Flawless Feed Changes Even With Picky Eaters: Tips and Tricks
We’ve all met that one animal that outright refuses any feed that’s new, that they deem unworthy of their sophisticated palate, or sometimes even a feed they like for seemingly no reason at all. They turn up their nose, leaving it untouched in their feeder, and then they get grouchy or even sick because they aren’t getting the nutrition they need. If you have finnicky feeders, or if you’re just looking to make a change and you’re not sure where to start, there are several things you can do to help get your animals happily munching away on a brand-new feed.
1. Introduce new foods slowly
By far the easiest way to get any animal to try a new food is to transition slowly, over the course of a couple weeks, to the new food. If you’re switching from one brand to another, or even one life-stage of a feed to another, it’s best to do this change slowly. A good example is switching from the same brand of grower feed to layer feed in chickens. Layer feed, because of its increased calcium content and reduced protein, can taste very different from a grower feed. As a result, picky birds might avoid a dish with layer feed and exclusively flock to the feed their used to. To combat this, change the ratio of grower to layer feeds, and mix them together in the feeder. For instance, if you wanted to make the change over two weeks, you would mix one part layer with thirteen parts grower. The next day, it would be two parts layer to twelve parts grower. Add one part layer and subtract one part grower for each day until finally, on the 14th day, you’re feeding all layer.
This works for most animals, and comes with several additional benefits. It allows you to use up all your old feed without sacrificing nutrition, since you can stay at, say, 11 parts of one feed and 3 parts of the other for several days if you need to while trying to use the older stuff up. It’s also healthier for the animals themselves, since big changes often upset their stomachs. This is especially true when switching ingredients of feeds. Imagine if you went suddenly from an all hamburgers, spinach, and fries diet to an all hotdogs, broccoli, and hushpuppies diet – even though the nutrition of those two diets would be similar in terms of protein, calories, vitamins, and etc. the foods are different enough from each other on an ingredient basis that you’d probably feel a little queasy for a while. The same is true for animals. Slow dietary changes have a much lower chance of animals going off feed, developing diarrhea, or showing other signs of gastrointestinal distress.
For those feeding weekly with a top-down feeder, you can also fill the bottom with the old feed, the center with a 50/50 mix, and the top with the new feed, and then swirl a stick or other long object through the feed to lightly mix them together. This is much less precise than a daily feeding method, but will still be easier on the tummy and more likely to get eaten than a fast switch.
2. Mix in some tasty treats
There are still some picky eaters that just don’t know when to raise the white banner. In these cases, treats can help encourage their appetites and get them back to being excited when they see the feed bucket coming their way. However, it’s important to remember that animals like poultry, swine, and browsers such as goats and alpacas are very good at sorting their food to eat only the choicest bits. For instance, mixing a bag of your goat’s favorite spinach into their feed will probably result in them picking out all the spinach and then gazing at you with their big, brown eyes, begging for another bag instead of eating what they’re supposed to. For this reason, wet or powdered treats are often the best treats for encouraging a picky palate to try something new. If you puree the spinach and mix it into the feed, the scent of it is often enough to get them happily nibbling on their new feed, and they can’t sort it from the rest because it’s a coating on the feed rather than a distinct and separate part.
Keep in mind, though, that when feed is wet it can go bad much faster, especially if you’re in an area with high heat and humidity. You’ll want to pick up any wet feed after a couple hours if they haven’t gobbled it all up. Because of this, it’s usually a good idea to do small batches and try a similar approach to the slow change-over described above, where you use less and less treat puree with each subsequent feeding. After all, you probably don’t want to clean your blender every morning for the rest of your animal’s life. On a similar note, you’ll want to make sure you’re not feeding your picky eater more than 10% of their daily intake in treats, either. More than 10% throws off their nutritional balance, which can lead to a broad range of problems depending on the species, like ragged feathers in chickens with too little protein or bladder stones in cows with unbalanced calcium ratios.
3. Get them to see everyone else enjoying it
Most of our domesticated species, and certainly all of our livestock, are social animals. As a result, many of them are willing to try something new if all their friends are trying it. Use that peer pressure to your advantage! If you don’t feed in groups, try setting out a few extra buckets or trays of feed as a treat while your picky eaters and those with healthy appetites for anything are out and about together. It’s not uncommon for a picky eater to change their mind when they see everyone else perfectly content to enjoy the new feed. If you have a few bullies that will keep your picky eater away from the feed, you can also try giving the bully more than they’ll eat in a sitting and moving them away from the feed after they’re done, allowing your picky eater to come investigate the “prize” of their bully’s leftovers.
4. Consider if it’s a texture or flavor issue
If your little food critic absolutely adores corn inclusive mash feed, and you just switched to a corn-free pellets, they might have extra trouble adjusting to their new feed. In these cases, it may be best to switch feeds even more slowly than you usually would, giving them more than ample time to get used to these changes. You might also consider either making one switch at a time – from a mash to a pellet, then to a corn inclusive to a corn free diet – or adding back in their favorite ingredient at 10% or less of their daily intake for a while. This way, the changes would be less extreme and they would have less trouble with the exchange.
