For a first-time chicken owner, looking after a flock can be pretty scary! You’ll want to make sure that they’re happy and healthy, but it can be hard to know exactly how much food these feathered friends need. Even so, can you overfeed chickens?
Most chicken breeds will not overeat, even if they will eat almost anything. Some broiler (meat) breeds, like Cornish roasters, can be overfed and should stick to an eating schedule to avoid heart and leg problems. Other egg-laying or dual-purpose breeds will generally eat without overeating.
Of course, there are some exceptions that you should know about as a responsible chicken owner, so read on to find out all you need to know about not overfeeding chickens.
Will Chickens Stop Eating When They Are Full?
Most chickens will naturally stop eating when they’re full. If chickens eat a balanced, nutritious diet, whether, from commercial chicken feeds or a more natural homemade diet, they are very unlikely to have problems from overeating.
Certain breeds, however, such as the Cornish Broiler, are susceptible to overeating, especially if given a diet high in treats. Don’t worry though, as in this article we’ve covered all you need to know about feeding chickens the right amount to keep them both happy and healthy.
Read on to find out how often you should feed chickens, how much to feed them, and about all the other ways and reasons that we keep them from indulging themselves too much.
How Many Times a Day Should You Feed Your Chickens?
Chickens forage constantly, so they prefer having multiple small meals (3-4) a day. However, most owners prefer fewer feedings and only feed the chickens once or twice a day. Some owners may have a feeding station always available and augment it with the daily feeding of fresh foods.
Feeding regularly not only improves the happiness of the chickens but reduces the risk of illnesses or pests getting into the chickens’ food supplies.
That being said, it’s not very realistic to feed your chickens multiple times a day when you have other responsibilities. So it’s all about finding a balance that works for your homestead.
Exact feeding schedules and diets do vary based on the breed and age of the flock. Chicks generally need higher protein content in the first weeks of their lives, which reduces as they get older (though of course, bigger and older chickens need more quantity of food).
Generally speaking, though, if you use some type of feed in a gravity-based feeder, then check that once a day while giving your flock access to some additional, fresh foods they can enjoy (my hens love leftover apple slices from the kids’ lunches) is a great way to give them the best of both worlds.
For any questions about what to feed chickens, check out the rest of our Backyard Homestead HQ chicken section (such as What Chickens Can and Cannot Eat: A Complete Guide and Can Chickens Eat Kudzu?).
Or if you want to go completely natural and feed-free, make sure you check out my article, How to Raise Chickens Without Feed (And Why it’s Better!).
Of course, if there is any doubt about the dietary health of your chickens, consult an expert such as a veterinarian.
How Much Food Chickens Need Per Day
As a general rule, an adult laying chicken will eat around 1/2 a cup of chicken feed a day. How much food chickens need depends largely on their breed and age.
This does vary based on several factors, such as their age, breed, size, time of year (higher-protein diets help chickens recover melted feathers in the fall), and exercise levels.
When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to give a little more food (up to 3/4 cup per chicken per day), as most chickens don’t overeat. There are some exceptions to this, which you can read about later on in this article.
Personally, we like supplementing the chicken feed with other natural ingredients that when done sensibly, can give them a little more variety in their diet while also keeping costs down.
It can also be a really fun project to learn how to feed chickens naturally, without using the formulaic store-bought feed.
Again, if you’d like to learn all about how to do that, check out our Backyard Homestead HQ Article here! How to Raise Chickens Without Feed (And Why It’s Better!).
Of course, it’s also nice to treat your chickens, who love tasty snacks such as watermelon, seeds, and worms. Chickens are omnivores and will eat almost anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for them.
It’s a good rule of thumb to feed chickens no more than 10% of their diet as treats and snacks to prevent them from getting overweight or developing dietary deficiencies.
Can Chickens Overeat and Die?
Most chicken breeds won’t overeat to the point of harming themselves. However, some breeds will, especially if provided with high carbohydrate or high treat content diets, and in extreme cases, can even die. Some individual birds may also eat too much, and should be monitored.
Whether chickens overeat depends on a range of factors. These include not only the food they are given but their overall lifestyle. A free-range chicken running around in the yard all day will do much more exercise and therefore need more food than one confined in a coop.
Ultimately, overeating can cause a whole load of health problems, which include the following.
Overeating issue #1: Mobility problems
Overweight chickens may develop problems such as leg pain that affect their mobility. If you notice your chickens moving less, it may be a sign that they’re overeating and have gained weight.
Of course, mobility problems may be a sign of other conditions, such as old age or injury. If there is any doubt about the welfare of the flock, contact a veterinarian for advice.
