Feeding Ducks and Chickens

Learn the best feed mixes to produce high-quality eggs from your backyard poultry flock.

Ducks Eating

You can feed ducks in your backyard garden flock simply and effectively with tips from "The Resiliant Gardener" by Carol Deppe.

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Ducks are wonderful creatures that add value and resilience to any garden, plant scientist Carol Deppe writes. In her practical and thorough book The Resilient Gardener (Chelsea Green Publishing 2012), Deppe explains the joy of raising ducks and chickens for self-reliant food production and garden pest control. To get those great eggs, though, you have to understand the art of feeding ducks and chickens. In this excerpt from “The Laying Flock,” a chapter of The Resilient Gardener, find tips on how to keep your flock well-fed, even in hard times. 

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Feeding the Free-Range Ducks and Free-Range Chickens in Ordinary Times

I assume you have access to commercial feeds. I also assume you have a relatively small flock—anything from a handful to a hundred or so layers. (For bigger flocks, you will be milling your own feeds or having them custom-milled to your specification.) In the next section I’ll talk about “hard times” poultry feeding—feeding poultry with little or no access to commercial feeds.

First, I suggest feeding free-range ducks commercial chicken chow, not commercial duck chow. Duck chow is a specialized product that costs more. The chicken chow usually turns over faster in the feed store, thus is fresher. Free-range birds with decent forage get enough vitamins and minerals so that the difference in the exact needs between ducks and chickens is not an issue. (Ducklings do need extra niacin, though.)

However, do not feed medicated chicken chow to ducks. Some chicken medicines kill ducks. Also, do not feed ducks chow with fish meal in it. Fish meal gives duck eggs a fishy or off-flavor. I advise against using chows with animal by-products in them. (People, cattle, and sheep can get mad cow disease from animal by-products in poultry chow.)

Your basic duck or chicken book will have at least one chapter on feeding ducks and chicken and separate information on feeding babies. However, everything will be oriented toward the flock that is fully confined and that is fed the commercial chow as 100 percent of their diet. The usual advice is to feed adult laying birds a 16 percent protein laying chow (which has high calcium to support eggshell production). However, the chow has a fixed amount of energy and protein. When birds are running around outdoors their needs change from day to day depending upon the forage and the weather. In addition, free-range birds dilute the total calcium in their diet with their foraging and lay soft-shelled eggs. You can correct the latter problem by giving the birds oyster shell grit free choice. But it’s more useful to take a completely different approach with free-range poultry. I’ll describe the smorgasbord feeding pattern I use with my ducks. The same pattern is used by people with free-range chicken laying flocks.

In the smorgasbord approach, I give my ducks at least two different separate foods, free choice, in separate containers. One container has a commercial chicken starter or broiler chow (20–22 percent protein). This is the highest protein chow that is economical. The other container has grain. I use whole corn. (Some people use the high-protein chow and two different grains, all in separate containers.) My birds also have free-choice access to two different kinds of grit. One is oyster shell grit, which provides calcium as it wears down in the gizzard. The other is granite grit, which doesn’t. (Some people use just oyster shell.)

In other words, the birds have a smorgasbord of two kinds of food, one as high-protein as practical, the other high-energy. The birds mix and match the food, depending upon the forage and the weather. On cold days they eat more corn. On mild winter days, when there are lots of large night crawlers on the surface of the ground, the ducks only eat a mouthful of chow or two and mostly just eat corn. With as many worms or slugs as they want, they can fulfill their protein needs by foraging and just need some corn for energy. Corn is a lot cheaper than commercial chow. So feeding birds smorgasbord-style is most economical. And I think the birds like having a choice as much as we do.

Many people have just adult laying hens or ducks without males and provide just oyster shell grit. However, I have several drakes in my flock of thirty-two. Male poultry should not be forced to over-eat calcium just to get the grit to grind their food. I also merge young ducks with the adult flock at about five weeks of age. Young poultry can be crippled if forced to eat too much calcium.

