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So here we are in Part 3 of our series, “Basics of Feeding Your Chickens.” Let’s get straight to the topic of supplements in the diet of your chickens. Whether you’re a novice or expert chicken keeper, you can always learn and glean from others so I hope you can learn something or share something with us. If you missed parts 1 and 2, you can find them here: Part 1 or Part 2
Should I supplement?
This is a very controversial subject and one which, again, you’ll have to decide for yourself. As for us, we don’t “supplement” our chickens’ diet in the sense of giving them commercially produced nutritional aids. There are many products which are advertised as “must have.” This is a red flag for me to stay away from it. Some that are commonly pushed by industry are electrolyte powders, vitamin and mineral compounds, performance enhancers (yea, who knew?), chemical wormers, vaccines, on and on the list goes. I’ve never had need for any of them and am basically against them. For thousands of years chickens have been able to survive without us “helping” them along with all these chemical supplements. We strive to live as natural a life as we can and we want the same for our animals, after all, “We are what our animals eat.”
What I do give my chickens:
We do a few things for our chickens in the way of natural supplementation.
1) Free Ranging – They will find what they need, it is given to them by God as instinct. If you’re unable to free range your birds, you can still offer them natural supplements, like greens and worms. You may consider keeping some litter in their yard to scratch through. The decaying litter will attract critters they like to eat. You can also place logs, planks, or other pieces of wood in their yard; let the wood sit for a while and then move it. You won’t believe the different critters that will be living under there and your chickens will chase, scratch, and gobble them up.
That’s actually how I discovered chickens like mice. I turned over one of the logs my husband had put in the yard for me and there were all kinds of baby mice. They went wild gobbling up those little varmints!
2) Provide them crushed egg shells from their own eggs for calcium. Calcium deficiency is hard on the hen as she uses calcium in the making her egg shells. A deficiency will cause her egg shells to become thinner and decreases the number of eggs she lays.
I keep egg shells until my 12 cup bowl is full, this doesn’t take long around here. 🙂 Then I bake them at 250 degrees for about 15 minutes.You’ll know they are ready because they will look very dry and start to darken up on the inside of the shell. Some people don’t bake them and seem to have no problems, but since they have been sitting in a bowl for a while, I bake them just in case something creepy has decided to live there. After they bake, let them cool for a few minutes, then crush them into chicken bite size (very small) pieces. Once they are heated they break easily like glass. I store them in glass jars in my pantry until I’m ready for them.
Another reason I bake them and make sure the bites are so small is that I don’t want the hens to associate the shells I give them with the eggs they lay. Yes, chickens will eat their eggs. While I’ve never experienced it, a friend told me it happened in her flock and she had to cull several hens who “caught the idea.” She thought that it started because she had not been able to free range them and had not given them calcium, so they started getting their own from their eggs.
I also think it’s important to note that I do not give my hens any shells from store bought eggs, organic or not. The risk of them getting something harmful to them and/or us is too great. They’ve been washed in chemicals, handled in ways unknown to me, and you can’t really know how old they are.
This photo shows an egg that is perfectly formed except for the shell. The inner membrane formed, but the shell didn’t. When you reach in the nest and grab one of these, it feels icky :)- It will be squishy. This usually happens in a chicken who is just beginning to lay. I have only had this happen 4-5 times in all my years of chicken keeping. If you have more than one of these or find them frequently, be sure you are feeding your chickens a balanced diet and add calcium.
Be sure to not eat this egg. You can give it to your dogs or hogs, but not to humans. Since the protective shell didn’t form, it’s very probable that bacteria has gotten through the membrane contaminating the egg.
3) Grit – Most chicken keepers use oyster shell. I don’t offer grit unless the chickens are not going to be free ranged for a few days (if we’re out of pocket or some such thing). Not only will they find their own grit when free ranging, but we have gravel on our road and on the land itself so they easily find what they need. When I do offer grit, I too use oyster shell. Although, often I put it out and they don’t even touch it.
4) Diatomaceous earth – The only other thing I offer our flock is food grade diatomaceous earth. We use this for so many things here on the farm from our own personal use to wormer for the dogs and other livestock.
When we use it as a wormer for the chickens, we mix in with their food or with ACV in their water for about a week. Mixing it with their feed is a great way to be sure they all get enough to kill internal parasites. If you need a more accurate measurement, the official instructions say: “Add to poultry feed up to 2% weight of feed (up to 2lbs DE per 100lbs of feed) for the most effective internal parasite control. Sprinkle on top of feed or add directly to the bag of feed shaking to mix thoroughly.” For more on DE see: www.scratchandpeck.com/product/diatomaceous-earth/
Studies show that feeding DE to your chickens improves the number of eggs they lay, the quality of their eggs, and their overall health. We also use it for the chickens in their dusting spots, in their nests, and on their roost because it’s great for killing and preventing mites.
Be sure you use caution when you are putting out DE. It is a very fine dust and can be easily inhaled causing eye, throat, and lung irritation. You may want to wear a mask, goggles, and definitely gloves. I tie a large handkerchief around my nose and mouth. Be sure you are only use food grade DE around people and animals!
5) Dairy products for extra protein. Yes, I know, whenever I share this in a talk or a casual conversation, someone in the group is always shocked. 🙂 But it’s true, chickens love milk, yogurt, ice cream, most any dairy product. If you have milk, yogurt, or ice cream going bad or just want to give them a treat, you’ll not believe how they gobble it up. Almost like a pig! Of course, we are organic, non-gmo here so our milk and all its products are too. If this is not part of your farm philosophy or goal, then use what you choose. My girls prefer yogurt, it’s their favorite!
In Part 4, our final discussion on feeding your chickens, we’ll talk about fermenting feed – how and why – and other feeding options for your flock.
Be sure to watch for our upcoming eBook on chickens from hatching to butchering. Any ideas for catchy names? Be sure to leave your questions, comments, or experiences in the comments or use the Contact Me page.
Remember to check out this and other fantastic posts on Backyard Poultry Magazine Blog.
Safe and Happy Journey,