Keeping a well-fed flock:
Providing good food and clean water for your birds is essential, as for any living thing that you are responsible for, whether animal pet, or the family!. The quality of the food and water is at the top of the list when the animal being kept gives us back a consumable product. Considering here our feathered friends, we are talking about the eggs - by far the biggest reason that the majority of keepers have poultry. I’m sure many of you have heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’, well, where our birds are concerned, the eggs are produced from the food that they eat, we then eat those eggs. Ensuring a good diet for our birds, ensures in turn that we are eating a quality ‘product’, with all the health benefits that can bring. So, consider well the diet of your birds!
Last month, included within my part two of ‘starting with poultry’ I touched on the subject of feeding your birds just to give the basic idea. The aim now is to cover it in a bit more detail, with some do’s, don’ts and tips from my own experiences.
From birth to egg production………
From the day they are born it is essential that their diet is right. The baby birds, ‘chicks’ can often face a barrage of possibilities against their survival, but if the diet is right this gives them a good solid fighting chance of making a go of it. For the first 24 hours a chick will depend quite nicely on its own yoke sack, however after that you will be in charge of providing the feed, whether there is a mother hen, or just you and an incubator. We refer to this feed as ‘chick crumb’, it has a fine consistency, rather like a very course sand. It should have the correct protein content of around 18%, essential for development. Another little tip is to not worry too much about trying to feed a different diet to the mother hen whilst only allowing the chicks to have the crumb. This all gets a little difficult with the chicks also having access to the mums feed. We tend to just put out the chick crumb, the mother will do fine on that along with the chicks, in fact a little extra protein for the mum to help her recuperate after sitting on the eggs for so long will not go a miss! Chick crumb is available as medicated, or non-medicated. The medicated contains a ‘coccidiostat’, this is to prevent ‘Coccidiosis’, an intestinal disease mostly proving fatal in chicks. (Please note, medicated chick crumbs are not to be used for rearing waterfowl, ducks etc) It seems there are varied opinions as to how long the chicks should be fed the chick crumb, ranging from 5 to 8 weeks. Certainly the minimum is 5 weeks, as to how much longer, in our own experience we have judged this dependent on the growth / development of the batch / breed of chicks, if unsure feed to 8 weeks. Beyond 8 weeks the birds are referred to as ‘growers’ to around 16/18 weeks. Growers feed is available as pellets or mash (I’ll explain the difference shortly), with a protein content of around 15%. Convert from the chick crumb by mixing in the pellets a few at a time over a week or so. Beyond this I would recommend introducing layers feed in a similar manner around 2 weeks before expected start of egg laying. This is to ensure a good intake of calcium for production of the egg shells. Point of lay (POL) is generally regarded as being between 18-22 weeks, breed and time of year dependent. In our experience, 19 weeks is most common, so start weaning off the growers feed at around 17-18 weeks.
Chick crumb for the whole family
Pellets or mash? the deliberation……..
One of the most common questions we get asked by beginners here at Mantel Farm is ‘should I feed pellets or mash?’ There is no particular straightforward answer, though I’ll do my best: Firstly, the content, there should be no nutritional difference (except maybe very small between different makes), each should have everything that the birds need to grow strong and healthy and lay eggs regularly. In my opinion, a good mash should be of coarse consistency, like a gritty sand. There are some makes that resemble flour, we find that most birds just scratch this everywhere, possibly looking for something better? As I said, the pellets are of the same ingredients but have been formed via a pellet making machine. To be honest, as to which you use often just becomes a matter of judgement, experience and opinion! It is said that mash can be wasteful as it has a dust content which the birds tend to leave in the bottom of the feeders, or is lost on the ground. On the other hand, mash is a ‘more to do’ feed, the birds can see choice, it is worth a forage and a scratch to see what can be found, hence occupying more of their day and possibly preventing boredom related issues. Recommending one over the other will usually depend on circumstance. For instance, birds with less space will often do better on mash, due to the ‘more to do’ part, even a possible small wastage can be overlooked if they are occupied and happy. In larger areas pellets work well, especially free range as the birds are more likely to have their fill early in the day then go off foraging later. Whatever you decide, if it results in swapping feed, always do this over a week or so to prevent digestive problems and the possibility of causing birds to go off lay for a while.
