Feeding Chicken Scratch to Your Backyard Chickens (How-To Guide)

It can be quite complicated to make heads or tails of all of the different types of chicken feed.

Walk into any farm supply store and you’ll likely find yourself in front of a long row of bagged chicken food, perhaps scratching your head in confusion.

From mash to medicated, grower feed to egg producing, there is so much jargon when it comes to feeding your chickens that you may find yourself throwing your hands up in frustration.

But you don’t need to.

We’ll break down the basic types of chicken food and go more into detail about the food that may be the most fun to feed your chickens (they’ll go nuts for it!) – chicken scratch.


What is Chicken Scratch?

Chicken scratch is relatively easy to understand. Unlike chicken feed, which can be broken down into several sub-categories of food, chicken scratch is a stand-alone category of food. Think of regular chicken feed, like pellets, crumble, and mash, as the staples or “entrees” of your chicken’s dinner, while chicken scratch is more of an occasional dessert.

This kind of food is one that chickens will “scratch” around in the dirt and bedding for, trying to find tiny morsels to munch on. Chicken scratch can be made out of a variety of ingredients, all tossed together in a blend not unlike bird food. The difference between chicken scratch and bird food, however, is that scratch tends to be much less expensive.

Usually, scratch is made out of a mixture of milo, millet, barley, rolled corn, oats, wheat, sunflower seeds, and other ingredients. These are natural ingredients but they are sold premixed in feed bags so that you don’t have to go through the effort of making your own.


How Often Can I Feed Chicken Scratch?

You should not feed chicken scratch on a daily basis, but you can instead use it as an occasional treat. Most chicken scratch is made out of cracked corn and other grains. These are tasty foods for your chickens, and they’ll enjoy gobbling them up. While chicken scratch does contain valuable nutrients and can help your chickens put on a lot of weight very quickly, most of it is comprised of dense carbohydrates that will quickly be converted to fat by your birds.

This can be beneficial if you are trying to encourage your birds to stay warm on cold winter nights, or if you want to treat your birds to a now-and-then snack. However, chicken scratch should not be lumped in the same category as pellet, mash, or crumble feeds because it really is its own kind of food altogether.

Balance is essential when it comes to chicken scratch, particularly if you want to keep them healthy and encourage good egg and meat production. A chicken who does not have a nutritious diet will stop laying, or will lay poor-quality eggs. She may exhibit a change in demeanor or even start dropping feathers.

Therefore, you should follow this advice when it comes to feeding your chickens chicken scratch.


What is the Difference Between Chicken Scratch and Chicken Feed?

Many backyard chicken farmers think of chicken scratch as a relatively modern concept, but the truth is that this bagged feed goes back way further than that. Before commercial feed were commonplace, you may have thrown old seeds, dinner scraps, or leftover grain out to your chickens to help supplement their diet from foraging. The chickens would have had to “scratch” for their dinner instead of being fed a constant supply of store-bought pellets.

Unlike regular feed, chicken scratch is not formulated to provide your chickens with the nutrients they need. Chicken feed is usually scientifically formulated to contain the exact portions of fiber, fat, and protein that your chickens need to be healthy. Feed will also contain trace elements like copper sulfate, selenium, ferrous sulfate, and amino acids (like methionine). Many of these feeds also contain vitamins and calcium carbonate for good egg shell formation.

Back in the day, you would have tossed your chickens some homemade “scratch” whenever you got the chance – that probably wasn’t very often. Today, you should follow a similar pattern and avoid giving your chickens too many treats (aka scratch) on a regular basis.

If you’re still struggling to understand how chicken scratch is different from other types of chicken feed, here are the key categories of chicken feed you need to know about.

Starter Feed

Starter feed is protein-dense food that is fed to chickens in the early stage of their lives – when they are baby chicks. You will usually feed baby chicks a starter blend for a minimum of six weeks – but often as long s ten weeks. This feed has a high protein content and helps chicks grow into pullets. As an alternative to chick starter, some farm supply stores also sell starter/grower feed, which is a combination feed that can be fed all the way from birth until twenty weeks of age.

