When we first started out with this whole raising chickens thing, we were quite hesitant and almost like new parents when it came to researching what “to” and what “not to” do. They should honestly make a What to Expect When You’re Expecting for prospective chicken owners. Maybe I’ll add that to my list of book ideas.
It can be confusing to know what chickens safely can, and cannot, eat. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of, “Well, I tried this, and they were fine,” and “I tried this, and not only did all my flock DIE but the chicken coop also caught on fire and my truck exploded and basically the world ended.”
What we learned is that there is actually very little that will actually harm a chicken. Granted, there are certain foods that you only want to feed in moderation, but that’s true of everything in life, right? Keep in mind that you are what you eat, and that’s especially true when you are raising any kind of livestock.
Can Chickens Eat Meat?
Whenever we have guests over for dinner, I like to blow their minds by showing them how I am saving the meat scraps for the chickens.
“WHAT? Chickens eat MEAT?”
Why, yes, they do. They are omnivores. Meaning they eat…literally everything.
Well, not everything. But they do like a nice meaty treat every now and then (such as these mealworms!). Every year, I make suet cakes using disposable aluminum trays, rendered pig lard, and a sunflower seed mixture. Sometimes I’ll even throw in organ meat for the heck of it.
Meat is actually a great source of nutrients for chickens, who are often deficient in vitamin B, thiamine, iron, and magnesium. You can feed just about any kind of meat, just do so in moderation. Only feed cooked scraps (feeding raw meat can encourage cannibalistic behavior) and try to avoid overly fatty pieces.
Can Chickens Eat Onions and Other Vegetables?
Certain vegetables should be fed only in moderation. For example, asparagus can affect the flavor of your eggs, while the oxalic acid in spinach can affect calcium absorption when fed in large amounts. Just as with humans, iceberg lettuce can cause diarrhea in excess amounts (not speaking from expeirence, of course) and since it’s low in nutritional value, it should probably only be fed in moderation anyway.
Onions should be avoided, too. These contain a toxin known as thiosulphate. This toxin destroys red blood cells. Chickens will usually avoid onions, but if they don’t, they can suffer from jaundice or anemia. Plus, they will make your eggs taste weird. Save the onions for the omelet, and move on.
Chickens should also avoid green potatoes and tomatoes. Why? Green potatoes and tomatoes, as nightshade vegetables, contain solanine and chaconine. These are found in the peels and flesh and can be fatal. The chemicals aren’t good for humans, either, by the way. Some people think that cooking green potatoes or tomatoes can be fed to chickens, but this is true. Cooking does not remove the toxins.
The only other vegetable that chickens should not consume (I guess it’s technically a fruit, though?) is the avocado. Avocados contain a toxin known as persin, which can cause heart problems and difficulties breathing in chickens (and we’re not talking about the breathing problems that college girls get because they’re so excited for their avocado toast, either). These kinds of issues can be fatal.
Although persin is usually only carried in the skin and stone of the avocado, it’s typically best to err on the side of caution and just not feed avocados at all. Although avocados are a great source of potassium and iron, the risk of poisoning is probably not worth it.
Can Chickens Eat Beans and Fruit?
Here’s the deal with beans. We all know they’re delicious, but when they are served uncooked, they have the ability to kill even adult humans. In chickens, dried beans are always fatal if left uncooked. If you decide to feed beans, make sure you soak and cook them. Cooking them in a crockpot won’t cut it, either – you need to make sure they reach high enough temperatures to deactivate the phytohaemagglutinin, which is the toxin found in uncooked beans.
As for fruit, most fruits are generally safe. Citrus is sometimes thought to interfere with calcium absorption, which can cause thinner shelled eggs, but in moderation, it’s usually fine. However, we’ve always found that our chickens avoid citrus anyway – must be they know it’s not good for them?
You should also try to avoid apple seeds and pits from apricots, peaches, pears, plums, and cherries. These contain trace amounts of cyanide. A little bit is probably okay, but don’t feed these items in bulk if you can avoid it.
Can Chickens Eat Expired Food?
Chickens can eat expired food – but within reason. While most types of mold won’t hurt your chickens when ingested, keep in mind that some molds produce toxins and can harm your birds. For example, the mold that usually forms on fruit and corn has cancer-causing components and can be seriously detrimental to your flock.
Generally, cheese or bread that has a small amount of mold is safe to feed – but don’t feed out tons at a time. The types of molds that are usually found on these products generally are safe for chickens – but when in doubt, just throw it out.
If there’s no mold, as long as the food is one that is usually safe for chicken consumption (and isn’t totally rancid), you’re usually okay feeding out old or expired food. Chickens love stale bread in particular!
Can Chickens Eat Dessert?
Who doesn’t love a nice after-dinner snack? While fruit and most sweet treats can be fed safely to your chickens (in moderation), avoid giving them chocolate, caffeine, or alcohol. No nightcap for you, Mr. Rooster. And to answer the question you inevitably have, yes, people have tried giving their chickens beer.
While a little dabble of any of these items here or there likely won’t produce longlasting effects, chocolate, which contains both theobromine and caffeine, can be toxic. These ingredients are toxic to chickens for the same reason why they are toxic to dogs. They can produce heart problems in as little as twenty-four hours after ingestion.
If you happen to throw coffee grounds or tea bags into your compost, don’t worry. Your chickens won’t usually disturb and eat them in high enough quantities to produce major problems. Just try not to deliberately feed your birds anything with caffeine or theobromine.
Can Chickens Eat Compost?
Chickens love picking through the compost for bugs and other hard-to-spot microbes (as well as leftover grain!). It’s a great way to encourage their natural instincts and to provide them with valuable nutrients.
Just make sure you are closely monitoring everything that goes into your compost bin. This will reduce the likelihood of your chickens eating something they shouldn’t.
Remember that anything that has been sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals should be kept well out of your compost. Even if you don’t feed compost to chickens, if they happen to get inside, these chemicals can be dangerous (and they’ll be passed on to you in their eggs and meat). Plus, do you really want to be spreading more chemicals on your garden when you use your compost?
What Should You Feed Chickens?
As you can see by the list above, there’s not a ton that you can’t safely feed chickens. However, for your birds to be healthy, you should try to feed them a core diet of pellets that contain ingredients like maize (corn), sunflower seeds, oats, wheat, salt, etc. These formulated pellets typically contain the exact vitamins and other nutrients your chickens need to be healthy.
You can also add in fruits and vegetables, and it’s safe to give those as treats or whenever you have scraps available. A healthy, well-balanced diet will result in high egg production, normal behaviors (they will be less likely to peck at each other and become aggressive if they are getting all of the nutrients and calories they need), and improved meat quality. Keep in mind that while some foods (like meat and certain vegetables, like asparagus) are perfectly safe for chickens to eat, they can alter the flavor of your eggs.
Free-range chickens usually won’t overeat, so it’s tough to overfeed them, as is common with other kinds of animals. Over time, you will learn exactly what – and what not – to feed your chickens. Let their behavior and health be your guide when deciding what types and quantities of food to feed, and you’ll find that your flock responds quite well.
What other tips do you have for feeding your flock? Be sure to give me some feedback and advice in the comments below, and as always, follow J&R Pierce Family Farm on Instagram (@ jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm).