‘Tis the season of treats – and while we don’t recommend fun-sized candy bars for your birds, the truth is that every once in a while a flock of hard working hens needs a diversion and snack. One treat your chickens will enjoy is a humble and inexpensive bale of straw or hay.
Put a bale in the chicken run and get ready for hen enthusiasm as they gleefully tear it apart. Each bale holds thousands of tiny tasty tidbits hidden amid grass stems. Insects, seeds, and bits of dry green leaves are devoured as chickens quickly convert the rectangular bale into a horizontal mass of vegetation. Leaving the strings intact (or just clipping one and not both) will help ensure your hens don’t act like grade school kids and overeat this “candy”.
Chickens readily attack either hay or straw bales.The former are usually more expensive and may hold more snacks, but straw bales are sometimes easier to find in suburban and urban areas where they are sold for decorations and mulch. Straw and hay bales are often sold in garden and farm supply stores. Prior to Halloween many grocery stores sell them as decorations, but usually with a healthy mark up.They may sell them inexpensively, or even give them away, the day after Halloween.
Not only is a bale a good treat, but your hens need something to do, especially during long winter days when there’s no greenery to scratch in or bugs to chase and snack on. Nothing relieves hen boredom or offers more interesting winter exercise better than tearing apart a bale.
Winter thaws sometimes turn chicken runs into gooey mud, but having an inch or two of fresh straw on the ground insulates the soil, keeping it frozen and reducing mud. When the ground finally thaws the straw absorbs moisture and offers a better walking surface than gooey mud. By mid-summer the straw will have completely rotted into soil organic matter, leaving only happy chicken memories of tearing the bale apart and finding delicious treats hidden in the stems.
As a poultry owner, I love the feeling I get when I feed a treat to my flock. They see me coming with grapes, blueberries, or grain and they come at a high speed run (well, as fast as that waddle/wiggle/chicken run can go). I feel like a hero, the chickens love me (at least while the goodies last), and we are all happy. It’s so much fun, I am always tempted to throw out just a little bit more… but the old adage “if a little bit is good, more is better” is something that’s not a good practice when feeding treats to your flock. In fact, you can seriously harm the production, health and well being of your birds by overfeeding treats.
First, let’s clarify. What exactly is a treat? For our purposes a treat is anything that you feed your birds that is not grit, oyster shell, or a commercial ration (layer feed, all flock, etc.). Note: As soon as your birds have access to anything other than pellets or crumbles you need to provide grit free choice. We don’t count oyster shell or grit as treats; these are additives that help with digestion (grit) and calcium supplementation (oyster shell). Anything else, however, should be considered a treat and fed appropriately. This includes scratch grains.
The commercial feed that our birds eat are formulated specifically to deliver the correct amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and energy to our birds in perfect balance. Adding other things to their diet (like scratch, kitchen scraps, etc.) can throw off this delicate balance and result in deficiencies in the diet. Deficiencies can manifest themselves in many different ways in our flocks, including feather pecking, egg eating, decreased egg production and poor overall feed utilization and performance.
So how do you know how much to feed your birds when it comes to treats? There is a good method to follow that will keep the treat portion within the recommended 10 – 15% of your birds’ diet.
- Pick your treat of the day and make it something your birds really enjoy! Mealworms, fruits, vegetables and insects are all good treats.
- Give your birds only what they will clean up in 15 minutes. Do this one time a day to prevent unbalancing their diet.
- Be a hero to your birds and enjoy your 15 minutes of fame!
- Repeat daily.