Quality nutrition is the bedrock of your bird’s health, longevity, and performance. Just like you and me, if a chicken is fed junk it will live a shorter life, have more health problems and won’t achieve its full potential. What a waste! So you may be wondering just what to feed chickens to keep them healthy.
What to Feed Chickens
Feeding an incomplete diet is a sure fire way to compromise your bird’s health. Commercial feed companies use very specific scientific calculations to design the best feed for your birds. These people know all about the science of what to feed chickens, so trust their work and don’t modify the diet on a whim. Use the appropriate feed for your birds, which largely depends on age and type.
Poultry feeds come in different formulas for different birds. The feeds that are available to retail consumers are: Starter, Grower, Layer, Finisher and Breeder or Game Bird. Some feed mills switch names around and confuse the subject, but you can always look up their recommendations on their website, or ask your feed store.
Starter feed is typically for raising baby chickens from day-old chicks to 20 weeks of age. Back when I began with chickens, starter and grower were two separate feeds. You would use a starter for the first 8 weeks, change over to a grower feed, then move on to the next stage of feed when the time was right. Today, retail feed companies have combined these feeds to simplify our lives. Protein levels are usually 19% to 22%.
Antibiotics are not sold in feeds, period. I don’t care what you read on the internet, it’s simply not allowed. When shopping for a starter feed for raising baby chickens, you will find “regular” and “medicated” feeds. The medication is a product called Amprolium (or another form of Coccidiostat), which is used to control Coccidiosis in chicks. Organic associations suggest using apple cider vinegar in the water of young birds in lieu of a medicated feed. The vinegar trick has not been officially studied, but the general consensus among Ph.D.’s and Poultry Vets is that it can’t hurt and it might help. I don’t use either when growing chicks, but that’s because I use tight biosecurity in my barns.
Feed for Hens Laying Eggs
A lot of people ask how old chickens need to be to lay eggs. This usually occurs around 20 weeks of age. At 20 weeks, your layer birds should be consuming, um … layer feed. Sounds simple, right? Typical protein content of layer feeds fall between 15% and 17%. This ensures your hens laying eggs have the proper nutrition to support production.
You likely will never need this feed, unless you plan on raising meat chickens, turkeys or some other bird to eat. This is what we used to call a “fat and finish” feed, which simply fattens birds for butchering. Common protein levels are around 17% to 24% depending on the company.
Breeder or Game Bird Feed
This is another specialty feed meant for a specific type of bird. If you somehow got yourself into breeding high-end fancy chickens, pheasant, quail or guinea hens then you would use this feed. Sometimes feed companies combine chick starter and game bird feed, so if you see that on the shelves, don’t be surprised. Expect 15% to 22% protein levels in these feeds.
Almost all feeds are offered in a variety of consistencies. The usual available consistencies are mash, crumble and pellet. Consistencies have more to do with the age of your bird and reducing feed waste than it has to do about anything else. Chicks need to start on mash since they can’t eat big pieces of feed. Mash feeds are a consistency similar to sand. As the birds get older you can step up to a crumble, which is a pellet that has been crushed back down to a manageable size for smaller birds. Young adults will play in mash feeds, sending it everywhere and wasting expensive feed, which is why we step them up to crumble to try and stop that. Adult birds (20 weeks and beyond) should have pelleted feed, which further reduces the potential for waste at the chicken feeder. Adults can manage just fine on crumble if need be, but mash feed can cause issues like caking and impacted digestive systems, so avoid layer mash.
What Feeds to Avoid
Many people start on the wrong foot with their bird’s nutrition, which is usually because of misinformation or assumptions. One of the biggest problems I run into is people feeding their birds to death, which you can easily do.
Scratch is the chicken’s equivalent of a candy bar. Scratch feed, or scratch grain, is a treat and you must feed it sparingly if at all. Scratch feed has been around since before real feed rations existed. Nutritionists have since learned that scratch feed is no good for birds, but tradition has kept it alive and selling. If you don’t already feed this stuff, then don’t. If you do feed scratch, then feed it very sparingly. A 25 lb bag should last 10 hens a year or more in my opinion.
Corn is not on the healthy list of what to feed chickens. I don’t have a need for it and haven’t fed it to my birds for years, but three good uses for cracked corn are as distractions, extra calories for a cold night and bribery. The commercial feed you purchase at the store is already predominantly corn-based, so they really don’t need more but if you opt to feed some anyway, then use cracked corn since chickens can’t properly process whole kernel corn.
What can chickens eat? Chickens eat lots of things, including chicken! As far as feeding chickens scraps, feel free to feed them meats, cheese, vegetables, fruits, bread, french fries, boiled eggs and most anything else in small quantities. Avoid onions, chocolate, coffee beans, avocados, and raw or dried beans. Be sure the amount of scraps your birds receive doesn’t dilute their diet too much.
What do you feed your chickens to keep them healthy?