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Food for thought

PUBLISHED: 11:40 22 December 2010 | UPDATED: 09:13 23 December 2010

Hens enjoying their feed

Hens enjoying their feed

Your Chickens

A wholesome diet will lead to contented hens and more eggs

As with all creatures, the hen needs a balanced diet which includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water.

Required primarily for growth and efficient metabolism, proteins are complex substances made up of a range of amino acids. There are about a dozen amino acids, but the most important ones are lysine, methionine and tryptophan. A chicken can synthesise most amino acids from other food constituent, but these three must be taken in directly every day.

Hens that are free-ranging will eat naturally-sourced protein such as insects. The main vegetable sources of protein are soya and field beans, peas, maize and other cereals, lucerne and sunflower seeds. Most free-range feeds, these days, are based on vegetable proteins.

Carbohydrates are the main sources of energy and include sugars and starches and are available from cereals, grasses and other plants. Surplus carbohydrates are converted to fat.

Also composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, fats and oils release a large amount of energy, supplying warmth within the system. Animal fats have been replaced by vegetable oils.

Minerals, collectively referred to as ‘ash’ on a feed label, include a range of essential substances such as calcium, phosphorus and copper. Trace elements are minerals which are required in small amounts, but are, nevertheless, vital for good health. Cereals, grasses and other plants can provide a range of minerals, but compound feeds include mineral supplements.

Vitamins are organic compounds needed to maintain health. Again, cereals and other plants can provide a range of vitamins and proprietary feeds include all the necessary ones.

Compound feeds

These are proprietary feeds which contain all the required nutrients for a complete and balanced diet. They are available as pellets or as mash. The latter is cheaper and is easier to use with automated feeders. The pellets are more convenient for the smaller flock owner, there is less wastage and there is no likelihood of the calcium element sifting to the bottom, which can be the case with mash. Starter rations for chicks are available in crumb form.

Rations specify on the label the amount of protein in the compound feed. They are usually 16%, 17% or 18%. The lower the %, the more important it is to have good quality ranging available where the birds obtain a certain proportion of protein from the meadow.

Free-range feeds

Free-range compound feeds do not contain the range of additives of those destined for the intensive sector. They may be described as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’; be aware, there is no legal definition of ‘natural’, but the term ‘organic’ is legally defined. So how do the feeds differ?

Both feeds are free of artificial colouring and growth promoting additives, but ‘natural’ feeds may contain genetically modified ingredients which are banned in ‘organic’ feeds. Soya may also have been extracted with solvents which are also banned.

The best choice of compound feed is an organic ration, although it is more expensive. If this is not possible, choose a ‘natural’ free-range feed. Check the label and quiz the supplier!

Grain

If a compound feed has all the necessary ingredients is it necessary, you might wonder, to give a separate grain ration. It isn’t, but would you like to eat the same thing day after day?

Wheat is popular with chickens, particularly if it’s put on the ground for them to scratch for. It caters for an instinctive pattern of behaviour and, if placed in different areas each day, encourages wider ranging. It can also be placed in outdoor feeders which prevent wild birds or pests feeding at your expense.

In winter, laying hens will need to eat more than usual, to keep warm and continue laying. Increasing the grain ration is cheaper than increasing the amount of compound feed.

If feeding mixed grain, watch out for greedy hens which might pick out soya and maize, leaving the other grain behind. This can lead to over-fat birds.

Grit and calcium

If your birds are being given grain, they will need grit. Chicken feed suppliers sell insoluble grit for this purpose.

Crushed oystershell is available to ensure that they are getting enough calcium. A shortage can lead to shell problems and egg eating. Calcified seaweed also provides this, as well as a range of minerals. Grit and crushed oystershell or calcified seaweed can be given on the ground, or put in a container as necessary – so that the birds can help themselves.

Whatever feed you give or feeding programme you follow, one thing is certain: the hens will be content and perform better if they are fed a wholesome diet!

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