When you first get a flock of backyard chickens, it’s natural to wonder just what to feed chickens. You grab a bag of starter feed, but what happens next?
It’s important to understand that commercial chicken feeds now are nothing like commercial feeds from the past. Many of the old feeds contained things you just don’t want to explore. But today’s feeds contain clearly stated ingredients that support a well-balanced diet and should make up the bulk of your backyard chicken’s feeding routine.
Chick Starter Feed
Let’s begin with starter feed. You went home with a bag of it, but what’s really in it? Starter feed is a higher protein feed that’s designed to support the growth needs of a chick. Most starter feeds are around 18 percent protein. It’s recommended that chicks stay on starter for 16 to 18 weeks.
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The big choice with starter feeds is whether you feed one that’s medicated or not. This is a hotly debated subject in the chicken world and it centers around what is widely regarded as the number one killer of baby chicks, coccidiosis. This is a highly contagious parasitic disease that kills quickly and moves through a flock at high speed. It’s important to understand the difference between the feeds and make a choice that’s comfortable for you. Plain starter feeds contain no medicines, just feed. If your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, then this is the feed for you. Medicated starter feeds usually contain Amprolium which is a coccidiostat that reduces the growth of coccidia oocysts. This lets unvaccinated chicks get past a vulnerable time and keeps the coccidia oocysts from overwhelming them as they grow into adults and develop their immunities. Some folks are strongly against giving any type of medicine to their chicks. They prefer a natural approach and say that if you keep the brooder clean, there’s no need to worry. Others say no need to use preventative measures, but treat for the problem if it arises.
After 16 to 18 weeks, your chicks move into their egg laying cycles. They need a little less protein and more calcium to support healthy egg development. If you’re wondering what can chickens eat at this stage, this is when you switch from starter to layer feed. There are many choices in this area; you can find feeds with marigold extract for a stronger yellow egg yolk. You can find feeds with extra calcium additives for strong egg shells. No matter what brand you choose, there are two main feed forms – pellets and crumbles. Pellets are said to reduce waste around the feeder as food gets dropped. Crumbles are said to be more messy. In the opinion of my flock, they prefer crumbles. In fact, they are insistent about their preference! The only time I can feed them pellets is when I give them a feather fixer feed that comes only in pellet form. They’ll eat those pellets, but no others. There is a third, less popular, form of feed called mash. This usually comes directly from your local feed mills and is a more powdery crumble. If you can find a good local mill, it’s a great place to get ultra-fresh chicken feed. I have one nearby and my chickens can’t get enough of their feed!
It’s important not to stress about what form of feed to use. They all fit comfortably under the heading of what to feed chickens for a balanced diet. Let your flock guide your choice. If you’re just starting out, grab a couple bags and see what your flock prefers. There’s no right or wrong answer. And frankly, food messes can be handled in many different ways so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. If you’re wondering how much should I feed my chickens, it’s best to leave feeders out throughout the day letting the chickens eat as they need.
Treats and Supplements
Laying hens use the calcium from their bodies to form eggs. It’s important they get enough in their diet so they don’t have to deplete themselves. If you’re using an ultra-specialized calcium fortified feed, then you may not have to worry about supplementing calcium. If not, then it’s good to offer calcium free choice. You can buy oyster shells, but my chickens just don’t like them. I’ve had chickens for years and none of them will eat oyster shells. So, I feed my chickens their own shells. I save the shells after I’ve used the eggs. I rinse them and then microwave them for a few seconds to make them crunchy. Then I crumble them up and offer them in a separate bowl or mix them with their layer feed.
Treats from the kitchen are a great way to recycle your leftovers. They are fun for your chickens and for you, just make sure they don’t become the bulk of your chicken’s diet. A good rule of thumb is treats should be no more than 10% of a chicken’s total diet. Other products such as dried mealworms and insects make a great protein boost and boredom buster. Extra protein is especially important during molt to help your chickens stay healthy and grow new feathers and in winter when your chickens may not get out as much and pickings are slim in the yard.
Today’s commercial feed and treat choices take much of the guesswork out of what to feed chickens to help backyard flocks be more healthy and productive.
What form of food do your chickens prefer; pellets, crumbles or mash? Do you feed mealworms and other treats to your flock? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.