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February 2024

What do Chickens Eat and Drink?

Health & Nutrition

It’s often assumed chickens are vegetarians…but guess what? They’re actually omnivores! They need to eat a variety of plant and animal derived products to get all their nutritional needs covered. Read all about their dietary needs on the Pet Smarts blog.

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When it comes to raising chickens, one of the most important aspects of their care is their diet. Knowing what chickens eat and drink is essential to keeping your chooks healthy and thriving. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore everything you need to know about the dietary needs of chickens, from their primary feed to favourite treats and hydration requirements.

Key Factors For A Happy & Healthy Chicken

To stay happy and healthy, your chicken’s diet must consist of a variety of nutritional sources that provide:

  • Energy (in the form of sufficient calorific intake)
  • Protein
  • Fibre
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Calcium
  • Your chicken will also need constant access to clean, fresh water.

What Do Chickens Eat?

You should try and give your chickens a similar range of nutrients to what they would get in the wild, things like insects, worms, meaty bones or meat scraps, seeds, and other plant material. This will also encourage their natural foraging behaviours. Your backyard is unlikely to provide everything your chooks need, so commercial chicken feeds are a must to cater to all your chook’s dietary needs.

Their main diet can be broken down into three main categories:

Chicken Feed: Feed should form the bulk of your chicken’s diet as it’s specially formulated to cater to their dietary needs and ensures they get the right energy, protein and vitamin requirements. There are different types of chicken feed to cater to different chicken life stages – make sure your select the right feed for your chickens.

Grains: Chickens enjoy grains like corn, wheat, and barley. These can be given as a supplement to their regular feed.

Fruits and Vegetables: Chickens love vegetables and can eat a variety of them, including silver beet, broccoli, spinach, carrots, cabbage, bok choy and cucumbers. These provide essential vitamins and minerals.

Hot Tip

Hens are toothless, so they use grit (small, insoluble stones about 3mm in diameter) to grind their feed in the gizzard. Grit is a must when feeding chooks coarse grains like wheat or any other food that needs to be broken down.

What Treats to Give Chickens

While their primary diet is essential, chickens also appreciate occasional treats:

  • Mealworms: These protein-rich treats are a favorite among chickens and can be used for training or as rewards.
  • Fruits: Chickens can have certain fruits like apples, bananas, watermelon, and berries in moderation. They provide essential vitamins and a sweet treat.
  • Human Food: Leftover kitchen and table scraps like soaked bread, sprouted grain, pasta, and vegetable peels can be given as treats.

They can also have salad leftovers (but no dressing) and vegetables (no seasoning). Avoid anything mouldy or spoiled as spoiled food can contain toxins which are harmful to your hens (and can undermine their laying performance). If there is any food you're unsure is safe, it's best to check with your veterinarian before offering to your chickens.

Hot Tip

Kitchen scraps should only be an occasional treat because too much can lead to nutrient dilution, with their lower nutrient content ‘diluting’ the good stuff in commercial feed.

What Do Chickens Need to Eat to Lay Eggs?

For optimised egg production you should feed your hens layer feed. Commercially available layer feed is specially formulated for egg-laying hens. It contains essential nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamins needed for egg production. It should only be fed to chickens who are aged 20 weeks or over.

What are the Different Types of Chicken Feed?

Starter Feed: When you first introduce chicks to your flock, they need a specialised diet known as starter feed. It is high in protein and contains the necessary nutrients to support their rapid growth and development during the first few weeks of life.

Grower Feed: As your chickens mature, they transition to grower feed. This type of feed has slightly lower protein content than starter feed and is designed to support steady growth without excess weight gain.

Layer Feed: Once your hens reach egg-laying age, typically around 20 weeks, they require layer feed. Layer feed is specifically formulated to provide the essential nutrients needed for egg production. It's crucial for ensuring strong eggshells and a consistent egg-laying cycle.

Broiler Feed: If you're raising chickens for meat, broiler feed is what you need. It's formulated to promote rapid weight gain and muscle development in meat birds. High-protein content is a key feature of broiler feed.

