Originally published in Backyard Poultry April / May 2017. Subscribe for more helpful tips like this!
Knowing what to feed baby chicks is a critical first step to giving them a fighting chance. Precocial as they may be, chicks are still vulnerable to their environment, which is why we as good stewards must give them the tools to survive and thrive. Those tools, besides a well-managed brooder setup, is a rock solid nutrition plan.
Most hatcheries offer initial chick boosters, such as “Quick Chick” and “Grow-Gel” to compensate for shipping stress. If you’re concerned about how to care for baby chicks, then feel free to add these pick-me-ups to your nutrition plan, especially if you’ve ordered a small batch of chicks. I’ve tried these supplements before and although they certainly don’t hurt, I personally haven’t seen any hard evidence of their necessity or effectiveness. Don’t consider them mandatory, especially if you’re receiving full boxes of 100 chicks or more. Shipping full boxes of chicks greatly reduces shipping stress, which is better than trying to compensate for undue stress with supplements.
What to Feed Baby Chicks
Feeds come in different rations (ration is industry speak for recipe or formulation) for different birds. The most common feeds available to retail consumers are; Chick Starter Feed, Grower Feed, Layer, Fat and Finish, Breeder and Game Bird Feed (for game birds like Pheasant and Quail). Some feed mills combine names like “start and grow” or “Game and Show”, which may be confusing to you. When in doubt, look up that specific feed brand’s recommendations for what to feed chicks on their website. “Chick Starter Feed” or “Start and Grow” is what to feed baby chicks. These rations will advertise between 18% to 22% crude protein content on the tag. Anything lower or significantly higher in protein content is inappropriate for use as a chick starter feed.
How Long to Feed Starter Feed
How long to feed starter feed largely depends on the specific ration you’ve chosen. Some feed brands have yet to combine their first two stages of feed rations, so their feeding recommendations may include a classic chick starter feed ration for the first eight weeks of age, then require you to move on to a dedicated grower ration and feed that until 20 weeks of age. Many feed companies offer a ration that combines these two feeds such as the “Start and Grow” feed ration I mentioned previously. Most companies who offer these combination rations suggest feeding them from day one to 20 weeks of age.
Almost all feeds are offered in a variety of consistencies. The usual available consistencies are mash, crumble and pellet, which refers to the size of an individual piece of feed. Consistencies have more to do with the age of your bird and reducing feed waste than anything else. Mash feeds are a consistency similar to sand, which is what to feed baby chicks because they can’t eat big pieces of feed yet. Crumbles are a midpoint between mash and pellet meant for growing juvenile birds, and pellet is the best consistency to feed adult birds.
Healthy chicks grow exponentially, so when I brood a group of standard size chicks, I fill my feeders with a crumble, then top the trays off with a mash. By about four days old, standard size chicks have grown large enough to eat the smaller crumbles they find, and they will dig around the big chunks they can’t eat yet. Before you know it, they will be dining on crumble exclusively.
Part of what to feed baby chicks to make them thrive is grit. Chickens don’t have teeth, but they still have to masticate what they eat so they can properly digest it. In lieu of teeth, chickens have an organ at the end of the esophagus called the gizzard.
The gizzard is effectively a big pouch of muscle with a thick and resilient lining. This muscular pouch contracts and squeezes the feed your bird ingested, but as resilient as the liner is, it’s not hard like teeth. Chickens throughout their life eat little bits of hard objects, usually little stones, and those stones live in the gizzard to serve as “teeth” to grind feed in the gizzard. Eventually, those bits of stone wear down and pass along the digestive tract, until they are once again reunited with the ground from whence they came.
Commercially available chicken grit is usually ground granite, sold in small quantities that come in different sizes. Buy a size specific to feeding day old chicks, since a larger grit will be too big for them to use. Don’t buy too much grit, since all you need to do is sprinkle a little over top their feed once in a while. If you don’t supply your chicks with grit, it’s not the end of the world. Chicks will find little bits of hard substance in their bedding and in their feed, but it’s easier for them if you provide some grit.
Everyone Has Their Own Way
Everyone finds their favorite or most successful brooding system eventually. Does yours include grit? Do you prefer to use chick starters, supplements or even a home-grown chick booster? Start the conversation below and let us know!