Free-range poultry - what should you feed them? Commercial feed, grain, or table scraps? And do you need to provide shell grit?

It’s important to get it right because good quality food is one of the most important factors in determining how productive your chickens are.

As a general rule, commercially prepared feeds usually produce the best results from all types of poultry. Good commercial complete poultry rations are readily available from agricultural retail outlets. They are 'complete' because they contain all the protein, energy, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients necessary for health and growth, and production.

When they fossick, free-range chickens pick up grubs, beetles, worms, grass seed, and the like, but they still need a commercial ration in mash or pellet form to make sure they have a balanced diet. The fossicking provide the little extras that give their egg yolks a rich colour and their eggs and meat a full flavour.

What type of ration?

It is best to use a ration designed specifically for the particular type of bird you have. For example, layer ration should be used for layers, grower ration for growing birds, and so on. Each type of bird has different feed requirements, and the amount of energy, protein, calcium, and other nutrients the birds need varies throughout their productive life. This is why it is convenient to buy an appropriate specially-formulated commercial feed.

  • Chicks of all types are fed a 'starter' diet soon after they hatch and this has the highest levels of protein the birds need in their lifetime. As they grow, they require less protein and more energy.
  • After 6 to 8 weeks of age, a 'finisher' diet is fed to broilers until they reach slaughter age. Young broilers require more protein and energy than young layer pullets.
  • A 'grower' or 'developer' feed is fed to pullets (layers) until they are at least 20 weeks old. They require a formulation containing 1% calcium.
  • When hens start laying, a 'layer' ration is given. This is quite different from other types of ration because it contains relatively more calcium (3.5% calcium).

Note that, because of its high calcium content, layer feed can cause kidney damage in chicks or broilers.

How much feed?

If they are on a commercial ration, chickens can usually be offered as much as they will eat, because they don’t usually take more than they need. However, if a big part of their diet is grain, they can overeat and may become fat.

The amount of feed a bird needs depends on:

  • its size (the bigger the bird the more food it needs)
  • its age and how active it is (growing birds and active birds need more feed)
  • its body condition (thin birds need more feed)
  • the environmental temperature (free-range birds need more feed in cold weather)
  • whether or not it is laying eggs (hens in lay need more feed)
  • As a rough guide, laying hens will usually eat about 130 gm of commercial ration each every day.

Table scraps

Usually, it’s best not to supplement the commercial ration with grain or bread or table scraps. These do not provide a balanced diet, and if the birds eat scraps they will eat correspondingly less of their complete ration.

As well as their commercial feed, it is good to offer hens fresh green food, for example, silverbeet leaves and cabbage leaves. These provide the pigments that help give free-range eggs their rich golden yolks. Don’t offer grass clippings as this can cause impaction in the crop.

Grit and calcium

'Grit' is important too and there are two types - soluble and insoluble, and they are often confused.

Soluble grit provides calcium and it can be provided in the form of ground eggshells or crushed oyster shells or ground limestone. It should be in a dish near the feed and it should be checked regularly to make sure it doesn't just contain dust, which the birds won't bother to eat.

Layers' mash usually contains sufficient calcium but if it is not the major part of the diet it is important to provide extra calcium as above.

Insoluble grit consists of small stones and it is needed to assist with grinding down feed in the gizzard. Free-range hens can usually find enough of their own insoluble grit.

Commercial layer rations have a relatively high calcium content, and if they are the main part of the diet it may not be necessary to provide grit or crushed shell. Check the manufacturer’s instructions.

Food troughs and food storage

Because birds can compete for food and some shy feeders may not get their full ration, there should be enough trough space for all birds to access their share easily.

If shell grit is offered it should be placed in a shallow dish near the ration.

The feed troughs must be kept clean and dry and they should be emptied at least two or three times a week, preferably daily, and refilled with dry fresh food.

Feed should be stored in a clean dry container.

  • If feed becomes damp it may get moldy, and moldy feed can be poisonous.
  • If feed becomes contaminated by rodents or wild bird droppings it can cause disease.

Medicated feeds

Medication is included in some commercial poultry feeds, although in many backyard situations the birds are not under stress and the stocking rate is low, so medicated feed is not necessary. Check the labels carefully before buying, and if you choose medicated feed, follow the instructions carefully.

Coccidiostats and antibiotics are the medications most often included.

  • Coccidiostats are medications to control diarrhea caused by coccidiosis.
  • Antibiotics are included in some commercial broiler feeds to help promote good growth and prevent diseases.

If a ration containing antibiotics is being fed to broilers, the medicated feed should be replaced by non-medicated feed for at least a week before slaughter.

If a ration containing coccidiostat is being fed to pullets, the medicated feed should be replaced by non-medicated feed at least a week before egg-laying begins so that natural immunity can develop.


Many owners overlook the importance of providing clean, fresh water that is safe to drink (in other words, potable water).

Water can be provided in various ways, and whatever the system it is important that the water is clean and fresh and easily accessible, and that the birds can’t get into it to foul it, and that there is no danger of them (or any other animals such as rats or mice) drowning in it.

  • Water troughs must be kept clean and water replaced at least once daily.
  • The drinking water must not be too warm or too cold.
  • Water from puddles is not always safe, since it may be contaminated with engine oil or antifreeze, or other pollutants
  • When water becomes contaminated with droppings it must be replaced or it will cause diarrhea.
  • Stagnant water in troughs and ponds can contain poisonous blue-green algae.
  • Free-range hens in lay may drink half a litre of water each daily, and even more, if it is hot. If they don’t get enough water their egg production will drop and they might even die.
  • Fresh clean water is essential for the efficient production of eggs or poultry meat.


The Merck Veterinary Manual. Calgon Corporation, Pittsburgh, USA. 1967
O’Byrne, Glenys. Backyard Poultry. Fraser Books, Christchurch. 1989
Christensen, Neil. Healthy Free-Range Hens. A guide to flock health and disease control for free-range egg producers. Palmerston North. N. H. Christensen: 1995.