Grower Feed

Grower feed is essentially a transition feed between chick and layer or broiler feed. This will have less calcium than layer feed but it will support the growth of your chickens until they are ready to start laying. It does not contain as many vitamins and minerals as layer feed, but it doesn’t need to – your chickens don’t quite need them yet.

Layer Feed

Layer feed is usually the base of most chickens’ diets. It has a carefully engineered balance of calcium, protein, vitamins, and minerals, including extra calcium to keep your chickens’ eggs healthy. You should not feed this food to young chicks or pullets.

Broiler Feed

Broiler feeds are those for chickens who will not be raised for egg production, but for meat production (or as dual-purpose breeds). These foods will be denser in protein and allow your flock to grow more quickly.

Mash

Mash is a loose, unprocessed chicken feed that is very fine and easy to digest. Most people don’t feed young birds mash, but most chick starters come in this form. Crumble, on the other hand, is slighter more compact, much like the texture of oatmeal. It is easier to manage than mash, but not as rigid as pellets.

Pellets

Pellets are the most common type of feed for adult chickens. They are essentially small little bullets of feed that won’t go to waste if the feeder gets knocked over. Pellets are easy to store and easy to serve.

Shell Grit

Shell grit is another common type of feed. It is important in a chicken’s diet, particularly if you keep your chickens completely inside or if you serve any kind of chicken scratch. Grit is a rich source of calcium that allows your hens to produce strong, sturdy eggs. It can help them digest feed more easily and again, should always be fed if you are giving your hens chicken scratch.

Medicated vs. Unmedicated

When considering feed, you will also be able to choose between medicated and unmedicated varieties. Medicated chicken feed includes amprolium, a chemical that protects your chickens from diseases like coccidiosis. You do not need to use medicated feed if your chickens were vaccinated, and many organic or all-natural chicken farmers avoid medicated feed as a matter of basic practice, too.


How Much & How Often Should I Feed Chicken Scratch?

Try to feed your chickens scratch in quantities that do not exceed more than ten percent of their daily feed intake.

That sounds simple enough, but into practice can be quite confusing.

To break it down, remember that the average chicken eats about 100 grams, or half a cup, of food per day. If your chicken is consuming a layer feed, regardless of whether it is in pellet, crumble, or mash form, they will likely be consuming about sixteen percent protein in that serving. This is plenty of protein for an egg-producing chicken.

Scratch and other feed supplements (like kitchen scraps) should be fed at only about ten percent of your chickens’ diet – about two teaspoons per day. Otherwise, your chicken may be overdoing it on calories and nutrients. Even worse, your chicken may forego its regular feed in order to munch on these treats, increasing the risk of malnutrition and other problems. Feed too much scratch, and you are essentially diluting your chicken’s diet – scratch only contains about half the amount of protein as layer feed, so it’s not nearly as nutritionally dense.

For a flock of ten chickens, feed about half a cup of scratch per day – no more. This will equate to about two and a half teaspoons of scratch per hen, or a beakful or two. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but you’ll likely find that it’s more than enough to satisfy your chickens. Plus, feed too much chicken scratch (particularly if your chickens have other options for foraging) and you’ll likely find that the seeds will remain lying on the floor. This leftover seed will not only go to waste, but it can also attract rats, pests, and other predators.


What are the Benefits of Feeding Chicken Scratch?

Many people view chicken scratch as an added expense, and there’s some truth to that. That being said, there are also times when using chicken scratch can prove to be an invaluable tool and useful in accomplishing several purposes around the homestead.

Here is when it is acceptable to feed your chickens scratch grain:

1. When you are trying to train your chickens

When you first adopt a backyard chicken flock, scratch is a great way to teach your chickens to trust you and they will start to associate you with food. While you can do this same thing with regular feed, you don’t want to withhold feed at any time because it can cause some serious problems in your flock.

