Here at Nellie's Free Range, we talk a lot about how our hens enjoy plenty of access to outdoor pasture and how all our partner farms adhere to strict Certified Humane guidelines for free range laying hens. Another way we care for our hens is by ensuring they receive a well-balanced diet for living a happy, healthy life on our farms. So what do free range hens eat, anyway? And come to think of it, what's the natural diet of a chicken?
What do free range hens eat?
Our hens spend most of their days on pasture, foraging outdoors for juicy worms, bugs, and tasty greens. That's right: chickens are omnivores. In fact, chickens naturally have a fairly robust diet. In between dust bathing, perching on trees, and performing other instinctual behaviors, our girls search and dig for bugs. And they aren't picky; chickens enjoy everything from beetles and grasshoppers to worms and even ticks! Not only do these insects provide protein, but they also give our free range hens an opportunity to engage in their natural instinct to forage.
Why would free range hens need chicken feed at all?
Unlike the cows that provide cream for our grass-fed butter, chickens aren't ruminants and can't survive on pasture alone. They may peck and scratch at the ground quite a bit in search of the juiciest worm or munch on a clover here and there, but chickens don't actually graze on grass. No matter how much time they spend outdoors, free range and pasture-raised hens simply can't get all the nutrients they need out in the pasture. That's why we provide our hens with a supplementary feed in addition to their outdoor forage: it's the best way to ensure that our hens get the nutrients they need to stay happy and healthy.
What role does feed play in the quality of eggs?
If a hen doesn't receive enough of the proper nutrients that chickens require in their diet, it can begin to show in her health and the quality of her eggs. Malnourished or underfed hens can lose their feathers, become lethargic, and suffer from illness. They may lay fewer eggs, and what eggs their bodies do provide can vary in size and quality. By ensuring our free range hens receive the protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and other nutrients they need to thrive, we're keeping our flocks healthy and our farmers and their livelihoods secure.
What ingredients are in Nellie's feed?
Corn and soybeans make up the majority of our hens' feed, and with good reason! Soybeans are a wonderful source of protein for hens, while corn provides them with necessary carbohydrates for their day to day frolicking in the pasture. Additional feed ingredients include a variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed to maintain a healthy flock.
While exact feed mixes will vary on each Nellie's farm, our hens will always receive a balanced and nutritionally sound feed comprised of the same core components:
- Protein is necessary for hens to produce eggs and grow full, lush feathers.
- Carbohydrates give hens energy and keep them warm and active, even in the cold of winter.
- Minerals like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and more are essential for the formation of strong, thick eggshells and healthy bones.
- Natural immune boosters such as Vitamin E and oregano oil offer hens' immune systems a boost while also preventing harmful infections.
Do all Nellie's hens receive the same feed?
No, and that's a good thing! Getting the right feed mix for our flocks is a full-time job, and we take that job seriously. Each Nellie's flock receives a specially tailored feed right from the beginning, and our team works alongside poultry nutritionists to carefully formulate their diets and make adjustments as needed. These formulas are then sent to local feed mills that create these feed mixes and deliver them to our partner farms. While this means our farms may use different feed mills and each flock's diet may be a bit different, it ensures our hens are being offered the best feed mix possible tailored to breed, flock age, location of the farm, and other factors.
Why are free range hens fed corn and soy?
Although there are cheaper alternatives to corn and soy, they typically aren't as effective at meeting a laying hen's nutritional needs. This is why most eggs you'd find in grocery stores are laid by hens who eat some amount of corn and soybeans, and why soy-free feed is typically only used for smaller backyard flocks. While we continue to keep up with the latest research on soy and other feed sources, we have not yet found an adequate alternative that provides the hens with quite the nutritional quality that soy does.
Are Nellie's hens given antibiotics or hormones?
Thankfully, no! You won't find either of these in our hens' drinking water or feed mixes. The use of hormones in raising poultry is illegal, and giving antibiotics as a preventative measure for hen health was only adopted by factory farms to deal with the constant filth and disease found in such crowded and unhumane environments. In contrast, our barns are spacious, clean, and safe. In the unlikely event a Nellie's hen is found to be a bit under the weather and requires medicine (which is rare!), she will be separated from the main flock and treated properly. Her eggs are also kept separate and will not go into our cartons until she is fully recovered and off any medications.
Is Nellie's feed organic?
Our free range hens are fed conventional grain from reputable suppliers, but we cannot guarantee that this feed is free of pesticides or GMOs, and therefore it cannot be considered organic. Our eggs are a great choice for customers who would like eggs from hens treated with kindness and in line with Certified Humane Free Range standards, but at a lower cost than USDA Certified Organic eggs.