It’s a common question when you’re figuring out what to feed chickens. What chicken feed brand should you choose for your feathered friends? Does it even matter? With so many choices offered in most feed and farm supply stores, you could get a headache trying to read all the different labels! So let’s break it down and take a look at what is offered, remembering that different areas have different chicken feed brands available. Some are only available in a small, limited market.
Chicken Nutritional Requirements
Before we go too far into this discussion, the first consideration for what to feed chickens is their nutritional requirements. Chickens need protein, carbohydrates, and fats, along with the appropriate vitamins and minerals. Most starter and grower rations will have 18% to 20% protein. This is formulated for growth and development of bones and internal organs. In addition, the fat, carbohydrate and protein amounts will be formulated with vitamins and minerals for growth.
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In some cases, a starter ration will pave the way to a grower ration. You will see grower rations used more in a facility raising chickens for meat than in a backyard chicken raising project. The final feed transition is to a layer feed.
As a growing pullet reaches maturity, the nutritional needs change. As the pullet begins to lay eggs, the calcium requirement increases dramatically. Excess calcium fed to growing chicks can actually result in weak bone formation because the higher than necessary calcium causes fast bone growth. In addition, a fully grown hen does not usually need the protein level of a growing chick.
This is why most people will start their chicks with a chick starter/grower ration and then switch at around the time that the hen reaches maturity. An exception to the protein requirement might need to be made during a hard molt. Temporarily increasing the protein for laying hens, during the yearly molt may help them regrow feathers faster before the winter weather. As a side note, this is also an excellent time to treat your hens to some tasty mealworms, scrambled eggs, and the occasional treat of cheese to add protein into the diet.
How is Chicken Feed Formulated?
Now that we’ve discussed why there are different formulas for different ages, let’s explore the different brands on the market. I don’t mean that I will be examining each brand specifically, but instead talking about what to look for in each specific brand.
Protein: 16% protein is the norm for laying hens. If you have a rooster, don’t worry. This is adequate and acceptable nutritionally for him too, even though he is not producing eggs.
The main source of the protein in commercial chicken feed will most likely come from corn and or soybean meal. Fish meal will supply some protein and also a good source of calcium and phosphorus. Some smaller feed mills are offering soy free and corn free alternatives to the traditional chicken feed choices. Unfortunately, these feeds are not available in all markets. If you are interested in feeding your layer hens a corn free, soy free, or organic feed, checking most feed dealer’s websites will give you information on where the feed is available.
The chicken feeds come in a crumble or a pellet form. The pellet form helps them get more food into their bodies in less time. Occasionally, you may find a mash form of chicken feed. This is a very finely ground grain formula. Scratch is a mixture of three to five grains, primarily corn. It is not recommended as a complete feed for laying hens, but, it is a tasty treat and the chickens will be happy to receive it occasionally. Some people use it for training the chickens to go in the coop at night. It can also be used as a training reward in other situations. The fact that it is a high carbohydrate food makes it unsuitable as a primary food. Chickens can overheat in warm weather when fed only scratch grain. On the other hand, it can help the chickens to keep warm during the cold weather months, when added to a regular layer ration in small quantities.
Read the Chicken Feed Labels
Each bag of chicken feed sold in the USA is required to have a nutrition tag on it. The tag will state the ingredients and the percentages of the main ingredients. Protein levels should be between 15% and 18%, sourced from grains, or soybean meal. The label will state if the grain is all corn or list the individual grains.
If you’re raising chickens for eggs, the calcium need of a laying hen will be much higher than that of a growing chick. Look for a rate of 4.5 to 4.75% and make sure the phosphorus percent is also listed. The phosphorus level is usually around .40%. Calcium and phosphorus, along with adequate vitamin D work together for strong egg shell formation. Ground limestone, ground oyster shell, and fish meal are all common sources of calcium and phosphorus. You can save your egg shells at home, rinse to clean, dry completely and crush fine, before adding them back to your chicken’s feed.
Fat content should also be specified. Most commercial feeds will use vegetable oil. This is the source of energy and it is as important as the protein level for growth and production.
Lots of Decisions
Soy free, organic, non-GMO, all-natural, vegetarian, name-brand, generic brand, store brand; so many choices and how do you make a decision?
Commercial Chicken Feed Brands
If you know even a little about the ingredients on the label of each bag, you can decide what is right for your flock. If raising an organic flock of chickens is important to you, then search for an organic chicken feed in your area. A couple brands to look for are Scratch and Peck and New Country Organics. Purina has an option in the organic, soy-free market but it is only available in some parts of the United States.
Nutrena Feed has a line of chicken feed called NatureWise. While not being an organic feed, it is a reasonably priced alternative. The feed contains no antibiotics or hormones. Be aware that even if a feed is vegetarian, this does not make your chicken a vegetarian. Chickens naturally eat bugs and worms and enjoy doing so. Unless you are keeping them in an environment completely away from nature, they are going to be adding protein from insects to their diet, making them not completely vegetarian fed.
Purina and Southern States are the leading options for poultry feed in my area. I have used feed from both manufacturers and I don’t see much, if any, difference in using one brand over the other. My chickens eat both well, and I have not noticed any difference in egg production using one versus the other.
Store Chicken Feed Brands
Dumor is one of the well-known private label brands on the market. Sold by Tractor Supply farm stores across the country, the feed is comparable to the other major commercial feeds. If possible, learn the manufacturer of the feed being sold under a store label. Chances are it is being milled by one of the major feed companies anyway, but offered at a discount price due to volume bought, lower advertising cost, and cheaper packaging.
Other Chicken Feed Options
You may live near a chicken feed mill that sells certain animal feed formulas. If you have the space to store the bulk feed, this may be an economical choice. I would ask for the feed ingredients, to be sure that all of your hen’s requirements are being met. In addition, ask if antibiotics are in the feed. Personally, I don’t mind using a coccidiastat for my chicks, but I am uncomfortable adding antibiotics to their feed with out a reason. Each of us needs to make that decision for ourselves.
I realize that the feeds I mentioned are certainly not a complete list of what is available in our country. The point is, we have many choices of what to feed chickens. Take the time to read the labels, and decide what is the best feed for your flock and your wallet.