Hens will eat pretty much anything - they are are omnivores. They will decimate your flower and vegetable beds, help you dig the garden and pick out the worms and bugs from under your spade; and I have seen them hunt down and eat a mouse with relish. Their natural environment is woodland - all domestic breeds are descended from the Jungle Fowl of Eastern Asia - and they enjoy foraging for the small insects that live on woodland floors - or in your compost heap.
This is great for giving them a balanced diet - but not everyone has a large area of woodland to let their poultry range free in.
There are two schools of thought about feeding - proprietary 'ready made' feeds like layers pellets, or 'straights' - ie, unprocessed feed. There are pluses and minuses to both kinds. In addition to this, hens also need grit, to help them digest their food, and shell (usually crushed oyster shell), to help them produce strong-shelled eggs. They always need access to plenty of clean, fresh water.
'Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps' by Goodchilde and Thompson is a very good book about the way poultry were fed in the war;although there are now strict regulations about feeding your birds kitchen scraps that were not in place when the book was first written it is definitely worth a look.
Feeding layers pelletsMany people now feed their hens a mixture of ready-made 'layers pellets' (or mash) and corn - either a mixture of wheat and maize, or wheat on it's own.
As a rough rule of thumb, if you are doing this, every day you should feed each heavy-breed bird:
It is usual to feed pellets in the morning and feed the corn in the evening. This has two potential advantages - one, probably a myth! - that the corn is a more 'lasting' feed and will keep them going overnight. And secondly, and most useful in my experience, they tend to prefer the corn over the pellets - so if you have let them out of their pen during the day, you can throw the corn down on the ground inside and they will all rush in and you can shut them up!
If you have space inside their house, you might consider leaving the pellets in a feeder available all day. I find that they don't overeat on it - whereas they perhaps will if you leave them corn available all the time. However, if you do this, be careful that you are not attracting rats, or feeding the wild bird population. You will find that they eat more when it's cold and less when it's very warm.
You should also try to ensure that they have some greens hung up in the pen to peck at - not only will this keep them occupied if they don't get let out to scratch around; but it's also an extra source of vitamins and nutrients. Brassicas, lettuce, fruit and veg - they will have a go at pretty much anything.
Feeding 'straights'After reading a quite old and very good book called 'Natural Poultry Keeping' by Jim Worthington, I started feeding my free-range birds on 'straights'. That means, food that hasn't been processed. I had two ten gallon barrels, one with eight 10mm holes drilled round the bottom and one with with eight 20mm holes drilled round it. This was handy, as a 20 or 25 kilo bag of food will go nicely in each barrel.
In the one with the smaller holes, I put grain - wheat, rolled barley or rolled oats, whichever happens to be cheaper when I go to buy it. In the one with the larger holes, I put 'micronised' or 'rolled' peas. The peas provide 23% protein. The idea, which seems to work, is that the birds will help themselves to the grain or the peas, and balance their own diet with what they pick up whilst free-ranging.
Since trialling this, I have spoken to a few other people who do it and there seems to be a general agreement that egg production doesn't drop, that it is cheaper, that they don't waste the food (they just help themselves from the barrels) and the food doesn't go stale in the way that pellets can do if they are not eaten quickly.
Some people feed 'straights' but not on an 'ad lib' system - you can also soak a handful of the peas in cold water for ten minutes and feed them like that and throw the grain down on the ground for them.
One of the reasons that I prefer feeding like this is that imported soya from South America has not gone in to the feed and it is therefore more environmentally friendly. My next move is to try it on my growers and then grind it up for my chicks; I have heard good personal reports from people who feed it instead of chick crumbs.
The downside of it was that I found that when I had to keep the hens penned, rather than allowing them to forage, the egg production did drop off. Because last year we had such a bad time with foxes, the birds were penned more than I would have liked. I therefore swapped back to pellets and that seemed to help. I assume that they were not getting all their vitamins and minerals that they usually get from foraging. I'd still recommend straights if your birds are allowed to free-range over a large area and I swap mine to-and-fro depending on whether they are allowed out or not.