Overeating issue #2: Changes to their eggs
Overweight chickens generally lay bigger eggs. While that sounds great, it’s not always a good thing, as chickens can only process a certain amount of calcium, necessary for laying strong eggs.
If chickens eat too much and develop calcium deficiency, this can cause problems such as ‘egg binding’, where they can’t lay eggs anymore. In some cases, this can be fatal.
Again, if in any doubt about the health of your chickens, please contact a veterinarian, who can give good advice on any issues.
Overeating issue #3: Behavior problems
Bigger chickens are more prone to develop behavior problems, as when they feel big and lazy they can start to pick fights with each other.
A sudden change in behavior in any animal is often a sign of an underlying health problem. If you notice a sudden change then (yep, you guessed it!) it’s time for a call to a veterinarian for advice.
Overeating issue #4: Sickness and death
The most extreme thing that can happen to chickens as a result of overeating is that they can get sick and/or die. However, don’t panic as this is pretty rare and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to prevent this from happening.
And, usually, there are plenty of warning signs before this happens, as the bird will become unusually large and maybe even oddly shaped. The chicken will definitely look sick before getting to the point where death is the next logical step.
However, if a bird does look too ill, and you’re not averse to culling them (or eating them), then please be smart about which hens you cull to eat. Eating a sick bird may not be great for your health. Even eating an overweight, the fatty bird may not be your greatest next meal.
Fortunately, there’s a lot that can be done to prevent chickens from overeating to the point of having health problems. Just like humans, we can help keep chickens in shape with two main tools: diet and exercise.
Prevention Tool #1: Exercise
If chickens have a fun space to run around in and exercise, they’re more likely to be both happy and healthy. Free-range chickens are also said to produce tastier eggs, so it’s a win/win thing to do.
A great way to allow chickens to exercise properly is to build them a nice big coop, or let them out into the yard (of course, make sure that this is a predator-free environment, and keep them away from other family pets such as cats and dogs if they are likely to be a problem).
Prevention Tool #2: Diet
The type of diet that a chicken is fed will also affect whether it can overeat. Just like with people, indulging in loads of snacks can provide a high amount of calories without satisfying hunger, making the chicken more likely to eat more than it needs.
It’s always a good idea to give your chickens treats in moderation.
Which Chicken Breeds Will Eat Themselves To Death?
In general, a broiler or meat chicken will be more susceptible to overeating than an egg-layer or dual-purpose bird. Broiler or meat breeds have been bred to grow extremely quickly. They won’t stop eating when full. This can lead to serious health problems and, in some cases, death.
Broiler breeds are any chicken bred for meat production, which in the US are normally some variation on the Cornish hen breed.
These have been selectively bred over the years not only for their enormous appetites but for their ability to turn the least amounts of food into the largest amount of body mass, all in the shortest time possible.
With these breeds, it’s generally recommended that after 14 days of age they are fed 12 hours on 12 hours off the diet, to prevent them from gorging themselves on a 24/7 buffet-style feeding frenzy.
Broiler breeds might not be the best bet for a family pet. There are friendlier breeds out there, as well as some which are bred for delicious tasting eggs. Broiler chickens have shorter lifespans (after all, they’re meant to be eaten), so they’re not ideal to build up a family relationship with.
If you’d like to find out about chickens as pets, with some breed recommendations, then we’ve got the guide for you here: Do Chickens Make Good Pets?
Regardless of the breed, there is never any need to worry about baby chicks! At an early age, chickens just like to fill themselves and then nap, all day long. After all, they need all the nourishment they get to grow into big healthy egg layers!
For some more specific advice about baby chicks, check out our guide to them here: Can You Overfeed Baby Chicks?
Key Takeaways and Next Steps
Keeping chickens can be a lot of work and certainly requires some know-how, but thankfully there’s also a lot of information out there to help. It’s getting more and more common to have friends and family keeping chickens, so if you or they have any questions about keeping chickens, I’m here to help!
In any case, make sure you have all of your questions about feeding chickens. Like, for example, if you’ve got goats, too? You’ll want to know the answer to this question: Can Goats Eat Chicken Feed? What You Need to Know Now.
However, if you aren’t keeping goats, then you’ll likely want to know the answer to this important question: what plants shouldn’t chickens eat? And for that, I’ve got your answer here: Plants Chickens Won’t Eat: The Complete Guide.
Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- “Brooding Cornish Cross Broilers 101: How to Raise From Hatch to Processing”. Meyer Hatchery, 1 October 2021, meyerhatchery.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360055407371-Brooding-Cornish-Cross-Broilers-101-How-to-raise-from-hatch-to-processing.
- “Poultry Feed Guidelines”. Meyer Hatchery, 1 October 2021, meyerhatchery.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360010037771-Poultry-Feed-Guidelines.