The following is an article that was published in Australian Poultry Magazine, which was written by Kerrie Kruger at Krugers Sheetmetal.
By Kerrie Kruger
Our business is building self-feeders for chickens, the chicken feeder, so we spend a lot of time around birds. Here are some of the things we have learned about chooks.
No matter what type of chicken feeder you use, it is the contents that most concern the chickens. A good quality poultry pellet should be the mainstay of their diet. We use vegetarian pellets. If the poultry pellets are provided from our chicken feeder, it tends to help keep the pellets dry and keep rodents and sparrows at bay.
Your chickens need access to pellets all day long. They eat small amounts of food regularly. Chickens should go to bed with full crops (the crop is the pouch in their throat where the food is first stored after it is swallowed). It takes more than 25 hours to create one egg. During the night, as the chook is sleeping, she is still building that egg. She gets the materials for making it from the food eaten and digested that day. Old-timers always gave birds a handful of grain for the evening feed because it was slower to digest than 'soft' food like mash or pellets.
Feeding your chickens a complete and balanced diet is essential if they are to stay healthy and lay lots of eggs. While some breeds may be able to subsist on scraps or, in good weather, free range, they require more than found food to meet their egg-laying potential. They will be happier, healthier and lay better if their bodies are not stressed out by undernourishment and nutritional deficiencies.
A question I have been asked about feeders is: 'Won't the chicken just eat all the feed at once?' The answer seems to be no. Chickens eat to meet their needs and this changes according to temperature, age of bird and whether it's growing, laying or being a free loader.
After trialling our chicken feeder in the chook run, I can report that with six Sussex (mid size) and four small bantams, the maxi feeder has lasted for more than 10 weeks. We emptied a 20kg bag of pellets into the maxi on 1 January and on 10 March there was 5kg left. So in 10 weeks they consumed 15kg or 1.5kg per week. A 20kg bag should last us about 13 weeks and at around $13 per 20kg bag that equates to a cost of about $1.50 per week in pellets. It makes you wonder how much those pesky rodents and sparrows are eating when using a conventional style feeder.
I am thinking that in the spring and summer the chooks will probably eat significantly less feed than in the autumn and winter. I am going to trial again in midwinter to see if there is any difference in consumption rate and also trial consumption rate with no extra feed being supplied; no kitchen or vegie scraps or scratch.
Our chooks are located in our orchard, which is 9 x 9m. They get table scraps and greens from the vegie garden. They are let out once or twice a week for a few hours and at night get a handful per chook of scratch grain (cracked corn with grains such as wheat, oats and sunflower) and treat grains as per their seasonal needs. In the winter, especially, they need calories to keep them warm, and in the autumn they need protein because they will be moulting and renewing their plumage. In the spring and summer they are usually laying their peak of eggs, so all those calories go to help produce the eggs and keep them in good condition while they produce.
Never provide only scratch grain to your birds rather than pellets, because scratch grain is not a balanced diet that provides all the nutrients needed to maintain their health.
Chickens love cracked corn. It's like lollies to them. But it has limited nutritional value other than aiding yolk colour. It's okay to give a little in winter when the weather is really cold. Too much can make chooks fat, which can lead to serious egg-laying glitches. So, don't overfeed grain - keep it as a treat.
Sunflower seeds are also a nice treat in moderation. They have that extra bit of protein, and also contain good essential fats. About a teaspoon per bird per day is adequate. Don't feed the seeds with the shells on, as too many can cause an impacted crop. It's a good treat to use to train the chickens.
Our chooks receive a variety of garden greens, and we grow silverbeet, spinach and bok choy especially for them, as well as unwanted weeds. Remember the more green feed, the better yolk colour your eggs will have. It is recommended that we do not feed rhubarb, avocado, chocolate (as if this would happen in our house), citrus fruits or lawnmower clippings - these can become mouldy quickly and mouldy food equals sick chooks.
In addition, the girls receive the table scraps from breakfast and leftover lunch-box donations from us all. We lightly boil vegie peelings with some porridge oats, this is done more regularly in cooler months as it is easy to pop the chook pot on top of the wood heater. Once cooled, a dollop of yoghurt on top goes down a treat.
How much do I cook? Well, you should only put out enough for the day's needs or it will sour, plus food lying around attracts rodents. I fill their feeder (a piece of gutter about 1m long with both ends capped), which is long enough for the 10 chooks to all reach the mash at the same time. This ensures it is eaten within an hour or so in the morning. I do allow extra in winter as our yard cat likes to join the girls for her share and they don't seem to mind.
Hens need to have shell grit available in a separate container at all times. Shell grit is a calcium supplement which ensures strong-shelled eggs. It needs to be in coarse pieces so it is slowly released into the bird's system. (Paper-thin shells are a sure sign of low calcium.) Source shell grit from your local stock feed store or you may prefer a more sustainable (and frugal) source of calcium - eggshells.
Yes, feed your used eggshells back to your hens. As I use my eggs, I collect them in a container. When it's full and the oven has been on (or in winter I have used the top of the wood heater) I bake them till brittle. It makes it easier to crush them into bite-sized pieces. I think crushing the shells prevents the hens from recognising them as eggs, which may encourage egg eating. You can mix the baked shells in with scraps or mash. I prefer the free choice method and have it available at all times in a separate feeder, an ice cream container screwed to the wall.
Another good use of the baked eggshells is in the vegie garden around seedlings. Slugs and snails do not seem to like crawling over sharp crushed eggshells.
Clean, cool water should always be available - chooks die very quickly without access to cool water. They don't like warm water and may refuse to drink it. We lost a few young chickens due to warm water a few summers ago and now ensure that many containers of cool water are available.
So to wrap up, keep a few chickens in the backyard and life will seem that little bit better.
If you would like to know about our Krugers' homemade platform chicken feeder, the chicken feeder, go to chickenfeeder.com.au. You can also phone 0428 602 732 or 03 5281 1701 during business hours.