Free Feeding vs Restricted Feeding Chickens

There are reasons to do both, but a combined system may work best. Here’s what to consider.

Restricted Feeding

Restricted feeding is feeding a measurable amount of feed that will be eaten up soon, then allowing the chickens to have several hours without a concentrated feed. Supplements like hay, grass, and vegetables may be used during this time, but are not required depending on what you are trying to do.

Most regimens of restricted feeding utilize 2 feedings a day, morning and afternoon. Some use 3 feedings a day or only restrict feed on certain days. Let’s talk more about it so you can understand how to use it to benefit your flock.


Cost Efficiency

The biggest reason why we restrict feed for our birds is to save on feed. When I switched to restricted feeding, we saved about 25 percent on feed costs. A free-feeding system creates a lot of wasted feed. No matter what, some feed gets on the ground. Weather pellet of powder, some of that will be lost in the soil and manure.

I’ve seen as much as 50 percent wasted feed in some flocks. The first way to lessen the waste is to feed a pellet. Pellets resist crushing and the birds have more time to pick them up. The second thing to do is hold back adding new feed until they’ve cleaned up what’s lying on the ground. They will do it.

If the feed bowl is empty, your chickens will eat what fell by the wayside before it has a chance to be lost in the soil or bedding material in the coop. By restricting feed you’re making sure they clean their plate. That’s the best way to save money on feed.

Finally, restricted feeding slows the digestion just a bit. This actually allows the birds to more fully utilize what they’re eating, further allowing for an even more increased efficiency of feed. Restricted feeding of chickens increases the feed conversion rate for both layers and meat chickens.

Weight Control

Restricted Feeding helps hens avoid obesity and helps fat hens lose weight. That not only increases feed efficiency but also prolongs their years of productive egg-laying. I’ve acquired many small flocks around 2 years old; when their productivity slowed and the farmer wanted to replace them.

Most of the time, they’re laying at about 50 percent of peak productivity and they were free-fed. every time, I’ve gotten them back near 100 percent productivity by putting them on a diet and using my special feed supplements. We have 6-year-old hens that are laying quite regularly.

When I acquire an adult flock just to butcher, they are usually quite obese inside. Chickens don’t put on much fat on the outside, it’s mostly on the inside. They get so fat that the liver and ovum become severely stressed and they look diseased. Usually, egg production has been cut off by pressure on the oviduct. Eggs can’t get through.

Health Monitoring

Controlled feeding allows the producer to observe the feeding activity of the flock. Birds that aren’t interested in feeding will be more easily noticed. It also helps to prevent digestive issues and lessen common intestinal pathogens.

One of the things I like about free feeding is that it allows the bird a more appropriate time to digest a dry feed. on another point, it’s easier to pinpoint problematic behaviors like cannibalistic pecking and feather pulling when birds aren’t feeding all day.

Limiting feed causes birds to be more active while free-feeding promotes a more sedentary behavior.



Restricted feeding requires your time and thought to monitor your flock’s feed intake, observe their health, productivity, and feed habits, and then to adjust feed accordingly. You also have to take time to bring feed twice a day, or to set up feed-automation.

The biggest worry about restricting feed is that your birds won’t get enough feed. It’s really quite easy to give them enough feed.

There’s a super-simple rule-of-thumb to follow. Feed them enough that most of it is eaten in 15 minutes, and that there’s just a little left and scattered around when they step away from the feeder. Here’s my tips.

  • Feed about 1/4 cup of dry feed per chicken, twice a day.
  • Feed less if they don’t clean it all up within an hour.
  • Feed more of they are overly excited, almost angry, at feeding time.

You may need a little more of a little less, depending on a lot of different factors. If your birds look overly excited or anxious, that’s your biggest cue. Once you’ve observed normal chicken behavior for a it, you’ll definitely be able to tell if they are not getting enough by their behavior. They should hurry to the feed, but shouldn’t be too desperate.

Stress Potential

Restricting a flock’s feed can result in feed stress and malnutrition if not managed well. You have to be sure to feed chickens at least twice a day, every day. Chickens should be fed on a firm schedule, and the feed should be fairly consistent in volume.

If you happen to be out late, or out of town for the day, your animals will have a rough time of it. If you get busy and forget (it can happen), your birds will not be happy. That kind of stress can build up with other issues to create a compound health problem. Stress increases concerns of pathogens and illness.

Free-Feeding: Pros and Cons



The easiest way to feed chickens is free-feeding. Most prole who free feed only fill up a feeder every few days and don’t think about how nuch they are getting. It’s easy. All you gotta do is fill it up now and then. I do see a lot of paopel fuilling up a feed hopper every evening, which kinda defeats the purpose of a hopper-feeder in my opinion.

With a flock of 12 or less, the common metal or plastic upright feeders like what you can get at the farm store usually last 2 or 3 days. Still, most people tend to keeop them filled to the top for some reason. If you do it right, it can save a a lot of accumulative time, up to an hour or two a week.

Improved Growth Rates

You will see higher growth rates when free-feeding, in most cases. There is generally a little more muscle production and a lot more fat production in poultry when given unlimited access to feed. Many producers of meat chickens like that aspect, giving them a highe finishing weight.

In reality, it’s less of an increased growth ratre and more of an increased gain of weight. Most of the mass gained by free-feeding is fat. That is detremental to the longevity of health for poultry, especially for laying hens.

Increased Daily Egg Production

Free-fed hens tend to lay somewhat more eggs their first year of production. They will continue laying more but being less efficient with feed unless they become unhealthy, which tends to happen by year two of production.



When free fed, chickens may and often do overeat, leading to health issues like swollen crop and obesity. Liver damage and cancers are commmonplace in obese chickens.

Free-feeding chickens is more of a way to increase growth and egg production short-term than it it a way of maintining a healthy flock.


Free-feeding increases the potential for feed wastage. Waste usually account for 10 to 30 percent reduction in feed efficiency. That’s aproximtely $50 per hen each year. You can see why some people like myself have completely decided against the unlimited feed approach.

Personally, I raise animale so we can afford to have meat on the table. Doing things that significantly increase costs while only slightly, or not at all, increasing the production is just not a smart optioon for us.


I practice what I preach. Here in rural west Michigan, me, my wife, and 5 young kids work together to grow food, raise animals, and grow aninmal feed on just 1 acre. I teach homesteading classes locally, and help people where I can.

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