When to feed chickens and how often
The best answer to the question, 'How often should I feed my chickens?' is all the time.
Chickens should have free access to a complete layer feed from when they first get up until they roost at night.
How often do chickens eat?
Chickens don't spend the whole day eating. In fact, chickens have evolved to eat regular small meals with breaks in-between. Limiting access to feed by only feeding your chickens once a day, or at certain times, disrupts this process.
Chickens have a very different digestive system to humans. Food is stored in the crop, which begins the process of digestion, before it is ground in the gizzard. This allows chickens to digest hard grains and grasses.
It takes time for both the crop and the gizzard to do their digestive work. So chickens have evolved to eat as much as they can and then do something else until the food is digested. This could be dust bathing, preening, sunning themselves, laying an egg or foraging.
So chickens naturally eat multiple times a day, whenever their crop is empty. Chickens that are foraging will take longer to fill their crop than chickens that are eating out of a feeder, but the process is the same.
When to feed chickens
Chickens will invariably eat (and drink) as soon as they rise, because their crop is empty. One of the most common problems is chicken keepers who don't get up early enough to make feed accessible - this causes bullying and feather pecking as hungry (or hangry) birds wait for breakfast!
Chickens also eat right before roosting, so they have something to digest overnight. This keeps them warm in cool weather and is important for egg production, as the reproductive cycle is usually more intense and requires more nutrients at night.
Then chickens will eat multiple times throughout the day, as they feel hungry. This will vary among individual birds and can also be influenced by age, breed, productivity and even the weather.
Pecking order also plays a role, as lower ranking birds will eat when the feed is not being monopolised by more dominant birds. For example, we had one low-ranking chicken that would wait until all the other birds had gone up to roost each night in order to get her fill in peace.
If I feed my chickens less often, will they eat less?
Limiting access to food, in any way, doesn't really decrease how much chickens eat. Whether you provide unlimited access to food during a few set time periods, or you provide limited access to food at certain times, the results are the same.
If you feed your chickens at set times, giving them as much as they want but only a few times a day, then your birds will simply eat more at one time. This binge eating isn't as healthy for their digestive system and can cause a pendulous crop (distended crop).
If you limit access to feed as well, then you need to feed each bird individually. Otherwise, dominant birds will monopolise the feeder, eating the same amount overall. But the lower ranking birds will be chased away from the feeder by the dominant birds and therefore eat less than they need. The birds that don't get enough feed will be less productive and suffer from more health issues, while the dominant birds may even become overweight.
Some people believe limiting the amount of feed in the morning saves money because chickens forage more during the day. But forage doesn't have the same nutritional value as feed, so this is likely to impact health and productivity. And the same issues around feeding, pecking order and binge eating still apply.
Why should chickens have unlimited access to food?
Giving your chickens unlimited access to their feed throughout the day is the best option in almost all circumstances. Why? Because:
- Chickens' digestive systems evolved to consume many small meals throughout the day
- It stops binge eating and related health issues
- The health and productivity of low pecking order birds is likely to suffer where food access is limited
- Modern chicken breeds require optimum nutrition for high productivity, and this is almost impossible to achieve when feed access is limited
The only circumstance where limiting feed access to set times or amounts is where a chicken is prone to binge eating or pendulous crop. But even then, individual feeding should be considered in order to ensure all members of the flock are getting everything that they need to thrive.
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook