I raise chickens for meat and eggs. I do not give my chickens antibiotics, nor do I take them to the vet. I don’t worm them just in case, but have sent for a fecal float test when I suspected worms. Here, when a chicken or chick is sick I put it down. I believe that my flock is only as strong as its weakest member. This wasn’t always the case.
When we lost one of our chicks a couple of years ago, I found out that the rest of our chicks could be at higher risk for illness because they had a respiratory infection. Naturally I read a lot about what I could do to help them and gave them a broad spectrum anti everything to fight off what ailed them. Then I researched feeding my chickens because I wanted to give them the best possible chance for being healthy. Many people believe that giving their flocks a complete feed and restricting treats is enough. After all, their feed is formulated to provide the vitamins and nutrients that chickens need.
Like most other commercial food, chicken feed is formulated to be accessible for the consumer by using the cheapest possible ingredients and then adding synthetic supplements to it in order to meet the nutritional requirements of the animal the food was created for. Add in storage time and conditions and the food degrades. Chicken feed is usually made of wheat, soy and/or corn and if there’s any animal protein included, it’s usually fishmeal or poultry byproducts as the source. Some manufacturers say it can be used up to 4 months past the mill date, but I always stuck to the 2 month rule. You can find the mill date either on the bag itself or on the tag attached to the bottom.
I fermented feed regularly as I’d read studies showing this reduced salmonella and other nasties and lots of people on BYC were claiming it reduced their feed bills. My chickens loved it. I also used to give my flock scratch every day, a 6 grain mix from Bar Ale that does not contain corn, and sometimes I’d get some pigeon feed without corn in it that they liked. Corn was given in very limited quantities and only during the winter months. I provided greens daily along with a fruit or vegetable. My backyard does not provide a lot in the way of forage for my flock yet, although it’s something I’m working on, so I felt it was important to provide these options for them and they surely enjoyed them. They also had continuous access to the compost pile.
My flock was healthy and we had very few issues. I was careful not to overcrowd the coop and not to have too many birds for my yard. I cleaned the coop every week and raked the entire backyard every two weeks. We had no issues when adding members to the flock. In fact they were so easy going and doing so well that when I would read about problems others had, I was thankful and felt I was doing a good job.
When I lost my older birds to possible Marek’s, I decided more research was necessary. I'm starting over with 12 chicks that were exposed to those older birds. Maybe I need to change some things.
Chickens are direct descendants of Red Jungle Fowl. When these wild fowl have been processed, grain was not their primary source of food based on what was in their crops. Up to 50% was insects and other animals, the rest was berries and greens with some seeds. I found that interesting. We feed grain based foods, their “complete feed,” but they wouldn’t normally eat this as their primary source of food in the wild. Animals and insects provide amino acids and fat as well as protein.
There was a study done in which some chicks were fed a vegetarian diet and some were fed a diet including animal protein. Those fed the vegetarian diet had lower feed intake and lower body weight. The diet including animal protein was preferred roughly 1.5 times more than the vegetarian diet. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians.
Commercial feed producers are looking at ways to mass produce feed that includes insects. This isn’t for the benefit of the chickens per se, but more for the benefit of humans. There is a lot of deforestation that happens in order to grow corn and soy. That won’t be necessary if they can figure out a way to mass produce bugs and meet the standards required. Even McDonald’s is getting in on the action. Some countries have gone so far as to find out how the public feels about possibly eating a chicken that has eaten bugs before.
There was actually a study that showed that feeding grains to chicks caused them to develop larger crops and in turn, they were more resistant to bacterial infections, particularly Campylobacter jejuni. Perhaps this is why there were typically more seeds in the crops of younger Red Jungle Fowl and more greens in the crops of the older birds. My flock also enjoyed the act of pecking the ground and scratching around, and indeed studies have shown that enriching chickens environment in this way can reduce aggression.
Despite this, grains provide very little in the way of nutrition to chickens, mostly carbohydrates as they do for humans. Sprouting actually doesn’t do much in the way of providing more than the seed itself, and in fact some theorize that the energy the seeds use to sprout takes away from the nutrition that seed provides.
In my own flock, when bugs were plentiful during the summer their feed consumption decreased. Clearly they would rather eat bugs than grains, even if they were fermented in my case. My flock also showed a preference for live bugs over dehydrated during the winter. Cooked hamburger, chicken and turkey were acceptable, so were cooked eggs, but live bugs or lizards were definitely preferred. They also showed a preference for fermented feed over dry pellets.
In closing, it makes sense then to provide live bugs if possible for your flock, at the very least dehydrated if squirmy worms aren’t your thing. These can easily be grown at home or you can soak the dehydrated version first to plump them up and make them more desirable. These should replace much of the empty calories your flock gets from scratch, not be an additional treat. I see no reason not to provide greens, fruit and vegetables as chickens would forage for similar items if given the choice as well. While I continue to provide fermented feed to my flock, I have stopped providing it for every meal. It does have benefits, sometimes too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
Flock Care and Maintenance with Marek's, Part 2
Recent User Reviews
"Very Sound Information"
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jun 5, 2019
Thank you for taking the time to write this and for providing such helpful information. Glad to know someone out there is not raising chickens as pets My flock has been exposed to Marek's so like you I cull anyone who's showing signs of illness. Have you ever heard of Azomite? It's loaded with trace minerals, another thing lacking in our modern commercial diets. I sprinkle it on their feed once a week or so. They look good right now, but we take it one day at a time.
"The chickens health v the feed companies profits."
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jun 4, 2019
I really like this article, but then again I would with my views on the omnivorous nature of the chicken and my belief that a balanced and varied diet is good for all creatures.
The chickens I take care of are lucky in having extensive foraging grounds with decent foraging opportunities. My view is if this isn't the case for other chicken keepers then supplementing their commercial produced diet with a wide variety of foodstuffs will benefit the chickens long term health.