In order to keep healthy and productive in the laying department, chickens need to receive the correct nutrients, vitamins and minerals in their diet.
It is important to know which feed to be using, according to the age of the hen but also what else can and cannot be fed to chickens. It is false economy trying to feed chickens on scraps or wheat when there are formulated chicken feeds available that supply everything a laying hen requires to be healthy and produce eggs.
Before the 1980's, chickens were often fed scraps, with a little wheat or oats, sometimes maize, fishmeal for protein, and cod liver oil however modern research has been able to provide us with mash or pelleted feeds that contain the right balance for our chickens. The modern hybrid hen can produce well over 200 eggs per year and some even 320 eggs or more per year. Producing eggs puts quite a strain on a bird nutritionally and if they aren't receiving sufficient protein, they will usually stop laying or try to get the extra protein they need by starting to feather pick since feathers contain protein. This is not an easy vice to cure.
The modern hen doesn't usually have as much space to free range in fields and orchards either so can't forage for as much protein from slugs, worms and other insects to top themselves up so it's important to feed the right diet and in the right quantities, taking it easy on the 'treats' such as mixed corn.
Chickens require protein to grow and also to produce eggs. Feathers are 80% protein so hens will often pick feathers up off the ground and eat them. This is normal behaviour. When hens moult, they will lose their feathers and regrow a new set. During this time, they will usually divert the protein that went into egg production to feather production which is one of the reasons hens stop laying when they go through a moult.
You will find the percentage of protein is listed on the ingredients label on the back of bags of chicken feeds.
Commercial feeds can be fed ad-lib in hoppers but it is important to keep food dry and fresh so only buy what you can store correctly (in a cool, dry place away from vermin) and what you can use within the sell by date. Ex Battery hens are only used to layers mash, so start them off on this and if you want them to change over to pellets, change them gradually over a 2 week period.
Hoppers must be under cover or have a suitable rain hat. Not all feeders are waterproof, even though they may look as if they are. Smaller feeders / hats do need a little shelter from horizontal / blowing rain. The kind of rain you see in Wales when I go on holiday! Feeders with a hole in the centre of the hat for a bar or string to pass through leak in heavy rain and can ruin many kilograms of expensive feed inside the hopper which is then difficult to scrape out and clean.
Two good waterproof feeders and one that has a hole in the lid which allows water to run in.
By far the biggest feeding mistake people make is feeding too much mixed corn. Mixed corn is usually a mixture (80 to 90%) wheat and (10 to 20%) cracked maize (the yellow bits!). Wheat contains around 10% protein (although this does vary from batch to batch) which is an insufficient amount of protein for a hen to be able to produce eggs.
Maize is high in fat and contains carotene that colours the skin. Whilst this produces attractive looking corn fed chickens with yellow skin and a layer of fat on the breast for the supermarket shelves, it won't produce laying hens. Fat hens don't lay eggs!
A handful per hen thrown in the late afternoon before bed helps them to have a full crop overnight, something many old-timers will recommend. The only time I feed extra mixed corn is when the weather is very cold. They are not usually laying during this time but burning fat to keep warm. A little extra maize will help to keep them warm at night!
Greens should be given daily and can include things like cabbage, cauliflower leaves, spinach, grass clods (yes, include the mud as they will get minerals and grit out of these as well as the odd insect or worm), grass clippings, dandelions and other greens around the garden. Lettuce has little nutritional value and can cause the runs. Potatoes or potato peelings need to be boiled first - never feed green potatoes.
Fruit can be given as a treat - grapes and strawberries are particularly entertaining as they run off with them around the run being chased by others! If you feed too much fruit, they may get the runs so use common sense with the amounts you feed.
Feeding household scraps is technically no longer allowed by DEFRA but if you feed 'allotment scraps', it is worth remembering that it tends to be a bit hit and miss with regard to the nutrition they are receiving. If it is done in moderation (no more than 20% of their diet) and mixed with layers mash, they should still get a fairly well balanced diet. It is usually better that they free range to supplement their diet if possible.
When household scraps could be fed, feeding too much carbohydrate (Potato, pasta etc) used to be a common mistake and upset their nutritional balance.
If you want to feed allotment scraps, these should be limited to no more than 20% of a birds diet. Buy some layers mash and mix boiled up scraps into a mash with this adding a little water until you get a nice crumble of a mixture. This way, hens will at least be getting a reasonable amount of balanced feed.
Do not feed rhubarb leaves or avocado pear as these can be poisonous to hens. Having said this, I have seen hens eat young rhubarb leaves when free ranging and have still lived to lay another egg but they don't seem to eat the bigger / older leaves. Thankfully, they seem to instinctively know what is good for them when free ranging.
Garlic is very good for chickens and a few cloves of garlic from time to time in with my chickens wet mash or in their water has really made a positive difference to their health. What's more, a few cloves of fresh garlic won't break the bank if you're keeping chickens on a budget. You can read more about Garlic for Chickens in this article.
Mixed grit is covered elsewhere but do remember this should be freely available at all times. Chickens do not have teeth and use grit in their gizzard to grind down their food. Oyster shell grit should be included in the mix as this contains a lot of calcium that hens need to produce eggs although the modern poultry feeds usually contain sufficient calcium for laying hens.
OK so this isn't food but it's amazing how many people don't give their birds fresh water. Hens need to drink lots of water to produce eggs and more so in the summer months. If they run out of water they will dehydrate quickly and go off lay or into a moult so don't forget to provide them with this at all times, especially when they are feeding. You can read more about drinking water quality and dehydration in another article here.