The mash and the pellets I would refer to as standard day-to-day feed, this should be available during all daylight hours in the feeders (again, just a reminder to hang them where possible, this prevents many issues). Where possible take feed in at night, or hang much higher to prevent our furry (vermin) friends from getting an easy meal – if they can feed, they’ll set up home and come to stay!
Time for a treat…….
Standard feed is one thing, but what about treat feed? There is now a huge array of treat feeds available for poultry and we do see rather a lot of spoilt hens! Too much treat feed can unfortunately upset the proper balanced diet provided by the standard feed, and often less eggs can follow. Feeding greens and other treat foods can be responsible for the nice dark yokes that everyone loves to see, but often there is less of them. A fairly standard treat feed is mixed corn, it’s a ‘give me something to do as I’m getting bored mid to late afternoon feed’! I’d recommend scattering this around the pen at the appropriate time to keep them busy as the day draws to a close (at an approx. rate of a small handful per bird per day). It can also be great to get them back in to the pen if out free ranging. I show them a pot full, rattle it about, maybe give them a little, then throw the rest into the pen, generally they all follow it straight in, job done. (Well, except for the usual one who refuses to believe it is bed time, you know the one, we’ve spoken about her before!) In our shop we sell all sorts of different seed and grain mixes in bags and tubs, we also sell hanging bird feeder blocks, not for wild birds, but specifically for chickens! We generally recommend that mixed corn and other mixed grain / seed treat feeds to represent no more than 30% of their daily ration. Ideally all treat feed should be fed after midday to ensure that the birds intake of nutrients before that time from their standard feed is up around 80% of that days requirement. It is worth noting here also that the digestion of mixed corn produces heat inside the birds system, so being a good thing for the cold winter nights, but not so good in the hottest parts of the summer, when, if fed too much mixed corn, the extra heat produced can lead to self-feather pecking! Note also that mixed corn has a fairly high fat content so too much of a good thing (in the eyes of a chicken) can lead to overweight birds, and very few eggs! Don’t panic, you can still spoil you birds, but a little of this and that, a good varied diet of treats and not over done is best.
The question of greens……..
I think if you asked the question ‘so, what greens do they like?’ to a fairly new chicken keeper of around six months experience, the answer may well be ‘everything in my entire garden, they’ve eaten it all except the mud!’ Scarily, if you don’t manage your birds properly, restricting their access to your cherished plants and flower beds, your veg bed (except maybe out of growing season), and perhaps your pampered lawn, then this may well be your answer to! Left to their own devices it certainly would appear that there is very little that grows that they won’t eat! In fact, there is quite a bit that they are not keen on, though often even those pants can be accidentally destroyed in the hunt for the good ones. Assuming that you have taken all the necessary precautions, then most of greens they eat will be those that you feed to them, or allow them access to. If I tried to list all the plants / veg that the chickens can safely eat, it would be extensive, and probably fill this entire magazine! As a general rule, as far as veg is concerned, if we can eat it they can eat it, if we need it cooked, so do they. There are a few exceptions on the cooking bit, but if the rule is followed we’ll all be happy. Since the outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001 it has been illegal to feed any kitchen scraps (waste), vegetables, meat or other to any farm animals, back garden chickens are still categorised as such, even though you might think of them as family pets. Fruit and vegetables can be given, picked straight from the plant / ground, or specifically bought for the purpose, as long as any necessary preparation / cooking takes place outside of your kitchen. To slow them down a bit, try hanging the greens in a mesh bag or basket, just above head height, making them work for it keeps them fit, and busy for far longer! Hanging a cabbage or head of broccoli in a similar manner will also work well.