Corn is the most common grain used. Poultry like corn. Ducks like corn and feed wheat. They are not very enthusiastic about “twice-cleaned” oats (which have the hulls but no awls). I use whole corn for adult ducks. Cracked corn doesn’t keep well and often comes from the mill with huge clumps of mold in it.

To introduce birds to a new kind or brand of feed or a different grain, the usual recommendation is to mix the old feed and the new in increasing proportions. I don’t agree. At least, not for ducks. Ducks need several days to try out a new feed. They try just a bite the first day, then increasing amounts on subsequent days. (I suspect it’s a behavior that helps free rangers avoid poisoning.) So to introduce a new food, I just put down a bucket of it, leaving the buckets of familiar feed. After a week or so, all the ducks have tasted, seriously tried, then become familiar with the new food. If they like it, they’ll be eating it. Then I discontinue the other food. If you just switch foods or add new and old foods together, you may risk nearly starving the ducks for several days. Ducks try new foods readily. They just start cautiously. This way of introducing a new food also constitutes a way of asking the ducks what they think about the new food.

Occasionally ducks will stop eating a feed. This usually means something is wrong with the feed. Mills make mistakes with feeds much more often than you might imagine. If the ducks stop eating a feed (and are just eating their grain), take their word for it and try some other brand.

Feeding Poultry in Hard Times

How do you feed your flock if you run out of job or money, or if the economy or infrastructure collapses and you no longer have access to commercial poultry chow made from corn and soybeans?

The traditional way of feeding poultry involved grain. Poultry were always given some grain, even when they were given nothing else. Grain is not a complete diet for poultry. But if it is just a dozen birds who have acres of forage, all the table scraps and butchery waste from a large family, and the excess from a large garden and orchard, a little grain and some oyster shell may be all that is needed. Note, this is only true when the birds can forage almost all their protein by eating as many bugs or worms as they want.

Scale is everything. When I had just four birds, the scraps and garden excess went lots further than they did after I had 32. And each bird in the smaller flock had better forage. By the time you get to 100 birds, you generally are selling eggs and buying some feed, even if you have a farm and grow your own grain. A hundred years ago, farmers with a flock of 100 layers usually fed them homegrown grain, oyster shell, and “beef scrap,” along with lots of forage. It was the flock of a dozen or so birds (or fewer) on a huge place that could be maintained easily without buying anything (assuming the farm grew its own grain). Those with their own grain and 100 birds were generally selling eggs and buying beef scrap. These days, we use the high-protein poultry chow instead of the beef scrap. The rest of the pattern is equivalent.

The less-than-optimally-fed flock generally isn’t nearly as productive as it could be. However, it may not need to be optimally productive to still be well worth having. And the forage situation is everything. Free-ranged on extensive good range, ducks can pick up all or much of their protein and all their vitamins and minerals except calcium, and may do pretty well with just grain (or other high-energy food) and oyster shell. For example, Holderread’s book gives the following production levels for Khaki Campbells with various different forage and management regimes: Campbell ducks given grain and free-ranged on pasture and a pond gave 75–150 eggs per year. Ducks given 16 percent laying pellets and pasture gave 175–225 eggs per year. Ducks given 16 percent laying pellets and pasture, and also a controlled light regime of sixteen hours per day, gave 275–325 eggs per year. It is no surprise that full-fed ducks with controlled lighting lay so well. Notice, however, that the ducks fed just grain and with natural lighting still gave a useful amount of eggs. However, also notice that these birds had a great forage situation with both extensive pastures and a pond. Four birds in a backyard can have equally great forage, though, especially if you deliberately enhance and manage part of the area for forage.

Any time you are feeding poultry a restricted diet instead of free choice, make sure you have enough containers or trough space so that every bird is getting her share. And watch the smaller birds. If the smaller birds have poor, rough-looking feathers and the bigger birds have shiny feathers, it means the bigger birds are getting most of the food.

If you are going through hardships and must underfeed birds, give them most or all their feed in the evening so they don’t have to go to bed hungry. Penned up at night, they are helpless to do anything about being hungry. If they are hungry during the day, they can run around and work harder at foraging (and look forward to coming home to a nice dinner).

