Mixing your own feed allows you to know exactly what you are giving your hens. It could save money, and allow you to choose fresh, natural and organic ingredients that are less processed than a proprietary ration. However, mixing your own involves time, effort and upfront costs, so it's important to ensure the feed is complete and balanced, and meets fowls’ nutritional needs.
It’s useful to be guided by the ancestral diet of poultry. Jungle fowl were omnivores who lived on foraged grains, supplemented by insects, plant matter and soil particles. Today’s layers are larger bodied and higher performing; their ideal diet comprises carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, and water.
The cheapest feed for chooks is one that provides the nutrition they require for health, maintenance, and egg and feather production in the most efficient form. While chooks love kitchen scraps, replacing their main ration with fillers like porridge, peelings or bread means fowls must eat more overall to gain the nutrients they need and can become overweight. This leads to fewer eggs laid, and a range of health problems. Poor feed is also associated with lower immune function and issues like feather pecking. It’s more cost-effective to buy quality feed than try to save money with low nutrient fillers, then pay the price at the vet’s.
Chooks will certainly enjoy a selection of daily scraps, but consider these a supplement or snack, with their ration as the main meal.
Mixing home feed is most economical with a large flock due to scale. Ingredients need to be bought in bulk, a significant financial outlay. A small flock may not consume this volume of feed in a timely manner. When stored too long, grains become stale, ground grains undergo oxidation and fats become rancid: nutritive content deteriorates and palatability decreases. If these costly ingredients are stored poorly or for too long you simply aren’t getting the nutrition you paid for.
Store feed in sealed containers that rodents and moisture can’t enter. Site them in a cool dry dark place away from extremes of temperature. Any grains that become damp or mouldy should be discarded as moulds can be fatal for chooks.
Proprietary rations contain preserving agents to stabilise the nutrients in ground ingredients. Without these, it is better to store grains whole and grind smaller amounts regularly.
The key to feeding chooks well is making a ration that is balanced - it supplies the different nutrients in the correct proportions to meet the bird’s requirements. This involves not just the right mixture of grains, but also of amino acids. A balanced ration is called ‘complete’.
Grains commonly provide 70% of the energy of chooks’ diet and 40% of the protein. Each grain contains different carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; to lay eggs and maintain feathers and body processes, chooks need the correct proportions of the eight essential amino acids. However, grains tend to be low in lysine and methionine, so even with very careful combining, a ration will probably require supplementation with animal meal, which contains complete protein. Vegetarian rations will need to include these amino acids as a synthetic supplement.
Grains commonly used in poultry feed include wheat, barley, oats, maize and sorghum.
It's not just the nutrition levels that are important in grains, but also their bioavailability. Legumes, cereals and oilseeds have been found to contain anti-nutritional factors; protective plant substances that reduce fowls’ ability to absorb essential nutrients. Too much of one grain can affect health; feeding a mixture of grains and seeds helps reduce adverse gut reactions to these factors.
Soaking grains for 24 hours or more releases enzymes that make grains more digestible, just as people activate their nuts. It’s not essential; grains are still nutritious without soaking, but it increases the bioavailability of nutrients, making grains more efficient.
Protein plays a significant role in growth, egg production, immunity and biological functions. Layers require around 16-18% protein, sourced from plant origin, soybean meal, and animal origin, meatmeal. These ingredients are also good sources of fats, minerals and vitamins.
Don’t assume chooks will forage sufficient protein, as found protein is seasonally variable, unreliable and difficult to quantify. A complete source of protein must be included in the ration.
It’s possible to supplement fowls’ diet with home-grown protein such as mealworms (larvae of darkling beetles), which live on vegie scraps. Mealworm farms require little infrastructure, simply a tray of sawdust, larvae and some scraps. It’s a fun project for the family.
Avoid maggots, which feed on rotting carcasses and so can carry botulism. Note that slugs, snails and earwigs are tapeworm vectors, so if tossing to fowls, cook first, or worm birds regularly.
Fats are high in energy, so comprise a small part of the ration, but essential fatty acids such as omega-3s are vital for body maintenance and egg quality.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are needed in only trace amounts, but are crucial for health, for example vitamin A is needed for growth and repair. While free ranging chooks consume vitamins and minerals in plant matter and soil, these are variable and home rations require a poultry vitamin and mineral premix.
Greens like grass and veggie scraps contain beneficial fibre, vitamins and minerals, including the carotenoids that make egg yolks orange. While greens aren’t usually added to the ration, make sure chooks have access to them either through free range, or by supplying chopped grass, lucerne chaff or veggie scraps.
Poultry require medium grade shell grit to make eggshells, best provided in a container they can help themselves to. Hard grit such as small stones is needed to grind grains in the gizzard.
A large rural or urban stock feed store should have most ration ingredients, and may deliver. For vitamin premixes etc try online poultry, horse or vet supplies stores.
If ease and convenience are paramount, a simple mash can be made by moistening layer pellets. My chooks let me know what they like; mine carefully flicked away every piece of grated carrot before tucking into their last mash!
Mixing your own feed allows you to source organic grains or support local farmers. But it requires time and storage space, and I have never found it cheaper with my small flock. If ease and convenience are paramount, a simple mash can be made by moistening layer pellets. My chooks let me know what they like; mine carefully flicked away every piece of grated carrot before tucking into their last mash!
For a mash recipe visit: www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/198930/small-scale-poultry-feeding.pdf
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By: Jessamy Miller
First published: April 2021