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By: George Peckham
Published: 2007-10-20

George Peckham has been a volunteer at ECHO for years, after retiring from a career working with poultry feeds and production in various locations in Latin America.

Chickens are an important source of meat and eggs for many small-scale farmers. When only a few chickens are kept, they are usually able to meet their dietary needs with kitchen scraps and a bit of grain, and by scavenging for seeds, insects, worms, etc. However, if the flock size is increased without developing a good feeding plan, egg production usually declines.

The solution to this problem might be “cafeteria feeding.” This system offers a way to use “on the farm” feeds for a larger flock, while producing more eggs and meat for home consumption and for sale. It requires re-thinking feeds and feeding. (In the tropics it may also be necessary to install artificial lights in the roosting area. With fewer than 14 daylight hours, egg production declines quickly. Artificial light can be added in the morning and evening to keep a steady 14 hours of light. One or two 40 watt bulbs or kerosene lamps with clean chimneys in a space adequate for 50 roosting hens would be sufficient.)

The small-holder wanting to increase flock size (e.g. to 10 to 50 hens) can use ingredients that big commercial producers cannot use; things like root crops, leaves, blossoms and worms, as well as grains. “On the farm” ingredients don’t have to be mixed together. They only have to be individually available to the chickens. Chickens by instinct will pick out the correct quantity of each type of feed needed for healthy productivity. This is reminiscent of people walking through the serving line at a cafeteria, selecting the foods and amounts of each from many possible choices—hence the name “cafeteria feeding.” (Interestingly, chickens often make healthier choices than people do.)

Table 1 indicates roughly what chickens will want to eat—about 2/3 energy sources, about 1/3 protein sources and a few items for vitamins and minerals (especially calcium for egg shells). Though they are categorized based on their main nutritional content, each of the items listed contains some protein, some energy, plus some vitamins and minerals. Remember, the idea of “cafeteria feeding” allows the chickens to balance their own diets. To help them do so, it is best to offer the chickens at least two or three items from each column.

EDN 97 Table 1

Table 1 may be used as a guide for what to feed daily, or every other day (you may want to feed them every other day if you want the chickens to forage more). It is best to allow chickens to have free choice of at least two items from each column. Water should be freely available. (Chickens will consume three kilos/liters of water for each kilo of feed.) Also, there should be small bits of limestone, crushed shells, or another source of extra calcium available. There will be lots of calcium available from the leaf feeds. If it is necessary to limit a particularly scarce ingredient, do so on alternate days. If you feed 180% of the daily ration “every other day,” weaker chickens will have access to their share. In contrast, limiting the feed to 90% every day allows stronger chickens to eat more than their share, to the disadvantage of the weaker.

When cereal grain is not available, a variety of chopped fresh root crops and/or bananas can be given. This can be more economical, even though weight gain and egg production will be lower (due to lower levels of digestible energy and higher amounts of non-digestible fiber). It is always necessary to supply small rough stones or grit, as chicken gizzards use grit to grind things like weed seeds, dried leaves and coarse grains.


1 For best results, all beans (legumes) must be cooked to neutralize trypsin growth inhibitors. For example, soybean meal is toasted before it is used in poultry feed. Layer chickens are less affected than broilers by trypsin inhibitors. If reliable information is not available, trial and error will inform you.

2 Moringa, amaranth and leucaena leaves have excellent amino acid, vitamin and mineral content. They should be dried in the shade to preserve the vitamins and to reduce volume. They can also be fed fresh by hanging them in the pen (leafy end down) to keep them from being trampled. Either way, feeding leaves to the chickens will contribute greatly to the flock’s health and productivity.

Cafeteria feeding will allow flock numbers to increase even when the free range is limited. “Limited range” will result in fewer insects in the diet (because chickens have less freedom to forage). If some animal protein is available—worms, for example—the diet will be balanced and egg production will be good, even with “limited range.”

An animal protein source (worms, insects, dried fish, etc) is necessary to supply vitamin B-12, which is not available from plants. Worms are a rich source of protein. Farm level production of worms (vermiculture) is becoming increasingly common worldwide. Animal manure is locally available and a very good worm food for producing “red worms.” Worms can also be grown on rotting fruits and vegetables, rotting leaves and well-aged compost. As an added benefit, the worms produce castings that are a valuable organic fertilizer. [We are planning an article on vermiculture for an upcoming issue of EDN. Information is available on the web or from ECHO.]

“Cafeteria feeding” provides a way for small-scale farmers to enlarge their flocks without experiencing declines in egg production. If combined with vermiculture, benefits can also extend to better crop production.

Cite as:

Peckham, G. 2007. “Cafeteria Feeding” of Chickens. ECHO Development Notes no. 97