Chicken Feed

What do they eat, anyway? That’s one of the mysteries, and one of the things newbies wonder and worry about (at least if our experience is typical). On the one hand, you want your chickens to be healthy and happy, and grow, and not die. On the other, you don’t want to spend a fortune feeding them. If it costs three times as much to raise a backyard chicken as it does to buy a frozen bird at the coop, then it’s a much harder sell. And there’s a fair degree of disagreement between the respected, authoritative chicken guides. Storey’s Guide leaves you very doubtful you’re being a responsible chicken-keeper unless you buy the Starter crumbles, followed by the Grower and then the Layer, etc. On the other hand, Harvey Ussery grinds his own grain and says his birds get a large percentage of their needs off the pasture. So which is it?

Our birds are about a month old now (looking back at the blog I see they arrived on
August 8th — it seems like much longer!), and they’re living in their henhouse. They’ve almost got their full compliment of big-kid feathers now, just in time for the change of weather. So what are they eating?

We are feeding them on (non-medicated) Starter from the coop, but from the first few days we’ve been supplementing that. Many of the birds got pasty butts in the first few days, and there were several heat-lamps on them, so I don’t think it was from being too cool. The other cause (according to Harvey Ussery) is their diet. I gave them some corn meal (actually, the Masa we use for tamales), and some greens from the kitchen and grass clippings from the lawn. These seemed to help — and then when we started giving them grasshoppers, they were all better!

Grasshoppers have been a big part of their diet because there are so many in the lawn and fields. The kids have become expert at catching them, and regularly bring the chickens jars filled with treats. This has resulted in the chicks running toward us when they see us coming, rather than away, which is nice. And now they’ll take food from our hands.

They’re also getting cracked corn from the coop, and since they moved outside they’ve been eating grass and the bugs they can find. Now that I’ve got them tilling the area that’s going to be the hoop house, I’ve been mowing a small piece of lawn each day, and giving them a bag of clippings. They seem to like this, and they’re really practicing their digging skills, turning over these piles.

Today I gave them some leftover pasta that had spent too long waiting to be eaten, and some old spinach. The birds don’t understand transparency: if they can see an object, they think they can peck it. So I had to tip the container on its side. They liked the pasta, and treated it like grasshoppers. A bird would grab a piece and run with it, and the others would give chase. Some of the chicks even went outside to try to get away from their pursuers!

At some point, I think some of these birds will be dedicated compost specialists. We’re still getting used to the different temperaments. But I can definitely see the Jerseys as kings of the pile…