What Grains Do Our Pasture Raised Chickens Eat?

Chickens, like many other birds, fill the role in their natural ecosystem of seed eaters. So on our farm we do our best to provide them with a blend of organic grains that satisfies their natural desire to eat energy-rich seeds.

One of the pasture raised broiler chickens eating from a hanging feed tray at Wrong Direction Farm
Excuse me, but you’ve got food on your face.

We feed our chickens a Certified Organic grain mixture that is built on three grains: corn, oats, and soy. These three have been selected because they grow well in Upstate New York. Blended together, they provide just the right nutritional profile for healthy chickens.

Jeff Mattocks, with a pasture raised chicken.
Jeff Mattocks, our poultry nutritionist extraordinaire

We’ve been helped for many years by the services of an excellent poultry nutritionist, Jeff Mattocks. He is a walking encyclopedia of all things chicken. Each spring he works with me to adjust our feed blend after reviewing the lab results for the previous fall’s grain harvest.

Instead of doing all the talking myself, I asked Jeff to pitch in to give his thoughts on each grain and its role in the chicken feed.

Corn on the left, soybeans at the center, oats on the right.

1. Certified Organic Corn

Jeff says:

The organic corn is our primary energy source for the birds. Along with energy, the corn is providing vitamins, Phosphorus, and Beta Carotene which converts to extra Vitamin A.

2. Certified Organic Roasted Soybeans

Jeff says:

We use whole soybeans that have been flame roasted for better digestion. The natural oils of the soybeans have a delightful nutty flavor that will influence the flavor of our chicken. The soybean oils also provide extra Vitamin E for immune system support for the chicken and you.

3. Certified Organic Oats

Jeff says:

Oats are an all around great ingredient to our feed. Providing essential dietary fiber and Beta Glucan enzyme for better health and digestion. Oats are a wonderful feed ingredient that is overlooked by commercial feeds.

Sidebar: Why Organic?

I put emphasis on the importance of feeding chickens organic grain. When we began this farm in 2011 we knew that we only wanted to feed our chickens Certified Organic grain. This has been a continuous commitment as we’ve grown our flocks over the years.

We have been so strongly supportive of organic grains for two big reasons:

  1. Non-organic grains are grown on fields sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and/or fungicides, typically multiple times during the growing season. Many small grain crops are sprayed one additional time shortly before harvesting to kill the plants to encourage uniform drying of the seeds. Even looking for the non-GMO label doesn’t avoid these sprays. Unless a grain crop is specifically certified as organic, it almost certainly has been dosed with one or more of the following: glyphosate (Roundup), atrazine, lambda-cyhalothrin or other pyrethroids, 2-4D, Dicamba, etc. As a general principle, I don’t want to eat chickens that have grown up eating sprayed grains. I also do not want to participate in agricultural practices that leach chemicals into groundwater or that expose farmworkers to toxic substances.
  2. Organic grains are by definition non-GMO. I oppose the way GMO farming has encouraged an increased dependency on herbicides. Further, it has been used strategically to centralize control and ownership of seeds and the entire food system into the hands of a few multinational corporations to the detriment of farming communities in the US and around the world.

Organic chicken feed is definitely more expensive, but at Wrong Direction Farm our position is that the organic price premium reflects the true cost of producing food without leaving a trail of toxicity.

This pasture raised chicken is eating organic grain right out of Dave's hand.
Eating right out of my hand.

Putting It All Together

Depending on the age of the chickens, we vary the grain ratios using Jeff’s feed formulas. The young chicks need the strongest dose of protein, so they start with more soy in the mix. As they age we taper the soy out of the ration in favor of more corn. The proportion of oats remains about the same throughout. It is a delicate balance to keep energy, protein, fiber, fat, and vitamin levels where they should be as the chickens develop.

One important addition to the grains we feed to the chickens is a mixture Jeff has designed and perfected over decades, his Poultry Nutribalancer. It contains a mixture of probiotics and minerals that really seems to be useful in giving the birds a boost.

Closeup of the certified organic chicken feed used for the pasture raised chickens at Wrong Direction Farm.
Coarse ground organic chicken feed

When the chicks are young we grind the grains into a fine texture. Because of their tiny mouths they need things broken down into small pieces. As they grow they make better use of bigger pieces, so a larger screen can be used in the milling process to produce feed with a less powdery texture.

It is fun to look back across the fields after the chickens have passed through. Occasionally a whole corn kernel falls out of their feeders and is trampled. A few weeks later, this is what we see growing in the pasture:

Corn plants growing in the chicken pastures at Wrong Direction Farm
“Volunteer” corn growing up in the chicken pasture.

Further Reading On Feeding Pasture Raised Poultry

If would like some further reading on topics related to feeding pasture raised chickens, I suggest starting with an article explaining why grass fed is appropriate for cattle but not for chickens. We also have an article our chickens foraging for insects on pasture with close-up photos of the chickens in action.

2 Comments on “What Grains Do Our Pasture Raised Chickens Eat?

  1. Many small flock owners ferment their feed by leaving it covered with water for 2-3 days. I don’t know how practical that would be for a farm, but do you have any thoughts on the benefits of fermenting? Chickens of course do no do this in the wild, but humans have been consuming mostly fermenting grain products at least until the last few centuries.

    • Hi Kirill,
      Great question. Fermentation increases some of the proteins and vitamin levels and reduces some of the calories to do so. I tried it many years ago when I started feeding pigs fermented grain. Handling the wet, heavy feed had its unique challenges, although they weren’t impossible to overcome. I mainly had to stop because our winters are long and cold, and I don’t have a heated space to dedicate to fermenting large barrels of grain each day.

      Your closing sentence about fermentation is a really interesting one, about this not happening in the wild but humans have been doing it for thousands of years. I agree that grain fermentation is important for humans to be able to digest grains. But I think that we shouldn’t confuse chicken digestion with human digestion. Humans, pre-agriculture, probably never encountered edible starchy seeds in enough abundance to make it more than a tiny fraction of their diet. Chickens, on the other hand, are more efficient at finding and picking off seeds, so they would naturally have eaten seeds at a much higher proportion of their diet than humans. Wild chickens still don’t eat as many seeds as a farmed chicken though, so there’s some room for argument here.

      My point in all this rambling is that fermentation is good and necessary for humans, and chickens also do well with fermented feed. But I don’t know that fermentation is as critical for chickens as it is for humans.

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