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Chicken feed

Finding the right chicken feed has been an ongoing problem for us......

For a while we thought the solution was chicken layer pellets, they are uniform, so the chickens don't pick through them, but you never really know what's in them.  I finally realised that the big label on the sack advising me not to feed the pellets to ruminants was due to the waste animal material in the feed, that's why the protein content was so high.  I don't exactly have a problem with feeding meat to the chickens, but when I don't know exactly what meat products are in the pellets and when the cattle are hanging around trying to eat any spilled pellets, I don't think its very safe.  If you look hard enough, you can find vegetarian pellets, but some of these contain soybean to boast the protein, and I'm not too happy about feeding that either....

We gave up on pellets and started buying a nice mixed grain produced by our local stock feed store.  Unfortunately our chickens are very picky, they don't seem to like wheat or sorghum, so these seeds were picked out while they ate the corn and the sunflowers.  Seems like a waste when half the feed ends up on the ground, and just attracts mice.  The chickens also tend to leave the fines in the bottom of the feeder, which  gets wasted as well.

the fines that don't get eaten
Recently we decided that if they like corn and sunflowers so much, we should just feed them cracked corn and sunflower seeds (we usually buy black sunflowers, as they are cheaper than the grey ones and protein content is the same, any idea why there's a price difference?).  The guy at the stock feed store was worried that this would not be a complete food, however with the chickens free ranging, they should be picking up a lot of what they need out in the paddock, ideally we should only be supplementing the feed that they can find for themselves, but I wanted to make sure, so I did some research (or tried anyway).

(By free-ranging I mean that we keep them in tractors on pasture, moving them around every couple of days, as well as letting the chickens out of the tractors most days, as long as they are safe from the kelpies).

Its quite difficult to find information on chicken feed that's not targeted to industrial producers, or just too vague to make any decisions (like "use a layer mash").  Most industrial advice is about what you can get away with, the main strategy for increasing protein content (and pump out maximum eggs) is to add either animal products or soy.  I have also seen a domestic chicken pellet with "yolk pigmenter" included, no thanks!

cracked corn
What I have been able to work out is that the cracked corn we buy has a protein content of 6%, and typically an energy content of 13900 kJ/kg.  Sunflower seeds can have protein up to 24%, with energy content of 23850 kJ/kg.  Sunflower seeds are more expensive that cracked corn, and are deficient in the amino acid lysine, so its good to feed some cracked corn to ensure a balance of amino acids and to reduce feed costs, even though sunflower seeds are the higher energy and protein feed.

sunflower seeds
Apparently, a hen needs about 700 kJ of energy per day to produce eggs and to free-range, and about 18g/day of protein.  A hen can achieve most of her energy and protein needs just from eating cracked corn (about 300g per hen per day), but by adding sunflowers to the diet, the total feed requirement reduces.  For example feeding 50/50 cracked corn and sunflowers reduces the feed requirements to about 120g per hen per day.  The ideal ratio depends on the price of sunflower seeds relative to cracked corn (I did a spreadsheet, you can tell, can't you?).  The more sunflower seeds consumed, the less overall feed and overall energy needs to be consumed to achieve enough protein, so I think we should feed as much sunflower seeds as we can afford (another stock feed person told us that it would make the hens' feathers fall out, but I've seen no evidence so far apart from normal moulting!).  I just need to double-check the prices now.  So far we have had much less food wasted, so even though buying cracked corn is more expensive than mixed grain (some weeks it is about the same, our stock feed just charges a margin on whatever he pays), it is working out cheaper as we don't have to use as many bags per week.

We have found the best way is to fill up the feeders with cracked corn and feed the sunflowers separately in the afternoon, this stops them from picking through the food and spilling it.  We have reduced spillage and food cost by feeding this way.  Its hard to tell if we have affected egg production because its slow anyway at this time of year.  Can't wait for spring and lots of eggs and milk again!!

minerals and shell grit
Of course there are other factors to consider as well as energy and protein, but I hope that free-ranging our hens on grass means that they have access to plenty of vitamins and minerals in their diet (both from plants and bugs).  We also give them a mix of minerals and shell grit.

Enjoying the new corn diet :)

What/how do you feed your chickens and how much do they waste?

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor


  1. Hey, Liz. Thanks so much for this post. We are very new at raising chickens so are still fumbling our way through. We are just on the mixed grain and pellets at the moment. The girls get tot free range most of the time. I have even been planting some of the grain into trays to let it sprout to about 3cm for them. Our vege man is really good and lets us take lots of scraps. I have even planted extra chard as they seem to love this.
    I love how much research you have done. It is really helpful. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on the comments here to see what others are feeding their chooks.

  2. We feed pellets but I haven't seen any warning on the bag, I will look again after your post. I also give them scratch feed which is a mixture of cracked corn and various grains. They love the stuff but doesn't have the stuff for layers so I give it to them as an afternoon supplement. Also some whole corn on the cob, it gives them something to do and the rooster picks it off the cob for the hens, makes him feel important.

  3. Hmm very interesting...
    I give mine pellets and a scratch mix too with seeds, corn and grit in it, both of which they polish off in minutes of me filling up the trays... I often worry that they don't get enough of a balanced diet though because I don't often free range them (too many past fox attacks and a growing, unfenced garden.
    I also live in a household of two and so don't make enough scraps for the chickens and the compost!

    It is interesting to read your research, and I agree - the advice from feed suppliers is so wishy washy!
    Keep us posted on how you go!

    I often think that chickens are naturally scavengers and their guts are used to making do with what they have access to. I wonder if that's the case for chickens in a run too?

  4. Hey Liz - Some handy info here for a new chook owner like myself. Thanks. We haven't really settled on a final feeding system yet so its good to get some insight.

    I'm curious about the difference (if any) you mean when talking about your free range chickens in this post and those in the chicken tractors you have mentioned in other posts. I think I'm moving towards having some free range chooks sleeping in the coop close to the house (laying eggs) and then some working the pasture in tractors (meat). Maybe you let your tractor hens loose every now and then which id something I hope to test?

  5. Another great post, Liz! Here in the United States it's almost impossible to find feed that is not genetically modified, so we have to travel two hours to stock up on non-GMO feed (it's a mash). We have, however, talked quite a bit about growing or mixing our own feed, which would be much more sustainable. Like you, we move our chickens around every few days, but we use electric netting to control where they range. Anyway, I'm going to forward this link to my husband!

  6. Good reference for someone like me... would like to try keeping chickens in the future...

  7. Great post. I just wanted to return the blog visit and thank you for the comment on mine, so I was pleased to find you talking about DIY chicken feeds. Very gross about the yolk pigments. Interesting that your chickens don't care for the wheat! I glean unthreshed heads and toss them in the chicken yard; they know exactly what to do with them and waste no time. They especially love the corn and sunflower seeds. I grew Truckers Favorite field corn last year for them (and us). It has smaller kernels so I fed it whole. Very easy.

    We are slowly working toward raising all our own feeds. It's true most of the advice is geared toward commercial production. Hopefully as more folks homestead, we should get more information geared toward homestead chickens.

  8. That's wonderful that you were so in tune to your flocks needs and were able to accommodate them! Like Laura we go for the non-gmo feed and that comes in a mash, which can be pretty easy to waste sometimes.

  9. My chooks do the same. I feed them a scratch mix but they waste half of it. I was planning on just getting cracked corn and the small brown round seeds (mometarily forgotten what they are called) so was pleased to see your post.

    I give them a hand full of worms from our worm farm each day to ensure they are getting enough protein.

  10. hi Liz
    a while ago Peter (he is animal nutritionist by training) that the reason you shouldn't feed chicken feed to cattle or horses is that chicken feed usually contains anti-coxidosis stuff that is poisonous to them.
    Some feeds don't contain it but are made om same production lines and therefore still contain the warning ('might contain traces of nuts')

    regarding the combination of sunflower seeds and cracked corn; peter thinks that you may indeed get some problems regarding amino acid composition (he hasn't looked it up). he said you'll see soon enough if they produce less eggs or don't put on enough weight.
    A problem with sunflower seeds is the amount of lignin which may affect the actual feed uptake.

    I guess that the free ranging, minerals and grit will help in balancing it all out.

    btw don't remember details but there is something with black seeds that makes them harder to process in oilseed plants. that may be reason for price difference but am not sure about it.

  11. I feed lay crumbles, but they only get a scoop a day for 12 chickens, as they free range loose here. I am fortunate enough to have 2 Maremma LGD's protecting my chickens, goats and sheep, so the chickens can range as far as they like. They seem to be doing well, in fact two of the hens have chicks now. My dogs have been a great investment for us!

  12. Thanks for all the comments, lots to think about!

    The chickens seem to be doing well so far, much less corn is wasted and they love "sunflower time" in the afternoons! Only a few eggs a week, but this is normal over winter, so we will see in summer if egg production picks up again.

    I have Harvey Ussery's "the small scale poultry flock", which I know has more about producing your own chicken feed, I just haven't got to reading it all yet. I'd love to grow them some grain and will definitely be feeding worms as soon as my farm starts to produce excess. He also talks about feeding the chickens only a minimum of feed so that they go and forage for their own rather than just gorging on what you provide. Unfortunately ours have been ranging onto our neighbour's property lately, must be good forage over there! We will be looking at getting some electric netting so that we can have more roosters out at the same time and so that we can practice using it - will be important when we eventually get to a larger flock of layers.

    In terms of free-ranging, we do have a combination of tractors and the mature hens are out and about most days, with only the smaller chickens permanently in the tractors, we move them regularly though, so they get plenty of grass and bugs compared to chickens in a fixed pen.

  13. Ours get whole wheat, sunflower seeds, dried meal worms, and wet fishy cat food. They refuse to eat pellets!

  14. I think the Canola oil in the pellets I was trying to give my chickens is not good for them. I wouldn't eat Canola oil myself so why would I give it to the chickens. I think Sunflower seeds is not only good for protein but for Vitamin E and a much better monounsaturated oil for them. Good fats are important for chickens too!


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