Chicken keeping continues to grow in popularity, largely because these beautiful birds are low-maintenance and they provide their owners with eggs and/or meat. However, not all eggs and meat are created equally, and it’s important to realize how critical our feeding choices are in helping our birds thrive and influencing that end product. Chicken nutrition matters!
The growth, beauty and egg-production potential of a chicken is determined by its genetics. However, chickens require feed that is nutritionally appropriate for their age and type (i.e., meat, laying or dual-purpose chicken) to reach that potential. They also need access to clean water, calcium (if they are laying eggs) and grit, if they’re getting supplemental foods or free-ranging.
Chicken Nutrition Tenets
All chickens need protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Many available commercial feeds have been carefully formulated to provide optimal amounts of these nutrients for each type and age of chicken.
Every bag of chicken feed sold in the U.S. is required to have a nutrition tag specifying these ingredients. By reading labels and controlling what we feed, we can ensure the inclusion or exclusion of additives we want to eat or avoid — think omega-3s and antibiotics, respectively — in the eggs and meat they produce. Feed rations can also be home-mixed, but the expertise, time and expense required mean it’s typically better to rely on commercial products.
For laying and dual-purpose birds, chick-starter, chick-grower and layer feed rations are available. For meat chickens, broiler-starter and broiler-finisher rations are available. These rations vary in formulation to promote excellent growth and production at each stage of a chicken’s life. Using the wrong formula to feed chickens can lead to weak bones, retarded growth, kidney damage or reduced egg production.
Although sometimes overlooked as a nutrition source, water is critical: An adult chicken needs to drink two to three times the weight of water that they eat in feed. Chickens will not eat if they are thirsty, which will limit growth and egg production. So, a supply of fresh, clean water should always be available.
Mature egg-laying and dual-purpose hens need large amounts of calcium to produce eggshells. Layer feed rations contain extra calcium to meet this requirement, but it’s a good idea to offer oyster shell or calcium grit free-choice. Top-producing hens may need more calcium than what is contained in the layer ration, or supplemental feeding may interfere with their ability to ingest sufficient calcium. When fed free-choice, hens will self-regulate the amount of calcium they consume.
Scratch Grains and Table Scraps
Chickens love scratch grains and table scraps, but a chicken will quit eating once it has taken in sufficient carbohydrates, regardless of whether it has consumed enough protein or vitamins. Scratch and table scraps are typically high in carbohydrates and low in nutrients, so they should be fed infrequently as a treat. It’s also better to feed these treats late in the day after the flock has gotten their dietary requirements from the feed ration.
Studies have shown that eggs from hens that free-range for grubs and insects are more nutritious and better tasting than those produced in typical commercial conditions. Free-ranging also promotes muscle development, which enhances flavor in meat birds. So providing chickens access to pasture is important; however, it’s best that they also have access to an appropriately formulated feed. Chickens can seldom fulfill all their nutritional needs from pasture alone.
Chickens don’t have teeth, so it’s imperative that any chicken that free-ranges or is being fed table scraps or scratch has access to grit. Grit is the only mechanism a chicken has for grinding its food into pieces small enough to swallow.
How we feed our chickens determines whether they reach their maximum potential for size, good looks and egg creation. When fed properly, homestead chickens will flourish and provide us with healthier meat and eggs that taste far better than standard supermarket fare.
This article appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Chickens.