If you’re raising chickens, you know there are aisles full of products and supplements any time you go to the feed store. Some of them are optional – but there is one supplement that is necessary for their long-term health – and that is chicken grit.
It can be a little strange to think about feeding your flock a bag of rocks, but the truth is, your backyard chickens need those tiny rocks for a good reason.
What is the purpose of chicken grit?
To fully understand the need for chicken grit, we need to talk about the digestive system and why it may be necessary for your flock.
Chickens don’t have teeth to chew their food (although their beaks do a fairly good job at tearing the food in to smaller pieces). But since they cannot chew the food fully in their mouth, an additional step of digestion is needed.
The food then begins the process of digestion, by first moving to the crop where it is stored. From there, it is passed to the gizzard – this is where grit comes in.
The gizzard uses a strong muscular action move the grit around, grinding the food down before it passes to the next step of digestion, where digestive enzymes take over.
If you want to read more about the digestive system in chickens, check out this in-depth article from poultrykeeper.com. – The Digestive System of a Chicken (poultrykeeper.com)
Soluble vs insoluble grit
There are two types of grit – soluble and insoluble grit. This post primarily covers soluble grit. It But here is a quick look at the different functions of the two.
Insoluble grit is necessary for the digestion of food for your chickens. All chickens, (hens, roosters, adult chickens and baby chicks), need insoluble grit.
Soluble grit, in the form of oyster shell, is meant to provide laying hens with the extra calcium needed for egg laying. Calcium is found in layer feed, but often times a calcium supplement is also needed. If you notice issues with egg laying size or soft shells it may be because the chicken feed you are using does not contain enough calcium for egg production.
The main takeaway – calcium carbonate oyster shell is not a replacement for true, required, chicken grit. Oyster shell grit is a supplement calcium source for hens. Insoluble grit of some type is necessary for all chickens.
So how much grit do my chickens need?
You should allow free access to chicken grit. If you are not allowing your chickens to forage, you can offer a small amount of grit in a separate container next to their food. Your chickens will instinctively know how much they need.
If your chicken eats too much grit, it will naturally leave the digestive tract.
At what age should I start feeding grit to my chickens?
Usually, chick starter crumbles are fine enough that grit is not necessary.
Once a chick has been eating anything other than chick starter feed, you should begin offering access to grit. If your chicks are still very young, sand or dirt from the floor of your coop run is likely to be all that your young chicks need.
As the chickens begin eating layer pellets, chicken grit should be provided free access.
What is grit made of?
Bags of grit that you can get from your local store (flint grit) will contain things like crushed quartzite and granite.
Natural grit that your chickens will gather will probably be combination of things like sand, small pebbles, rocks, and shell.
Can I make my own grit?
Sure, but it is probably going to be much cheaper to purchase a bag of grit from the feed store. You would need to have access to insoluble stones, such as granite. You also need to make sure whatever you are using is nontoxic. And lastly, you will need to be able to grind your material down into small pebble size pieces.
A bag of commercially made grit is fairly inexpensive and will last you for a long time.
Can I make chicken grit out of eggshells?
Egg shells are not insoluble and should not be used to make grit for digestion (despite many recipes online). They can be used for as a calcium supplement for your hens, but not as a true grit. See this part of the post for how to use your eggshells as a calcium supplement.
Do free-range chickens need grit?
If your chickens have free range access to new ground each day, chances are they are okay without commercial grit. Chickens, like most animals, instinctively know what they need to survive. Your chickens will peck and scratch to find the grit they need to properly digest food.
Of course, we all want to be responsible backyard chicken owners. And that is going to require you make a personal decision for your flock. Our chickens have access to several acres of land to roam each day. However, I will still occasionally (once every 6 months or so) throw some grit out in the grass just to be safe.
If you feel like your land doesn’t provide pebbles, small stones, or sand, it’s probably a good idea to make grit available free choice, even while free ranging.
What happens if your chickens don’t get grit?
If your chickens do not have access to grit, it can cause serious health issues that may lead to death.
If there is not sufficient grit in the chicken’s gizzard, their food cannot be digested. This essentially means the food sits in the crop and rots. This leads to an illness called sour crop.
Another illness sometimes related to lack of grit is an impacted gizzard.
Is chicken grit food?
No, grit is not a source of food for your chickens. However, it is a necessary in order for their digestive system to work properly.
Grit is eaten by the chickens and then passes into their gizzard, where it stays for many months. The gizzard contracts to move the grit around. As food passes through, the grit grinds the food up so it can move to the next phase of digestion.
So, while the grit itself does not add any nutrients to your chicken, it does ensure that their food can be digested so they can get the nutrients they need.
Help, my chickens are eating all the grit!
Chickens should instinctively know how much grit they need but if they are continuously wiping out all the grit quickly, it could be a sign that you need to offer larger pieces. If you’ve been feeding your adult birds “chick grit” made up of very tiny rocks or only sand, they may be eating large portions of it to get what they need.
You can move up to a grit that is made for older birds to see if that helps.
In general, I wouldn’t be overly concerned with this though. Studies have shown that chickens will naturally pass the excess grit.
How to make a homemade “calcium grit” for your hens.
An excellent way to add supplemental calcium to your laying hens diet is by simply feeding them back their own eggshells.
Simply take your leftover eggshells, crush them up, and feed them back to the hens. This extra calcium added to the chicken’s diet is an excellent way to get consistent laying with strong egg shells.
Remember – this supplement is only to strengthen egg laying in your hens NOT to aide in the digestion of food.
Most people will tell you that you should not feed the uncrushed shells to the chickens. They say it may encourage them to eat their own eggs. This may be true in some cases, and you may not want to test it out. But I’ve consistently fed our hens whole eggs and shells and they’ve never developed egg eating tendencies. Follow your gut on this one, but I just wanted to throw my experience out there 🙂
Side note – some people opt to dry them out in the oven first and then crumble them up. The drying out helps if you are wanting to store them in a container verse using them all immediately.
Summary of Chicken Grit:
Insoluble chicken grit is a necessary for the digestive system of chickens to function properly. All chickens of all ages need some form of insoluble grit. This can be provided through a store-bought mix or by your chickens having access to natural grit through free ranging. This should not be confused with things like oyster shell or eggshell. These items are meant to function as a calcium supplement to strengthen egg laying in hens. Without chicken grit, your birds can develop illnesses, which can potentially be deadly.