I’ve talked about chicken feed before in the “What do hens eat” post. Hopefully that post also gives you an idea how important good, balanced nutrition is for hens who are laying eggs. Professional farmers are EXTREMELY precise about the feed they give their hens, and we usually change rations 5 or 6 times during a flock. I’ve debated long and hard with farmers and nutritionists the pros and cons of changing the protein level in the ration by 1/2 a percent. In the backyard flock, where egg size control and feed consumption issues are not as big of a concern, there is less control needed.
A good feed will include between 16-19% protein, and 4-4.5% calcium. You should
provide most (or all) of the birds’ nutrition via chicken feed. I prefer people use premixed, complete feed, since you know what is in the feed, but with research and care, you could mix your own feed from raw materials. The “extras” that you give your hens (scraps, bugs, etc, etc) should be considered bonus, and not part of their base ration. This post is not going to discuss a detailed description of nutrient levels, but those are ballpark targets.
Providing feed for the hens is a trickier business than it may seem. Birds have a strict and immutable social structure. If there is not enough room for all the birds to eat at once, the same (timid) bird will always be the one who is pushed away. Any time that there is competition, the SAME bird always loses. It is a good idea to put feed in at least two separate locations, far enough away from each other that the bully birds cannot guard them both.
For coop design, it is important to get the feed into your hens. This means that you don’t want freeloaders helping themselves. Rodents, birds and even pets can raid the coop and eat a LOT of the feed that was earmarked for the hens. When municipalities are
concerned with rodents or raccoons becoming a problem associated with backyard flocks, the major draw is actually the chicken feed, rather than the chickens themselves. Use feeders that are not accessible to any other beasts, and make sure your “stash” of feed, either bag or bin, is rodent and vermin proof, since animals LOVE chicken feed as an easy lunch.
One small point that slips some people’s minds is that hens teeth are….wait for it….rare. This means, that to digest their food properly, hens NEED some form of grit to seed their gizzard with. The gizzard is a muscular organ that squeezes whatever is inside it, over and over. If there are pebbles in there, the feed components are ground up. If there are not, the feed gets held in the gizzard much longer, and there is a risk of disease forming because of slow passage. One handy trick is to provide calcium chips for the birds to pick up….this provides extra calcium for use
in eggshell formation, and helps grind up the feed. Just remember that this grit or calcium chips needs to be available on an ongoing basis, since the stones in the gizzard will gradually get worn down and passed through the birds’ intestines.
Water is possibly the most critical nutrient you will give your birds. It needs to be fresh, preferably cool in summer and somewhat warm in winter. Ideally it will be running water on demand, but changing it daily is adequate. Basically, if you wouldn’t drink it, it’s not great for your chickens. Having the water in open containers that the birds can get into quickly results in a septic tank situation, so keep your waterers
sealed. Also, if you can have the water 3-4 inches off the ground, the hens will drink out of them more easily, and spill less. Also keep in mind your climate…if the temperature gets low enough to freeze the water, you need to find a way to manage it so that water is always available.
Besides dehydration and discomfort resulting from lack of water, birds won’t eat much if there is not sufficient water available. Chicken feed is dry…..it would be like eating a big bag of popcorn without having a drink….it quickly becomes less appetizing.
Mike the Chicken Vet