It’s here that we should also mention feed sorting in a bit more detail, which can be a big part of billing out in chickens. Billing out is when a chicken scoops feed out and then leaves it on the floor. This is, unfortunately for those of us buying our animals feed, a perfectly natural behavior that results in a lot of wasted feed. Animals do this because their survival instincts tell them they should choose only the most calorically dense parts of a feed when it’s available, which is why when you’re feeding a mash you’ll often find all the yummy wheat berries and corn flakes picked out and all the nutritious vitamins and minerals left as a fine powder at the bottom of the feeder.
We all love seeing those wholesome ingredients in our animals’ feeds with their brilliant colors, but if you find you’ve got a whole herd of Sorting Sams, or even just one that isn’t getting complete nutrition, there are a couple of things you can do. The first option is to move them onto a pellet or crumble. These aren’t as pretty as a mash, but they were invented to keep animals from picking their vitamins out of their food, so these feed types do a great job at making sure your bourgeoise barnyard buddies get complete nutrition. If you just can’t part from your mash, however, you can mix the fines into a water dish for them to drink like a sports drink, keeping in mind that the water will get dirty faster thanks to its enrichment, and so the waterer will need to be cleaned more frequently as a result – meaning if they don’t drink the water fast enough, those healthy ingredients just end up down the drain anyway.
5. Introduce variety early, if you can
Most babies are pretty good about eating whatever you put in front of them. Of course, there are notable exceptions, but for the most part they’ll chow down on anything. If you want to err on the side of caution, it’s always good to introduce foods in a variety of flavors and textures while animals are still young so that any changes that need to be made later don’t come as a shock. Try giving babies samples of mash as well as crumble or, once big enough, pellets. Try to get samples with a variety of ingredients, and offer them at less than 10% of the babies’ total intake, so they don’t get sick from sudden changes. Babies are especially vulnerable to dietary changes because their gastrointestinal tract - and especially their gut microbiome - is still changing and developing, so offering samples rather than meals is always a good choice. This can help you discover what individuals enjoy the most in their feeds as well, which can be incredibly useful information to have on hand if you train any of your animals.
6. Investigate your dishes and environment
Sometimes, a picky eater isn’t picky about the feed itself but the way it’s presented. If one of your flock or herd is perfectly happy eating from your hand but refuses their feed any other time, it might be time to investigate their dishes. Make sure the dishes extra clean before the next feeding, and/or see if they’ll eat from a shallow dish such as a clean trashcan lid for your large friends or a shallow serving tray for your small ones. Most of our livestock species are wholly prey animals, which means having blocked vision can be scary for them. They might feel unsafe eating from deeper dishes because they feel like they can’t see danger coming. They might also feel unsafe if they feel like they can’t hear a threat because their dish makes a lot of noise as they eat, which can often be the case with metal dishes. This is especially true if you have a bully in the group that may sneak up on more submissive animals and boot them harshly away from their feed; if the animal is accustomed to an area with lots of predators and few defenses; or if the animal has experienced abuse. Giving them a feed dish that makes them feel safe is a good start to getting them to trust that eating is worthwhile.
Similarly, check the environment itself. Are there any changes to their surroundings? Have there been any changes to their routine? Are they fitting in as-per-usual with the rest of their group? Considering these and other questions may lead you to a surprising cause of their hesitancy. Animals can be very silly sometimes, and occasionally something simple like moving their feed bucket three feet to the left so they can still stand next to their friend across the fence, or changing locations entirely so they’re facing your oh-so-fascinating porch flag instead of hearing it from across the pasture, can make all the difference.
7. Consider calling your vet
Some animals may also have difficulty eating for a physical reason, such as arthritis or illness. Try placing their dish on a small platform, no taller than the top of their knee for four-legged critters or the middle of their breast for two-legged ones, and see if that helps. They may have pulled a muscle, or have a problem with how their bones fit together that’s hard to see without x-rays. They might also be feeling sick for a reason other than their feed being changed. Have any new animals been introduced lately? Has the weather been particularly difficult? Is it possible that they got into something they shouldn’t have? Situations where illness is at fault are more likely to happen with older animals, but can happen in young ones as well, especially in cases where curiosity gets them in trouble. In those cases where nothing you try seems to help, or something seems strange and you’re not sure what to do, your local veterinarian will have the best advice on potential causes and next steps.
While it can certainly be a challenge to get some animals onto a new feed, it can also be incredibly rewarding, especially when the change results in positive changes to their health, your family’s health, and the health of the whole planet. Speaking of rewarding, consider checking out our many super-premium, certified organic, soy-free feeds for your feathered and furred foodie friends, and get reward points added to your account for every purchase you make online. We offer a large variety of feeds including some corn-free options, so whether you have a drama llama or a picky chickie, you can feel like a mealtime maestro.