One of the most enjoyable aspects of semi-rural living for me has been the keeping of backyard poultry. We have a little flock right now of a dozen chickens. The vast majority of them are silver-laced Wyandotte, along with some black sex links. These are young hens, that are just beginning to lay eggs.
Our previous flock had aged out. So, it’s great to hear the birth announcement once again that is loudly and proudly made when each hen lays an egg.
The eggs are incredible both in texture and taste. Because our hens eat a lot of greenery and have a pretty diverse diet, the yolks tend to have rich orange hue to them, with a thick white that has quite a bit of substance to it.
We serve them at breakfast to guests that frequent our home, and we get compliments on the flavor every time. Of course, it helps that Maggie’s homemade bread, grape juice from our own grapes, and jams prepared from the fruit of our orchard all are on the table as well. People really like that literal taste of the country.
While I like the egg production, I also value other parts poultry add to our lifestyle. Our chickens are a key part of composting and soil building. Whatever we can feed the chickens first, instead of composting, we do. That way we can kill two birds with… um, let’s pick another metaphor. Simply put, if we can both give nourishment to the birds while reducing our feed bill, and get great compost, then that’s a bonus.
This “pre-digestion” chamber serves somewhat like what our chewing does. Food is ground down (by small pebbles and grit the chicken has consumed and has settled in the gizzard) and then passes into the gut and out of the bird’s body. The matter is quite broken down, and contains a significant amount of nitrogen in ammonia compounds.
While you could feed raw meat scraps and leftover scrambled eggs to your hens, don’t. There’s evidence these can lead to cannibalism, and egg pecking. However, you can feed chickens cooked meat in small chunks. To provide calcium, you can also mix eggshells, dried and crushed into very small pieces, into their feed. They need this in order to produce strong eggshells.
Other common sense items to avoid are spoiled or rotten foods. That’s because spoiled foods can produce toxins. Also stay away from soft drinks, coffee and coffee grinds. Coffee grinds don’t set well with your poultry, but are high in nitrogen and are great for the compost pile. Chocolate may be OK for chickens in small amounts, but the chocolate’s theobromine may be toxic to your birds (it also affects dogs poorly, since they can’t metabolize it well). But, why take the risk?
You also want to avoid feeding greasy foods to your flock. Oils are very hard for chickens to digest. While you are at it, avoid feeding strong tasting foods that could end up imparting an undesirable flavor to the eggs. This includes onions and garlic.
But don’t worry, a wide array of other scraps can be safely fed to the hens. Keep in mind that good table scraps are part of your flock’s diet, not the whole diet. Use moderation with the right scratch, layer crumbles and pellets.
These have the needed blend of protein minerals in them to assure the best long term health of your chickens. When the chicks are young, it’s best to wait until they are four to six months old before you add in table scraps. Commercial grower mashes and rations are the best way to fuel healthy growth of the chicks.
So, what are some great table scrap candidates for your hens? To begin with, most fruits are just fine. This includes melons (watermelon rind is a real treat), berries, grapes, apple chunks, peaches and berries. Corn — ranging from raw, to dried or cooked — is good.
Grain-based items are good, including non-moldy bread. Feed them bread in moderation, though. Rice, wheat and oatmeal work, as does cooked pasta. Peas are a welcome meal amendment, as well.
That leads us to a wider range of vegetables that are welcomed by the citizens of your coop. You can feed veggies either raw or cooked, including spinach, shredded or cooked carrots, cabbage, kale, tomato, various squashes (some even claim that pumpkin serves as a de-wormer), lettuce, green beans, cucumbers, chards and sweet potatoes.
However, avoid feeding them potatoes. They are a member of the nightshade family, and the skins (potato peels) contain significant amounts of the toxic alkaloid solanine when they turn green from sunlight exposure. This same compound is found in the leaves of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. But, the fruits of a mild pepper, tomato and eggplant are just fine.
There’s one other popular meal item that’s not good for chickens that may surprise you — avocado. Why? While the birds will likely eat it, you are putting them at risk. Avocado skins and pits contain persin. While persin is not toxic to humans (we metabolize the compound safely and rapidly), animals, including poultry cannot. As much as you’d like to include your hens in a little Cinco de Mayo celebration with some guacamole, forego it.
Heck, you can even throw in a bit of dairy: cheese chunks, cottage cheese and unsweetened yogurt. However, this is not my first choice as these items spoil quickly, causing gastrointestinal upset in your feathered friends. Just sayin’.
There’s a few more things, that aren’t optimum feed. Salt, for instance. Many table scraps contain sallt. Just avoid feeding them large amounts of salts, which are usually present in highly processed foods like chips and crackers. A little goes a long way. Notice, there’s not salt blocks for chickens.
Besides all of the table scraps listed earlier, many weeds can be fed to chickens for greens, even with mature seeds. Less than 5 percent of weed seeds survive going through poultry’s digestive system, especially that poultry food processor, the gizzard.
Our hens really look forward to getting their daily batch of freshly-pulled weeds, especially red-root pigweed. They get their greens, I get a better attitude when I pull weeds, since I don’t have to buy feed as often. I love the sight of the chickens gobbling down what I’ve just cleaned out of flower beds or the veggie plot moments before. The hens eat the vast majority of what I place in the coop, while avoiding items that are probably best left uneaten or could be upsetting to them.
Another treat is grasshoppers and grubs. These are great sources of protein and are a real treat for them. I’ll catch grasshoppers from other areas of the garden (especially my rhubarb this year) and throw them in a small bucket of water I’ve put in the coop. The grasshoppers swim around, catching the eye of the chickens. Then, the hens dispatch them one at a time. As long as you don’t mind a bit of hands-on insect encounters in your yardscape, the fun never ends.
I just can’t depart without a bit of poultry humor. This one is so bad, I had to pass it on to you. Why does a chicken coop have two doors? Well, it’s because if it had four doors, it would be a … wait for it, wait for it … a chicken sedan.
After that bad pun, let’s wrap up. I’ve got to go clean the egg off my face.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.