The old adage “You are what you eat” certainly applies to chickens. A strong foraging instinct gives chickens the ability to naturally thrive on a wide variety of plants and insects. However, some modern backyard birds aren’t lucky enough to range countless acres and forage for all their nutritional needs.
Further, young chickens have different needs than mature birds. In addition, layers and meat birds should be fed specific diets depending on their purpose. As the seasons change, so do nutritional requirements. So what is a chicken keeper to do? That all depends on what kinds of chickens you have and what their purposes are.
Back in the old days, Grandma would toss a few handfuls of scratch grains and some kitchen scraps to the yard birds each day. Her hens would free range around the farm during the day and roost in the coop at night. So what’s so complicated about feeding chickens, then? First of all, we know a lot more about nutrition now than we did back then. Secondly, if chickens have access to a large range, they will naturally eat what their bodies require, including plants, grubs and insects.
Other factors and management styles complicate the matter even more. Grandma probably didn’t use artificial light to keep her hens laying through the winter when there were no bugs or weeds to consume, so the birds were not producing when nutritional inputs were lowest. Feeding scratch alone doesn’t meet all nutritional requirements. So with all of this in mind, what should you feed your flock? Do you keep chickens for eggs, for meat, or for a combination of both? How much free-range access do they have? Can you produce some of the feed yourself? After you’ve determined this, the next step is to get to work finding the right feed for your situation.
Reading the feed bag
Commercial feed bag labels list the basic data of the nutritional content in the bag. They won’t always list individual ingredients specifically, but the nutritional value is guaranteed for a certain amount of time, so be sure to check manufacturing dates on the label. A manufacture date and identity of the production plant is required. If you’re not sure of the shelf life of the feed you are looking at, ask the store clerk.
After a few months, nutritional value decreases. In addition, feed can become stale, rancid or moldy, especially in humid climates. Moldy or rancid feed can cause digestive and respiratory problems. Always store feed in tight bins away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight in a well-ventilated area that is free of insects and rodents. If you want vegetable-based feed without animal by-products, that should be stated somewhere on the bag or label, as well.
Types of feed
At the feed store, you’ll find a variety of types of chicken feed. Layer feed is formulated for actively laying hens. Feed for meat birds is often referred to as broiler starter or broiler finisher. Feeds for actively growing chicks will be referred to as chick starter or chick grower. Check the label to find if the feed is medicated, and make determinations based on your preference and management style.
Chicken feed also comes in a variety of forms, such as pellet, crumble or mash. In pellet form, it is just that – an extruded pellet. Crumbles, essentially, are simply pellets that are broken apart into smaller bits, which make it easier to eat. Mash is between a crumble and powder form, and best fed mixed with a little water. Chicken “scratch” is cracked corn with other whole grains such as oats or milo.
Grit simply refers to grains of rock that aid digestion in the gizzard, where it helps to grind up the food. If your chickens eat anything other than complete feed, which breaks down easily, grit should be offered if they don’t have access to bare soil where they can pick it up on their own.
Feed the young
From the start, chicks should be given free access to feed and fresh water. As you grow your chicks, particular feeds will vary depending on the birds’ purpose — layer or broiler — but a good guideline could be as follows. Starter feed will typically contain 20 percent protein and should be fed for the first six weeks or so. Grower ration will contain less protein than starter, but more than layer ration, typically around 16 percent in most commercial grower feeds. Feed this to your birds from about 6 weeks to 18 weeks of age. An alternative is feeding a combination starter/grower ration. At 18 weeks, an adult diet should be fed.
Commercial feeds can be medicated or nonmedicated. Medicated feeds are designed to help chicks remain healthy in crowded, confined, or otherwise stressful conditions. If you’re able to find organic or nonmedicated feed, it is entirely possible to brood your chicks to adulthood without fear of coccidiosis, assuming your management practices include clean, uncrowded and otherwise favorable conditions. This could lead to more disease resistance and better health in the long run, and less residue in eggs, meat and the environment.
Never feed layer ration to growing chicks. The extra mineral content in layer ration could interfere with proper development, especially with regard to reproductive organs that will be extremely vital to egg production later on. Start feeding layer ration at around 19 weeks, right before they start their laying life.
