As poultry keepers and small-flock owners, we hear a lot regarding the importance of providing our chickens with nutrition for their specific stages in life. We read about how we need complete feeds with scientific formulation. We know the importance of offering chicken feed with the right balance of nutrients necessary for proper development.
But what exactly is it that we are balancing?
Most of us barely know what we as humans should eat to stay healthy! To help you better understand what goes into … well, into a bird, here’s a summary of the five essential components that comprise most commercial complete feeds.
Carbohydrates—compounds consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen—are the biggest building block of your chicken’s diet. They also serve as the main energy source for your flock.
Typically sourced from barley, corn, millet, rye, wheat and other cereal grains, these chicken feed nutrients break down into two forms:
- digestible (starch and sugar)
- indigestible (cellulose, also known as crude fiber)
Crude fiber may assist with maintaining intestinal health. But an overabundance of it in a chicken’s diet can stunt growth and lead to digestive issues.
Proteins—compounds consisting of amino acids—are essential for the development of muscles, skin and cartilage. Laying hens require these nutrients in their chicken feed to create the whites for their eggs, while molting birds draw on protein to regrow and replenish the feathers they have lost.
During digestion, proteins break down into amino acids, which then absorb into the blood. As with carbohydrates, there are two types of amino acids:
- nonessential (generated by a bird’s body)
- essential (not produced in the amounts needed for the bird to live and grow)
Since no single protein serves as a source for all of the essential amino acids a chicken requires, poultry feed consists of a variety of vegetable proteins, including soybean meal and corn gluten. Occasionally, manufacturers use animal-based proteins such as bone meal and fishmeal in chicken feed. The latter, however, tends to produce a fishy flavor in poultry meat and eggs.
Feeds also contain supplements of lysine and methionine, to prevent deficiencies which would adversely affect a flock.
Fats consist of fatty acids, which are essential for cell-membrane health and the production of hormones. They are also nutritionally required for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. Manufacturers use them to improve the flavor of chicken feed and as a concentrated source of dietary calories, especially for meat birds.
Beef tallow, pork lard and poultry fat are frequently used in feed as fat sources while corn oil, canola oil and soy oil are usable but, due to their high costs, not economically feasible. There are many different fatty acids, but the most crucial one is linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that poultry cannot produce on their own.
Researchers have determined that the fatty acids found in the yolk of an egg are influenced by the fatty acids in a hen’s diet. Too high a level of omega-6 fatty acids can result in cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer in humans consuming these eggs.
Flaxseed and camelina, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, are healthier for layers and for those consuming their eggs.
Vitamins—organic compounds essential for regular body function, growth and reproduction—are classified into two categories: fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins.
For proper development of skin and internal tissues, bone development, blood clotting and egg-shell production, chickens need the fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E and K.
The water-soluble B Vitamins (including biotin, niacin, riboflavin and thiamin) are essential for metabolism.
Poultry produce their own Vitamin C and absorb Vitamin D from sunlight. All other essential vitamins must be supplied by poultry feed to avoid deficiency-driven diseases and disorders.
Birds use minerals, or inorganic compounds, for:
- skeletal, eggshell and blood formation
- muscle function
- other chemical reactions
Grains contain little in the way of such essential minerals as calcium, sodium, potassium, phosphorous, iron, chlorine and iodine. So producers supplement commercial feeds with mineral-rich ingredients. These include limestone, oyster shell and bone meal.
Mineral deficiencies can drastically affect a chicken’s development and vital functions, resulting in stunted growth and flock mortality.