I grow corn for people to eat but not enough to use as poultry food. I buy generic dent corn for poultry food. However, there are two crops that I’ve found I can substitute for the corn (or grain): winter squash and potatoes. Sweet potatoes or yams should also work and be equivalent in food value to the winter squash.

Feeding Poultry Potatoes

My duck flock, when given free-choice cooked potatoes, don’t eat any corn and eat only half as much commercial chow. In other words, they get all the energy they need from potatoes, and much of their protein as well. On mild winter days when there are lots of big night crawlers about, the ducks pretty much eat only potatoes, or only potatoes with just a couple bites of chow per duck. So as long as the potatoes last, my feed bill is reduced by about two-thirds, even with the birds still getting free-choice chicken chow.

The potatoes need to be cooked. Poultry, being monogastric animals, cannot digest raw potatoes any better than people can. I dump potatoes into my biggest kettle until it is two-thirds full, then swish the potatoes around in several changes of water till they are mostly clean. I discard any potatoes with green coloring as well as any floaters. The floaters are certain small potatoes that actually began developing, then were robbed of their carbohydrates to support development of the other potatoes on the plant. (Potato plants don’t necessarily finish all the potatoes they initiate.) Floaters, like green potatoes, can have high glycoalkaloid content. I salt the water, bring it to a boil, and cook the spuds until they are soft. The first time in the season that I feed potatoes, I coarsely slice the layer on top in the bucket. By the time the ducks get down to the bottom layer, they are digging right into the whole spuds. (Ducks have serrations on the edges of their bills that can act a bit like tiny teeth.) Ducks love the potatoes so much that they simply ignore the (feed-grade commercial) corn until the potatoes are all gone. For the amount of water and potatoes I cook at once, it takes the pot about thirty minutes to come to a boil, then another forty-five minutes to cook the spuds. However, I usually have my own dinner from the pot, too, so the time involved isn’t too burdensome. We grow hundreds of pounds of prime potatoes, so end up with useful amounts of undersized or second-grade potatoes. These make great poultry food. We plan to expand our potato growing in the future so as to grow a few hundred extra pounds of potatoes just for the ducks.

My birds still get and eat commercial chow free choice with their spuds. However, if I had fewer birds or a bigger yard (that is, better forage), I think I could feed just potatoes (and oyster shell) during potato season if I had to.

Winter Squash as Poultry Feed

Cooked winter squash, according to my ducks, are a good source of energy but don’t provide significant protein. That is, when given free-choice squash, in addition to their chow and corn, the birds quit eating corn but eat the same amount of chow. I cook the squash. This is necessary for ducks. I don’t know whether it would be necessary for chickens. I suspect that chickens could eat the raw squash better than ducks but that the food value wouldn’t be as high. But I’m guessing. There are two kinds of squash I use for duck food.

Delicatas are small squash that weight 2 pounds or less each. Each plant produces 3 to 5 prime fruits and additional smaller skinny (thin-fleshed) cull fruits. The culls keep just as well as the prime fruit. I knock the stems off a couple of prime squash for my own dinner and about 6 to 8 of the undersized culls, and stick them each with a fork to release steam as they cook. Then I put them in my biggest pot and cover them with water. I use a steamer basket upside down weighted down with a rock on top of the squash to hold the squash under water. I cook the squash until they’re nice and soft, about forty-five minutes after they come to a boil. (I take my dinner out a little earlier.) The cooked squash are so soft they fall into pieces as I dip them out of the cooking water using a large slotted spoon. The ducks eat the squash, skins, seeds, and all.

The other squash we use a lot for poultry chow is the big Oregon Homestead line of Sweet Meat squash. Each plant produces about three or four prime squash and another smaller squash or two that isn’t as prime and that often isn’t fully ripe. These are obvious because they are a darker color. They still keep for months, however, and make good duck food. And even these smaller culls are about 14 to 20 pounds each. I halve a squash, remove the seeds, and bake the squash just as for prime squash. (The seeds are too big for the ducks to swallow.) In winter, the heat from the oven merely replaces some of the heat from the furnace and is not waste. The ducks usually eat the whole squash, including the skin.

