An Overview of What to Feed Chickens

Explore Poultry Feed Formulations for a Balanced Flock Diet


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.

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.

Layer Feed

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.

  • My chickens prefer pellets. In the afternoon I let them out while I can supervise them, and at that time I give them a treat of either black oil sunflower seeds, mealworms, or sometimes I give them a little scratch grains, just to mix it up a bit. They love their afternoon treat. And of course, they can eat all the grass they want for an hour or so.

  • In the brooder, and for the first 18 or so weeks, I feed starter feed crumbles. I also hand feed mealworms once or twice a week as a treat for the babies and to get them used to my presence. After I’ve transitioned the youngsters to the main coop (I relocate my older hens to a “Biddy Coop” where they can free range and to keep them separate until the young birds can defend themselves) I feed regular layer feed and continue the meal worms, but a bit more frequently than once or twice a week. My hens free range and get lots of bugs and greens to eat. During summer months they get rinds, peels, whole fruits and vegetables from the garden to vary their diets. They like the oyster shells, so their egg shells are nice and thick. Thus far I have had no health issues with my birds.

  • Every day the chickens get layer crumbles with one scoop of feather fixer and black oil sunflower seeds. In the morning they also get some kale, grapes, corn and cheese. Not too much just enough for them all to get a little bit. In the afternoon they have mealworms and sometimes some white bread. They would much rather have the white bread than wheat for some reason. If I have any leftover cantalope or watermelon they get that also. In the winter some scratch grain is helpful and it also keeps them busy when the weather is bad.

  • I have about 40 large chickens and have 23 chicks. I guess my chickens is what you call true range chickens. I let them out every morning and lock them up every night. I find that my chickens like whole corn, scratch feed and light bread. I get the bread from a surplus bread store. The bread is a $1 a loaf and one loaf usually last me 3 days. I tried to feed them laying feed and they just wouldn’t eat it. I keep their feeders full and always throw out a little feed in the mornings because they seem to like to eat it off the ground. I also feed them the bread in the mornings. In the summer my feed consummation goes way down. I guess their catching a lot of bugs because I have noticed that the insects population around my house has went way down since I got the chickens. I sell my eggs to a local church and everyone says they are the best eggs they have ever eaten. Everyone always asks what my secret it and I tell them what I feed them and other than that there is no secret. So I guess the only thing I have to say if your chickens are loving what your feeding them and are happy then keep doing what your doing. But if they don’t eat something that your are giving them because someone said you should stop giving it to them. All chickens’ taste are different. That’s my $0.50.

  • I feed my girls fermented feed. No food gets kicked around and wasted, and I’ve heard it’s more nutritious, and my girls really love it. I give gammus as a treat, just sprinkled on top of the feed once a day.And of course they get greens from the garden. Some cabbage, borage, comfrey, spinach and mint.

  • I am new at this chicken thing but I feed corn, pellets, fresh veggies, raisins, meal worms, bread, herbs from the garden and kitchen scraps. They are Happy Chickens

  • I feed mine mealworms and white sunflower hearts as treats. They love them

  • I feed fermented feed. 2 parts barley, 2 parts wheat, 2 parts cracked corn, 1 part black oil sunflower seeds and 1 part oats. I bought 3- 3ltr jugs with lids from the dollar the cereal ones, they also get melons, peas, corn on the cob, cabbage, berries, green leafy lettuce and what ever scraps I have as treats, tossed all over so they learn to forage. I got big buckets and took them down the road to the Hutterite colony, whom I have a great relationship with, and got all my grains for free. I also keep crumbles and pellets in feeders for when they are locked in at night inside the runs.

  • I am trying pellets now but they always ate crumbles. I will switch back. Not crazy for the pellets. Also they get lots of greens. I do not have a lawn. I mix up a special “scratch and peck” with mealworms ,dried raisins and dried veggies . Yes they get their own dried eggshells too. When it is hot ( here in So Cal) I make sure I have electrolyte and vitamin mis for their water. One of my girls seems to need it more than others. I notice she gets a little drained in the heat. I keep a Misting fan handy when it’s sizzling here also. I love my four chickens!!!

  • How do you give them calcium from their eggs before they’ve started laying. This is my first round of chickens so just wondering. Can’t I just give them eggshells from the store? I read that wasn’t really great for them

  • I just finished my first year with chickens. A cousin asked why I built a pen and coop and bought chickens, and I told him that I was porn with chicken poo between my toes (raised on a farm) and I will go out the same way. I have a variety of 8, and have 4 Bielefelder chicks coming in a month. My flock does not like pellets, so I feed them Layena crumbles. I rotate my garden so I always have fresh greens, and they love lettuce and broccoli plants (they eat everything but the stalk). I don’t feed much food scraps as it tends to make them more aggressive. My wife always feeds them fresh clover in the morning when she goes out and talks to them.
    I swear by Layena. The 8 hens pop out an egg just about everyday.

  • This is a great read and learning a lot from your stories on chickens. We are buying a 5 acre farm and can’t wait to get started. I have lived on a 50 acre farm but it sure has been a while (20 years). I’m sure it will be like riding a bicycle but gotta get back into the swing. Now that I am retired, and have time on my hands, I’m ready to get back at it again. Thanks for the schooling and keep writing.


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