Treats for Chickens: A Nutritional Analysis
What do your chickens eat?
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There are quite a few options when you want to give treats to your chickens. Here we will take a look at the nutritional value of different kinds of treats and if there are times when a particular kind of treat may be preferred.
When giving treats, we must remember that they are basically candy for chickens. Just like with humans, overeating of treats can cause nutritional imbalance and unhealthy weight gain. A general rule of thumb is that 90% of what your chickens eat must be their well-balanced healthy diet with up to 10% of their food being treats. Chickens have very specific nutritional requirements that change as they age. Disrupting their nutritional balance can result in brittle eggshells, unhealthy feathers, feather pecking, and difficulty laying due to obesity. While we can attempt to tailor their treats to be as balanced as their regular diet, chickens have a tendency to be finicky, only picking out their favorite pieces in mixed treats. We can, however, choose to give higher protein treats during times of greater protein need such as summer or when a chicken is molting. Higher carbohydrate levels can be useful in winter to help chickens keep warm. With this guide, you can choose what treats to give your chickens.
Treats High in Protein
Eggs — Scrambled or hard-boiled and mashed up, eggs provide lots of protein and fat. There are six grams of protein and five grams of fat in one large egg. Of course, your chicken does not need a whole egg. Cooking and either scrambling or mashing up a hard-boiled egg will disguise it from being an egg to your chickens. Don’t worry, they have no qualms about mild cannibalism.
Black Soldier Fly Larvae — Sold either dried or live, black soldier fly larvae are very high in protein up to a whopping 50% with 35% fat when dried. When fed alive, they have 17.5% protein and 14% fat. Their amino acids are similar to fish meal, plus that are very high in calcium. It is easier to measure percentages by weight with insect larvae because of size discrepancies.
Mealworms — Mealworms are approximately 20% protein and 12-13% fat when alive. When mealworms are dried, their protein is 53% and fat is 28%. These discrepancies are because the water content is part of the percentage total, therefore, making it almost nothing when the mealworms are dried. They also contain omega-3 fatty acids similar to the amount found in fish. You can raise your own mealworms for your chickens if you so desire.
Crickets — Crickets are 21% protein and 6% fat. They are a very nutritious treat for chickens and have a good amount of calcium. They actually have higher nutritional value as adults than they do as nymphs.
Superworms — Superworms are very similar to mealworms but twice the size. Their live nutritional values are 20% protein and 18% fat.
Please note that dried or live insects and larvae have the same amount of total protein or fat; numbers are given as a percentage of weight. Insects have very little carbohydrates in their body therefore carbs are considered negligible. Another interesting note to consider: insects, especially in their larval stage, truly are what they eat. If given a diet mainly consisting of carrots, they will have very high levels of beta-carotene for example. With this in mind, know that commercially raised larvae could be fed anything. You may want to research what a company feeds to their insects in order to know that you are getting high-quality treats for your chickens. However, if you only view the treats as a dessert, perhaps the nutritional value doesn’t matter that much.
Treats High in Carbohydrates
These are great during winter when chickens need a little more energy to produce heat. Given in the evening, they can sit and digest all night, generating heat. Some choices make great healthy treat options even in warmer weather.
Flock Block — Flock Blocks typically have 9% protein and 2.5% fat. That leaves a lot of carbohydrates. Watch for hidden sugars in some recipes as your chickens do not need refined sugar plus it can cause diarrhea.
Scratch Grains/Cracked Corn — Scratch grains are whole or cracked grains such as corn, barley, wheat, and oats. It may contain sunflower seeds, milo, and millet. They contain around 7.5% protein (yes, there is still a little protein in whole grains), and 2.5% fat.
Fruit or Vegetables — Fruit is very high in carbohydrates but also high in vitamins that are important for chicken health. While various fruits and veggies may be a very healthful treat, they are still a treat that can upset your chicken’s diet if given too much.
Oatmeal — Plain, unsweetened oatmeal makes a great warm treat on cold winter mornings. Oatmeal made with water contains 14% protein, 71% carbs, and 15% fat. Other nutrients include iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium. Can’t stand the thought of plain oatmeal even for your chickens? Toss in some berries.
Squash — Squashes, including pumpkins, are nutritious and tasty. Be sure to cut or break them open to allow easier access to the soft insides. Pumpkins are 9% protein and 3% fat. They have lots of vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium.
As you can see, there are many options when you want to give your chickens a little treat. Just remember the keyword: treat. Be careful not to give more than your chickens can finish in about a 20-minute time span. That will help keep them from overeating.
What do your chickens like as a treat?
Originally published in the Backyard Poultry Special Subscriber 2020 issue — Comb to Tail Health — and regularly vetted for accuracy.