Chicken scratch can be a great training tool to help your chickens adapt to your presence. Keep in mind that you will not want to use scratch with very young chickens or chicks, however, and should only use chicken scratch when your chickens are fully grown.

If you’re interested in fully domesticating your chickens, you can even train them to eat from your hands by using chicken scratch! You can use scratch as a training reward for good behavior, or to encourage behavior modifications. Many chickens have even been trained to perform tricks or to navigate obstacle courses by being trained with scratch.

2. To get your chickens to go to bed on time

Chicken scratch can be a great bedtime tool! Start by feeding scratch in the evenings only. This will minimize waste, as your chickens will likely not want to go back out to forage late at night. You can use scratch to help train your chickens to go into the coop at night, particularly if they are young and just starting to figure out the purpose of the chicken coop. Once they figure out how bedtime works, you can either stop using scratch or start feeding it at less regular intervals.

3. To clean up your chicken coop

You can also use scratch to help ensure that the bedding in your coop is turned over on a regular basis. If you are doing the deep litter method of bedding your coop, in which you only change bedding once or twice a year and instead create a mini-compost system inside your coop, scratch can be incredibly helpful.

This method essentially encourages the chickens to turn and aerate the compost for you, giving the chickens some exercise as they search for hidden treats. Plus, there are tons of microbes in the pile that can be beneficial for your chicken’s’ digestive systems.

4. When the weather is cold

Finally, if you live in an area that experiences cold winters, chicken scratch can help give your flock a boost of heat overnight. As you likely know, all creatures require more calories on cold days and nights just to stay warm and maintain a healthy body temperature. Chicken scratch requires a bit more energy to digest, and can help generate the heat necessary to stay cozy. Plus, your chickens will be more active as they search for scratch in the coop bedding, meaning they will get warmed up from the physical activity, too.


When Should I Avoid Chicken Scratch?

The main thing you need to keep in mind about chicken scratch is that it is essentially the junk food of the poultry world. You wouldn’t feed your dog a biscuit every day, and you wouldn’t give your children an entire chocolate cake every day. Likewise, you shouldn’t give your chickens scratch every day.

It won’t hurt your chickens, and they will probably enjoy the scratch, as long as it is fed in moderation. It is a great way to encourage foraging and can also help reduce problems (like egg eating) related to boredom in the coop.

Avoid feeding your chickens scratch if any of the following conditions apply:

1. Your chickens are allowed to free range all (or most) of the time

If you have free range chickens, you likely don’t need to feed very much (if any) chicken scratch. Your chickens will be aware of how to forage on their own, and since they have plenty of room to roam and find healthier treats (like grass and bugs), chicken scratch will likely go unnoticed anyway.

2. You are on a budget

If you’re on a budget, you might want to consider foregoing chicken scratch, too. It can be quite expensive, and since it’s not a crucial component of your chicken’s diet, it’s more of a luxury than a necessity. Plus, if you have limited space, keeping a 50 lb bag of chicken scratch can be a bit of a hindrance, particularly when you’re only feeding out a few handfuls every day.

3. Your chickens aren’t getting enough nutrients

As we mentioned earlier, chicken scratch contains only about half the protein of regular layer feed. Therefore, you should be careful about feeding too much chicken scratch because it can cause a protein deficiency should your chickens stop eating their regular feed in favor of the scratch.

Lack of protein doesn’t just cause a drop in egg or meat production. Too little protein can cause your flock to behave oddly, engaging in problematic behaviors like feather plucking, nipping, egg eating – even cannibalism. It sounds gruesome, but if your birds aren’t getting enough protein, they will look to other sources in order to fulfill their dietary needs.

And that includes other chickens.

Therefore, it’s important that you only feed chicken scratch if your chickens are being housed in a confined coop and don’t have access to natural boredom busters like fresh pasture. Remember, the best time to feed chicken scratch is in the winter, when foraging opportunities are limited. During the rest of the year, you should look for alternatives whenever possible.

