I feel very fortunate to spend my days on a property with some acreage: not enough to be overwhelming in its care but enough to welcome some charming critters onto our land to entertain with their vivid personalities and help with garden maintenance.
With chickens, in particular, there are actually myriad benefits to raising them. They eat ticks, mosquitoes, fire ants, and sometimes fleas if they can get them, they lead fairly independent lives and don’t require much maintenance, and they have a relatively low impact on the environment.
Add to this the sobering reality that factory-farmed meats raised in battery cages, with rampant muscle atrophy and hormonally-enhanced breasts so heavy the bird can hardly stand, endure the kind of life that is difficult to even think about.
Many people are standing against this practice and voting with their dollars for humane care, purchasing cage-free, or free-range chicken. If you have the yard space and can go a step further, raising chickens yourself can provide a pet who is helpful, useful in life and in death, tidy, independent, and comical.
You don’t need to be a bona fide farmer to excel at this undertaking. Chickens are not finicky, but just a few things need to be considered for everyone’s well-being. Here we explore whether chickens can and should have bread as part of their diet.
Supplementing Chickens’ Diet With Bread
In short, chickens can eat bread. Their digestive systems can process it, and at least some of the ingredients in certain bread help fulfill some of their nutritional needs. However, in a healthy diet, bread needs to remain an occasional side addition in modest amounts, not the main staple.
The nutrition label on high-quality chicken feed products shows us that grain and grain products usually top the ingredient list, and balanced pellets also include plant proteins, phosphorous, various amino acids, sodium, and calcium.
Since grain plays an important role in chicken nutrition, the grain component in bread allows it to fit in well with the type of energetic carbohydrates they get in their feed. Whole grain and wheat varieties provide better nutrition than white bread, just as they do in a human diet, as they contain more protein and fiber rather than just starch. It is breads’ other ingredients; however, that might pose a possible concern.
What Chickens Need
The advice you may pick up from farmers’ websites and in passing conversations asserts that chickens readily take care of the scraps from your dinner and that their workhorse digestive systems process almost anything yours can.
The accuracy of this has been demonstrated in many anecdotes of farm-raised flocks, but not without a caveat: balanced, high-quality chicken feed pellets should make up a large percentage of their food intake. Other items you give them should be side dishes only, not replacing their daily fill of poultry feed.
While options abound as to healthy foods you can give to your chickens, which they will have no trouble digesting, the key to maintaining good nutrition is to be sure they’re getting their protein, carbohydrate, and vitamin/mineral requirements in the correct proportions.
It helps the household that chickens seem to enjoy leftovers from their people’s meals, but the typical table scraps contain less protein than chickens require per meal and receive from a quality feed. Chickens are omnivorous, grazing on animal protein in the form of worms and bugs, grains, fruits and vegetables, and grit, which helps their digestion.
Corn, beans, wheat, seeds, or oats can make up the grain component, and grit is normally sandy material like limestone, ground oyster shell, or ground eggshell. A good quality chicken feed is formulated according to years of research to include the complete list of all nutrients chickens need in at least the minimum required amount.
Table scraps from most of our meals don’t provide this, so they should be given to chickens in moderation and only as extra treats alongside their allotment of poultry feed. In addition, much as we have to do for our children’s nutrition, treats should also be timed so that the birds don’t fill up on empty calories and end up not wanting their healthy food.
Chickens’ Digestive System
Learning rudimentary details about our chickens’ anatomy can give us hints which help in thinking through why certain treats might not be a good idea or should be limited. Before the food they ingest can travel to the stomach and through the intestinal tract, it is first stored in the crop, a pocket of muscle located just below the neck.
Much like the good bacteria that line our guts, a chicken’s crop is populated with good bacteria that will keep the food chickens ingest from rotting while it is stored there, waiting to progress further down the digestive system. When previously-eaten food is digested, the muscles of the crop contract to gradually move food down toward the stomach and gizzard.
Since a full crop protrudes enough for the bulge to be seen on your chicken’s neck, it becomes a great indicator of your chicken’s digestive and overall health, being one of the few parts of mostly internal bodily systems that shows outside physical signs.
