Feeding Chickens Cheese & Dairy Products

Can chickens eat cheese? What about milk? Yogurt? Or any other types of dairy? I took a deep dive into this issue and unearthed some fascinating and surprising studies and historical writings that defy modern cautions.

Conventional wisdom says chickens should not eat cheese, milk, or other dairy

Chickens eating from a cup held by a man on a farm.

Numerous articles from flock keepers, breeders, and even vets warn against this practice with the claims that chickens cannot digest dairy, that it is toxic and unnecessary, and that it will cause gastrointestinal distress and can lead to weight gain, diarrhea, or worse.

But French farmers have finished the famous Bresse chicken on whey and corn for generations.

And reputable studies exist that have looked at the effects of feeding dairy and found benefits in the practice both in broiler chickens for the meat industry and in egg-laying hens.

So what is the truth?

The truth is simple: chickens can eat cheese and dairy occasionally and in moderation alongside their regular feed. You are not poisoning or mistreating your flock by giving them some cream cheese on a cracker or adding sour milk or whey to their fermented feed — something we do regularly.

What The Science Says About Feeding Chickens Cheese & Dairy

A large motley hen stands on a stump in the garden.

Although I could not find studies on cheese itself, there were scientific studies and research on dairy in general, including a fascinating historical one that is still worthwhile.

A research trial was carried out at a commercial egg farm on 2,400 laying hens fed a diet of 3% or 4% skim milk powder. Against the control group not fed the skim milk powder, the hens eating the milk powder laid eggs that had considerably thicker shells — likely from the increase in calcium and protein.

In Argentina, researchers are extracting yeasts and probiotics from the whey left over as waste from the commercial dairy industry. This is being fed to baby chicks during their first few weeks of life to test the nutritional value and benefits. The researchers propose to study the anti-inflammatory capacity of this extracted yeast, K. marxianus, to replace the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in broiler chickens.

A study conducted all the way back in 1916 had some of the most interesting things to say on the topic of feeding dairy to chickens!

The Abstract starts with the following astonishing statement I have never read anywhere else:

For some years milk-fed chickens have been known on our markets as products of superior quality. The large poultry feeding establishments have used milk continuously in the finishing rations of birds later put onto the retail markets as first-class poultry meat. It is within a comparatively few years that milk in any form has been seriously considered as a possible and economical part or constituent of rations given growing chicks or laying hens.

The Efficiency of Milk Products in Poultry Rations

To me, this is an indication that the primary objection against feeding cheese or any dairy to chickensmay have more to do with cost and supply issues — not health.

The study aimed to find the comparative feeding values and effects of buttermilk, commercial meat scraps, fish scraps, and meat scrap in addition to buttermilk when fed to chicks.

The chickens used in this experiment were white leghorn hens, one of the best egg-laying chicken breeds and the one most commonly used on commercial egg farms.

What did the study find?

Although I suggest you read this fascinating bit of poultry history yourself (it’s a short and easy 6-page PDF), one thing that stuck out to me was the mortality rates of the chicks fed buttermilk — no chicks broke down (suffered injuries to their legs) in the pens receiving milk, and it was also noticed that the mortality was much less where milk was fed.

And that includes the pens where chicks were fed meat scraps but not fed dairy.

The conclusions of this study are also interesting:

These figures indicate buttermilk to be the best source of animal protein during the first six weeks of a Leghorn chick’s life, as shown by apparent health, vigor, mortality and gains in weight. On two different occasions, the writer took strangers into the brooder house and had them pick from appearance, the best looking pen of the five. Both visitors chose the buttermilk pen as the best, and the buttermilk and meat scrap pen as next best and the check pen as the poorest.

The Efficiency of Milk Products in Poultry Rations

It was a small, old, and short study, but one that I found fascinating in the conclusions drawn regardless.

And if you ever make homemade cultured butter as we do — consider adding some of that precious buttermilk into your chicken’s feeder, too.

If you have a dairy cow and are up to your eyeballs in excess milk, why not sour the milk and add some to your chicken’s diet?

If you read old pioneer women’s homemaking guides, you will frequently find meat scraps being suggested as an excellent addition to a laying hen’s diet to increase egg supply and especially during winter when laying slows down or stops.