Female chickens usually begin laying between 18 and 22 weeks of age. Be sure to gradually transition from the grower feed to the layer feed over seven to 10 days. Laying hens need 15 to 18 percent protein in their diets for optimal egg production. What they eat will influence egg quality, specifically shell hardness and the nutritional value of the eggs. Complete feeds formulated for layers cover these dietary requirements. Most commercial layer feeds have vitamin D added (and more phosphorus and calcium than chick feeds), which ends up in the eggs. Some feeds include ground flaxseed or algae meal, which increases omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs. These things will be listed on the bag or label.
Birds raised for meat should put on as much weight as possible in a short amount of time, while also taking into consideration mobility, heart health and other health concerns. As the birds get older and larger, they become less efficient and eat a larger amount of feed for each pound of weight gained. Older birds produce more fat and should be slaughtered as close to the desired weight as possible. Commercial feeds formulated for raising meat birds are complete feeds, containing the essential vitamins, minerals and energy the birds need for growth. Most are formulated for broiler chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and pheasants. They usually come in a crumble form that encourages eating. Be sure to have ample feeding space so that all birds can eat at the same time. If you experience leg problems in your birds, cut back the feed some, or switch to a lower protein feed to slow down the birds’ growth rate.
Individual feeds, protein constitutes, and so forth are highly variable and depend on your management practices. Here is one recommendation. Start chicks from hatch to 3 weeks of age on a 22 to 24 percent protein starter. After three or four weeks, switch to a 16, 18 or 20 percent grower ration. Meat bird breeds are best slaughtered between 4 and 14 weeks of age, depending on sex, breed, and desired weight, size and amount of fat. Eight weeks is typical for the widely popular Cornish Cross, but it will be longer if you choose to raise a slower-growing dual-purpose heritage breed like the Buckeye, or choose to restrict the growth rate of any breed by not pushing the protein content to the max.
Some of these feeds are medicated, so check the label. As mentioned earlier, there are pros and cons to medicated feed. Keeping many birds in a small space increases stress and the likelihood of disease, so medicated feed is important. For a small backyard flock, it can be unnecessary and perhaps even undesirable. Further, certain medications in feeds require a withdrawal time before slaughter, and those will be marked on the label — read it closely and carefully.
Nutritional needs change during the summer and winter
Unless you put an artificial light on your hens, egg production will usually slow down or completely stop during the winter months in northern climates. Chickens need extra carbohydrates and calories to keep warm in cold weather. In addition to regular feed, add scratch or other high-carbohydrate grains, especially before bedtime. The corn in scratch is mainly carbohydrate, and is a great supplement for warmth and maintaining weight. Digesting the extra calories produces body heat. Remember that scratch should not replace regular feed, but rather supplement it. When it’s cold, chickens will eat more, so make sure they have free access to food, and fill their water at least twice a day if it freezes in a few hours.
What else can my chicken eat?
If you offer your birds a complete feed, all of their nutritional requirements will be met. Kitchen scraps are fine in limited amounts. Chickens are omnivorous and enjoy most of what you had on your dinner table — with the exception of chicken. Some people add supplements to increase egg nutrition, enhance show bird plumage, combat stress and disease, and so on. It’s ideal to allow them to free range on plants and bugs when possible, and it keeps them happy.
Most chicken experts warn against feeding eggshells to hens. Although they are a good source of calcium, feeding eggshells can result in birds cannibalizing new eggs that have been laid in the nest box. Once the habit gets started in a flock, it is hard to break. The best solution is to buy a calcium supplement like crushed oyster shell or offer a bathing area filled with crushed limestone to allow the birds free choice consumption.
Want to learn more about chicken feed? Build a chicken feeder that will feed your flock without encouraging mold or pest populations.
Karrie Steely strives for a self-sufficient lifestyle in a suburban town in Colorado, tucked against the front range of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. She has spent several years managing a feed store and educating other homesteaders on the finer points of backyard chicken keeping. Check out her blog, Finding Abundance.