As chickens grow from tiny little fluff balls into fully feathered adults, their nutritional needs change over time. Let’s begin with this definitive beginner’s guide to chicken feed.
As the chickens reach certain milestones, it’s important to adjust their dietary intake to ensure you have healthy and happy fully-grown birds keeping you in a steady supply of eggs every day.
While diet plays a vital role in turning chicks into active, egg-producing full-grown chickens, a healthy upbringing also plays a critical role. The environment your new birds will be exposed to for the first few weeks of their life can make all the difference in whether you can always look forward to a decent supply of eggs every morning.
Weeks One to Four
Before your new batch of chicks escape from the confinement of their shells you should have your brooder set up and ready to go. This will ensure you have somewhere safe and warm for the chicks when it’s time for them to graduate from the incubator.
Chicks will spend the first 8 – 10 weeks of their lives in the brooder, which is just about enough time for them to develop the grown-up feathers they need to survive outside and no longer need a heat lamp.
Now that you have your fluffy new arrivals, it’s time to sort out your chicks’ dietary needs. When they first arrive, it’s your job to take on the role of the mother hen and teach them the necessities of life. It’s not too difficult, as it’s mostly just teaching them where and how to drink.
There are usually a few smart cookies in the flock who can figure drinking out on their own, while the rest will learn by mimicking. Occasionally, however, you may need to get the ball rolling with chicks who are a little slow on the uptake by gently dipping their beak into the water. They will get the idea eventually and will soon start doing it on their own.
Food wise, your birds should have access to a complete starter feed. Most feeds will be medicated with coccidiostat to prevent Coccidiosis, a disease they can contract from a parasite. The protein content in starter feed should be around the 18% – 20% mark To help build mass.
Some breeders choose to go with a broiler starter feed, which contains all the vitamins and nutrients growing chicks need but come fortified with a little extra protein (20% to 24%) to help the birds develop faster. However, if you’re raising egg layers rather than table birds, then sticking with the regular stuff is perfectly fine.
If you are providing the chick with anything other than crumbles or starter mash, then they should also have access to grit that is kept separate from the main feed. This will accommodate their smaller beaks. Chick grit is smaller than regular chicken grit, so make sure you get the right kind.
When the chicks are fully grown, it will be time to swap out the chick grit with grit that is suitable for adult birds. Free range hens may not need any extra, as they will naturally pick up small stones as they forage through the garden.
Without teeth, chickens need the small stones to mill about in their crop and grind the food for easier digestion and greater nutrient absorption.
Eight to Eighteen Weeks
All good quality starter feeds on the market today can supply your chicks with all the nutrients they need for at least the first 18 weeks. You may also be able to continue with the same feed right up until the hens start laying if it mentions as much on the bag.
Grower feed can be used to put the brakes on the growth of your chicks by supplying them with slightly less protein content (about 16% to 20%), so they don’t start laying before their time.
Eighteen Weeks and Beyond
If you’re after maximum egg yield, then provide your chickens with a good quality layer feed but wait until the hens have started laying first. Layer feed is fortified with calcium and essential amino acids. If the hens aren’t yet pushing out eggs, then the extra calcium may play havoc with their kidneys.
However, once they do start laying, the extra calcium is vital to ensuring the egg shells are good and firm. A protein level of around 16% will also ensure your chickens have enough material to maintain a healthy muscle density.
If you have a flock made up of different ages, or have a lot of roosters, then an all-purpose feed is highly recommended to ensure each bird is receiving an adequate amount of nutrients, minerals, and proteins.
Different Types of Chicken Feed
You can divide chicken feed up into three categories: mash, crumble, and pellets.
Mash is a fine powdery feed with a smattering of crumbles. It’s a good choice for new chicks as it is easy to mix with water. One caveat of mash is that if your chicks are prone to scrabbling about while looking for the larger pieces, they will go through it faster and a lot of it will be wasted over the sides of the brooder.
Crumbles are another feed type with the potential for a lot of wastage, but it’s still a good choice for the more petite species such as bantams. The smaller granules are more accommodating to the tiny beak sizes.
Pellets are the preferred choice for larger or older birds. They are also the most efficient as pellets produce the least amount of waste out of the three options.
Scratch can be thought of as pure carbs, or lollies if you are looking for a human food analogy. Cracked corn and other grains make up a typical scratch mix and are more of a treat for the birds than a good source of nutrition.
Chooks love it, but it will go straight to their hips if they get too much. A good rule of thumb is to keep scratch to about 10% of their total diet, and not as an everyday thing.
Transitioning from One Chicken Feed to the Next
Moving straight over from starter chicken feed to layer chicken feed is not recommended. A gradual transition will be required if you don’t want your flock to come down with a bad case of indigestion.
Use an even ratio of starter chicken feed to layer chicken feed for the first four or five days. You should also use the same strategy when moving from mash to crumble, and crumble to pellets.
By the time your hens reach an age where they are no longer laying they have become part of the family and still have a valuable contribution to make towards weed and grub control. A general-purpose feed suitable for flocks containing all ages will suffice, with some broken up oyster shell thrown in to supplement the calcium for the hens which are still laying.