Chickens appear to try to go to bed with full crops to get them through the night without getting hungry, and if their digestion is on track, they should have empty crops by the next morning. Impaction, infection, and other problems with the crop are not uncommon among chickens and may cause death, so observing when they appear full or empty helps you keep ahead of possible maladies.
Other signs a chicken doesn’t feel well include over-grooming and pulling out feathers at atypical times when this isn’t normal and seasonal for them, or reduction of the quantity or quality of their eggs. A lack of calcium will, not surprisingly, result in the shells of eggs being too soft, but fortunately, a correct and balanced diet should prevent this.
Small additions of bread to a chicken’s diet here and there should be fine, but one problematic possibility is that bread might collect into a ball in the crop, blocking the path to digestion. Chickens should always have plenty of clean, fresh water available to them, and drinking enough alongside limited portions of bread can help to prevent this.
Grit included in their feed and what may be provided by scratching in their environment may also help to keep ingested food from balling up into an unruly lump. If your chickens allow you to handle them, you are obviously in a better position to help them with any issues that arise, so if you can touch the crop and it seems rigid and overly swollen, you can try to massage it very gently to break up the blockage. Couple this with adding a few lubricating drops of vegetable or olive oil to their food, but only in very sparing amounts.
Another possibility is that the yeast and sugar contained in bread could ferment in the crop, throwing the pH and the good bacteria there off balance. This illness is known to those who raise chickens as a sour crop, and if your chicken allows you to palpate them, the crop will feel engorged yet soft. The chicken’s breath may also carry a foul odor.
For the most part, however, bread given only occasionally with the recommended portions of quality chicken feed will be fine for the chickens’ health and probably greatly enjoyed and appreciated by the animals. The amounts should be kept small. You could also soak the bread in apple cider vinegar to add acidity, making it easier to digest and less likely to form a ball in the crop.
Important Factors in Incorporating Bread Into Chickens’ Diet
Age of Chickens
As with most living things, the early stages of life are critical for development. Freshly-hatched chicks need even more protein in their diets than adults. For this reason, veterinarians and longtime chicken owners recommend waiting until chickens are about four months old before adding anything to their diet of poultry feed. This is especially true when considering the kind of treats that can add empty calories, or that may carry a little risk with overindulgence.
The Right Nutrients in the Right Amounts
Being omnivores, chickens eat a variety: a well-balanced mix of grains, meat, and vegetables. In the wild, chickens scratch in the dirt for worms and bugs, the meat of their diet, which gives wild birds their protein. Veterinary sources find that healthy chicken diets include 38 nutrients that need to be consumed in the correct amounts, including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Don’t assume each of your chickens is getting all the nutrition of an equal division of the amount of feed you are giving them; consider whether one is out-competing others, whether they are eating less because of hot weather, whether they are getting enough exercise to want to eat as much as they should, or whether they’re feeling sick and not sufficiently hungry for ingesting enough for proper nutrition.
If allowed to engage in their natural behaviors as they should be, chickens will opportunistically compete for whatever food they find. Added treats provide mental stimulation as well as nutritional supplements when you spread seeds, wheat, and corn out in the yard for them to forage for and find.
Chickens love healthy treats of most fresh fruit and vegetables, and they can safely enjoy small portions of grains from your kitchen like bread, cooked rice or pasta, or cooked beans. They should not have moldy food as some molds produce toxins, and you should also avoid giving them anything with high-fat content.
Condition of Bread
Chickens have been documented thoroughly enjoying bread, whether fresh or somewhat stale and hard, but they should never be given raw dough. Uncooked yeast can expand in their stomachs to a dangerous size. This also applies to uncooked dried beans; these need to be cooked thoroughly first. Chickens may eat white, wheat, or whole-grain bread, and especially those fortified with nuts and seeds.
Mold in bread loaves spreads rapidly and usually infects the whole loaf. Some molds that grow on bread produce mycotoxins, which make birds sick and can specifically affect the crop. Even inhaling the spores from this mold can negatively affect humans as well as chickens.
One method of making bread a safer treat for your chickens is incorporating it into a layered mash with hot water and chopped vegetables and seeds. If you enjoy baking bread or own a breadmaker, you might also want to prepare a special bread formulated for chickens’ safety with less yeast and include chopped vegetables, seeds, and crushed eggshells for grit and added calcium.
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