Having finally gotten my land clearer and some of my earthworks in place to deal with water flow as well as my pond in I am now turning some of my attention to growing food and plan to get chickens. As I have been planning and laying out my garden I've been looking into what I'll need to feed my chickens so that I can plant that as well as food for my family. I have found tons of information on what grown chickens like to eat but all my attempts to find out what to feed the chicks I will be getting have ended in chick starter. I was amazed to see that even here on permies that is what was recommended on the search I did! Perhaps I just didn't use the right search terms? idk. So my question is - What natural food can I feed my chicks and how should it be prepared? I am open to suggestions from knowledgeable people who raise chickens themselves regardless of if you have actually tried the method (though if you haven't actually done it please say so ). I really want to use a method that is sustainable without outside foods and supplements if at all possible. I will have to buy feed this first year or hold off getting chickens due to growing times and seasons because I am just now preparing my garden beds. I have already looked into getting only whole grains though so there won't be an issue with a food change. There will be a portion of the garden that the chickens will have exclusively for supplementing their feed the first year as well. They will have a HUGE supply of bugs of all types and sizes also, even field mice if they like them lol.
I know that many if not all animals usually can eat what the adults do once weaned (weaning doesn't apply to chickens obviously but the point is still valid) though often they must start out on it caught by the parent or "preprocessed" by them in some way. I'm thinking maybe chia, flax, millet, milo, and quinoa? Perhaps sprouted, fermented and/or processed in a food processor? I know oats and barley will likely be too tough unless cooked right? Maybe worms, crickets, grubs and ants either whole or processed? Would they need to be alive or dead? I know chickens peck at things too small for us to see as well so would a bedding of fertile earth from a forest floor covered in shavings help? I'm aware that whatever I put under the chicks must be very warm already before adding them. While I remember my grandfathers chicks being out and about at a very small size I have no idea how old they were when their mom brought them out of the little nest she hatched them in... I'm willing to either feed the first batch chick starter or get young adults but I do plan to breed chickens as well so will still need this info. We are very excited and looking forward to our new additions. Oh, they will be Buff Orpingtons btw, we were thinking 20-25 of the straight run and hoping to cull that down to 12 hens and a rooster. Thanks ahead of time to anyone with suggestions on the chick feed and feel free to offer up info you wish you had when you started as well lol!
So I think there’s a couple reasons behind chick starter being the feed of choice and I’ll do my best to cover a few of them that I can think of. I also raise chickens by the way, and have gone through the baby chick process four or five times now. So basically you get one shot and six months to grow a healthy chicken. The big key here is protein, and lots of it. Chick starter feeds are generally 21% or 22% protein, whereas the adult ration is on average 16% protein. Chicks that don’t get adequate protein from day one to about 6 months will affect them for the rest of their lives. Chick starter feeds also contain a myriad of other vitamins and minerals to help the tiny life get off to a good start. (When I speak of chick starter feeds I want to make it clear that I’m referring to organic chick starters, not manufactured crumbles made with GMO’s and not any medicated chick starter.) I as a chicken owner do my best to provide the best within my means and capacity.
You mentioned chia, flax, millet, milo and quinoa, and I will advise to go easy on the flax, like 1-2% by weight, as too much flax can cause liver problems for baby chicks and kill them. I imagine chia, millet, milo and quinoa are fine, maybe others here at Permies can offer some insight on those and the amount they can eat. Generally everything is ok as long as it’s balanced. Also, baby chicks should not eat layer feed, as those generally have extra calcium added so the layers make strong eggshells. Baby chicks can’t handle the extra calcium and it can cause kidney failure.
Chicks put outside once they can regulate their body temperature and tolerate the weather conditions outside will naturally forage and start eating grasses, forbs and any bugs they can find, supplementing their diet and eating less purchased foods.
Chickens are indeed omnivores and will, as you mentioned, eat mice when they’re older if they can catch them. They’ll also eat meat scraps from our kitchen, just no chicken or other bird/fowl. Essentially most all kitchen scraps can be given to them in moderation.
Let me know if I can answer any other questions or you need me to elaborate a little more on anything and I'll do my best. Hope this helps!
"Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books." ~ William A. Albrecht
I forgot to mention that chick starter is really only necessary until they're about 6 or maybe 8 weeks or so old, then switch to a grower/broiler ration. The chick starter is teeny tiny bits that baby chicks can swallow, and when they get a little older they can handle the coarser mill of grains in the grower/broiler ration.
"Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books." ~ William A. Albrecht
Food for chicks is a moving target. The first two weeks, they are so small and so fragile, anything other than chick starter crumbles would be (in my opinion) putting their health at risk. Chicks that just forage in nature behind their mama hen have a very high attrition rate. You'll see mama hen lose over 50% of her chicks in the first two weeks that way. Getting them off to a good start is critically important.
By the third week, they want to start pecking at greens but they will not get enough nutrition that way. Their growing bodies need protean if you want them to start laying at 6 months. They are not big enough to eat worms or really know how to attack even a medium sized bug. In the wild, mama hen would peck at these bugs and help them tear it into small enough pieces for them to digest. But even something as small as a meal worm is too large for 3 week old chicks. Putting them outside, even for the day, may put them at risk. They still need to stay warm. If they get wet or chilled at this young age, they can easily get sick. They will start to scratch around and will want to give themselves a dust bath while outside, but they don't have the capacity to fully feed themselves. They'll peck at small grains but anything larger than an okra seed is probably too large for them.
By the fifth week, some of your larger chicks will figure out how to eat a worm (you start on one end and just keep gulping it down). But still, its doubtful that even with an environment where there is rich forage, they'll be able to supply their need for protean. They'll love a clump of lettuce or comfrey. If you mix their starter crumbles with a smashed-up banana or some left-over pasta, they'll gobble that down. By the fifth week, I'm moving my birds from the brooder to a day-cage outside so they can start to learn how to hunt and forage. I'll toss worms and grubs into the cage for them to peck at. Some will show interest. Often they'll just grab onto the grub and run with it, causing all the other birds to chase them. But actually swallowing larger bugs is still difficult. The majority of their nutrition is still coming from high protean chicken starter mix.
Only by week 7 or 8 do I feel comfortable moving them full-time from the brooder to the chicken tractor/coop. This is dependent upon the weather in your area. If it gets below 55 degrees or so at night, I'd still have a heat lamp available for them to huddle under. By this point I've usually begun taking them off starter crumbles and mixing in a greater ratio of grower mix. Grower doesn't have the high calcium that layer mix does. Too much calcium is really bad for them and can damage their growing kidneys and even kill them. If there are adult birds to show them the ropes, you can start let them free range. I do this by letting them out of the chicken tractor about an hour or two before sundown. They will not wander off too far. Once the sun sets, they'll move back to the coop (my coop is mounted on top of the chicken tractor -- up the little ramp they go for the night). By week 7 they are aggressive enough to chase flying bugs. They can scratch well enough to hunt soil bugs. They'll prefer natural foods to chicken crumbles, but I still make sure they have plenty to eat. They are still growing rapidly and you don't want them going bed at night still hungry, or you will delay egg production. A good grain for them at this point is milo or oats. Unless corn is crushed, it's still too large for them.
Integrating new birds with the old hens comes with its challenges. The old girls can be pretty hard on the new ones. The young birds will need plenty of space to get away if they start getting pecked. I will tractor them separately, and will let them out at night to forage as one flock, before putting them into separate coops for the night. I keep the rooster away from the young birds -- they don't need his affections just yet. Old birds are on calcium-rich layer feed, which isn't good for young birds. Even after week 10, they should still be eating grower, not layer feed. As for foraging, they are getting the hang of things. If its summer, the number of bugs available for them has jumped up considerably. You'll notice that they don't eat nearly as much food. They'll be able to take a full-grown comfrey plant down to the soil level in an afternoon. After week 10, they can handle most small grains and seeds. They'll attack a sunflower head and clean it up. Almost any grain except large dent-corn kernels are quickly eaten. They'll eat large grasshoppers and will easily eat worms and grubs.
