In order to have happy and healthy chickens that meet your egg or meat needs, it’s crucial to provide a balanced diet. Selecting the right type of feed is important because you can do more harm than good if you buy the wrong types of feeds.
For instance, you can’t feed a growing chick layer feed because the amount of calcium in the mix can cause kidney issues. And too many calories and protein fed to an adult chicken cause weight gain and fatty liver.
Types of Feeds
Commercial feeds are balanced nutritionally for each stage of growth and to maintain health and production. However, if you look at the labels you’ll see that the ingredients aren’t much different. It’s the ratio that matters, particularly for protein.
But selecting feed can be confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Pellets cook a little longer than crumbles, which makes them a bit more digestible. Spilled crumbles tend to get mixed in with the floor litter where pellets do not. But some birds don’t care for pelleted feed.
Try both and see what works.
The following are general types of feeds you’ll encounter. Note: Some feed companies have a “complete feed” that can be fed to a higher age range. You’ll also see feed in crumbles (or mash) and pellets.
- Starter/chick feed is for chicks aged 0 to 6 weeks and is made with 20 to 22 percent protein, an important factor for growing birds. You can also find a medicated choice that includes a coccidiostat to prevent an intestinal disease spread through droppings called Coccidiosis.Check the label carefully if you have other animals on your farm. Some medications, such as Monensin, are toxic to horses. You shouldn’t feed a medicated product if your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, as the coccidiostat or antibiotic can negate the vaccination.
- Grower feed is for developing pullets aged 6 to 20 weeks. The protein is less for this group at 14 to 16 percent. Grower feed may also be medicated and can be fed up to 18 weeks.
- Layer feed is appropriate for egg-laying hens aged 20 weeks and older. The protein is 15 to 18 percent and the calcium is 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 percent. If you notice cracked or brittle-shelled eggs, switch to a layer feed with a higher percentage of calcium.
- Broiler feed provides a balanced ration that will support fast growth. The protein is 20 to 23 percent. Meat birds eat a lot. A broiler chicken will put away 10 pounds of feed in the first six weeks.
This feed may also contain a coccidiostat or antibiotic.
- Finisher feed is to be fed to meat birds up to their finished age (Cornish and Cornish crosses are finished around 6 to 8 weeks. Other meat birds are finished from 9 to 11 weeks. All breeds are usually finished at 6 pounds). The protein is 18 percent. Discontinue use of medicated feeds one week before slaughter.
- All-purpose feed is safe and suitable for every age, and is a good middle-of-the-road option. Protein is 16 percent.
Table scraps such as vegetables, fruit, stale bread or crackers are all fine types of feeds, however, use them as a treat and remove moldy or picked-over scraps. Avoid foods such as onions or garlic as they can affect the taste of the eggs.
Fresh grass is a good source of nutrition and one of the best ways to supplement your feed. If your hens aren’t out on pasture, you can feed lawn clippings. Chickens can’t digest dried plant material, so make sure to offer freshly cut grass.
Do not feed grass that has been treated with herbicide or pesticide.
Scratch grains, such as oats, corn and barley are low in protein but high in calories, and as such aren’t balanced feeds. However, they can help alleviate boredom by providing a more natural way of eating.
Toss scratch grains into the coop only after your chickens have eaten their morning meal. Put out only enough grain for them to eat in 20 minutes.
An average laying hen will need around 4 ounces of feed a day, but it’s difficult to portion out feed for each chicken, especially if you have a mixed coop of breeds. However, since chickens self-regulate, you can feed free choice.
And don’t forget to put out fresh water every day.
A chicken’s natural tendency is to scratch around on the ground to find their food. If you place your feeder on the floor, chances are they will tip it over. Either hang your feeder or set it on a platform (such as a cinder block) so that it’s at the level of the chicken’s back.
Put out enough feeders so that everyone can eat at once.
Chickens need grit to “chew” their food. If you feed a balanced diet or if your chickens pasture (they can find rocks and grit themselves), you won’t need to offer grit necessary. However, if you feed grain, grass clippings, or table scraps, you’ll need to augment with grit.
Commercial grit is cheap and goes a long way. Offer it in a small bowl and your hens can help themselves. Oyster shell isn’t the same as grit because it’s too soft, however it’s good for digestion.
A wisely chosen commercial feed, augmented with some fun snacks, will help your chickens look and feel their best.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.