We get lots of interesting questions about chickens, but maybe the most-asked is the most basic: What does an egg-laying hen eat?
Before we dive in, let’s remember: chickens aren’t mammals. Yes, that may seem super-obvious, but it’s a critical point to understanding what hens eat and why. As such, their dietary needs are very different—even a little weird compared to our own mammalian preferences.
That covered, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of a hen’s dietary needs.
First, she wants protein, which produces a stronger shell for her eggs. The heavy hitter in this category is organic soybeans, which have to be roasted and cracked for optimal digestion.
In addition to protein, she wants a good source of energy, and non-GMO corn, whole grains and a salt/mineral mix provides plenty. Since all of our hens and eggs are organic, we don’t use GMOs or anything sprayed in synthetic chemicals. The grain our chickens enjoy is organic, non-gmo and diverse in mixture and nutrients. Poultry can be fed a wide variety of grains and will do well if the grains are fed in a balanced ration, which varies by farm. Whole grains could include oats, barley, rye, hard red wheat or durum wheat and upwards of 20 to 30 different organic ingredients.
Many of the organic ingredients in chicken feed mixtures in our cooperative are grown right on the family farm. This means that there are fewer miles between growing the grain and feeding the grain to the chickens. And since we never use toxic synthetic chemicals, we save waterways from added chemicals and improve the food system for animals, people and the planet.
Organic Valley farmers constantly evaluate the health of their flocks and may alter the feed throughout the hens’ lifecycles to provide the nutrients they need. From seasonal non-GMO grain mixtures to shifts in diet based on temperature, Organic Valley farmers are vigilantly caring for their flocks with the right organic nutrients at the right time.
Next, laying hens need about 4% calcium in their diet to form the shells of their eggs. When hens ran wild in the jungles they would get this by pecking at bones and exposed rocks containing the minerals they instinctively knew they needed. In modern organic farming, we can provide calcium in the form of ground limestone or aragonite.
Finally, the farms that provide eggs for Organic Valley Smart Eggs™ give their hens a ration of flax seed as well, which boosts the omega-3 content of their eggs to 225 milligrams of omega-3 essential fatty acid per egg, more than double the amount in a classic egg.
Providing the best care for any living creature requires a holistic approach, so when we talk about chicken feed, there’s a much bigger recipe at work. In order to make the most of what hens eat, Organic Valley farmers provide right-sized, hen-approved indoor and outdoor spaces.
When the hens are outside, they scratch in the grass looking for bugs, which not only provides a bit of nutrition, but also satisfies their natural urges to scratch and peck. Hens may eat a little grass here and there, but they don’t “graze,” so it’s not a notable part of their diet.
Indoors, the hens have constant access to food and water, the ability to get off the ground onto roosts and perches when they need to, great ventilation, and plenty of doors to encourage going outside. Outdoors, they have trees or structures to give shade and satisfy their instinctive desire for protection from flying predators like hawks, grass and dirt to scratch and dust-bathe in, and additional fresh water to encourage spending more time outside.
Our hens are only restricted at night and during bad weather (for their safety); otherwise, the hens are in charge of what they do and when they do it.
All of these elements — together with a high-quality, organic, hen-approved diet — mean that Organic Valley birds can thrive in safety and good health. And that’s what a good egg is all about.