my chickens forage on grasses and clover and other plants in their pasture. They also get to eat insects like grasshoppers and cutworms. As zucchini and the other summer squashes over produce I take the surplus, boiled in water, and feed it to the chickens. They seem to eat the squash better if it is cooked first. Pigweed (Chenopodium alba and C. giganteum, Amaranthus spp.) whether weeds in the garden or intentionally planted are also part of the chickens’ summer diet (and mine, too). Chenopodium is related to beet (Beta vulgaris) and probably a source of biotin.
The high wheat/lower corn diet with added beet pulp, winter squash, potatoes, and kelp meal seems to be working well. I have not seen any nutritional deficiencies in my chickens. I have 13 laying hens who have averaged 6 eggs a day from December 1 up February 28. This is a good rate since winter is typically a time of low egg production because of the cold weather and short days. The shells are solid with a normal shape. The yolks are very yellow which I attribute to the winter squash.
As spring approaches I will gradually lower the soy in their diet and replace it with more field peas. The chicken pasture will be available again once the snow melts (soon I hope) with all sorts of edible greenery. I have planted the pasture with white clover, red clover, wild chicory, dandelion, Kentucky bluegrass, timothy grass, and orchard grass. Along the edges are plantings of raspberry, black currant, mountain ash, apple, and Juneberry. All of this makes for a varied diet.
*More on GMO crops here: http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/GMonMarketUS.pdf