By week 15, they are now one flock—no need for two tractors or two different coops. The young girls can transition to layer mix—I begin to wean them off grower at this point and just finish whatever bag of grower that I have before only giving them layer. They are strong enough to fend for themselves if the old girls start picking on them. They are actually quicker than the old girls so they'll out compete with them for bugs. They'll gobble down black soldier fly maggots like they are candy. Some of them are smart enough to know how to bend over a stalk of grain or grass to get to the seed-head. They can aggressively dig through compost by this point. They should have enough street-smarts/jungle smarts to keep an eye out for predators by this point.
I don't lose many birds. My survival rate to adulthood is at least 95%, so for me, the extra care it takes to slowly transition them to a foraging diet is worth it. Most are large enough to begin laying at 6 months, and I get full production by their first fall. I run Bar Rocks and Rhode Island Reds -- good foragers but not as aggressive in that regard as other breeds. I've heard that Buckeyes and Minorca do well as foragers, particularly for hot-weather climates. If you plan of raising a flock of birds that will get the majority of their nutrition from foraging, you might do well to get a Buckeye or Minorca rooster so that you can breed some of that bloodline into your flock.
Best of luck.
"The rule of no realm is mine. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything that passes through this night can still grow fairer or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I too am a steward. Did you not know?" Gandolf
I am always fascinated and excited to read other people's experiences and the amazing advice and suggestions available in these forums... and sometimes I am almost (only almost) wracked with guilt when I read a piece of advice and realise that I/we are not doing that thing or using that method at all, or in a "wrong" way - and waste hours wondering whether or not to change something - but I usually only prevaricate when what we are doing just seems "so natural". The OP's question made me question our own regime, having had two breeding seasons with our little breeding group of 4 Light Sussex (we also have 7 Indian Runners and a breeding quartet of Pomeranian Saddleback Geese).
To put it bluntly we didn't give the chicks any special feed. Our two clutches hatched towards the end of spring last year and the year before, so the birds were still getting fed the "hard feed" that we use for all our poultry - a milled blend of oats, barley, maize, wheat, rape seed. The only concession we made after the chicks were pushed out of the nest where they had hatched, was to put some chick waterers down. I mention the place where they were hatched - both clutches were incubated and hatched in little ledges set into the wall of our goose house. About a week after hatching momma hen unceremoniously pushed them out of the ledge down onto the straw bales below, and once all had gathered, took them off and she made a new ground level nest for the whole brood. The picture below shows the hen and most of the new brood waiting for the final chick to take the plunge off of the ledge where they were hatched. Within a few weeks we had stopped putting down any hard feed for the birds and the little brood followed momma hen around doing whatever she did and eating whatever she did.
Our chooks regularly get meat bones, bacon rind, uncooked mince or minced meat scraps (all species usually after a slaughter) and hard boiled eggs. They also from Spring to Autumn have a couple of maggot buckets which we keep filled with meat waste which produce copious quantities of fresh protein rich grubs for them. Our chickens are the most adept at keeping our pig paddocks clean, scratching through and redistributing all the pig poop. For green food they free range with the ducks and the geese. We re-green our pig paddocks and usually get lush green growth in 12-16 weeks and the chickens get to graze whatever they want. We sow a fairly random mix of beets, kale, brocolli, rape, linseed, millet, parsley, stubble turnip, radish. They also have a 25m x 65m grass paddock for a change of scenery and together with the pigs do clean up duty in Autumn in our vegetable and fodder growing area just before we mulch for over winter. We have an arrangement with a local market gardener and get huge quantities of not-for-sale fruit and veg during the summer months which is a fantastic free food supplement for all our critters. I mentioned hard feed in winter - we start putting down "hard feed" for our birds in mid-late November until mid-late March. We use a natural home made worming mix of garlic, tobacco, diametaceous earth and turmeric for all our animals (pigs, dogs, chooks, ducks and geese).
So, I offer the above simply from our experience - after 3 years I really enjoy continuing to learn by doing and getting better at not feeling so guilty if we are doing it "differently" and it works! And I continue to learn great ideas and good advice in the Permies forums.
So good luck to you and I/we look forward to seeing more posts from you with your progress :-)
Nick & Jane
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