As far as other plants are concerned (domestic or wild) my true belief is that they know far more than we do about what is poisonous and what isn’t, and they can’t ‘google it!’ Over the years I have watched various birds ignore certain known poisonous plants (sensible I think), only for another to come along and eat it (oh no I think), and live many more years to tell the tale!, so what do we know? Just on a side, there’s a plant in our garden that all literature will tell you is very poisonous, it’s a stunning pant and flowers wonderfully every year – though it never lasts very long, why?, because as soon as it flowers our geese come long and eat it down to the stem, flowers leaves and all, and have done for many years – apparently it should kill them! With this in mind I tend to just let our birds make their own judgements, possibly, very occasionally one might make the odd mistake, but it seems for 99% of the time they are all having a fantastic free range life, and the eggs are great!
Before we leave the subject of greens, just a quick word on their main stay favourite – grass. If they only had one thing, it would be grass, they can (in numbers or given time) devour your entire lawn, then shortly followed by digging out and eating the roots, then no more lawn! – even sheep leave the roots! There is however a slight myth that they can’t have long grass. To be fair that depends on the definition of ‘have’. Certainly if you were to pick handfuls of long grass and throw in to your chickens, then this could potentially be very bad. They are most likely to eat lots of whole strands, with a likely outcome being a blockage forming in their crop, the long strands being extremely difficult to digest, the bird may become ‘crop bound’ and an infection known as ‘sour crop’ may ensue. If the birds are allowed to graze in areas where there is long grass, it is more likely that they will only bite off more manageable pieces from the tops, rather than taking from the bottom and eating the long strands. This I have noted from my own experience of watching them in such areas. Something to be more aware of is allowing them to graze in areas of dry long grass in the summer, although far less attractive, even shorter pieces are far harder to digest if taken when dry.
What about meat?.........
Whether your birds are able to free range or not, a form of meat will always be a part of their diet. We are talking of course about them eating insects, worms, slugs and the like. Even confined in a small run there will always be a certain amount that will find their way in to the chickens domain and get consumed. Out free ranging many more will be foraged on a daily basis, it is their natural instinct, a form of hunting! Outside of this small carnivorous part of their diet you are well advised not to feed meat of any kind to your birds (a reminder again, it is illegal to do so).
All that food, but they have no teeth!
To help digest their food your birds need grit, small pieces of angular stone and shell around 1-3mm across, this sits in their gizzard and helps to grind up the food as it passes through. Chicken grit is available in various forms, both soluble (limestone/oyster shell) and non-soluble (flint/granite). We sell each separately, however, we always recommend our bags of mixed grit which contain shell and stone, this allows your birds to decide which they need and when. The grit can be scattered on the ground for them to find, aiding in the ‘more to do factor’, or simply put out in a small feed cup on the side of the pen near the main feeder. Just remember, a good supply of grit is essential, it is their teeth!
Water, the giver of life………
So what about water – ‘the elixir of life on our planet’: Water is the number one essential part of a chicken’s diet, in fact, they start to struggle after just 24 hours if deprived of this life giving element. Although they will drink from the most disgusting dirty mud and poo filled puddles, often seemingly choosing them over the clean drinking water that we have provided!, it is still good practise to provide fresh clean water each day. They can certainly stomach far more muck in their water than we could even consider, often quite hardy to it, however, there are plenty of germs out there waiting to get them, so hopefully we are helping them avoid such problems. Always hang drinkers where possible to prevent them scratching muck into them, and more importantly to prevent them being knocked over. In the summer consider adding a second drinker to ensure a good supply – thirst and evaporation are both much higher! In the winter ensure water is not frozen, in the most severe low temperatures this will involve checking more than once in the morning. A good tip is to have a spare drinker, one out in the run, and one in the house, thawed ready to go back out when the first has frozen.
Water is essential
There is not a great deal more to say about the water, and indeed the food, other than to summarise: ‘ensure they always have some!’