The Proper Care and Feeding of Chickens

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Backyard Chickens

Chickens are probably one of the easiest pets to take care of. As long as you supply them with food, shelter, and water, they will stay around and mostly take care of themselves. They do not do well with just one. They are flock animals and get lonely, so you should have at least two. If you have a garden, you need to create some type of barrier to prevent them from eating it, or you need to keep them in a pen. They are happiest if they have a large fenced in area (to keep them out of neighbors yards or out of the street) where they can run free, and they do need a small shelter with something that they can perch on. This keeps them safe from preditors like hawks, skunks, and the neighbor’s dog and also allows them a safe, dry place to rest that resembles the old habitat of their ancestors –tree branches–to satisfy their need to perch on a limb. Perching in trees is not really something that domestic chickens do, but they do need to perch on something!

You can buy chicken feed at the store, or you can just buy a mixture of grains and mix your own feed. When I was growing up my dad would just take wheat and dig out a shallow space in a small section of dirt, about four feet square, and he would pour in a layer of wheat. Then he would cover it up and water it really good. After a few days the grain sprouts and we would just dig up a couple of shovelfuls and toss it in to the chicken yard. Chickens love wheat or barley grass, so if you actually let it grow right in the place where they will be, they will graze on it for several days. If you want to do this, you have to keep them out of it until it is grown enough for them to eat, or they will dig it up before it has a chance to grow.

That and plenty of bugs got us enough eggs for our whole family (there were 9 kids at that time) Another thing that I have considered, since chickens require plenty of protein to keep up egg production, is to raise earthworms or maybe composting worms like red wrigglers, which are very prolific. You could also use traps to catch snails or grasshoppers, which are really abundant here in Utah. If you don’t provide them with access to plenty of bugs or other protein, you should buy laying pellets or chicken mask that has a high protein content, or they¬† will not lay as well.

The problem with pellets or mash (for me, anyway) is that I don’t know exactly what is in them, and I don’t like the idea of feeding my hens food that is not naturally grown. I am really sensitive to eggs, and certain brands of eggs when I eat them give me food poisoning symptoms. I think if we are what we eat, then chickens are what they eat, and if they are eating the equivalent of Twinkies day in and day out, then they will be more prone to disease and their eggs are not going to be as healthy for us.

Another thing to think about while feeding your chickens, is that chickens actually also need plenty of fresh greens. They can decimate an entire garden in less than two days (trust me :( I have seen it.) Spinach or beet greens are both really good, because they are great sources of iron and calcium, and they are really easy to grow. You can grow them in batches all summer long, starting them a few weeks apart so you will have fresh ones all year round. In the hot part of the summer you will want them to be partly shaded so they don’t bolt as quickly. Also, if you grow them yourself, you will know for sure that they are truly organic.

Another good source of greens for chickens would be lambs quarters, which grow wild everywhere here. You probably have them growing in your yard even. (You can read about them here at the Veggie Gardening Tips blog)

Another thing that you can do is save bits of produce like the outer leaves on lettuce that you don’t use, strawberry tops (they LOVE those) cantaloupe rinds, and other greens to feed them. The kids love to take these little treats out so much that once they took my entire green salad that I had just made for dinner. I was putting the food on the table when I discovered that the salad had just vanished! It is not hard to make sure that chickens get all the nutrition that they need, and you shouldn’t have to rely on a store bought pellet or grain mix to have great results with very healthy chickens and plenty of eggs!

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2 Comments

  1. Posted February 2, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I’m very relieved to hear that your chickens have thrived with little or no commercial feed. I want very much to raise free-range chickens this year, but am a bit put off by the books I’ve been reading about their feeding requirements. Is it really as simple as you say? I would love as much feedback about the feeding of your chickens as possible!
    TIA,
    Crystal

  2. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Crystal, yes, they are that easy! The only real challenge is getting them enough protein, because even free range it is hard for them to get enough bugs. We thought about raising red wrigglers to make up for the deficiency. (They are highly prolific type of earthworm.)