People often ask me if chickens on free range need to be fed, or can they get what they need by foraging? And if they do need feeding, what kind of feed to they need? Just grain, or what?
In the old days, when people in town threw their garbage into the street and those in the country threw it out the back door, chickens and pigs ran around taking cleaning this up for you, and this kind of feeding would support some number of creatures, which would in time grow up and provide you with eggs or meat. On farms, the horses and cows would be spilling some of their grain, too, and other kinds of wastage would contribute to the chickens’ diet.
Add some corn to their diet, and you get better results. This is pretty much how things stood on the average farm in 1900, where Milo Hastings reported that the average laying hen produced 83 eggs a year — most of them in the spring. The hens would go broody and produce a batch of chicks, which under the circumstances would grow very slowly. If you were lucky, the cockerels would reach market weight 4-6 months later and the pullets would start laying in November, because if they weren’t laying then they wouldn’t start until spring.
Because the amount of feed you can find by foraging in the wintertime is slim to none, people sold all their non-essential chickens before Christmas and overwintered as few as possible. These carefully selected few still produced virtually nothing until spring because they were malnourished. On farms where grain was fed liberally, the chickens were merely vitamin- and protein-deficient, while on farms where chickens had to fend for themselves, they were starved for calories as well.
That’s the old-fashioned way, the “natural” way. Yuck! So how can we make things a little more unnatural and a whole lot better?
This is where “balanced chicken feed” comes in. All the nutrients the chicken needs in one convenient package. When the concept was first introduced, nutritional science was in its infancy, so a “balanced diet” was missing some important elements. Vitamins hadn’t been discovered yet, proteins weren’t very well understood, and mineral requirements involved some hand-waving. And yet the concept of “Keep a trough full of balanced chicken feed in front of the chickens at all times” was a great success, and could almost double the production of the average flock, with most of the increase being in the fall and winter — the time of high prices.
By trial and error, people figured out that “steamed beef scrap” gave good results, though they didn’t know way. As it turns out, steamed beef scrap contained not only meat (which has all the protein and most of the vitamins a chicken needs), but significant amounts of bone meal as well, and this provided all the minerals for which the requirements were unknown. Add grain to this, and you have a balanced diet, right?
Well, not quite. Some of the vitamins were under-represented, and Vitamin D was entirely missing. Green feed takes care of all of this except for the Vitamin D, which chickens synthesize via UV light, just like humans, so if you give the chickens lots of green feed year-round and you get them to spend a lot of time outdoors, then you have a balanced diet!
Later, all the nutrients were figured out, and now chickens can be raised easily in total confinement, with only scientifically formulated chicken feed to eat. The nutritional requirements of chickens are better understood than those of any other creature, including humans.
(Sadly, the industry aims for least-cost feed formulation rather than maximum quality, so the diets fed to broilers and laying hens keep them productive, but the eggs and meat have far less nutritional value than they could. That’s one reason why pastured eggs and poultry test so well nutritionally — green plants are loaded with nutrients that allow the chicken and eggs to be much higher in vitamins and Omega-3 and lower in saturated fat.)
Over the years, every different method of feeding chickens was tested over and over, and the most consistent result was that if you kept a feeder full of high-quality chicken feed in front of the chickens at all times, you made a lot more money. That is true of every management system and every feeding system, across the board.
Supplemental feed like grain or scraps or garden waste is okay, and the chickens will eat a lot of it if it’s palatable and less if it’s not, but never take away the balanced chicken feed to try to force them to eat more of something than they want, because that’s the surest way to lower productivity and profits.
Want to learn more about feeding chickens? Then you need to read Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser, which I reprinted because it’s the most thorough and accessible book on the topic.