4. You are feeding chicks or young pullets

Remember that baby chicks should not be fed scratch until they are at least five or six weeks old, and even that is considered early. In this context, scratch also includes plain cracked corn or seeds of any kind, too – stick to chick starter. The reason for this is chicks haven’t developed the natural ability to digest their food as well as adult birds yet, and they will have trouble digesting scratch without some added grit.

Newly hatched chicks (those up to ten weeks of age) should be fed a chick starter feed that has a protein content of ten to twenty percent. These feeds will provide the nutrition necessary to keep your chickens healthy, and this kind of feed is designed specifically for a chick’s sensitive digestive system and particular developmental needs.


How to Make Chicken Scratch

You can purchase chicken scratch at just about any farm supply store, but if the expenses become too much to bear, it’s easy to make your own at home, too.

Start by mixing together equal parts of the following ingredients:

  • Cracked corn
  • Barley
  • Flax seeds
  • Raisins
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Wheat

Store this mixture in an airtight container, and serve about half a cup a day per every ten chickens. You can make a batch that is as large or as small as you’d like, just make sure there are even ratios of all ingredients listed. That’s all there is to it!

If you’re looking for an added dose of nutrients and antioxidants – as well as a great way to protect your flock against parasitic diseases – you can also add a dose of fresh or minced garlic to the mixture.


What Are Some Good Alternatives to Feeding Chicken Scratch?

If the idea of feeding chicken scratch appeals to you, whether it’s for training purposes or to keep your birds warm in the winter, remember that scratch grain is not the only option out there for you. You can feed other treats as well.

Here are some to consider:

1. Kitchen leftovers

Don’t overlook kitchen scraps, as well as cooked eggs and other protein-rich foods like mealworms. Because kitchen scraps and cooked eggs are likely foods you have lying around the kitchen anyway, they can be more cost-effective than buying a 50 lb bag of chicken scratch.

2. Mealworms and maggots

You can raise your own mealworms (or maggots) to be fed to your chickens as occasional treats, or you can purchase them from the store. You can also pursue other options for keeping your chickens well-fed and entertained, such as soil-building plants and herbs (like comfrey or stinging nettle).

3. Cover crops and sprouted grains

Growing cover crops is another way to boost your soil, improve your garden, and give your chickens something to forage in, too. The same rule applies for allowing your chickens to forage in a weedy section of your garden. You can also grow your own forage and grain crops, like buckwheat, clover, dandelion, lentils, peas, alfalfa, nut and fruit trees, or millet. You can also sprout grains to give your chickens fresh sprouts.

These options offer your chickens a place to scratch and dig for food, while at the same time removing the expense of chicken scratch. Plus, these will be non-processed and since you don’t even have to harvest them (the chickens will do it for you!) there is very little work involved.

4. Freshly caught bugs

If you have children, a great way to keep them (and the chickens!) entertained is to encourage them to capture garden pests for you. Simply send the kids out first thing in the morning when bugs are still lethargic and hold a bucket beneath plants, shaking the bugs into the buckets. For bonus points, you can use the kids to debug your garden, too!

5. Compost

You can also let your chickens pick through your compost for free treats. This will help to aerate your compost and make it break down more quickly.


Can Scratch Be the Key to a Healthy Flock?

Chicken scratch won’t keep your flock healthy, and it shouldn’t be relied upon as a sole (or major) source of nutrition. You need to make sure your chickens are fed a healthy, well-balanced diet that contains plenty of protein, calcium, fat, and fiber.

Chicken scratch can play a role in the health and happiness of your chickens, and it can also make your life a little easier in training and managing your flock. With a little bit of understanding about how chicken scratch can (and should) be fed to a flock, you can successfully include it as a part of your feeding regimen.

Just remember the key to raising chickens- just about everything is healthy, but only in moderation!