PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Audrey Pavia
March 11, 2016

One of the most pleasurable aspects of chicken keeping is feeding your birds. It’s a blast to watch your chickens get excited whenever you deliver their chow. The type and amount of food you should give your chickens varies, depending on their age and purpose. Young chicks have different nutritional needs from mature chickens, and layers should be fed a different diet than meat birds.

Feeding methods vary among chicken keepers, but it’s standard to provide quality food based on a chicken’s age and purpose. Here’s a guide to get you started on the best ways to feed your birds.

Baby Chicks

Newly hatched baby chicks can live for a couple of days off the yolk from their eggs, but after that, they must have food that meets their specific needs.

Mash or Crumble

Chicks have a high protein requirement—much higher than pullets or adult chickens. Commercial chick starter feed, also called mash or crumble, is designed to meet these protein needs as well as provide a balanced diet. Starter feed is also finely ground, making it small enough for young chicks to pick up and swallow.

You’ll find different types of chick feed on the market. Most will have 18 percent protein content, which is necessary for young birds to grow. Some feeds will have prebiotics and probiotics to help chicks stay healthy. Medicated chick feeds are also available and are designed to ward off possible infections of coccidiosis, a potentially fatal parasite that can take hold in young chicks.

Chicks need free-choice feed until they’re about 16 weeks old. They are growing quickly during that time and have a high caloric requirement to sustain that growth. It’s vital to keep a supply of starter food inside your brooder—or coop if your chicks are being raised by their mothers—at all times.

Grit

Grit is another important ingredient in chicks’ diet that helps them properly digest food. (Chickens don’t have teeth, so they seek out tiny stones that grind up food in their gizzards.) Free-ranging birds can find grit in their environment, but for brooder chicks, supplementary grit is mandatory to help them digest their food. Use finely ground chick grit, which is small enough for the tiny ones to swallow.

Probiotics

Probiotics can also be a helpful addition to the diet of young chicks. Added to fresh water every day the first two weeks after hatching, probiotics designed specifically for use in chickens can help encourage healthy digestive and immune systems.

Water

The water you provide your chicks should be clean and fresh, and must always be available. In fact, water is probably the most crucial part of a chick’s diet—without it, a young chicken won’t live very long.

Treats

If you want to give treats to your chicks, try hard-boiled egg yolks, mealworms, chopped blueberries and yogurt.

When a chicken reaches 4 weeks old, it qualifies as a pullet. The way you feed your pullet will determine whether it’s destined to be a layer or a meat bird.

Layer Pullets

If your pullet will grow up to provide you with eggs, you can switch it from chick starter to commercial laying pellets once at 4 weeks of age. Laying pellets have the right proportions of protein, minerals and carbohydrates to encourage hens to start laying, as wellas plenty of calcium to support egg production.

These commercial laying pellets come in a variety of types. Some include flaxseed to help produce eggs rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to be healthier for human consumption, while others contain grit and oyster shell and are designed to be complete feeds, eliminating the need to supplement with these elements. They also include all the vitamins and minerals chickens need to maintain a healthy body.

Although your pullets won’t begin producing eggs until they are about 6 months old, it’s a good idea to start them on laying pellets once they have outgrown chick starter, as the updated feed will help prepare their bodies for the strenuous job of laying eggs.

Broiler Pullets

With young broilers destined for the table, many chicken keepers begin feeding commercial broiler grower at 4 weeks of age. When they reach the age of 7 to 9 weeks, they are then switched to a broiler finisher diet. This food is high in energy and will encourage rapid growth for birds that will be slaughtered around 10 to 18 weeks of age.

When switching your chicks from starter food to laying pellets or broiler grower, you should do so gradually so that you won’t upset their digestive systems. Start by making a quarter of the meal with the new food, and do this for two days. Then, make the new food with half of the meal. Maintain this for two more days before you feed them an entire meal of the new food.

