Chicken Feed: How to Feed Chickens

Your chickens will need properly formulated chicken feed that is the correct type for their age, for growth, sustenance and to produce eggs if they are hens of egg laying age. There are many old wives tales and alternative views on feeding, some say it’s marketing that has created all of these feeds and hens will survive well on wheat and others will say their grandad never had layers pellets and just fed his hens kitchen scraps! Formulated poultry feeds didn’t exist until recently, primarily created thanks to commercial research on hens diets as we tried to squeeze more and more eggs out of hens.

Chickens were often fed home made grain mixes before the seventies.

In days gone by though when ‘grandad fed scraps’, pure breeds were kept for eggs and they were fed grain mixes or dried mash chicken feed that had meat or fish meal added to increase the protein content. Hens would free range over a large area and could also supplement their diet with what they could forage. Bugs, insects and worms are all valuable sources of protein, not forgetting a good selection of greens providing vitamins and minerals.

“Grandad’s chickens didn’t get chicken feed and survived on kitchen scraps but they could free range to top up their diet on protein, vitamins, minerals and calcium from the fields or orchards they grazed. They didn’t produce anything like the number of eggs modern hybrid hens or some pure breeds produce.”

So in short, if you don’t feed a proper formulated layers feed to your hens, they won’t be able to keep up the demands that egg-laying puts on their bodies.

Layers Feeds and Protein

Layers PelletsChickens require protein to produce feathers  and eggs as well as to grow. The amount of protein in their diet is important and you will see on the ingredients on the back of bags of commercial feeds the percentage of protein that they contain. It is higher in ‘Growers Pellets’ for example to enable chickens to grow and produce feathers.  You will find that chickens stop laying eggs when they moult (lose their feathers and regrow new) as they are diverting protein from egg production to feather production. During the moult, you can scatter a handful of cat kibble in the run which helps them to top up with protein. Do not use dog food as most of the protein is derived from cereals.

Topping up a feed container

Commercial feeds contain the right balance of nutrients & can be fed ad-lib in hoppers if kept dry. This one has a rain hat.

Commercial chicken feeds have been well researched and contain the correct balance of minerals and nutriets required by chickens as well as sufficient protein and calcium which is essential for egg shell production. Layers pellets for example are around 16% protein. Wheat is about 10% protein and lacks essential vitamins that are required by chickens.

Formulated feeds come as pellets or mash and should be fed ad-lib so hens can take what they want as they need it. This type of feed must be kept dry or it will soon spoil. The feeder and rain hat shown above is the only sort I have found that really does keep the feed dry. Most have a hole in the top of the hat for a handle or for hanging and this lets water in. A feeder and rain hat similar to this one can be bought from Omlet.

Eggs are made up of around 80% protein so if there’s a shortage of protein in their diet, egg laying will be the first thing they your girls cut back on!

There is more information on the site which has a very good page of feeding chickens and chicken feed.

Mixed corn

mixed corn for chickensMixed corn is usually 80 to 90% wheat and 10 to 20% maize. It is useful as a scratch feed, it keeps hens active, scratching around looking for it but should only be considered a treat. A handful per hen thrown late afternoon helps them to have a full crop overnight.

The maize (yellow in colour) is very fattening but can be useful during very cold weather to help your hens keep warm – I increase my girls’ ration of corn when it is cold over the winter, after they have finished moulting (they need lots of protein during the moult) since they are not laying eggs and need a little extra fat to burn in order to keep warm.

If you feed too much corn, your hens will get fat and fat hens don’t lay eggs!

Household scraps

Feeding household scraps is no longer allowed according toi DEFRA and can be a bit hit and miss anyway. You don’t really know what a hen is getting and the diet is very unbalanced. It is for this reason that scraps used to be mixed into a mash by using layers mash and water (which can be warm in winter). The mixture should be a sort of crumbly mix, not too wet but not too dry. Feeding scraps should be limited to at most 25% of a hens diet so as not to tip the balance too far one way or another.


chickens and fresh greensAmple green stuff should be provided for your hens. Grass cuttings, weeds and off-cuts from cabbages, cauliflowers and other greens can be provided at minimal cost. Lettuce should be fed in moderation because it has very little nutritional value (very little Protein and Energy / Calories) and avocado pear is poisonous to hens but most other greens that come from the kitchen will be appreciated by your girls. Try hanging greens in their run, just a little higher than they can reach. As they eat them, they will need to jump to get the last bits so will be getting exercise at the same time as their greens! Win-win!

If you have an area in which you can grow cabbages in your garden, it may be worthwhile thinking about growing a row for the winter. Cabbages will sit there in the cold, perfectly preserved until picked. You will need to keep them covered with fleece when there are cabbage white butterflies around but don’t worry if they are a little eaten, the chooks won’t mind!

Mealworm treats

Many chicken keepers like to buy mealworms or chicken treats containing these. Chickens love these and are easily tamed by using such tasty treats, however you should keep in mind that animal by-product regulations mean that mealworms are not really allowed to be fed to poultry.


  1. Morning – we have had our four chicks for about 5 days – they are between 2 and 3 months old. They have only been feed scratch type seed so far, and I would like to wean them onto the grower mash that I have bought. I have tried feeding “as is” as well as fermenting – they are not interested. Would I have to slowly decrease the scratch and only feed the mash – what is the best way to go about changing them over – I have heard that they hate change!

    • They will normally pick the food they prefer the most. Scratch (mixed corn: wheat / cracked maize I assume) is a treat so think of it as asking them to give up sweets and eat healthy vegetables!
      I would decrease the scratch fairly rapidly over the course of a week and increase the mash.

    • No, there’s no need to leave food and water in the coop overnight. Hens will be sleeping / roosting and will usually just make a mess of it.

  2. So is scratch considered a treat….I feed layer pellets in one feeder and scratch in another feeder,i also hang cabbage and lettuce heads for them to eat,and also give them table scraps from time to time…..I been told to quit giving the scratch and substitute with wheat for summer months and feed whole corn in the winter……need opinions Thanks Mike

    • Yes, maize (corn), the yellow bits are fattening and the wheat whilst useful in small quantities is lower than layers feeds in protein level. Maize is useful for hens when the weather is cold because they need more energy to turn into heat to stay warm, and good as a treat however at other times, fed ad-lib will cause them to gain weight. You’ll often see this in purchased, corn fed chickens for the table.
      For egg layers, they need to stay slim and need higher protein levels to produce eggs. Layers feeds are high enough in protein to sustain this, wheat varies but isn’t high enough so is usually false economy feeding this to laying hens to save money. During autumn and winter, they need to replace feathers which also are made from protein and need to keep warm. If they have the correct diet, they will lay well in the spring.

  3. We’re just starting out with 4 ex battery hens. I’m a little confused with exactly what we need to feed them and when?!

    • This page gives information for chickens but Ex-Bats can need a slight change – in that they will possibly be used to Layers Mash so they might not take to pellets immediately. In this case, it’s best to give them mash at first, then slowly switch them to the pellets if that’s how you want to feed them eventually.

      They should be fed ad-lib so just leave a hopper down and keep it topped up.

      • That’s great, thank you for taking the time to reply! Would you suggest transitioning over to pellets? I don’t know the difference really so I don’t know which is the better food.

        • In terms of nutrition, they are usually both the same. Most people feed pellets because they are convenient to use and readily available.
          They can pick the bits they like out of mash and you can have waste if it gets blown around or flicked out as they search for the best bits as well.

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