You're just getting started keeping chickens or other poultry on your small farm and wondering: how do I feed my chickens? Can I let them eat bugs, worms and seeds? Can I mix my own feed? Can they eat all my kitchen scraps? What's chick starter and when do I switch to layer pellets? Why would I feed mash?
Let's start with what chickens and poultry eat when they're on pasture.
What Chickens and Poultry Typically Eat
This differs a little if we're talking about turkeys, geese or other poultry, but the basics are the same: poultry like to eat growing grasses, like clover, buckwheat and Kentucky bluegrass. They eat broadleaved weeds of all kinds. They eat the growing tips as well as the seeds of these plants. Chickens also eat earthworms, insects, and slugs of all kinds. Finally, they need to eat a little grit - sand and/or coarse dirt - to keep it in their gizzards to help them grind up the wild foods they forage. Once in a while a rooster will catch a mouse and feed it to his hens. How very chivalrous of him.
So: bugs, worms, seeds, weeds, grasses, and even rodents.
Typically, backyard and small farm chickens also eat food scraps from the farm household - basically anything besides beans, garlic, raw potatoes, onions, and citrus. You can feed them beans, garlic and onions but the eggs might taste funky. Raw potatoes can be poisonous to chickens. Chickens are dumb enough to eat significant amounts of styrofoam if allowed access to it, and I just caught mine munching on the pine shavings that are their litter. So, you'll also need to make sure they don't eat what they're not supposed to.
Hens who are raised primarily on pasture eat this type of diet most of the time. Their eggs boast deep orange yolks and are three-dimensional when gathered fresh with thick, viscous whites and bouncy, fatty yolks.
If you are raising meat birds primarily on pasture, you should be aware that they will not grow as quickly as those confined and fed broiler rations. But the meat is dense from the exercise they get (yet still tender) and their omega-3 content is higher than their grain-fed, sedentary counterparts.
If you can't pasture your chickens but can let them have access to a run (a fenced-in area outside the coop), they will be happier and they will get some supplemental insects, even if the floor of the run gets pecked down to bare dirt.
Pasturing requires keeping the chickens protected from predators with a livestock guardian dog and/or fencing, or taking heavy losses.
Supplements to Commercial Feed
Besides the main feed, there are a few supplements commonly fed to chicks, pullets, and chickens. Oyster shells for calcium, a cabbage head for fun and entertainment, and grit to help them digest anything outside the commercial feed are all important.
You can hard boil and chop eggs and feed them to the chickens if you run out of feed. But remember they can also go a day or two without feed, and longer with general kitchen scraps, without a real issue. Of course, always make sure they have water.
Make Your Own Feed
You may wish to design, buy and mix your own feed, or even grow all the grains, seeds, and other components of a comprehensive chicken feed. Read more on the topic.
Types of Commercial Feed
There are several different commercial feed choices with different purposes for each one. Some of the specifics differ; for example, one manufacturer may have you switch to grower/finisher at a different number of weeks than another. So always follow the directions of your specific feed and check with your feed supplier or store when in doubt.