By John Harrison
How to feed your hens on food scraps, waste. What you can and can’t feed them.
Traditionally chickens were allowed to roam freely around the farmyard or garden where they would forage for their food; plants, seeds and insects and the odd handful of scattered corn which supplemented their mash. The mash was made from food waste and kitchen scraps.
Feeding Scraps & Waste Effects on Egg Production
Unlike modern hens who can lay upwards of 300 eggs a year, those scrap-fed birds at the beginning of the 20th century would only lay 100 or so eggs each year, often less.
Later selective breeding and a systematic approach to feeding resulted in 200 and even 250 eggs a year. Nowadays we are probably near if not at the limit of egg production per hen with some breeds of hen exceeding 300 to 350 eggs per year.
Limits to Hen’s Ability to Eat
Whilst the number of eggs have risen, the rest of the chicken’s body hasn’t changed. Their food intake is limited by their crop and ability to process and digest food which hasn’t changed significantly in the last 100 years. The only way to provide the nutrition to produce all those eggs and maintain our hen in good condition is to improve the quality of the food as we cannot increase the quantity.
If we want 300 plus eggs per year then we’re best to only feed our hens purely on high-quality, specially formulated feed – layers pellets. Otherwise we will inevitably have lower egg production and an increased rate of sickness and mortality.
On the other hand, if we’re willing to keep less productive, perhaps dual-purpose breeds, producing 150 to 200 eggs per bird per year then we can move to a more relaxed feeding regime so long as we provide the lower nutritional requirements. This is subject, of course, to maintaining the hens in good condition.
Sustainable Feeding and Legislation
By a more relaxed feeding regime, I mean a more sustainable system that makes use of waste materials and locally produced feed. Unfortunately nowadays this is not legally possible in the UK due to DEFRA regulations that prohibit the feeding of foodstuffs that have been in the kitchen.
What Scraps and Waste Can be Fed to Chickens?
In the UK back before these regulations and still in many countries, the scraps pan was a fixture in the poultry keeper’s kitchen. Into the pan went most anything that would go into a compost bin. Potato peelings, carrot tops, cabbage and cauliflower stalks, the scrapings off the plate and small bones, stale bread and cake.
Some Scraps Not to Feed to Chickens
The edible things we didn’t put into the pan were chicken meat and bones and eggs and eggshells along with anything that was off and likely to cause food poisoning.
Chickens lack the enzymes to digest milk sugars properly so we avoided giving them dairy products although a small amount slipped in, such as the butter on bread.
Tea leaves and coffee grounds didn’t go into the pan nor anything with excess salt.
Some other things that didn’t go into the scraps pan were cooked rice and pasta dishes from the night before because these went directly to the hens.
Making the Scraps Mash
Every couple of days the pan was topped up with water to cover the contents and boiled until the contents were softened and became a mash, usually for half an hour. A pressure cooker is really useful for cooking the mash, not only reducing the cooking time but effectively sterilising the mash preventing salmonella transmission.
Once cooked and cooled, any bones were removed for the compost heap before feeding the mash to the hens. My grandmother would also add a tablespoon of cod liver oil – which we also got and will never forget!
Feeding Garden Waste to Chickens
Fresh greens direct from the garden can still be fed even in the UK. These provide vitamins and interest to the birds. Bolted lettuce, the outer leaves from cauliflowers, tomatoes that some pest has nibbled all go down well.
How Much Scraps and Waste to Feed?
You cannot replace bought-in feed completely, but feeding scraps mash, garden waste and allowing the hens to forage can reduce the amount of bought-in feed. I wouldn’t advise replacing more than a quarter to a third of their feed with scraps mash.
A Greener Solution
The trade off between egg production and feed costs takes some calculating and many back garden keepers may feel it’s not worth the time and effort of making their mash. But formulated animal feeds usually use soya meal, high in protein but produced on a vast mono-culture farm in what was previously the Amazon jungle. Ultimately using the global capital to feed today whereas the traditional methods were sustainable.
More About Feeding Chickens
- Best Grass Seed Mix for Chickens – Poultry Pasture Seed Mix
- Feed Your Back Garden Chickens More Greens
- Feeding Chickens – Nutritional Requirements & Sources
- Feeding Chickens Eggshells, Crushed Oyster Shell & Grit
- Feeding Chickens from Chicks to Laying Hens for Backgarden Keepers
- Feeding Chickens on Food Scraps and Waste Food
- Herbs For Hens – A Useful Dietary Supplement
- Pasture Feeding Hens for Better Eggs
- Why we should avoid Soya in Animal & Poultry Feed