Chicken Feed Labels: Learn To Decipher Them & Help Your Flock

Chicken feed has many categories. Understanding terms such as natural, organic, medicated and non-GMO will help you choose the best feed for your birds.

by Lesa Wilke
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Chicken feed manufacturers carefully formulate their rations to help chicken keepers get excellent results by dividing feeds into those designed for meat birds (broiler) or dual-purpose and egg-laying breeds (layer). Feed is further categorized into nutritionally complete feeds for day-old chicks, growing chicks or adult birds, called starter, grower and adult feeds, respectively.

But within those categories, manufacturers provide even more choices in chicken feed, and they can quickly become confusing. Feeds can be pellets, crumbles, medicated, natural, free of genetically modified organisms (or non-GMO), organic—or almost any combination of these. Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that every bag of chicken feed sold in the U.S. have a tag specifying the ingredients. By reading the label, chicken keepers can easily control what their birds eat, which leads to chickens that produce outstanding meat and eggs.

Read About Chicken Feed

Feed labels are required to identify the product name, purpose—the type and age of chicken the feed is for—guaranteed analysis of essential nutrients, ingredients, feeding directions, cautions, manufacturer and net weight. The guaranteed analysis of essential nutrients must specify the minimum level of crude protein, lysine, methionine, fat and phosphorous. Also to be specified are the maximum level for crude fiber as well as a minimum/maximum guarantee for calcium and salt. Finally, the label will identify the feed form and whether it’s medicated, natural, non-GMO, organic or has other beneficial additives. Growth hormones were banned from U.S. chicken feed in the late 1950s, so they shouldn’t be a concern.

When choosing a chicken feed, it’s most important to pick one that is the appropriate category for the type and age of bird being fed. Within each category, a manufacturer’s basic feed should supply adequate nutrition, but the choice of brand and formulation is a personal decision. Basic rations will be less costly but might contain animal byproducts, GMO ingredients and less desirable protein or nutrient levels than higher-priced feeds.

Here’s further explanation of some choices you’ll have.

  • Pellets Or Crumbles: Each producer’s ration is generally available in crumble or pellet form, and they’re usually nutritionally identical within each brand. Therefore, it’s a choice of which is easier and less wasteful. Crumbles are easy to eat so they are often used to feed young chicks. But chickens tend to waste crumbles, so pellets are often preferred for adult birds.
  • Medicated: Feeds for growing chicks are typically offered in either medicated or nonmedicated formulations. Medicated feeds help prevent chick losses from the disease coccidiosis, a common intestinal parasite in poultry. They contain a coccidiostat—often amprolium—and may contain an antibiotic. Medicated rations can be fed to chicks intended for egg-laying as old as 16 weeks and meat birds as long as five days prior to slaughter.
  • Natural: Each manufacturer might interpret differently what makes a feed “natural.” Therefore, it’s particularly important to read these labels to determine whether the ingredients are acceptable. Generally, natural means that the ration doesn’t contain a coccidiostat, antibiotics, animal proteins or animal fats. Some producers offer feeds that don’t contain soy products.
  • Non-GMO: GMO seeds are genetically modified by direct gene insertion, and GMO crops approved for animal feeds in the U.S. include corn, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, cotton and sugar beets. Non-GMO ingredients might not be modified in this way but might be grown and processed with chemical products. If the label doesn’t specify non-GMO, then it’s likely that approved crops in the feed are GMO.
  • Organic: Ingredients for these feeds must be grown and processed in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. They may not be grown from GMO seeds or be treated with chemical fertilizers, fungicides or pesticides. Organic rations can’t contain chemical preservatives, medications or animal byproducts.
  • Vitamin, Mineral And Omega-3 Enhanced: Chickens require small quantities of the vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K, so feeds might contain some or all of these. Flax, minerals or other additives might be included in higher-end rations to increase the levels of omega-3 or other beneficial ingredients present in the eggs or meat produced.

Today, many brands and formulations of commercial chicken feed are available. They all carry a label specifying the ingredients and percentage of required nutrients. By reading and understanding these labels, chicken keepers can readily tailor feeding regimens to achieve their goals for the meat and eggs produced by their birds.

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Chickens.

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