The digestive journey of hen food!


I thought I’d start to collect together some of the information I have found about hens. I thought it maybe useful to have it all in one place, for myself and anyone else who needs it. 

Firstly, lets look at where everything is stored, inside a hen. 

This diagram gives you a good view as to wear all of the organs are placed inside your hen. When looking at separate processes (digestion, respiration, circulation etc..) it is a good idea to also have an idea of where the other organs are. 

The most important thing to a hen is eating as it is with most animals and people! The hen uses a mixture of gravity, mechanical action and chemicals (enzymes) to eat. 

✯ The beak – the hen pecks, and picks at food. As she takes it into her beak saliva is added. The saliva contains enzymes which begin to break the food down.
✯ The food passes down to the crop using gravity alone.The hen has no teeth and doesn’t chew.
✯ The crop – This is a pouch at the base of the neck, found on the front of the left side of the breast. As the hen eats, it fill with food and will become more visible. As the hen sleeps, the crop breaks down the food and empties. When the hen wakes up in the morning, the crop should be empty. The crop is also responsible for sending a hunger signal to the brain.
✯ The oesophagus – the food leaves the crop and passes down the oesophagus to the glandular stomach or proventriculus.
✯ The proventriculus – this is where more enzymes and stomach acids are added to the food to break it down into a form where the nutrients maybe extracted by the intestines. It is fairly small but it’s richly supplied by glands and lymphoid tissues. 
✯ The gizzard – the hen eats grit which collects in a muscular stomach called the gizzard. As the food passes into the gizzard from the proventriculus, it is ground down by the muscular action before it enters the small intestine.
✯ The small intestine – this, as with most animals, consists of three parts, the duodenum, jejunum and the ileum. The largest part of the small intestine, is the duodenum. This is supplied with enzymes secreted from the pancreas. The food is broken down further with the action of these enzymes (which break down proteins), before it passes on to the large intestine.
✯The caeca – these are two blind ended tubes which provide space for fermentation.  Fermentation is a process where food is subject to microbial breakdown. The caeca is responsible for the mustard to light brown foamy droppings that your hen produces, usually at a rate of about 1 in 10 droppings.
✯ The large intestine – This is quite short, consisting of two main parts, the colon and the rectum. At the end of the large intestine, is the cloaca or vent.
✯ The cloaca or vent – This is an opening shared by the urinary and the digestive tract.
✯ The liver – Nutrients are absorbed through the walls of the alimentary canal (digestive tract). The liver secretes bile which aids in fat digestion. The liver is a major detoxification organ for the body.
The pancreas – The pancreas secrets enzymes and produces hormones. The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin and controlling the bloods sugar level.
It is important to note at this point, that the hen does not urinate. The fecal matter and urine come out as one neat little parcel.

Here is another diagram, showing only the bits I have mentioned above. I didn’t draw this, but I thought it’s a nice simple diagram that shows everything fairly clearly.

Meeting the nutritional needs of your hen

Now that we’ve looked at the digestive system, organs, associated organs and processes, I thought now might be a good time to look at what your hen actually needs to eat in order to stay healthy. Like many animals, there is a fairly good range of ‘complete foods’ available, so you don’t need to worry too much. 
What your chicken needs to eat, will also depend on what you’re keeping her for, is she a meat hen or a laying hen. Most hens will fall into either of these two categories, even if she’s a pet hen, she’ll still most likely be laying eggs. 

This table shows the basic nutritional requirements for laying hens and meat hens at different stages of their life. 

Initially the meat hen requires a large protein intake, this is because most meat hens will have reached the required weight by just 7 weeks of age. 

The laying hen however, doesn’t require quite as much protein whilst she is growing. Once she is grown and at ‘point of lay’ (around 16-21 weeks of age) she will then require a lot more calcium in order to make those lovely egg shells! 
There are six main nutrients/elements that your hen needs in order to stay healthy. These are pretty much the same for most animals.

Carbohydrates – this is the main source of energy within food. For hens, most of the carbohydrates will come from grains, whatever type of feed you choose (pellets, mash, whole grains)
Proteins – The building blocks. They are required for the maintenance and healthy production of tissues, whether it’s muscle or organ tissue. They are also necessary for the production of hormones and, proteins also provide a small amount of energy.

Fats – Another source of energy for the hen, they also provide the fatty acids which are essential for some bodily processes.
Minerals – There are many of these and are also known as mineral nutrients. Dietary minerals are inorganic, which means they don’t contain carbon.
Vitamins – These are organic chemicals, meaning they do contain carbon. There are a wide range of vitamins, each having a different action within the body. It is important to make sure your hen receives a broad spectrum of vitamins within her diet. A good way of doing this, is to feed a general vitamin supplement.
Water – Essential for all bodily functions. The hens body is about 65-70% water, so constant access to fresh drinking water is essential.

The hens feed intake requirement will depend on many things such as age, breed/type, ambient temperature, free range or not, the general health of the bird and of course the sex of the bird (but I’m focusing on hens).

Many things are used to make up a commercial layers ration. These include (but not exclusively) corn, soyabean, rice bran, barley and some even use animal by products, such as bone meal.

It is important to read the label when buying feed, generally, though the choice between pellets, crumbs or mash will be according to your birds preference, as they will most likely contain the same ingredients (if they are from the same manufacturer).

I found this recipe for homemade chicken feed on the Greener Pastures Farm website.

2 parts whole corn (in winter this is increased to 3 or 4 parts)
3 parts soft white wheat
3 parts hard red winter wheat
1 part hulled barley
1 part oat groats
1 part sunflower seeds (in winter this is increased to 2 parts)
1 part millet
1 part kamut
1 part amaranth seeds
1 part split peas
1 part lentils
1 part quinoa
1 part sesame seeds
1/2 part flax seeds
1/2 part kelp granules
free choice of granite grit

free choice of oyster shell

I thought it maybe interesting to see what was suggested. I would imagine, that trying to make up your own hen feed would be a very expensive option for the backgarden hen keeper. 

I have paid between £7.99 and £10 for a 20KG sack of layers ration (pellets, mash and crumb). Also whole grains have a very short shelf life, so unless you had a large flock it probably wouldn’t be viable. Also when feeding a whole grain diet, the access to grit is even more important.

If your hens are free ranging, they’ll also have access to grass, bugs, soil and other leafy plants which they will quite happily ‘trim’ for you!

Feed supplements, particularly if you have ex-battery hens or hens in poor condition, are important. They can bolster the diet and are found as feed, water or even directly administered drops. One I have always used is Poultry Spice

This can be found quite easily at most places who stock poultry feed or online.
It is made in this powder form or as a water additive. I have tried both and my girls seem to prefer the powder, which you simply add to feed.

Another supplement I personally like to feed my hens is garlic. It’s a brilliant ‘wonder’ herb in my opinion. It also helps to neutralise the droppings (make them less wiffy) and can act as a mild bug deterrent. I have read in a few places that the garlic taste will transfer to the egg. I have not found this to be the case, my hens get a good scoop of it everyday in their feed and I have yet to find a garlic flavoured egg.

Poisonous plants. I feel at this point it is important to mention that there are some plants that are poisonous to hens. I found a list on Omlet which lists these plants. It is important to make sure your hen doesn’t have access to these. Most poisonous plants don’t taste very nice, but hens are little feathery dustbins and will have a go at eating most things, so please, check your little patch and remove them. Don’t use weedkiller as this of course, is also poisonous to hens.

Poo…. now when it comes out, it has many, many different looks. I think it’s just easier if I give you this link poo pictures , which shows many photos of chicken poo, normal, sick and the foamy caecal poo. Poo can give you a good indication of how the hen is feeling, so it’s important to take note of any abnormalities.

So that is pretty much the hen, what she eats, where it goes, what happens to it and what happens when it comes out the other end!

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this useful. 


About crispy80

I love to be active! I love to spend time with my son and husband. I'm self-employed and work whilst my son is at school and weekends when my husband is home. I enjoy drawing but don't have much time for it at the moment. I also enjoy cooking, baking and gardening. I'm on Twitter @pinwingirl if you want to find out more.
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