I heard a familiar question in a recent chicken workshop I gave – “Aren’t chickens vegetarians?”
Another student immediately piped up, “Well not if you count bugs as meat.”
Which is true, chickens eat bugs and worms, so in the strictest sense of the term, they are not vegetarians. But if given the chance, chickens will not only eat meat but they will hunt it.
I’ve heard stories of mice getting into the hen house which, when noticed by the chickens, became, well ex-mice, hunted down and torn to shreds for all to enjoy.
I’m not quite sure why people think that chickens are vegetarians, perhaps it’s because they are so docile, or because we remember them as the lovable farm animals of our childhood stories.
But think about it. When hens start laying eggs, we need to augment their calcium intake, right? When a body is creating a calcium-rich shell every 1 to 2 days, that body definitely needs a bump in that nutrient to keep on producing.
The same thing goes for protein. While the outside of the egg is heavy with calcium, the inside is pure fat and protein. If your chickens do not get enough protein, you’re going to see the impact on your egg supply. The eggs might be mal-formed or they might show problems, like multiple shells which is an indication that an egg is sitting too long in the chicken’s tract. If the chicken can’t pull the ingredients together to make the egg, then the egg is not going to be made correctly.
During the warmer months, getting enough protein is not a problem. Between the yard and the buggy critters crawling all over the place, chickens usually find and eat enough protein to ensure healthy well-formed eggs.
In the winter, however, getting enough protein can definitely become a problem. There are no bugs or worms to augment the chicken’s diet. And although egg production goes down in the winter months (perhaps in part as a reaction to decreased protein, as well as light), a chicken can still get into trouble.
The egg is the priority and if there is not enough protein for the egg, the egg will suck it out of the chicken’s body. It’s the same principal as that old saying that women lose a tooth for every baby born, the nutrients need to come from somewhere.
How do you make sure that protein is available during the colder months when bugs are not found? Some commercial feeds supply protein in mix, you’ll need to read the ingredients to make sure you are getting one with added protein. I know of people who use increased protein feed in the winter and then switch to a different, lighter feed in the summer.
Besides feed there are other ways you can augment your chicken’s diet. Adding a seed block and throwing in scraps of meat are all good ways to bump up the protein.
When it gets very cold, I even give my chickens some suet from the butcher. That way not only do they get protein but they also get a little fat which helps when the temps drop low.
You don’t want to overdo it, chickens are very good at using what is available. A little added protein on a regular basis is far better than a lot of protein added only once in a while.
In the warmer months, when the pests are at their best, I let our chickens roam and other than a few meat scraps from the table, I don’t add to the protein that they are already getting by efficiently clearing our yard of all the bugs and worms they can find.
For more on this topic, visit Shannon Cole’s post on Vegetarian Fed.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).
For more lessons learned while living with children and chickens in New Hampshire, follow the family’s adventures at Lessons Learned From the Flock.