Just as almost everyone who owns a dog knows not to give their pet chocolate, most chicken keepers are well aware that potatoes are one of the things to avoid when it comes to giving their birds a treat – but what about sweet potatoes?
As it happens, the rules about feeding potatoes to chickens don’t apply to sweet potatoes, and this is for one very important reason. And to explain why this is, in this post, we answer the question, can chickens eat sweet potatoes?
Can you feed chickens “normal” potatoes?
Before we talk about sweet potatoes, let’s start by talking about regular potatoes, or what some people call “white potatoes”.
The reason some people might ask the question about chickens eating sweet potatoes is that it’s fairly common knowledge among chicken keepers that regular potatoes should be avoided.
This is because regular potatoes belong to the nightshade family of plants, a family that also includes tomatoes, eggplants and chillis – as well as the ominously named deadly nightshade – and as part of this family, potato plants contain a toxic compound known as solanine.
Most of the time, the solanine in potato plants is concentrated in the leaves and stems, but if the potato tubers (the part we eat) begin to turn green – or if they grow eyes – solanine becomes concentrated in those parts too.
Without going too deep into the science, solanine is dangerous for chickens to consume, and if they eat parts of a potato or potato plant containing solanine, it may cause respiratory problems, neurological problems, diarrhea, convulsions, paralysis or even death.
If a chicken eats a raw potato that hasn’t turned green, perhaps nothing will happen, and solanine can also be partially “cooked out” of a potato at high temperatures (although boiling them won’t do it), so it’s possible nothing bad will come of it.
However, most responsible chicken keepers are not willing to take the risk and simply avoid ever giving their chickens potatoes.
But what about sweet potatoes?
You might imagine all this means sweet potatoes are off the menu too, but you’d be wrong – because the thing is, sweet potatoes aren’t actually potatoes.
Although we call them “potatoes”, sweet potatoes are only very distantly related to regular potatoes – they don’t belong to the nightshade family but rather are part of the morning glory family of plants.
This means sweet potatoes don’t contain any solanine – in the tubers or in any other part of the plant – so chickens can eat sweet potatoes or other parts of the plant both cooked and raw.
Furthermore, sweet potatoes are highly nutritious and contain several important vitamins and minerals, so if you feed them to your chickens – in moderation – your chickens’ health will benefit greatly.
So let’s look at why sweet potatoes are so good for your chickens now.
What’s good in sweet potatoes?
Sweet potatoes contain all kinds of good stuff that chickens need to thrive, including the following:
Sweet potatoes are a great source of carbohydrates that provide chickens with energy.
Fiber is not absorbed by the body, but it helps other food pass through the digestive system, and it helps the body pass waste out of the other end.
This is important for several reasons. It helps keep cholesterol and blood sugar levels under control, it helps reduce obesity and it can even help increase a chicken’s lifespan.
Sweet potatoes are rich in several important vitamins that can help reduce eye problems, increase bone strength, boost the immune system, help chicks grow and boost egg-laying productivity in adult hens.
Sweet potatoes also contain high levels of minerals, including potassium and manganese, which are also vital for chickens’ health.
Is there anything bad in them?
So with all these benefits of sweet potatoes, is there anything in them that’s not to love?
Well, essentially no. But that doesn’t mean you should overdo it, because the key to keeping healthy chickens is feeding them a balanced diet, which is usually based on grain and supplemented with treats and whatever else they find when out foraging.
As a general rule, about 10% of a chicken’s diet should be made up of treats, and sweet potatoes can be an important part of that.
However, if you feed them too much sweet potato and not enough regular chicken feed, their diet will be lacking in certain elements – most notably protein – which will be detrimental to their health as well as their egg-laying productivity.
Furthermore, sweet potatoes contain oxalates, which can reduce the absorption of calcium.
When chickens lack calcium, it can lead to several health issues, and it can also cause egg quality to decrease and eggshells to become weaker.
So in short, feed chickens sweet potatoes in moderation – but be aware that giving them too much sweet potato is not a good idea.
How should you feed sweet potatoes to chickens?
Having established that sweet potatoes are a great option to feed to chickens, now let’s look at some of the tips and tricks to bear in mind when serving them to your hens.
1. Cooking them can make it easier for chickens to eat
Since chickens have no teeth, simply throwing out a couple of whole raw sweet potatoes for them to peck at will make things difficult for your birds, so instead of doing this, you can cook them first.
This way, your chickens will have a much easier time pecking out bits of sweet potato to eat, and it will also reduce the chance of your chickens fighting over the food that you give them.
Just bear in mind that you need to let cooked sweet potato cool first before you let your chickens eat it, or they may end up burning their throats.
2. Chop them into small pieces if raw
Another option if you don’t want to cook sweet potatoes for your chickens is to cut them up into small pieces.
This will allow chickens to pick up a piece in their beaks and then retreat a safe distance to swallow it without worrying about it being stolen from them by another bird.
Again, this will help prevent chickens from fighting over the food you give them.
Another option is to cut the sweet potato up into small pieces and then spread it out over their run or pasture. This will encourage them to peck around foraging for pieces of sweet potato and any other tasty morsels they might find.
If serving chopped-up raw sweet potatoes to chickens, there’s no need to peel them first because the skin is even more packed with nutrients than the flesh and is perfectly fine for chickens to eat.
3. Feed them the peels instead of composting
If you don’t want to buy sweet potatoes specially for your chickens, but you’d still like them to benefit from this healthy and nutritious food, you can simply feed them the peels that are left over after you cook sweet potatoes for your family instead of composting them.
Again, chop the peels up before giving them to the chickens and then either place them in a bowl or spread them over the ground and let your bird forage for the pieces themselves.
As a general guideline, the chopped-up peel from one regular sweet potato should provide a treat for three or four chickens.
Another idea is to mix the chopped-up peel with other treat food like fruit to make the treat go further and broaden the spread of beneficial nutrients the chickens will receive from eating it.
4. Clean up after the chickens’ meal
If you feed chickens sweet potatoes – or any other treats for that matter – make sure you clean up after mealtime is over rather than just leaving the scraps for the chickens to peck up whenever they get hungry again.
Cooked sweet potatoes can attract bugs and other pests, and other food scraps like raw sweet potato can go bad, so it’s always best to keep your chickens’ living area and run clean and free of leftover food.
5. You can also feed chickens the leafy parts of sweet potato plants
As well as the sweet potatoes themselves, chickens can also eat the rest of the plant if you grow sweet potatoes yourself.
Indeed, in some countries, sweet potato leaves are prepared in a similar way to spinach and are consumed by humans too!
6. Never feed chickens moldy sweet potatoes
The only thing you shouldn’t give your chickens is moldy sweet potatoes. If you wouldn’t eat it yourself, don’t give it to your birds – because if it’s not good for you and looks like it will make you sick, it will probably do the same for a chicken.
Remember, chickens are unfussy eaters and will happily gobble up most things they find. But just because they will eat it doesn’t mean they should, and it’s your job as a responsible chicken keeper to make sure nothing that can harm them finds its way into their beaks.
A totally different family
So as we’ve seen, while potatoes belong to the nightshade family and are potentially toxic to chickens, sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family, a completely different family of plants, which means feeding them any part of the plant – raw or cooked – poses no danger.
However, as always, your aim should be to provide your birds with a healthy, balanced diet – so although you can feed your chickens sweet potatoes sometimes as a treat, you shouldn’t overdo it, or you could still end up damaging their health.