If you want to eat good eggs, feeding your chickens good food is the first step. Going too cheap on chicken feed is a false economy. The right diet will also keep them much healthier, without the need for antibiotics and other medicines.
Eggs are often described as the perfect food because they are so nutritious. It’s not surprising that laying one takes a lot out of a chicken, and you need to replace that in their diet.
The basics of good chicken nutrition
According to the RSPCA, the best diet is a good brand chicken food, which balances energy, protein and vitamin requirements according to the stage of life and season.
Young chickens need feed with high levels of energy and protein to aid their rapid growth and feather development. They also require feed that’s suited to their small beaks. When chickens are on the lay, the best feed is a commercial pellet formulated with vitamins and minerals, including calcium, to provide a balanced diet.
Having said that, chickens love mixed grains (commonly corn, wheat and sunflower seeds) so it’s a good idea to alternate grains with pellets, perhaps one at night and one in the morning.
This can be supplemented by table scraps, free-ranging to forage for worms and insects, and fresh leafy vegetables.
Food preferences vary from breed to breed, flock to flock or even chicken to chicken. Some chickens love to pull a sunflower head to pieces and extract the seeds. Others will ignore it. Some love silver beet, others don’t.
Feeding your chickens leftovers
A quick rule of thumb: if you can eat it, so can your chickens. So yes, give them table scraps. Rice, noodles, bread, porridge, cooked pasta and legumes are all acceptable, but be sparing with them because they will displace other foods that are nutritionally more valuable.
Never feed them mouldy foods as they can be toxic to chickens, and avoid food high in salt as too much can make them sick.
If you’ve ever seen a chicken digging for worms you’ll know they’re carnivorous. You can give them fresh meat scraps.
When you’re feeding leftovers, bear in mind that chickens don’t have teeth! That means they need things they can peck, or they need food cut into bite-size chunks. For a rough guide think of the size of grains in a commercial poultry mix.
An alternative is to soak bread and other scraps in milk or water to make a sort of soft porridge or mash.
Clean water is essential
It goes without saying that clean water is essential. Empty water containers regularly and wash out any algal build-up. If you live in a cold climate, make sure the water hasn’t frozen overnight!
Chickens are forever scuffing the ground so make sure to raise water containers above the danger area. Hanging plastic waterers are a practical solution to stop birds dirtying the water with dirt or droppings.
Supplementing with calcium
If your eggs are breaking too easily your chickens likely have a calcium deficiency. You can grind up the leftover dried eggshells and sprinkle that over their food. An easier alternative is to buy a shell grit mix (available from pet stores) and have it available in a separate container.
Shell grit serves a double purpose: it supplies the calcium chickens need and also helps them grind down food in their gizzards. You can also add a calcium supplement to their water.
Foraging in the garden
After gardening, throw a heap of weeds into the yard and watch your chickens joyfully turning it over to pick out the insects and choicest bits of greenery, which help to maintain a rich yolk colour.
Beware, however, of poisonous plants such as deadly nightshade or their cousins, the tomato and potato plant.
If you’re home during the day, it’s a lovely idea to let your flock forage further afield in your garden. You will be rewarded by the gentle clucking of contented chooks exploring the garden and finding new delights.
Remember chickens are a great pest exterminator. But also remember they’re very fond of fresh greens, so you might want to protect your spinach and lettuce plants!