When chickens are allowed to free-range around a garden, backyard or a patch of land they will spend most of the day scratching the ground with their feet to un-earth tasty treats.
Watching a chicken loving life and doing what they do best when they’re foraging for natural foods is so rewarding. They put all their energy into scratching and pecking at the ground, but it’s not always easy to see what they’re unearthing.
The foods a chicken will eat naturally as they graze include; vegetation, grasses, insects, worms, slugs, snails, seeds and berries. Grazing in this way is a good way to provide a chicken with high energy and nutritional, natural foods which are free of cost.
As well as the nutritional benefits grazing and eating natural foods also helps to give the chickens a varied lifestyle doing what they would in the wild. Natural eating also helps chickens to produce rich and tasty eggs of a much higher quality than a caged hen.
Read on to find out more about free-range eating and how you can make the best of the outside space you have and how natural food can enrich a chickens’ diet.
What is a free-range chicken?
I’ll be mentioning the term ‘free-range’ a lot in this post, so I just wanted to explain what this can mean in terms of chicken keeping at home.
With urban chicken keeping on the rise, space which can be made available to hens can vary a lot. It can be easy to think that free-range free hens have a huge expanse to explore, but when it comes to farming this isn’t always the case.
Allowing a chicken to ‘free-range’ means they have enough space around them so they can move around to scratch and graze. This can be a relatively small space or a large expanse of land. It can also be inside a run if there is enough space per chicken.
Within this free-range space, the chickens will be able to graze for natural food, this could be on grass, undergrowth or soiled areas where chickens can dig using their feet.
Insects and worms often need to be unearthed from underneath a top layer of some description, this can be anything from greenery to gravel or wood chippings.
A particular favourite of our free-range hens is scratching the leaf litter underneath hedges and between shrubs. This is the perfect environment for insects, worms and snails.
What do free-range chickens eat?
When a chicken is grazing they will look like they’re eating just about anything that isn’t tied down.
Here are the the main food groups which chickens forage for:
- Insects – when chickens disturb a surface layer they can find a variety of insects which they enjoy eating.
- Fly Larvae/maggots – there are many varieties of flies which lay eggs in rotting meat or vegetation which may be found in the undergrowth.
- Worms – chickens enjoy eating worms which they find digging in soil and earth.
- Slugs and snails – slugs and snails are common in most areas and chickens will eat them if they find them.
- Plants – there are many plants which chickens like to eat, they are generally good at filtering out the good from the bad.
- Seeds – seeds of many types are popular with chickens.
- Berries – chickens enjoy eating non-poisonous berries which they can forage for including strawberries, blackberries, raspberries etc.
- Grass – although it can often look like chickens are eating grass, in most cases, they don’t actually eat that much, although they do eat a bit and especially ryegrass seeds.
As well as finding morsels of food to eat chickens also pick up small pieces of grit which they swallow to help with food digestion. Find out more about why chickens need grit here.
Can you feed chickens naturally without buying food?
This a question which is often asked by people who are looking to feed their chickens with non-crop based food or those looking to save money on chicken feed.
Although it is possible for chickens to live on grazed food alone, this does take management to ensure they’re getting all of the energy and nutrients which they need to stay healthy.
To do this you would need other sources of food such as home-grown vegetables and corn, along with enough space to provide a diversity of natural foods which the chickens can forage for.
How much natural food an outdoor space really depends on the size and the number of chickens.
Being self-sufficient is difficult to sustain in the winter months when natural foods are more scarce and if the ground is prone to freezing.
Because of all these factors, the best way to feed chickens as naturally as possible is by substituting some of their usual feed with naturally foraged foods which they pick up during some free-range time during the day.
This way the chickens will get all the nutrients, protein and energy they need to stay healthy and they’ll thank you for it with high-quality eggs in return.
How to feed chickens more natural foods
The best way to get more natural foods into a chickens diet is for them to have a natural patch of land where the chickens can forage for insects and other bits they like to pick at.
This doesn’t have to be a large area of land, just somewhere where they can unearth some tasty treats by scratching the top layer of the surface. Some of the best places which chickens love to forage through are:
- Leaf litter – leaf litter offers a good hiding place for insects and worms
- In long grass – keeping a patch of long grass is good for many types of plants and wildlife and chickens love it too.
- Recently dug soil – allowing chickens to scratch in a recently dug border will help them to find any worms which have been unearthed.
- Grass and garden clippings – chickens will have hours of fun scratching in clippings.
- Dried seedheads – such as sunflowers are a good way to provide chickens with natural food and they’ll enjoy picking them out.
Another interesting way of providing more natural food which is packed with protein is by feeding chickens live food such as mealworms. This is something I’m going to try very soon so I’ll keep you updated, the RSPCA has a good article on how to breed live mealworms if this is something you fancy trying.
There are rules against feeding chickens dried mealworms in the UK, but live are fine and a good alternative if you don’t have much foraging space.
Find out more about feeding chickens
I hope this article has helped you to find out more about the ways chickens can eat natural foods. You might also find the following post helpful:
Our recommended coop
Chicken coop for different flock sizes and different weather.