An Overview of What to Feed Chickens

Whether you're a new or a veteran backyard chicken keeper, it’s natural to wonder just what to feed chickens. When you get your first chickens, you grab a bag of starter feed, but what happens next? And exactly what starter feed should you grab?

Commercial Chicken Feed

Today's commercial chicken feeds have come a long way and are precisely formulated to meet the specific nutritional needs of your chickens. They should make up the bulk of your backyard chicken’s feeding routine.

There are lots of good commercial feed options available. You can choose depending on your wishes and your flock's specific needs. Each company has slightly different feeds. For instance, some have starter feeds that are fed for eight weeks then you switch to a grower feed until your laying hens begin to lay. Be sure to read feed bag labels carefully!

Organic Chicken Feed - Many companies offer an organic chicken feed option. A tenet of raising organic chickens is they must be fed an entirely organic diet from the second day of life. If you're selling eggs to friends and neighbors, and you choose to do this, you can let your customers know your chickens have been fed an organic chicken feed. That may be a selling point for your health-conscious friends.

➜ An official organic designation requires a lengthy certification process. Most backyard chicken keepers don't go for the official designation.

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Chick Starter Feed 

Starter food is where it all begins! You went home from buying chicks at the feed store with a bag of it, but what’s really in it? Is it essential for baby chick health?

➜ Starter feed is a higher protein feed that’s designed to support the growth needs of a chick.
➜ Most starter feeds are around 20 to 18% protein.
➜ Some starter feeds are designed as a sole ration until a hen begins to lay at 16 to 20 weeks.
➜ Commercial feeds with a starter to grower ration will require a switch around eight weeks.

Medicated vs. Unmedicated Chick Starter Feed - The big choice with starter feeds is whether you use 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.

Some 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, treat for the problem if it arises.

➜ Unmedicated chick 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.

PRO TIP - If you are adding young chickens to your flock and everyone has access to the same food, switch everyone to starter feed. Young chickens that are not laying eggs can be harmed by the extra calcium in layer feed, however, starter feed will not harm your laying hens.

Chicken Layer Feed

Around 16 to 20 weeks, your female chicks will begin laying eggs. They need a little less protein and more calcium to support healthy egg development. Most layer feeds contain around 16% protein.

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 eggshells. No matter what brand you choose, there are two main feed forms – pellets, which are said to reduce waste, and crumbles.

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 chicken 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!

No matter what form of feed you 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.

PRO TIP: If you need to switch feeds, make the switch gradually by combining the old with the new for a few days so your chickens can get used to the new food.

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 a calcium-free choice.

➜ You can buy oyster shells and offer them in a separate feeder. On a personal note, my chickens just don’t like them. I’ve had chickens for years and none of them will eat oyster shells.

➜ You can feed your chickens back their own shells. Save the shells after you've used the eggs. Rinse them and then microwave them for a few seconds to make them crunchy. Then crumble them up and offer them in a separate bowl or mix the shells 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 that 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 are your favorite feeds? Do you prefer to feed pellets, crumbles or mash? Medicated vs. unmedicated starter? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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