PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
April 5, 2017

For optimal health, laying hens and broiler meat birds require diets with the correct proportions and ratios of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. A properly balanced diet will ensure your birds have enough feed to maintain their body functions in addition to meeting their production needs. Different feeds are used as vehicles for various nutrients, and those feeds are formulated based on ingredients available in the area and how they can be combined to create the proper ratios of nutrients needed in the diet.

Laying Hen Diets

Understandably, laying hens need feed specifically formulated for egg production, and it should contain a minimum of 16-percent protein. (For birds going through a molt, an even higher percentage of protein is recommended.) Additionally, laying hens have very specific needs for vitamins, minerals and amino acids. The nutrients you feed will be the nutrients seen in the egg.

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Calcium makes up the majority of the eggshell so a layer feed is designed to have a much higher calcium content. Calcium can be supplemented, but if a proper layer feed is available free-choice, it may not be necessary. If you like the hardness of the shells from your hens, don’t worry about a supplement. If your hens are having major laying problems, including soft shells, provide a calcium supplement, such as oyster shells.

Scraps and treats should make up a small part of a chicken’s diet. Hens enjoy grazing plants and bugs, but they should still have unlimited access to a balanced layer feed. Changes in yolk color are not an indication of how healthy an egg is; they’re simply an indication of what the hen has been eating. If you would like your eggs to be higher in certain nutrients, such as omega-3s, feed your hens a diet with higher omega-3s. Chickens will not get omega-3s in their eggs just because you let them graze your weed patch. Again, the nutrients you feed your birds will be the nutrients found in their eggs.

Broiler Chicken Diets

Chicks that are being used for meat production will need transferred to a grower/finisher feed that clocks in around 18 percent protein at about 6 to 8 weeks of age, depending on the breed. They’ll need to remain on that diet until they are processed. Meat chickens grow quickly: Depending on the breed, some can be finished in as little as six weeks, meaning that you’ll need to maximize the nutrients they receive in order to make the most of that brief finishing time.

What you feed meat chickens will affect the way they taste. Giving meat birds space to graze is fine, provided they have unlimited access to a complete grower/finisher feed. Grazing can also slow down their growth; it may take longer to finish chickens raised on pasture.

Overall, the most important takeaway for feeding any type of chicken is to feed a balanced diet, which provides enough energy for body maintenance in addition to egg and/or meat production. Additionally, proper nutrition will eliminate many egg abnormalities and help your chickens stay healthier overall! Who doesn’t want happy, healthy birds?

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.

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