What Do Chickens Eat if Free-Range? Diet And Nutrition Guide

Chickens allowed to roam freely on pasture have access to a diverse, natural diet. This allows them to exhibit their normal foraging behaviors and obtain nutrients from plants and insects. Here’s an in-depth look at what free-range chickens eat.

Article Summary

  • While free-range chickens can obtain much of their nutrition from foraging, they benefit from supplemental commercial feed.
  • It’s recommended to provide free-choice feed designed for backyard chickens alongside their pasture diet for optimal nutrition.
  • Commercial feed ensures nutrient balance, providing vitamins, minerals, fats, and other nutrients that pasture may not offer consistently.

What Do Chickens Eat Naturally?

Chickens are omnivores and will naturally eat a variety of foods; when given the chance, chickens will forage on pasture and woodlands, eating a variety of plants, seeds, and insects. Their natural diet consists of:

  • Grasses and Legumes – Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh grasses, clovers, alfalfa, and other legumes. These provide protein, fiber, and phytonutrients.
  • Seeds and Grains – Chickens will scratch around, looking for seeds and grains from grasses, weeds, and spilled grain. These provide carbohydrates and healthy fats.
  • Fruits and Vegetables – Chickens will eat windfall fruit, berries, melons, squash, and other veggies they discover while foraging. These provide vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Insects/Bugs – Chickens eagerly hunt for worms, grubs, beetles, flies, ants, spiders, and other insects that provide protein.
  • Grit – Chickens ingest small rocks, gravel, and sand. This grit helps them grind and digest the plant materials, seeds, and insects they eat.

What Do Chickens Eat in the Grass?

When ranging on pasture, chickens will eat a diverse diet of greens, seeds, and insects. They will also eat a variety of beneficial grasses and plants, including:

  • Ryegrass – A nutritious grass chicken’s graze on. Provides omega-3s.
  • Clover – Chickens enjoy the leaves and flowers of clover plants. Rich in protein.
  • Chickweed – A nutritious weed chickens graze on. High in vitamin C.
  • Plantain – Chickens eat the leaves and seeds of broadleaf and narrow plantain plants. High in calcium.
  • Dandelion – Chickens relish the leaves, flowers, and roots of dandelions. Packed with nutrients.
  • Alfalfa – The leaves and sprouts of alfalfa provide protein and calcium.

Do Free Range Chickens Need Feed?

Chickens can get most of their nutrition from foraging when allowed to graze freely, but they will still benefit from some supplementary commercial feed.

Free-range chickens eat a diverse natural diet, but they still require supplemental feed…

While free-range chickens eat a diverse natural diet, they still require supplemental feed to ensure they receive adequate nutrition. Feed provides:

  • Complete Protein – Necessary amino acids not found in plants and bugs. Keeps chickens healthy.
  • Calcium – For proper bone development and eggshell strength. Pasture alone doesn’t provide enough.
  • Grains – Provides concentrated carbohydrate energy chickens need. Their nutrient-poor diet requires it.
  • Nutrient Balance – Ensures chickens get the optimal amounts of vitamins, minerals, fats, and more that pasture can’t reliably provide year-round.
Welsummer Hen with Chicks
Welsummer Hen with Chicks

It’s best to provide free-choice feed designed specifically for backyard chickens alongside their pasture diet. This gives them the nutrition they need while still allowing natural foraging behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do chickens get enough food free-ranging?

Free-range chickens are able to forage and scavenge for some of their food when allowed to roam freely outdoors. However, they still require supplemental feeding from their caretakers to ensure they get balanced nutrition. Free-ranging provides chickens with greens, seeds, insects, and other natural foods, but likely not enough to fully meet their dietary needs.

What should I feed free-range chickens?

Free-range chickens benefit from a high-quality complete feed that provides the protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals they need. This feed is typically offered in pellet form and should be available to them at all times. You should also provide a calcium source like an oyster shell. Clean, fresh water is essential as well. Supplement their diet with vegetable scraps, sprouted grains, and treats like mealworms.

How often should you feed free-range chickens?

Free-range chickens should have continuous access to their complete feed so they can eat as much as they want whenever they feel hungry. Check feeders daily to refill and make sure there is ample, fresh feed available at all times. Scatter some feed in their outdoor range to encourage natural foraging.

Do free-range chickens eat more?

Free-range chickens are typically more active than confined chickens, so they tend to eat more feed overall. The increased exercise from roaming and foraging leads to better health and increased appetite. Free-range chickens also supplement their complete feed diet through natural foraging, which may lead them to consume more food than confined chickens fed only commercial feed.

Do free-range chickens need feed every day?

Yes, it’s important to provide free-range chickens with feed daily. They rely on a complete feed as their dietary staple and main source of balanced nutrition. Scatter some of their feed to encourage natural foraging. Check feeders each day, removing old feed and replenishing with fresh feed so it’s always available. Consistent access to complete feed is essential, even for free-ranging chickens.