The Nitty Gritty on Chicken Feed

When it comes to commercial or homemade chicken feed, understanding your birds’ needs is paramount.

| May/June 2015

Brooding chicks

Rather than using a brooder, one of the best methods for brooding chicks might be to simply let nature take over.

Photo by Robertstock/C. Brewer

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.

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