Medicated Feed: Medicated feed contains additives like antibiotics to prevent and treat common poultry illnesses. It's typically used when there's a risk of disease within the flock.

Organic Feed: This is feed made from organic grains and does not contain synthetic additives or antibiotics. Natural feed is also available, though this is different to organic feed. Check the packaging for the specific ingredients of your feed.

Non-GMO Feed: Non-GMO feed is free from genetically modified organisms and is a popular choice among those who want to avoid genetically modified ingredients in their chickens' diet.

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What are the Different Forms of Chicken Feed?

Feed can come in a variety of shapes and sizes: here's a rundown of the different types of feeds you may come across.

Mash & Crumble: Nutritionally complete feed, it's often used as a starter feed as pellets can be too big for small chickens.

Pellets: Mash that has been compressed into bite-sized pieces so chickens cannot pick and choose what to eat.

Scratch: This feed type is made up of grains in some form. It is usually thrown on the ground for chickens and it provides enrichment, but is not a nutritionally complete feed on its own.

Medicated Feeds: Species-specific feed. An example would be medicated chick starter and grower to prevent coccidiosis.

What Do Chickens Drink?

Chickens need water to stay hydrated, and must have access to fresh and clean drinking water always. Good water quality should also be a priority: if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t give it to your chickens! Their water should be free from chemical contaminants, waterborne parasites and infectious agents.

To help keep the water clean, keep it off the ground and away from bird poo.

Your chickens’ level of water consumption will depend on:

  • Size
  • Level of egg production
  • Season
  • The type of water dispenser or drinker you’re using
Age Weekly Water Intake per Chicken
1 week 200ml
5 weeks 750ml
10 weeks 1000ml
15 weeks 1100ml
20+ weeks 1500ml

What Do Chickens Drink Out Of?

Chickens drink out of specially formulated drinkers that should be hung so the base is above the ground, but within easy drinking range to stop water from being contaminated with faeces or dirt. Chicken waterers need to be tough to withstand the treatment they’ll get from thirsty birds, day after day. They are made of sturdy materials like UV treated plastic or quality metals.

How do I Check My Chicken is Healthy?

It's important to regularly check the body condition of your chickens. Feathers can disguise if your chicken is losing weight, and the flocking mentality of chickens means that by the time an owner notices one is losing weight, they can be emaciated by the time they reach a vet.

Feel around the breast of your chicken to make sure its nice and plump, and that the keel bone is not prominent. Weigh your chickens weekly to ensure they're maintaining their weight.

FAQS About Feeding Your Chickens

Can chickens eat meat?
Yes, chickens can eat small amounts of cooked meat scraps, but it should not be a significant part of their diet.

What should I avoid feeding my chickens?

Avoid giving chickens foods high in salt, sugar, or caffeine. Also, refrain from feeding them avocado, which is toxic. They're also unable to have chocolate, salty foods, sauces and dressings, raw dried beans or mouldy produce. Bread should be kept to a treat food - avoid giving your chickens too much. It's also a good idea to check which ornamental plants in your yard are toxic. Chickens will peck at everything, so it's a good idea to eliminate anything that's potentially toxic from your yard.

How much should I feed my chickens?

The amount of food depends on their age and size. Follow the recommendations on the feed packaging and adjust as needed.

Do chickens need access to water all the time?

Yes, chickens require continuous access to clean water. Dehydration can lead to health issues and decreased egg production.

Can I give my chickens kitchen scraps?

Yes, most kitchen scraps are safe for chickens, but be mindful of what you offer. Avoid giving them anything spoiled or mouldy.

How do I provide grit for my chickens?

Grit, which helps chickens digest food, can be provided in a separate container, or scattered on the ground. They'll peck at it as needed.

Chicken Food

Commercial feeds are rich in nutrients, as well as being a convenient way of ensuring your chooks aren’t going hungry. PETstock sells a range of reputable chicken feed brands, including Barastoc, Coprice, Green Valley, Laucke Mills, and Peters.

Shop Chicken Food

Various sizes available