What to Feed Chickens to Keep Them Healthy

Tips on What To Feed Hens for Optimum Health


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 Feed Formulations

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.


Start and Grow Feed for Raising Baby Chickens

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%.

Medicated Starter

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.

Finisher Feed

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.


These turkey poults are on starter now, but will shortly move over to a grower feed.

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.

Feed Consistencies

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 Feed

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.


Bribery in action. Even tossing their normal feed in a new location is enough to draw their attention.


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?

  • first of all i just love your email. it has helped me out some times when i needed to know some thing. while we are on the subject of grain,i will tell you what i feed then you let me know if i can stop some thing. i just have 50 layers. ok i give them 1 x in the morning,,, scratch,extra egg,layena,laying mash,wheat,38% base. some times bread and milk,and yogurt. then vinegar in their water.

  • David E.

    A shame this is so for the US market,in the UK it is against the law to feed kitchen scraps to chickens.

  • “in the UK it is against the law to feed kitchen scraps to chickens.” And who is going to know what your chickens eat? Is the police gonna come to your house and seize your chickens???

    • It’s actually EU law not to feed kitchen scraps to chickens. Never heard of a more ridiculous law in my life! How will anyone find out? I guess some European Commissioner has stocks and shares in a poultry grain mill…

  • What is the just regarding feeding the chickens “Spent Grain” from breweries? I spoke with an urban, but knowledgeable chicken affectionado who supplements his layers with spent grain after the local craft brewers are finished with it. He has given me a 5gal pail of it, saying his chickens love it.

  • My chickens get very excited at the first sight of my table scrap jar.. It’s a high point of their day… If I was told that it was illegal to feed scraps,, I would then feet them to the Chicken Police

  • I didn’t know that Avocados are not good for chickens. My rooster in particular goes crazy for avocados. He practically says the word guacamole when he sees me coming with the leftover avocado on taco night.

  • I didn’t know that Avocados are not good for chickens. My rooster in particular goes crazy for avocados. He practically says the word guacamole when he sees me coming with the leftover avocado on taco night.

  • my flock free range. They get all their nutrients from a natural diet of greens, bugs, kitchen scraps, comfrey, borage, rucula, calendula, dandelions, nettles, berries and all the other plants growing on our homestead. Their favourite is the compost heap!

    • Vickie N.

      I let my chickens free range for about an hour before sunset….they go too far if I let them out much sooner and end up in neighboring yards. A few RUN to the compost pile in the farthest side of our back yard! I have read not to feed chickens scraps that are too moldy or ripe and that’s what is in my compost pile! No heath problems so far…..they are over a year old. 10 chickens and we get 8-10 eggs a day. So, I guess chickens know best what to eat and what not to eat? They get pellets to nibble on 24/7, fresh scraps every morning and whatever they please when they are out of their fenced in chicken yard. They are fun to watch!


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