During winter, free-ranging chickens have fewer food opportunities. Birds scratch under snow to find random seeds and refuse from a garden. But you'll have to provide additional options to keep them from becoming malnourished.
David Frame, extension poultry specialist at Utah State University, says malnourishment is a genuine concern if you're not supplementing with a lot of grain. "The birds become thin. And if they show signs of lameness, that could be an indicator of either rickets or inadequate calcium or vitamin D. You need to make sure the birds have a supply of balanced chicken feed with appropriate calcium and phosphorous." Look for an all-natural, non-medicated layer feed.
While the flock needs to be outside for a little while for sunlight and fresh air, consider putting it in a well-lit barn where you have other livestock, and let the birds peck at spilled feed. Sprinkle the floor of the barn or the flock's coop with a little grit and crushed oyster shells for extra digestive and calcium support. Also toss out cracked corn, which is high in carbohydrates and helps the birds maintain body heat. Some people also provide mealworms, found in the birdseed section of a farm supply store.
Frame rigs up a net with a bunch of alfalfa hay in it. Chock full of vitamins, the birds get additional exercise and stimulation pecking at the hay.
Free-range chickens are used to variety. Frame suggests providing table scraps. "Save carrot peels, the ends of the lettuce, bits of spinach, and things like that. Another idea is to cut open a pumpkin or a squash and just let the birds peck around at that. Squash is rich in vitamin-A, plus it gives the birds something to do." Many types of vegetables and fruits work well for occasional scrap treats, including frozen peas and shredded zucchini, as well as apples, seedless grapes, and raisins.
Pantry items work well as treats, too. Raw oatmeal, cooked rice or grits, and popped popcorn can all be considered when supplementing your free-range flock.
~Additional reporting from Jodi Henke