What is scratch feed, anyway?
- Scratch feed as a feeding method: It’s scratch feed if you feed it by scattering it on the ground (hens reveal morsels of feed and move it around by scratching at it with their feet).
- Scratch feed as a type of feed: Whole grains and coarsely cracked grains are suited for feeding scattered on the ground, because they’re coarse enough for hens to find and pick up individual particles, won’t blow away in the wind, and won’t turn to paste or soup on wet ground. Appropriate grains are sometimes bagged up and labeled as “scratch feed” or “scratch grains.”
Why Feed Scratch Grains?
There are different reasons to feed scratch grains:
- Taming the chickens. A one- or twice-daily feeding of scratch grains will be met with eagerness by the chickens, and if you make them come right up to you to get the grain, it will make them tame. (Chickens fed only out of bulk feeders may never get used to you.)
- Getting a good look at the chickens. By running up to you, you’ll get a close-up look at the chickens, which helps you spot any problems they might be having.
- Getting the hens out of the nest boxes. Hens like to laze around in nest boxes after laying their eggs, and egg collection is faster and more pleasant if the hens decamp of their own free will because you’ve just offered them a snack!
- Encouraging and directing foraging. The chickens will pick up any other yummy edibles that are in the vicinity of the scratch grain, and a bribe of scratch grain will get them to forage when they otherwise don’t feel like it, such as during hot or cold weather.
- Encouraging feed consumption. Similarly, if the chickens are unwell or unhappy, such as in the aftermath of being chased around by a dog, their appetite plummets and their production falls. But chickens are social eaters, even competitive eaters, and they’ll eat if other chickens are eating — especially if it looks like the food might be gone if they wait! Encouraging this kind of mini feeding frenzy helps keep the chickens going.
How Much Scratch Grain to Feed
The rule of thumb is to feed no more grain than the chickens will eat in twenty minutes. That maximizes competition, which means that even hens who are feeling under the weather will be motivated to eat something. And it doesn’t leave any feed on the ground to be eaten by wild birds and other critters you don’t want to be feeding.
If the hens are happy with their normal chicken feed, they may be satisfied with a small amount of scratch grain. My 400 hens are sometimes happy with only a couple of quarts of whole oats. But the benefit is real even if the quantities are small.
If the hens seem unusually happy to see you (and your feed bucket), they may have run out of their normal chicken feed, or (rarely) there might be something wrong with it.
Which Scratch Grains to Feed
Here are some pointers about what kinds of grains to feed:
- Whole corn is fine for chickens older than about six weeks or so. It’s cheaper and keeps better than cracked corn. Normally, in the U.S., whole corn is the cheapest grain you can buy, and chickens like it.
- Cracked corn gets moldy fairly quickly, so use it or lose it. Coarsely cracked corn is better than finely cracked corn, even for baby chicks.
- Whole wheat is a wonderful scratch feed. Chickens get more excited by scratch grains that are different from what’s in their normal feed, and most feeds are corn-based, not wheat-based or oat-based, so that helps. Wheat grains are small enough that baby chicks can eat them when they’re a week old or so.
- Cracked wheat is can be a good feed, though I’ve never seen cracked wheat that isn’t too dusty and floury to be a good scratch feed. I don’t like it when my feed blows away on the wind before it even reaches the ground! It also gets moldy far more quickly than whole wheat.
- Whole oats contain compounds that stunt the growth of chicks, though they’re fine for chickens above six weeks or so. The high fiber content of whole wheat seems to inhibit feather-picking and cannibalism. Oats are often rather expensive, but I feed them anyway, in small quantities, for variety.
- Rolled oats have the same objections as cracked grains: it raises the price, shortens the shelf life, and since chickens do fine on whole grain, why bother?
- Commercial scratch grains. These are a mixture of different cracked and whole grains, usually not too dusty, but are typically too finely cracked for my purposes. (Let’s face it: I like feeding whole grains.) If that’s what you have available, use it.
More about Feeding
G. F. Heuser’s classic poultry nutrition book, Feeding Poultry, tells you everything you need to know about the nuts and bolts of feeding your chickens. Written long enough ago that free range and scratch feeding were still practiced commercially, it’s a wealth of otherwise forgotten information, useful to anyone who farms chickens on a non-industrial scale. I liked this book so much that I republished it myself, under my Norton Creek label. Check it out!