Our birds are more likely to be productive and healthy, generally speaking, when we provide them a nutritious diet. So you might wonder: “What type of feed should I get for my flock to make them the most productive and fit?” The short answer is: It depends.
Many types of commercial feed exist, and for specific reasons. To begin, ask yourself some important questions: Are you raising broilers (meat birds) or layers (egg-producing birds)? Do you have chicks, pullets (nonsexually mature birds) or adult birds? Are you raising your flock as organic or nonorganic? Should you get a mash-, crumble- or pellet-style feed? What about chicken scratch and kitchen scraps?
Answering these questions, you can ensure your birds get the most appropriate and the healthiest ration. Furthermore, from a practical perspective, understanding the differences in feed is good economically because feed is the biggest cost associated with raising chickens. Therefore, the type of feed you buy should be appropriate for the type of chickens you raise. This column aims to help you make an informed decision.
Layers or Broilers
The first determinate for feed type is the kind of birds you raise. Layers and broilers have different nutrient requirements, and each type of bird should be fed a ration formulated for its needs.
Layer rations are significantly higher in calcium in order to promote egg production.
Broiler rations are significantly higher in protein and energy to promote muscle growth.
Providing the wrong type of feed will cause an imbalance of nutrients and negatively affect birds’ health and productivity.
At UC Davis, we have seen chicken keepers have problems when trying to raise layers and broilers simultaneously. Because the different types of bird have different feed requirement, the chickens shouldn’t be raised together in the same area. You can, of course, raise both successfully on your farm, but they should be kept in separate areas and receive separate feed.
We have also seen people add calcium to their ration for various reasons. However, more is not always better. Supplementing with extra calcium can increase the incidence of urolithiasis (stony concretions in the urinary tract), which can cause severe kidney damage.
Organic or Conventional
Deciding between organic or conventional feed depends on your personal preference and type of market where you want to sell eggs. Organic feed can cost about twice as much as conventional feed. Two big differences exist between organic and conventional feed:
Organic feed is derived from USDA-certified organic ingredients, meaning the corn and soy in poultry feed must be free of synthetic additives such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes.
Conventional starter feed contains a class of medications called coccidiastats that help prevent the protozoal disease coccidiosis, a parasitic intestinal disorder that can be fatal to young chicks. The use of these drugs isn’t allowed for organic feed.
From a poultry health perspective, coccidiastats are important to prevent sickness and death associated with coccidial diseases.
From a human health perspective, coccidiastats are a class of drug that humans don’t use and hence there aren’t concerns with respect to antimicrobial resistance from coccidia that are potentially resistant to coccidiastats. While these fears—that is, the use of antibiotics in poultry that can create antimicrobial resistance that humans can be exposed to—are legitimate for antibiotics, they aren’t relevant as described here for coccidia and coccidiastats.
Mash, Crumbles or Pellets
When deciding between feeding mash, crumbles or pellets, consider primarily the trade-offs between convenience, feed waste and feed digestion.
Mash is the finest texture of feed and consists of finely ground feed particles.
Pellets are the largest form of feed and are formed from ground feed particles.
Crumbles are the intermediate texture of feed and are broken up pieces of pellets.
Generally, the finer the texture of feed, the easier it will be for the birds to digest. However, the finer the feed, the more food waste you will generate. This translates to a higher feed cost with mash and crumbled feed, but depending on your flock, it might also positively affect your flock’s feed conversion ratio, which is the amount of feed consumed divided by the amount of eggs or meat produced.
Young chicks should be fed a mash or crumble in order to ensure that they can easily eat and digest their food. At an older age, you can transition them to a pelleted diet to help prevent feed waste, or you can continue providing them a mash or crumble diet. Also to consider when choosing feed texture is the style of feeder you have or plan to use and what types of feed work with it. For example, a gravity feeder with smaller openings for feed to fall through might not be effective with larger pellets.
A final note of caution on feeding mash or crumbles: Chickens have been shown to prefer larger particles of feed. Ensure that the feed you use is uniformly ground so that larger birds don’t outcompete smaller birds for these larger particles, which could negatively affect the nutrition that all your birds will receive.
Carefully consider all these factors to determine what is right for you and your flock. Veterinarians, universities and cooperative extension resources and feed stores can also help guide you toward the right product once you have a good idea of what type of feed you want. Be a scientist when doing your research; use reputable/professional sources, ask lots of questions and always be skeptical.
Anny Huang is a research associate at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Maurice Pitesky is a faculty member and veterinarian at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.