Want to Eliminate Holiday Food Waste? Get Chickens
One of the best things about having backyard chickens is the fact that almost no food in your home goes to waste. Chickens eat nearly anything, and lots of chicken people love feeding their flock table scraps — or even meals prepared specially for them.
Around the holidays, this is especially nice. This time of year, we’re often awash in a sea of leftovers, holiday snacks, and other food that goes bad before we can eat it. Composting is great, but feeding the right scraps to your chickens is an even better way to cut waste and transform three-day-old leftovers into nutritious, tasty eggs. Chickens love treats, too, and it’s a nice way to feed them something special (as long as you’re doing it in moderation).
Over the holidays, I fed my backyard chickens Anna and Elsa all kinds of leftovers and scraps. Holiday cookies are fun to decorate, for example, but it’s hard (and not necessarily advisable) to eat them all. So I fed some to the hens.
They absolutely loved this. I also fed them a large tray of roasted zucchini, which came with another dish, and which I don’t much like. I put it in their shed before bed, and by the next morning, it was all gone.
Chickens are great in part because there are very few foods they can’t eat. As with humans, though, moderation and nutrition are key. It’s fine to feed cookies sometimes, but other holiday leftovers (like fruit, vegetables, and the like) are a better bet for overall chicken nutrition, just as they’re better for human nutrition than tons of sweets.
There’s also a short list of things that chickens absolutely shouldn’t eat. This includes potato peels (they contain trace amounts of cyanide), moldy foods, and dried beans/rice, which can expand in their stomachs. They can also get salt poisoning, so you don’t want to feed them foods with too much salt. For the same reason that dogs shouldn’t eat chocolate, chickens shouldn’t eat it either (sorry, Anna and Elsa, that’s a big loss there..)
Other foods are more of a personal preference. Some people enthusiastically feed their chickens turkey or chicken meat. To me, this seems creepy and strange, so I don’t do it. It’s probably not a problem for them — chicken groups often have posts about people whose flock have ganged up to kill rats and other small creatures, which chicken people generally celebrate, so they can definitely eat meat. But cannibalism (even in animal form) seems just one step too far for me, so I avoid feeding my hens meat of any kind.
I also don’t feed my hens eggs, since there’s some risk that they’ll start to see eggs as food, and eat their own eggs as they lay them. Once they start with this habit, it’s apparently incredibly hard to break (eggs are tasty, after all), so I avoid feeding eggs. Some people do feed eggs and eggshells (which provide the calcium needed for hens to lay more eggs), and in these cases the best bet is to grind everything up small enough that your chickens don’t realize they’re eating eggs at all.
The only other thing to be aware of is that chickens need certain nutrients to be healthy, especially if they’re laying. Producing hundreds of eggs per year takes a big physical toll, so proper nutrition is important. Most chicken feeds are “complete”, which means they have all the nutrients and vitamins that chickens need to remain healthy and to lay consistently. If your chickens fill up on scraps and sweets every day and don’t get the nutrition they need from their feed, you might start to see decreased egg production or other nutrient deficiency issues. In that case, cut back on the scraps a bit, or feed them more nutritious items.
Otherwise, with feeding chickens scraps, most anything goes. People usually feed leftovers, but some devout chicken lovers cook meals specifically for their chickens — especially over the holidays. So if you want to make your hens a nice Christmas morning breaking or a New Year’s brunch, have at it!