Should You Try Free-Choice Feeding?
Free-choice is a term that often confuses chicken keepers. Find out what free-choice feeding means and why chicken keepers do it.
What is free-choice feeding for chickens?
For the healthiest, happiest and most productive hens, chickens should be given unlimited access to their feed from dawn to dusk. This is sometimes referred to as free access.
Free-choice feeding is different from free access.
In free-choice feeding, chickens still have unlimited access to their feed. But instead of just pellets, they have multiple different feed ingredients to choose from. Feed ingredients are separated, so chickens can choose what to eat and how much of it.
Does free-choice feeding work for chickens?
Free-choice feeding is based on the idea that chickens are able to select a diet that meets their individual nutritional needs.
If you’ve ever given your chickens scraps or scratch grains, you will know that they have preferences for different foods. But are these preferences healthy? The answer is sometimes.
When given a choice between animal protein and vegetable protein, chickens prefer the animal protein. This is the healthier choice for chickens because the amino acid profile more closely meets their needs. Chickens also go nuts for insects and other healthy, protein-rich foods.
But chickens don’t always choose the healthiest option. They also love bread, pasta and fruit. Their favourite ingredients in chicken scratch are usually the corn and sunflower seeds. In small amounts these high-energy foods are fine. In large amounts, they are too high in fat and sugar, and they are missing essential nutrients. But chickens still prefer them!
Clearly, chickens don't always choose an ideal diet. And a poor diet decreases productivity and causes health issues.
While free-choice feeding can work, a lot of it comes down to what options chickens are given. And for most backyard chicken keepers, providing unlimited access to a complete layer feed is far more convenient and takes less risks with your chickens' health and productivity.
What are the benefits of free-choice feeding for chickens?
A lot of the proponents of free-choice feeding believe it provides chickens with a more natural diet. But free-choice diets only work where chickens are provided with limited, nutritionally-tailored options. Yes, chickens select their feed, but the options they are selecting from are not all that different to the ingredients in a typical layer feed.
However, there are some potential benefits of free-choice feeding for chicken keepers:
- Individualised diets can optimise the health and productivity of each member of your flock
- Ideally, chickens eat exactly what they need, reducing waste and feed costs
- Roosters and non-layers are no longer eating feed designed for egg layers
- For chicken keepers that produce their own feed ingredients, it is a great way to use them without having to mill feed
- Including whole grains as a portion of the diet improves digestive function and feed conversion
- Some heritage breeds and free-rangers may not perform as well on commercial feeds designed for hybrid layers
Some chicken keepers also argue that free-choice feeding is better because chickens have more choice. But whether having more food choices actually makes chickens happier is anyone’s guess!
What are the risks of free-choice feeding for chickens?
Although free-choice feeding may have some benefits, it is not without risks.
Here are some potential problems to think about before you start free-choice feeding:
- Chickens require training in order to be able to choose a healthy diet
- While chickens adjust to the new diet, they may lose condition or even become ill
- Not all chickens can choose a diet to meet their nutritional needs and laying hens seem to have more difficulty with this than meat chickens
- Free-choice chickens tend to eat less protein, which can decrease egg production and productivity
- Chickens will struggle if there are too many choices or if ingredients change
- Suitable vitamin and mineral supplements may be difficult to source
Tips for free-choice feeding with backyard chickens
If you do want to attempt free-choice feeding with your flock, here are a few tips:
- Offer 3 simple choices: a protein, an energy source (whole grain) and a calcium source
- Add a complete vitamin and mineral supplement to the protein source
- Ensure your chickens will be able to consume enough of the supplement each day to meet their needs
- Introduce the free-choice diet at an early age, ideally pullet-stage
- Ensure there are enough Feeders of each option for lower-ranked birds to have free access
If attempting free-choice feeding, it may be worth consulting a poultry nutritionist or vet. A change in diet or poor diet can cause serious illness or even death in chickens.
Always monitor your flock closely when free-choice feeding. While there is an adjustment period of several weeks, any signs of ill-health such as lethargy, poor appetite, puffed feathers, diarrhoea, weakness or nerve issues are serious concerns. We recommend returning to a complete pellet feed and contacting a veterinarian.
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook