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Scratch Grains | Winter Treat for Chickens

Beneficial winter treats for chickens include high energy foods with healthy fats, like scratch grains, to keep them warm in the cold weather.

If you have ever fed your chickens scratch grains then you know that they go absolutely nuts for it (pun intended...)

They scramble around pecking at the various grains and seeds as fast as they can, fighting and scratching for each last piece (hence the name "scratch"!).

Although scratch grains are not a balanced diet for your flock, they're a great cold weather energy source for the chickens - and they love it! Bottom line, scratch grains are a fabulous winter treat for chickens. 

So for that reason, I toss a scoopful of scratch grains into the chicken run (or into the yard if they're free ranging) each afternoon in the winter a few hours before dark.

Scratch Grains | Winter Treat for Chickens

As soon as I go into the storage room where I keep the bag of scratch grains, my girls know they are going to get some and they all gather around excitedly, patiently (or usually not to patiently!) waiting. 

Of course, they figured out a long time ago where the scratch grains are stored .... hmmm, I wonder if the sign on the bucket tipped them off?

What are Scratch Grains?

Scratch grains are a blanket term used for mixed whole and cracked grains and seeds that are used as a supplemental feed for chickens in addition to their regular layer feed.

Typical ingredients in scratch grains include:

  • barley
  • corn
  • milo
  • millet
  • oats
  • sunflower seeds
  • wheat  

The History of Scratch Grains

Typically tossed onto the ground instead of fed in a feeder, "scratch" encourages chickens to scratch in the dirt, leading to the name scratch grains.

Scratch likely originated with early farmers who would toss their poultry flock extra or uneaten livestock grains so as not to waste them and to save some money on their chicken feed costs. 

Before the twentieth century, a small flock of chickens were often kept on large farms, mainly to provide the farmers family with eggs, so they were left on their own for the most part, and expected to forage for much of their food in the form of grain spilled by the cows and horses, as well as grass, weeds and bugs they found.

Scratch as a Treat 

While the mixed grains are nutritious, they aren't balanced and are not fortified with essential nutrients that a chicken flock needs.

Typically, scratch only contain about half the protein that chickens need in their regular diet to stay healthy and none of the supplemental calcium they need to lay eggs, so scratch grains should be only given after your chickens have had a chance to fill up on their regular feed and optimally only during the cold winter months. 

Since it's not nutritionally complete, scratch is not a substitute for layer feed, but should always be considered a treat, not a substitute for feed. 

And since it's a treat, it should be limited like other treats to 10% of your chickens' diet. That works out to only about 1-2 tablespoons per chicken per day. Best offered in the late afternoon after your flock has filled up on their regular feed.

High in carbs and fat, scratch grains are considered "junk food" and should be fed in moderation because overindulgence can quickly lead to overweight chickens.

Unlike commercial layer feed which is scientifically balanced and contains between 15-18% protein, scratch grains are not. 

Most mixes are predominantly cracked corn which is high in carbs and will put weigh on chickens (and especially ducks) if they eat too much of it, although corn does have a lot of nutrients and also fiber in it. 

Why Feed Scratch Grains?

So if scratch grains aren't as balanced and beneficial as regular feed, why feed scratch grains at all? 

Well, as you'll find out quickly, chickens absolutely love scratch grains. They're like junk food for chickens and often referred to as "chicken crack". 

They're also an inexpensive way to supplement your flock's diet. In general, a bag of scratch grains is going to cost less than a bag of feed.

But more importantly, digesting the corn and whole grains in the scratch has some important qualities for poultry. 

Digesting scratch grains:

  • increases the body's metabolism
  • creates energy 
  • helps keep chickens warm during cold winter nights
  • keeps chickens from getting bored and picking on each other

By scattering scratch grains in late afternoon it also gives the chickens something to do when there aren't any bugs or grass to keep them busy and occupied and they're likely confined to their coop and run. 

They also create energy (and therefore warmth) hustling and scratching to gobble up the scratch grains.

Scratch Grains and The Deep Litter Method

If you use The Deep Litter Method of winter coop littler management,  tossing some scratch grains into the coop as you lock up at night will encourage your chickens to help you turn over the bedding to aerate it and keep the decomposition going. 

Homemade Scratch Grains Winter Treat for Chickens

All of the major chicken feed brands and  distributors sell pre-bagged scratch grains that are readily available at your feed store or online and which contain a variety of grains and seeds, but you can also easily make your own.

As an alternative to commercial scratch, you can easily mix up bulk grains purchased from your feed store or local grocery store. 

One nice thing about making your own scratch grain mix is that you can stick with organic grains, if that's important to you. Most of the corn grown in this country is GMO, and I know that can be an issue for a lot of people. 

So, if you mix your own scratch grains, you can either leave out the corn entirely, or use organic, non-GMO corn instead. 

You can mix up nuts and grains and seeds in any combination you would like. Since it's not their main feed, you don't need to worry that it's balanced, so add what you have on hand or can find at your local feed store. 

If you can't find anything locally, I have added some links below to help you get started.

Try a blend of the following:

Your girls will love it. Or you can even purchase bagged bird seed mixes containing mixed seeds and nuts.  My favorite homemade scratch recipe is what I call my Ultimate Scratch Grain recipe. It's a flock favorite!

Storing Scratch Grains

Be sure to store your scratch mix in a rodent-proof container in a cool, dry location. As much as your chickens love it, so will rodents, squirrels, chipmunks and wild birds. 

I use covered metal pails for all my chicken feed, scratch grains and other treats to keep them dry and safe from being discovered by not only other animals, but also the chickens! 

How to Feed Scratch Grains

Toss some scratch grains on the ground in the yard or run or pour them into a dish or tray. Scattered into a pile of dried leaves, pine needles or straw on the ground, it's a great way to help your chickens beat winter boredom and cabin fever.

You can also pour some scratch grains over your flock's regular feed or mix some in. The key is to limit how much you're feeding so your chickens don't fill up on the "junk food" and stop eating their regular feed.

Remember, it's a treat, so scratch should be fed in moderation, preferably just before bedtime to take advantage of its warming properties. I figure on about 1-2 tablespoons of scratch grains per chicken. And they should clean it all up in about 20-30 minutes.

Leaving uneaten grains around is a great way to attract mice and other rodents to your chicken coop

Berry Box Scratch Treat Toy

 You can also fill empty plastic berry boxes with the scratch and put them in your coop or run.

Your chickens will love kicking them around to get the treats as they fall out of the little holes in the boxes. Okay, maybe the chickens don't actually love this idea, but this is a great way to keep them occupied and busy doing something other than pecking at each other if they are confined indoors due to bad weather.

Garlic-Infused Olive Oil Scratch Grains Treat

Another variation is to add some garlic-infused olive oil to a mix of scratch and layer crumble. The olive oil and garlic adds more great antioxidants and nutrition for your girls.

This amount of garlic-infused olive oil scratch is enough for about a dozen chickens.

What you Need |

3 garlic cloves

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups layer feed

1 cup scratch grains

What you Do | 

Mince three garlic cloves and put them in a glass with 1/4 Cup olive oil.  Set the glass on a sunny windowsill or warm spot for 3-4 hours.

When ready to use, stir the oil mixture into 2 Cups of layer crumble and 1 Cup scratch grains until well combined. Feed immediately and discard any leftovers.

If our flock is any indication though, there will never be anything left!  My girls love this recipe.

So while scratch grains aren't appropriate to be fed as your flock's main diet, the extra fat and carbs in the grains and seeds and nuts will help keep your chickens and ducks warm through the winter.

Since most aren't laying anyway in the winter, I am happy to give them something that they enjoy so much that keeps them busy and warm and maybe even puts a little fat on to keep them even warmer! 

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