The 2020 pandemic resulted in some unexpected hobbies. One of those is backyard chickens. News outlets nationwide touted the “COVID cluckers” trend as one that provided individuals and families with activity, enjoyment, and reward. Yet, misconceptions abound regarding what is safe and beneficial to feed backyard chickens.
Agricultural extension services and the 200-plus-year-old Farmers’ Almanac provide reliable information, but Colorado-based Nicole Gennetta, Heritage Acres Market, and host of the Backyard Bounty podcast, noted, “There is much misinformation out there about caring for chickens.”
Gennetta lives on a two-acre farm and raises turkeys, chickens, guinea fowl, quail, and bees. She is a Master Gardener and a Master Beekeeper via the Cornell University master beekeeper program. As a teenager, she worked for five years at a raptor center and learned first-hand avian nutrition and medicine. When she became a firefighter and paramedic, she used downtime to read countless university studies on poultry nutrition.
Some common food fallacies
Gennetta pointed out that some chicken sicknesses can be avoided if the birds are fed proper diets.
- Moldy foods are safe. However, consuming anything moldy will make chickens just as sick as humans. If non-moldy scraps are thrown into a chicken yard, “chickens typically have an innate ability to eat what they know is good for them.” Whatever they leave behind should be raked or swept up and disposed of or added to a compost pile so that it does not become moldy.
- Allowing free-ranging chickens to rummage through compost piles is fine. “Flies will sometimes lay eggs in compost, which results in maggots,” said Gennetta, “and if chickens eat the maggots, they could contract botulism.”
- Dried beans are just as nutritious as cooked beans. In fact, dried beans contain lectins that are dangerous to humans and chickens. Cooking beans thoroughly eliminates toxins.
- Banana peels are harmful. “All parts of the banana are okay,” she said. “It’s just that some chickens don’t like bananas.”
- Whole raw onions are fine. While a few raw or cooked bits of onion will not generally cause health issues, onions in general may cause a blood condition called Heinz anemia, which results in such symptoms in chickens as weak legs and lethargy.
- Spent garden plants are harmless. Most are, but potato plants and raw potatoes include the chemical solanine that may cause gastrointestinal and neurological issues and even death.
One factor that stumps some backyard chicken owners is why egg production slows or stops, pointed out Sandy McMurtry, who has a hobby farm in Covington, La. “I’m on some local neighborhood and hobby farm sites and people are always asking why they’re not getting eggs. And one solutions that is often talked about is that the chickens might not be getting enough protein. They need protein to lay the optimum amount of eggs.”
McMurtry has nine chickens, including Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island reds, Australorps, and Polish chickens, which she keeps in a coop in the evenings and allows to free-range most days. “They get a lot of their protein not only from a fortified feed, but from the bugs and worms they are picking up while free-ranging. People are told on the sites to check the protein content on the feed they are giving their chickens or allow them to free-range sometimes.”
Alabama Cooperative Extension System informed that most mash, crumble, and pellet chicken feeds contain the right balance of protein, vitamins, and minerals necessary to keep chickens producing eggs. Diminished daylight hours in winter can affect egg production as well, but adding to chickens’ diet dried mealworms might also provide a needed protein boost.
Chicken “love” mealworms, stressed Gennetta, but added that mealworms raised in China are sometimes fed “… Styrofoam, which is not something I’d want to feed my ladies!”
Farming My Backyard urban homesteader Kathryn Robles informed: “Mealworms, which are about 50 percent protein, are a great addition to any flock’s diet.” Robles offers a free course on raising chickens as well as an instructional book titled Baby Steps to Backyard Chickens. Her step-by-step instructions on how to raise mealworms involve a plastic tub and a dark unused space. “Mealworms will lay eggs about one to two weeks into their adult lives,” instructs Robles, “so if you treat the critters right, you will soon have a self-sustaining population.”
As another nutritious treat for chickens, Gennetta will occasionally put a flake of alfalfa hay in the chicken yard. “It gives them something to do … scratching through it. Plus, it’s roughage.” At the end of her gardening season, she will toss into the yard most spent vegetable plants. And a hole drilled into a cabbage and run through with a rod or rope and hung in reach of chickens provides a fun food indulgence.
For the most part, chickens will excitedly consume a great many tired leftovers and the peelings, tops, and stems of fruits and vegetables. They can even be fed some meat scraps – in moderation. As an easy reference guide, Gennetta compiled an “ultimate list” of do’s and don’ts. And to help keep chicken owners from having to call a veterinarian every time a chicken appears a little puny, she published Backyard Chicken Diagnosis and Treatment.
“I’m passionate about getting the correct information out there,” said Gennetta. Added McMurtry with a chuckle, “Part of the fun of having chickens is feeding them and seeing them happy. I never tire of learning the best ways to care for all my ‘single ladies.’”