I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me when I say this: the word of food labels can be one confusing place. An excellent example of this can be found when discussing pastured chickens. I, like many, initially assumed that pastured chickens mostly ate grasses and bugs that they foraged. The reality is more complicated and can vary greatly. So, what exactly do pastured chickens eat?
It depends. The diet of pastured chickens is entirely specific to the farm, and a substantial portion of their diet will likely be grain. Though the diet of the average pastured chicken will mostly consist of grain, pastured chickens will also forage for grasses, legumes and hunt for bugs while out in the field. While it is entirely possible to raise chickens on pasture without any grain, the reality is that pastured poultry operations usually require a ton of human labor. Therefore, supplementing the diet of the pastured chickens with grain goes a long way to make pastured chicken economically viable. After all, the market for $80 chickens is probably pretty small.
I’ll be honest here: I think this is a really great topic and I had a blast researching and writing this post. Maybe I’m just a sucker for chickens (they’re super cool, BTW). Who knows. Anyways, let’s dive deeper into the world of pastured chickens to get the detailed answer we’re all looking for.
What Do Chickens Eat Naturally?
As I’m sure, you can figure out, trying to pin down what chickens eat “naturally” is a bit of a messy subject. You probably already know this, but chickens are omnivores in the most real sense of the word. Like us, they’ll eat just about anything, and they have some serious foraging instincts to boot. This will make sense if you’ve ever seen a chicken on the prowl in the grass looking for juicy bugs, fresh plants and a variety of other things.
Going back to biology class in high school, it’s easy to see how these beautiful birds are basically just mini-dinosaurs that retained many of the characteristics we associate with the fearsome velociraptors of Jurassic Park (though on a much cuter scale).
So what exactly do the wild relatives of domesticated chickens eat? Typically found in thick jungles in places like Sri Lanka and India, the Junglefowl has a diet that is very similar to domesticated and feral chickens.
They are excellent foragers that eat a diverse diet consisting primarily of insects, small animals and plant matter. Seriously, they’ll eat just about anything. If provided sufficient space and enough possible food sources, domesticated chickens will eat a similarly diverse diet.
What Kind of Bugs do Chickens Eat?
This probably comes as no surprise, but chickens will eat a wide, wide range of insects and bugs. From centipedes to slugs to spiders to ticks and so much more, chickens are genuinely made for eating bugs and other creepy crawlies. From the small backyard flock to the flock of hundreds prowling the open pasture, these birds make excellent pest specialists.
While it’s excellent that pastured chickens are allowed to forage for bugs and plant matter, the reality is that most pastured chickens also get a substantial portion of their calories from chicken feed. But what exactly do I mean when I say chicken feed? Unsurprisingly, this is a bit of a loaded question.
What is Usually in Chicken Feed?
The first distinction made is that different kinds of chickens are usually provided slightly different kinds of feed. In other words, pastured chickens raised for meat, commonly referred to as broilers, get one type of chicken feed while laying hens get another.
The feed for broilers is usually very high in protein, which makes sense as these birds have been bred for rapid growth. So, much like the bro at the gym working on his pecs, meat birds like the Cornish Cross variety of broiler need vast quantities of protein to reach their full size in only 8 weeks.
Yes, you read that right.
Just 8 weeks for those birds! It blew my mind when I first heard that.
On the other hand, laying hens will need a different kind of feed, and they could actually get sick if fed the type of feed meant for broilers. Unlike the broiler feed, the feed for laying hens is high in calcium and other minerals.
This makes a ton of sense as obviously much of the additional calcium found in their feed will go towards making the shell (you know, the thing your eggs are in).
How Much Feed do Pastured Chickens Need?
OK, that all of this is great and all, but what exactly is this chicken feed made out of? Well, it turns out that the list is pretty long. While the content of each feed may vary, chicken feed may well have ingredients such as corn for a source of carbohydrates (energy), tallow for a source of fat, and soybeans for a source of protein. The list will be much longer than that, but it gives you a good idea of the blend of foods it takes to make chicken feed.
If you’d like to learn more, this article in Extension by Dr. Jacquie Jacob is a wonderful resource that goes in-depth into the components of chicken feed. (https://articles.extension.org/pages/68432/common-feed-ingredients-in-poultry-diets)
Not to be a broken record, but this is really going to depend on the individual farm, and it can vary widely. However, unless the farm mentions otherwise, it is probably safe to assume that the pastured chickens you’re dealing with (whether buying meat birds or eggs from laying hens) will be getting the majority of their food from chicken feed.
They will certainly be getting plenty of calories from the foraging of bugs and plant matter, but most farms are raising pastured chickens will likely be heavily supplementing their diet with feed.
While I understand the desire chickens that don’t need supplemental feed, the reality today is this: pastured poultry, whether raising broilers or a flock of layers, is an extremely labor-intensive process.
If using the most common methods of pastured poultry, most farms just don’t have the manpower to move the chickens frequently enough to accomplish that. Even if they could pull it off, the major labor requirements would most likely make their end product way too expensive for most to afford.
Can You Raise Chickens Without Buying Feed?
Can it be done? You bet!
It’s entirely possible to raise pastured chickens without buying feed, and many people do it currently. Typically this is done on a smaller scale, such as a small homestead that has a few chickens and supplements their foraged calories with scraps from the kitchen.
If you’re interested in how some are able to raise chickens without feed, I’d recommend checking out this excellent blog article and this helpful piece from the Permaculture Research Institute.
Last but certainly not least, check out this video about a compost specialist (cool job, huh?) in Vermont that has 600 laying hens and doesn’t use ANY feed!
You might want to get comfy, as it’s a fascinating interview full of great insight: