Fall is a subtle, progressive change from a green landscape to one painted with varying tones of oranges, reds, and yellows, until the bareness of winter sets in. Along with it comes a shift in seasonally available foods. As we change our diets to prepare for the winter months, we must also take our flocks into consideration. Which fall foods are safe to feed chickens, and what should we avoid?
Chickens love a varied diet and are true omnivores. However, it is best to provide treats late in the day. Chickens are like children, in that if you serve their dessert with their meal, they will most likely eat the treats first, and may skip their normal feed altogether. It is also important to mix up your treats to add variety to your chicken's diet. While pumpkin makes a great treat, no one wants to eat pumpkin every day for 3 months, and that includes your birds.
Pumpkin: Raw or cooked, pumpkin is a fantastic treat for chickens. Both the seeds and the flesh of the pumpkin provide chickens with a nutritious, seasonally appropriate treat. So when the jack-o-lantern starts to look a little past his prime, it may be time to send him to the coop. Other winter squash works just as well as pumpkin, so feel free to add some variety as you work through your cellar.
Sweet Potatoes: While sweet potatoes and yams don't provide a whole lot of nutrition to your flock, they are fine as a treat if your flock enjoys them. However, when preparing sweet potatoes for chickens, they must be cooked, and the green part of the peel should be removed.
Oatmeal: Just as you enjoy a warm bowl of oatmeal on a cold morning, your flock agrees! Cooked oatmeal is a nutritious treat for your chicks on cool days, but raw is also fine. Combining raw oatmeal with scratch feed and birdseed for a scatter treat can also get your birds up and moving.
Corn: Ok, so this one may be cheating, as most are already aware that chickens like corn. However, fall is harvest time for corn, so now is the time to plan for inexpensive chicken treats for the whole year. One of the best things about corn is its versatility in storage. Chickens can be fed corn directly on the cob, frozen, canned, or even dried. Raw or cooked, most birds aren't picky. If you dry the corn directly on the ear, then it can be hung from the run or coop ceiling to provide a healthy treat and some entertainment for your flock.
Apples: Apples can be fed raw or as an applesauce. There is some controversy regarding apples, as the seeds contain cyanide. However, evidenced by the fact that my Uncle Ray has eaten the whole apple his entire life, seeds and all, the cyanide present in apples is not a sufficient amount to be lethal. If this is a concern for you, then simply core the apple before serving to your birds. If you don't like the look of the empty hole in the middle, then fill it with peanut butter for an extra treat!
Nuts: Unsalted nuts with the shell removed are a great protein source for chickens during the fall and winter months. Fall is the perfect time for nut collection. Walnuts, almonds, peanuts, cashews, and pecans (Avoid acorns!) all make great treats. You can serve them as either whole nuts or crushed, chickens seem to enjoy them both ways.
There are lots of other seasonally appropriate foods for chickens, such as carrots, cabbage, popped popcorn, cooked pasta, and you can even plant a plastic tray of rye or wheat grass for your chickens to peck at. Just remember to feed treats late in the day, and to offer a variety of options throughout the season.
While most items that we eat are fine to share with our chickens, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, seafood, and even eggs, there are some items to avoid regardless of the season.
Dry or Undercooked Beans: While dry beans seem like a perfect treat to peck at, they can actually be quite dangerous for your flock. Raw beans actually contain a natural insecticide called Phytohemagglutinin that is toxic to birds. While it may not kill them right away, it can cause organ damage which may eventually lead to a slow death, making this one of the top foods to avoid. Beans can be fed if soaked and cooked, or if allowed to sprout. Either of these will kill the hemagglutinin, making them safe for consumption by your flock (and by you).
Raw Green Potato Peels: We discussed above making sure to remove the green part of the sweet potato skins, and there is a reason for that. Raw potato skins contain a toxic substance called Solanine that can cause gastrointestinal issues and possibly even death. You shouldn't eat it or neither should your chickens.
Onions: Thiosulphate is a toxin found in onions that attacks and destroys red blood cells. This can cause jaundice, anemia, or even death in your flock. While there may be some health benefits to feeding onion, those can all be found in other, safer foods. It simply isn't worth the risk.
Keep in mind that chickens will eat pretty much ANYTHING, and do not have a good concept of what is safe to eat and what is not. Keep an eye on not only what you feed, but the plants and trees that grow around your coop, as your chickens will naturally attempt to eat most things that they can access. Not all wild plants are safe and suitable for consumption by your flock. To be a responsible chicken keeper, you must be an attentive chicken keeper. Identify the plants that your flock will have access to, and make sure to remove any potential hazards, or rethink your coop location if necessary.
Providing your chickens with a seasonally appropriate diet can help to improve the health of your flock, in addition to reducing the cost of maintaining a flock through the cooler months. Chickens enjoy a variety of foods and can eat many of the same things that we do. You can even serve leftovers to your flock, as long as the foods are appropriate and not overly salty. Offer a base feed diet that provides their basic nutrients, and remember that treats are simply that- a treat, and should not replace your normal chicken feed.
Good luck, and enjoy your pumpkin-spice everything!
Emily Baker launched the Incubators.org website in 2010 with her husband, Christopher. The site offers everything you need to incubate and hatch chicken eggs. Emily has personally assisted thousands of hobbyists and breeders in selecting appropriate incubation equipment and supplies, proper use of that equipment, and providing general incubation support. She has also had multiple articles published regarding incubator selection and technique. Read all of Emily's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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