Delicata squash lose their quality by about January, so we feed the smaller subprime delicatas to the ducks but don’t grow extra delicatas for them. ‘Sweet Meat–Oregon Homestead’ squash, even the undersized or immature fruits, keep well all spring. The prime fruits increase in quality the entire time, but even the culls keep well and don’t lose quality. With all other squash varieties I have tried, immature or undersized or late fruits don’t keep more than a month or two. So ‘SM’ is the best squash to grow for duck food. Ducklings love ‘SM’ squash. My current batch of ducklings is being raised mostly on ‘SM’ squash, ‘October Blue’ potatoes, duck eggs, forage, and just a little commercial chow.

Oyster Shell for Chickens and Ducks

If you don’t feed the birds oyster shell, they won’t lay much more than the dozen or two eggs wild birds lay. So it might be a good idea to stockpile oyster shell.

In addition, if our oyster shell supply were to become limited, obviously we would feed all the eggshells back to the birds so as to simply recycle the calcium as much as possible.

Forage Improvement

It is easier to provide our birds with enough energy than enough protein. We can provide the energy with grains we grow ourselves or buy or trade for locally, and/or with squash or potatoes. The key to the protein is the fauna in forage. I over-sow my yard with white clover, which ducks like better than grass. I also deliberately create areas that breed worms and other small, delicious critters. My main tactic is to spread 6- to 12-inch-thick swaths of straw-poo from the duck pen under trees and in other spots that don’t grow good pasture or lawn. These shallow beds grow night crawlers, manure worms, sow bugs, and slugs, all very useful to ducks. Ducks bill through the beds and extract the protein. (Chickens scratch in such piles to remove the goodies.) The more sow bugs and slugs and earthworms I grow, the less high-protein chow I have to buy.

Windfall and subprime fruit can provide a lot of the energy ration in season. Mulberries were often planted in poultry yards. They drop fruit over a long period, and poultry love them. Dave Holderread planted a number of trees and bushes as poultry forage some decades ago. He tells me that mulberries turned out to be the most useful perennial forage he knows of for ducks.

I grow extra tomatoes just for the ducks. Big tomatoes are fine. I don’t know whether the tomatoes have much importance nutritionally to the ducks, but they love them above all other garden produce.

Other Possibilities

Do not feed raw legumes to poultry, not even peas. Cooked beans of various kinds can be workable but usually aren’t practical except as kitchen scraps. (Too much labor and too little yield to grow for animal feed.) I would expect sweet potatoes or yams to work as well as winter squash as a replacement for the grain (energy) part of the diet. But the squash don’t have to be dug. I haven’t tried sunflower seeds, since I can’t grow them very well. If you can, buy a bag, and ask your chickens or ducks what they think about them.

In the Depression era, roadkills were supposedly often used to feed poultry and hogs. In areas with plenty of game, the best parts can be eaten by people and the less prime parts given to poultry. Butchery wastes were also traditionally given to poultry. Many flocks have been fed primarily on things like restaurant garbage or stale bakery produce. (These days, it is illegal to feed garbage to hogs if you sell meat, unless the garbage is cooked. I suspect that if you want to sell eggs, the same laws apply. Because I sell eggs, I no longer feed even table scraps to my flock.)

From first principles, I would expect wheat to be a better grain to use than corn if you need to feed your birds just grain. Wheat has more protein and less energy than corn. So in theory, we would not need to provide quite as much protein to balance out the ration if the grain we used was wheat instead of corn. Do not feed confined birds just grain or squash or even potatoes. These are not sufficient unless the birds can pick up enough protein, vitamins, and minerals from having high-quality forage.

More Resilient Gardener Small Duck Flock Resources:

Why You Should Be Raising Ducks In Your Garden
Choosing the Right Chicken and Duck Breeds
How to Cook Duck Eggs 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Resilient Gardener.