Can You Overfeed Backyard Chickens?

Chickens are known for their ability to eat just about anything, from worms to vegetable scraps. If you’re just starting out with raising backyard chickens, you’ll soon learn that they’re highly intelligent and will pick out their favorite treats pretty quickly! Yet, despite their reputation as bottomless pits, it’s entirely possible to overfeed your chickens.

To keep them healthy and happy, it’s essential to ensure they receive the right amount and type of feed each day — with treats in moderation.


Will Chickens Overeat?

Unless they are broiler (meat) birds, most chickens will naturally stop eating their feed once they feel full. Additionally, laying hens require more energy and will eat like it’s their full-time job if they have access to endless treats in their cage or coop.

Many chickens do great with free feeding, but some will eat whatever amount you put in front of them if given enough time. They can also easily be tempted to overeat with non-feed-based foods. Just like humans, hens require a balanced diet to maintain their health.


Potential Risks of Providing Excessive Food to Your Chickens

Providing excessive amounts of food, treats, table scraps, and scratch grains to your chickens can pose health risks.

1. Obesity

Chickens can gain weight rapidly, so overfeeding your chickens can cause them to gain weight and potentially become obese. Increased body weight in hens is one of the main causes of footpad dermatitis, a complicated condition that causes severe necrotic lesions and painful inflammation.

Overweight chickens may also have compromised sexual activity and reproductive functions, affecting their well-being.

2. Urinary Issues

Excess food can lead to an overconsumption of minerals and proteins, which can lead to urinary system problems in chickens.

3. Lack of Vital Nutrients

 If your chickens have unlimited access to yummy treats and kitchen leftovers, they’ll likely eat those first. Getting full from treats means they’ll miss out on the vital nutrients included in their feed. Chickens with a higher weight and a less nutrient-dense diet may have a higher risk of developing fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome.

4. Poor Egg Quality

Feeding hens more food than necessary is often thought to produce heavier eggs. However, eggshell quality can decline as egg size increases disproportionally to the hen’s age. Overweight hens may produce bloodstained eggs. The extra fat also puts more pressure on the muscles needed for hens to lay an egg, sometimes resulting in the egg getting stuck in their oviduct, a condition known as egg binding. Overuse of feeding grain can also affect egg production.

To prevent these health conditions — some of which can become fatal — it’s important to feed your backyard chickens the right type and amount of feed. While they can have treats, such as mealworms, try to keep them to a minimum to avoid overfeeding your chickens.


What Do You Feed Chickens? Nutritional Requirements

Remember that complete feeds are intended to be your chicken’s sole source of nutrients. Your backyard chickens’ feed should contain the following essentials:

  • Amino acids
  • Enzymes
  • Trace elements
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Protein
  • Vitamins

Depending on your chickens’ breeds, ages, and life cycles, they could require a specific type of feed with different levels of these important nutrients. For example, as they age, chickens will progress through these feed types:

  • Starter/grower feed: Because they are still growing, chicks require a starter/grower feed with around 18%-22% protein.
  • Finisher feed: Once meat bird chicks are around 12 weeks old, they can start on a finisher feed with about 18% protein.
  • Feeding laying chickens: When the chicks reach laying point at about 18 to 20 weeks old, they can start on a 16% layer feed.

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How Much to Feed Chickens Per Day

In general, the average mature hen will need at least 0.25 pounds of feed, or about 100 to 150 grams, each day. Along with their regular daily feed, you can also provide fresh fruits and vegetables or Poultry Scratch Grains to enhance their diet.

A good rule of thumb is to use the 10% treat rule that many veterinary nutritionists apply to dogs and cats. According to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), treats, snacks, and table scraps should not exceed 10% of an animal’s daily caloric intake.

The specific amount of feed per chicken required varies based on unique factors, such as:

  • Their breed: Certain breeds of chickens grow faster than others, so they may require a bit more feed. For instance, Cornish Cross birds need less feed to gain weight compared to Red Broilers, who require significantly more feed.
  • The weather: During the fall and winter months, your chickens will require more feed. Colder weather can increase their feed intake by up to 25%.
  • If they are free-range: Since they’ll have access to other food sources, free-range chickens won’t need as much feed.
  • If they are laying eggs: Because laying an egg uses up a lot of energy, hens will require more feed during their egg-laying years.


How Many Times a Day Should You Feed Chickens?

How often you should feed your chickens each day primarily depends on your preferences, as well as whether they are free-range. Free-range hens are great foragers and will peck and scratch around in your backyard for small insects and natural treats. However, they still require high-quality feed to maintain a proper balance of nutrients.

Chickens eat frequently but in small amounts, so feeding them a large meal once a day is not ideal. On average, most chickens will benefit from having two pellet meals a day. It can help if you visualize giving them enough feed to last them 30 minutes to one hour. You can either give them this meal by hand or use a feed dispenser.

To split up the meals, provide one small portion in the morning and the second portion in the evening. Be sure to feed them before nightfall, as chickens cannot see well in the dark and generally won’t eat or drink during this time.


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