As the mother of four strapping boys, I have spent years ensuring that my sons eat a healthful diet that provides them with the nutrients essential for their stage of development.
They might not always agree with my choices—there was an uproar when I switched my now-17 year old to adult vitamins and when I added vitamin D-rich foods to my youngest’s diet. But the meals I prepare provides them with the nutrition their bodies need.
The same dietary rules apply to my flocks. Different birds with different needs get different feeds. Our ducks, for example, eat feed fortified with niacin. Our molting layers, however, are fed rations with a higher protein percentage to help them rebuild their feathers.
The vast variety of poultry feeds these days almost rivals the abundance of options at human supermarkets. With so many choices available, confusion regarding the right feed for your flock is only natural.
It wasn’t so long ago that chicken flocks were expected to forage for their food, after all. So how different could all these feeds possibly be?
Feeding Your Flock Scientifically
Quite different, actually. It’s not uncommon for chicken keepers to mistakenly offer their birds the wrong feed, assuming these are interchangeable. In actuality, each type of commercial poultry feed available has been scientifically formulated to provide the correct balance of nutrients for a specific age and stage of bird.
Decades of poultry nutritional research conducted at universities and at facilities owned by Nutrena, Purina and other producers have determined the proper percentages of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins necessary not only for your birds’ proper development and overall health but also for the production of eggs and meat.
These “complete feeds” provide your chickens with the exact nutrients needed at each stage of life.
This information is readily and widely available. But who here has actually sat down to read the fine print on their feed sack? On the flip side, some flock keepers may expect too much from commercial feeds. This month alone I’ve received three messages from chicken owners asking what feed would quickly fatten their late-season baby chicks so they can better survive the coming winter.
(The answer: None. Use chick starter for proper growth and development, and consider hatching earlier in the spring).
Getting to know the types of feed will help you select the best and most appropriate nourishment for your birds. It will also help you avoid medical issues caused by feeding your flock the wrong formulated feed.
Everything is okay in moderation, right? When it comes to giving your chickens supplements in addition to their complete feed, even moderation may be too much.
Each complete feed is scientifically balanced to provide a specific set of nutrients to your birds. Change that balance by adding a supplement and the results could prove deadly. Corn, for instance, is a high-energy ingredient frequently found in feeds. Chickens love corn and many flock owners treat their birds to fresh kernels, corn on the cob and scratch.
But the excess corn metabolizes as fat. In laying hens, this is usually gets deposited on the liver. This can result in Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome, in which the liver becomes soft, with blood vessels that rupture easily during egg laying.
Similarly, feeding your flock supplemental protein can also cause problems, as hens excrete protein as nitrogen-high urea and feces. The result—high ammonia and nitrogen levels within the coop. This can lead to footpad lesions, hock burns and breast blisters as well as respiratory issues and inflamed eyes.
Too much dietary protein can also increase the risk of such digestive issues as necrotic enteritis, a swift and deadly condition. If your flock is in molt, provide them with a boost of feather-building keratin by temporarily switching their feed to a starter formula rather than by adding a pure protein supplement to their existing feed.
A good rule of thumb for flock owners is to stick with the complete feed, as any imbalance of nutrients caused by adding a supplement can be detrimental to your birds … or worse.