What Are Safe Foods for Chickens? What Foods Should You Avoid?

If you look at the bag or label on your poultry feed, you may notice the words “complete nutrition” or “complete feed.”  When you see those terms, it simply means that the product inside that bag contains all of the nutrients, in the correct proportions, that your birds need to grow and perform well.  If a complete feed is the only thing that your birds ever eat, it would be sufficient.  Now, if you have kept backyard chickens for very long at all, you know their “complete feed” is FAR from the only thing your birds get to eat each day! 

Most backyard birds today have an abundance of options when it comes to nutrition – feed, free-range, scratch grains, kitchen scraps, and homemade mixes lovingly prepared by their owner.  Of course, a complete poultry feed should be the primary source of nutrients for your birds.  After all, it has all of the nutrients IN THE CORRECT PROPORTIONS that your birds need to stay healthy and perform well.  However, if you are anything like me, your birds definitely get a lot of extra sources of nutrition!  So, let’s break down what you should and should not feed to your feathered friends. 

I love to cook and my chickens definitely reap the benefits.  Nearly all of my kitchen scraps make their way to my chickens.  Chickens are excellent bio-recyclers and will eat most kitchen scraps and leftovers.  In fact, there are many green movements that encourage citizens and even municipalities to “feed chickens not landfills.”  So, what should your chickens eat?  What should your chickens avoid?

The Good List

Chickens can eat almost anything that a human can eat.  We have very similar digestive systems.  Both humans and chickens are monogastrics.  This means we have a single stomach and digest food in a similar manner.  Just like humans, fresh fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens are wonderful sources of nutrition for your birds.  Also, just like humans, cooked foods are often more palatable and safer for your birds to eat.  Chickens do have a slight advantage over humans because they can also eat grasses and forages found in pastures.

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Free-Range – Less than 80 years ago, the majority of chickens were reared in small-farm flocks utilizing pasture as the primary nutrient source.  Good pasture provided the bulk of vitamins and most of the protein and minerals.  However, pasture is a poor source of energy (carbohydrates) for poultry.  This is the primary reason that scratch grains were developed a long time ago!  Modern poultry given free access to pasture can consume about 10-20% of their total nutrient needs from pasture.  Free-ranging is also an excellent way for your birds to get exercise and is the best way to introduce new birds to your flock.

Fruits – I have apple and pear trees on my property and during late summer and early fall, you will often find hens munching on any fruit that has fallen from the trees.  Fruits contain natural sugars, fiber, and many vitamins and minerals.  There is some controversy on whether poultry should consume apples because of the apple seeds.  If I have lots of apple cores (i.e., concentrated amounts of seed) or have sliced into the seeds when cutting apples, I will throw those away to be extra cautious.  However, chickens LOVE apples and will routinely eat apple slices, whole apples, or mealy apples.  They love them! 

My birds also love pumpkins.  I know!!  We don’t often think of pumpkins as fruits, but they are.  Canned pumpkin or cooked pumpkin is a wonderful treat.  My birds also LOVE raw pumpkin.  Each year at the close of the fall season, I will gather all of my pumpkins and gourds from my porch and feed them to my chickens.  It’s so easy.  I just break them open on the ground and the chickens go to town!  They eat every part of the pumpkin – flesh, seeds, etc. – and leave only a thin layer of pumpkin skin when they are finished.  Note – do not feed moldy, decorated, or painted pumpkins to your birds.

Vegetables – Most vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals for your birds.  Leafy greens are particularly appetizing and nutritious.  They are also one of the most common treats that poultry keepers will lovingly prepare for their birds.  When I am cleaning vegetables, I keep all of the leafy portions, vegetable cores, brown or mealy sections, and skins.  Those go straight into my Chicken Bucket.  (Side note – How many of you have a Chicken Bucket somewhere on your counter?!)  I’m sure some of you stopped when I said peels.  Yes, most peels are excellent sources of fiber for your birds and this does include potato peels.  However, make sure you avoid immature and/or green potato peels, as they could contain a toxin that affects the nervous system.  I also try to limit the number of potato peels that I give at one time.  If you have any doubt on the potato peels, throw them out.  You also want to be particularly careful with raw onion or garlic.  Of course, too much of these vegetables can affect the taste of your eggs, but they can also cause anemia if fed in very high quantities. 

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Meats – Yes, your chickens will be very happy to have a meat treat.  Any meat leftovers can absolutely be fed to your chickens.  Just make sure the leftovers are not moldy or rancid.  Small amounts of uncooked meat are okay (e.g., trimmings) but avoid giving large portions of uncooked meat products (e.g., yearly freezer cleanouts) to your birds to avoid any potential contamination from pathogens.

High Quality Feed – A high quality feed should be the primary source of nutrients for your flock.  A high quality feed will have all of the nutrients that your birds need IN THE CORRECT PROPORTIONS.  Our modern chickens have many different nutrient needs as compared to their ancestors.  A good quality, well balanced feed will help keep your birds healthy, looking good, feeling good, and performing at their peak potential.

The Bad List

The bad list is actually pretty short.  Chickens can eat nearly anything that a human can eat.  But, just like humans, many foods need to be cooked first in order to be consumed safely.

Raw Beans – This is probably the most important product to add to any bad list.  Many types of raw beans (pinto beans, soybeans, navy beans, etc.) contain an anti-nutritional factor that must be destroyed by cooking.  You should not feed your birds raw beans, but properly cooked beans can be a great source of protein and fiber for your birds.

Salty Foods – Foods that are high in salt content can cause the same issues for chickens as they do for humans.  Consumption of excess salt will cause poultry to increase water intake significantly.  With increased water consumption, you will often get very watery manure.  Poultry will also avoid foods with high salt levels and will actually stop eating all food options if salt intake is too high.

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Moldy Foods – My chicken bucket has a wide variety of products in it.  I try to keep it mostly healthy with lots of vegetable scraps and healthy leftovers.  However, I make sure to avoid adding any moldy feeds to the bucket.  If I see visible signs of mold growth, I know it isn’t the best option for my birds.  One big danger of moldy food is that mold can be accompanied by mycotoxins.  Mycotoxins are toxic compounds that are naturally produced by certain types of mold and fungi, and you can’t see mycotoxins with the naked eye. 

Feeding treats to your birds is a wonderful way to bond with your chickens.  I really enjoy heading out to the coop with my chicken bucket and seeing how excited the birds are for me to toss out my treasures.  I want my birds to enjoy their treat.  I want my birds to be good bio-recyclers.  But, most of all, I want them to be healthy!  If I wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) eat it myself, I usually avoid giving it to my chickens.

Have you heard about our Layer Days Sweepstakes?  We are giving away free feed for a year, a prize valued at $1,000 – to two lucky winners.  Visit this page to enter!

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

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