Both types of pullets should be allowed free-choice access to feed. You can also provide them with treats, such as mealworms, and low-sugar fruits, such as berries. Greens, including spinach and kale, and boiled egg yolks also make good treats. Just make sure that whatever treats you give are fresh, and avoid feeding anything that is spoiled or moldy. Wash fruits and vegetables before feeding. If possible, feed your birds organic produce to reduce the amount of pesticides they ingest.

Adult Birds

Chickens are considered fully grown by 6 months, and hens will start laying around this time. In order to get the nutrients they need to produce eggs, they should be fed a portion of layer pellets every day.

Laying Pellets

Standard size hens should get 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 pound of laying pellets per day if this is their only food. Free-ranging hens will supplement their diets with insects, greens and anything else they can find that is palatable, so they may not eat as much pelleted feed as confined chickens. They should still be offered the same amount of feed as hens in coops to ensure they receive enough calories and nutrition to produce quality eggs.

Grit

Laying hens should also have access to free-choice grit. Hens that free-range or have dirt in their coops can find their own grit, but those kept on shavings or other bedding will need a grit supplement.

Oyster Shells

Oyster shells should also always be available to your laying hens. Although a quality laying pellet should provide plenty of calcium for layers, free-choice oyster shells provide another source if the hens need it.

Treats

Adult chickens love treats and will appreciate just about anything you offer them. Giving treats is particularly important if your hens live in a coop and have limited access to food variety. The healthiest snacks you can give include:

  • low-sugar fruits, such as berries and apples
  • leafy greens, such as spinach, kale and arugula
  • squash
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • tomatoes

Chickens go crazy over mealworms, live or freeze-dried, though these should be fed in moderation because of their high protein content.

Chicken scratch—a mix of a variety of grains that can include wheat, barley, oats and corn—is another popular treat with chickens but should also be fed in moderation because it has limited nutritional value and is high in carbohydrates.

Avoid This

One food to avoid feeding to chickens is avocado. It can be toxic in large enough quantities and is best avoided altogether. Also, avoid giving table scraps that are greasy and high in fat. This kind of food doesn’t make for a healthy treat.

Roosters

Although roosters don’t lay eggs, they still need quality nutrition to stay healthy and active. Roosters housed with hens do not need to eat a different diet than their female counterparts and will do well on laying pellets. In fact, you’ll have a difficult time finding a commercial chicken pellet that is not designed for laying hens. Roosters also enjoy the same treats as hens and will be the first ones to sample and then recommend new foods to the girls in the flock.

Proper Food Storage

To keep your chickens’ food fresh and free from mold and pests, choose an area to store your feed that is dry and cool. A warm, moist environment will encourage mold. You have the option of keeping feed in the original bag, but storing it in a metal bin with a secure cover is a much better way to keep rodents from helping themselves to your chicken food.

Purchase only as much feed as your chickens can eat in a couple of months. Storing it for longer than that reduces the nutritional quality of the feed and increases the likelihood of mold and insects invading your supplies.

When adding new food to a feed bin, remove any leftover food, as it can become rancid and moldy, which is not safe for your birds. Also, clean up any spills, as free food attracts other pests, as well as predators.

How To Feed Chickens

The way you feed your chickens can be as important to their health as what you feed them, and this is especially true for chickens living in a coop environment.

In their natural state, chickens roam freely, spending the day looking for stuff to eat. They dig in the soil for insects, poke around in the grass for greens and even chase mice on occasion. But when kept in a coop environment, chickens have little opportunity to hunt for their food.

To help provide your chickens with mental and physical stimulation, consider feeding them in a way that will make them work for their food. Instead of putting their pellets in a bowl, toss them into the coop so they have to search for them on the ground. Provide them snacks in a way that will prompt them to work for their food. Hang a bundle of greens in their coop where they can pull at them, and put a small, hollowed-out round squash on the ground and let them peck at it.

Adult chickens should have to work a little for their food, but if you have small chicks, you’ll need to keep their finely ground mash in a container feeder so it doesn’t scatter all over, causing waste. Chick feeders are available in farm-supply stores and provide a shallow dish where feed collects and can be reached by the chicks.


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