Traditional advice and practices may not always be sound ones today, but your ancestors had eyes in their heads and enough wit to observe whether something was toxic or killing off their livestock — animals that were precious and necessary to their very survival.

Can I Feed My Chickens Cheese?

A flock of chickens with a basket full of eggs.

Can chickens eat cheese? Yes. Should they eat it often? No.

Excessive dairy intake can lead to digestive issues in chickens, hence it should be restricted or avoided, particularly if the dairy is heavily processed or contains sugars and additives (such as chocolate milk, which should be avoided).

Cheese is also high in fat and protein, and it can cause complications like obesity from overeating. Obese chickens will be lethargic, they may develop pasty butt, decreased fertility and less egg-laying, and a host of other issues.

The excess calories in cheese may keep your chickens from foraging or eating enough of their chicken feed.

Like any other treat, this one is best served in moderation.

Is Cheese & Dairy Beneficial To Chickens?

Rooster and chickens on green grass.

Cheese and dairy products can provide a range of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that are beneficial for chickens.

  1. Protein: Essential for the growth and repair of body tissues. Protein is vital for egg production, feather growth, and the overall health of chickens.
  2. Calcium: Very important for laying hens, as it is necessary for the formation of strong eggshells. Dairy products are a good source of calcium.
  3. Vitamins:
    • Vitamin A: Important for vision, immune function, and skin health.
    • Vitamin D: Aids in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, essential for bone health.
    • Vitamin B12: Crucial for brain health and the formation of red blood cells.
    • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): Important for energy production and cellular function.
  4. Fats: Provide energy and are necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Fats in dairy, especially in cheese, should be monitored as excessive intake can lead to obesity in chickens.
  5. Phosphorus: Works with calcium to build bones and plays a role in the chicken’s energy metabolism.
  6. Enzymes and Beneficial Bacteria: Found in fermented dairy products like kefir, yogurt, and some cheeses. These can aid in digestion and help maintain a healthy gut microbiome in chickens.
  7. Lactose: While chickens can digest small amounts of lactose found in dairy products, too much can cause digestive issues since chickens have limited lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose.

Chickens primarily require a diet rich in grains, greens, insects, and seeds.

Dairy products should be treated as an occasional supplement rather than a staple of their diet. Excessive dairy intake, especially high-fat cheeses, can lead to obesity and other health issues in chickens.

We are often tempted to feed lots of greens but even that and things like grapes, bananas, and tomatoes can be given in excess and cause an imbalance with the proteins and other nutrients your flock needs to perform and thrive at their best.

Often these extra fods are given as a way to reduce chicken feed costs which can get pretty high, especially in the winter months when foraging opportunities are reduced or eliminate entirely.

If you notice issues like a reduction in egg laying, lethargy, or worse — are you feeding too many treats in general? Dial it back and see if the problems persist or improve.

And if you only ever give them their commercial feed, that is all well and good too.

Final Thoughts

Hen and chicks eating together.

According to modern and historical research and studies, cheese and dairy can potentially provide several benefits to chickens, be it egg-laying or meat varieties. Both commercial farmers and backyard chicken enthusiasts have been feeding dairy to their flocks for a long time, including French farmers who raise the famous Bresse heritage breed. When given in moderation, cheese is considered perfectly safe, digestible, and nutritious for chickens.

Don’t go overboard, as with most anything else in life and use common sense.

Dairy Studies & Sources

  1. Ata, Mysaa & Al Masad, Mutasem. (2015). Effect of Milk Powder Supplementation on Growth Performance of Broilers. Journal of Agricultural Science. 7. 10.5539/jas.v7n8p111.
  2. Cesari V, Mangiagalli MG, Giardini A, Galimberti P, Carteri S, Gallazzi D, Toschi I. Egg quality and productive performance of laying hens fed different levels of skimmed milk powder added to a diet containing Lactobacillus acidophilus. Poult Sci. 2014 May;93(5):1197-201. doi: 10.3382/ps.2013-03518. PMID: 24795312.
  3. The Efficiency of Milk Products in Poultry Rations. PDF Link.
  4. Use of dairy waste as a feed supplement in broiler chickens. Link.

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