What to Feed Backyard Chickens

Picky-eater chickens are as rare as flying pigs. But just because they’ll eat anything, it doesn’t mean they should. Your chickens need to eat well in order to stay healthy and keep laying delicious eggs for breakfast!

Like most plants and animals, chickens need a variety of macronutrients and trace minerals to remain healthy. If there aren’t enough essential nutrients in their diets, your chickens will get sick, and you can definitely say goodbye to those tasty eggs!

Commercial Poultry Feeds

Luckily, it’s not hard to feed your chickens well. There are a wide range of commercially-prepared, foolproof feeds that cater to your chickens’ specific dietary needs, such as starter feeds for baby chicks and layer feeds for egg-laying hens.

Commercial feeds make your life a lot easier. They give your chickens all the essential nutrients in the right proportions. You don’t have to worry about forgetting to include this or that nutrient. Sometimes, we’ll encounter folks who think they can save a bit of money by growing or mixing their own feeds, but they end up spending more time and money doing so, and putting their chickens’ health at risk. It’s not worth it. Even the most experienced backyard chicken owners choose commercial feeds for practicality.

Starter feeds are suitable for baby chicks up to 4 or 5 months old, or when they start laying. When that happens, you’ll want to gradually switch to a layer feed. We say gradually because switching feeds abruptly can cause digestive problems.

Don’t give baby chicks layer feed until they’re ready. Layer feed has too much calcium (around 4% vs. 1%) and not enough protein (around 15% vs. 20%). While calcium is essential for egg production in laying hens, too much calcium in growing chickens causes kidney damage. Besides, baby chicks need the extra protein in starter feeds to grow.

To prevent coccidiosis, feed your baby chicks a medicated starter. Alternatively, you can have them vaccinated. If your chicks are already vaccinated they should be fed a non-medicated starter, as medicated starters will neutralize the vaccine.

You can find commercial feeds in mash, crumble, or pellet form. Mash granules are the smallest, which makes them easiest to eat but also easiest to spill on the ground. The best way to minimize waste is to offer crumbles (which are essentially crushed up pellets) to baby chicks and pellets to mature chickens.


You can think of commercial poultry feeds as the breakfast, lunch, and dinner for chickens. Everything else is a snack – non-essential, and probably bad for you, but nice to have on occasion.

Scratch is one of those things. It’s a mixture of corn, seeds, and grains and has little nutritional value, but chickens love it. So much so that you have to be careful not to give them too much because it’ll ruin their appetite and they won’t touch the more nutritious feeds.

There are a few good reasons to give chickens scratch. The first reason is to entice them to come back into the coop. Maybe you have a chicken that always seems to want to spend the night on a tree? The second reason is to give them something to do and to keep them out of trouble. And the third reason is to keep them warm at night in the winter. Despite being low in nutritional value, scratch provides energy and feeding your chickens scratch just before bedtime will help them keep warm throughout the night.

Table Scraps

If you want to feed your chickens table scraps, you can. But again, moderation is important. Table scraps should be treated as a snack and a good rule of thumb is to give your chickens no more than what they can finish in 15 minutes.

The table scraps you should avoid giving are foods that are too salty, too fatty, and too sweet. They’re not good for us and definitely not good for chickens either! We’d steer away from processed foods. You should also avoid giving rotting foods as they can make your chickens sick.

The kinds of table scraps that chickens can eat are things like fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and leftover pasta. Apples, berries, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, cucumbers, kale, peppers, pumpkins, spinach, and tomatoes are all OK, but you might want to avoid giving them garlic and onions because these foods can affect the flavor of your eggs! Cut anything that’s too large into more manageable sizes.

Garden Vegetables

Besides eating vegetables from the table, some owners will let their chickens roam the vegetable garden. This is something you can do too. Again, it gives your chickens something to do and keeps them out of mischief.

Chickens love fresh vegetables. And you might be happy to hear that collard greens, kale, spinach, and other dark, leafy greens that they gobble up from the garden will make their yolks darker and richer!


You can let your chickens roam the lawn too, as long as it hasn’t been sprayed with toxic herbicides. Grass plants are nutritious and tender enough for chickens to eat without causing digestive problems (older and tougher plants can cause problems).

Oyster Shell (aka Calcium Grit)

OK, we lied. We said everything other than commercial feeds is a snack, but that actually doesn’t include oyster shells. In fact, oyster shells should be made available to your chickens – make that your laying hens – at all times, along with their usual feed.

The purpose of oyster shells is to provide your hens with more calcium. This ensures that their eggshells come out nice and thick. Making eggs takes a lot of calcium, and if they don’t have enough calcium in their diets, their eggshells will crack easily and their bones will become brittle because they have to take the required calcium from their bones. So it’s important to offer oyster shell to your laying hens, especially to the heavy layers who lay an egg a day.

Oyster shells are sometimes referred to as “calcium grit”, but unlike granite grit, calcium grit doesn’t aid digestion. Its only function is to give your chickens more calcium. Also, if you’re going to feed your chickens any of the “snacks” on this list – that is, anything other than commercial feeds – you need to feed them granite grit to help them digest those foods. You can learn all about chicken grit here.

Keep Things Simple

Some owners don’t bother giving their chickens anything more than commercially-prepared feeds (and oyster shells for laying hens), and that’s completely fine. Those feeds are formulated to give chickens exactly what they need. They’re nutritious and complete.

You really don’t need to feed your chickens anything else, and you definitely don’t want to take gambles with your chickens’ diet and risk getting them sick, but some scratch will make your chickens very happy!

Have Fun Out There!