Poultry Pen Supplements, by Andy Cawthray
Andy Cawthray looks at supplements
While formulated commercial diets provide all the nutrients your hens need, there are some supplements you can use which will further improve your flock’s health and wellbeing.
A ‘leftover’ behaviour
Scratch feed is generally a mixture of any number of cereal grains — often cracked corn and wheat — and is fed by broadcasting it on the ground so that the hens can scratch around for it as a treat and as exercise. Scratching for food is a leftover from the natural behaviour of the chickens’ jungle fowl ancestors, which searched through the debris on the jungle floor for insects and seeds. Scratch should not be considered a feed, and used only as a treat. Consumption of large amounts of scratch can put a chicken’s daily intake severely out of balance and over the long run reduce its productivity.
It is always useful to provide the flock with a scratch feed an hour or two before the birds go in to roost. This not only provides them with a full crop before roosting (particularly useful during the colder winter nights), but provides activity and stimulus, encourages flock cohesion and keeps their toenails down too.
The other advantage of getting your flock used to a daily scratch feed is that the birds will respond to you bringing it to them no matter what the time of day. If the scratch feed is provided within the run, you can attract free-ranging birds back to a fixed area at any point of the day. Alternatively, providing a small quantity in the coop will bring them indoors. Both scenarios are particularly helpful if you need to catch and handle the birds during the day or if you need to confine them earlier than their normal roost time.
Vegetable scraps should be fed only sparingly. Items such as leftover vegetable peelings, melon rinds and other unwanted fruit or vegetable items should be considered like candy for chickens. These items have little nutritional value, and the water, fibre and sugars they contain will serve to fill them up so that they do not eat their feed. The combined feeding of scratch and vegetable scraps should not exceed about 15-20 percent of a chicken’s daily consumption or its productivity may suffer.
Grit aids digestion
Grit is required by chickens to aid digestion. When chickens eat they swallow everything whole, since they don’t have teeth for grinding. Foraging chickens often consume whole grains or insects with hard exoskeletons that require grinding to be digested. When the grit is swallowed, it is lodged in the gizzard, the muscular stomach of birds, where muscle
contractions grind the feed against the hard particles.
Grit comes in a variety of sizes — it is important that the size of the grit provided is appropriate for the age and breed of the bird. Some grits contain additional trace minerals to supplement the diet. Grits should be freely available to the birds and not mixed with feed, as chickens will seek it out as and when they need it.
Pasture’s excellent food source
There has been a resurgence in allowing chickens to forage on pasture. As a feedstuff for chickens, pasture itself is poor as the birds can’t digest cellulose, the primary composition of grasses. However, they do enjoy picking out the insects that pasture attracts and the seeds the grasses produce at certain times of the year. As the grass begins to grow in early spring, the insect population provides an excellent food source for the foraging birds. However, this resource is limited over time as the insect population declines.
In the summer, grasses that are allowed to mature produce seeds that can provide some nutrition for chickens. As late summer turns to autumn, the seeds disappear and the insect population declines to the point where it is virtually non-existent. Cold, wet and snowy winter conditions eliminate pasture grasses as a feed for chickens. Then it’s back to spring for another cycle.
So on an annual basis, little feed value is obtained by allowing chickens to forage in pasture. Rotating the birds on paddocks, keeping the numbers low enough so that the insect population is not reduced too quickly and planting pasture grasses that attract insects and increase seed production will enhance their value as a feed supplement.
Enhancing egg shell quality
Oyster shell is often given to laying hens as a free-choice supplement to enhance egg shell quality, especially as they get older. An additional benefit of providing oyster shell over simply increasing the limestone content of the feed is that the large size of the particles means they dissolve slowly in the gut, providing a slow release of the minerals calcium and phosphorus.
Interestingly, hens that require more calcium in their diet will sense this need and seek out and consume oyster shell. It should be noted that the slow release of these minerals makes oyster shell an unsuitable supplement for birds exhibiting a lack of calcium; instead, these birds should be given a fast-acting liquid calcium supplement.
Next month: I take a look at some of the vitamins, minerals and other healthy food stuffs that can be used as a supplement, and reveal some of the telltale signs when a chicken is suffering a deficiency.
Today’s chickens’ jungle fowl ancestors scratched for food
Foraging birds love the insects in spring pasture