It wasn’t that long ago (and is still true in many parts of the world) that chicken keepers allowed their birds to free-range and forage for their own food. There was no such thing as store-bought chicken feed and I’m sure lots of farmers would have scoffed at the notion of paying to feed poultry: my friends, Thomas and Elizabeth, among them.
They live on just less than 1/2 acre with a few trees, fenced gardens and orchard and a field. Their birds are totally free-range, eating bugs and seeds, scratching through compost and getting produce from our local food recovery program. They’ve never been fed manufactured feed and are supplemented with a small amount of wheat daily. Thomas concedes that their chicks are more slow growing than if they’d be fed higher protein food, but are healthy and long-lived.
The same is true of dog and cat food. Our grandparents would have fed their pets table scraps and not supported the multi-billion dollar pet food industry. For several years my dogs were on a raw food diet that I prepared myself. Believe me, it’s work making food from scratch. I understand why folks feed manufactured food: it’s balanced, easy and consistent.
Most of us aren’t particularly knowledgeable about nutrition and what our birds require for overall health and egg laying. In our busy lives it’s easier to go to our local farm supply store and buy ready-made chicken food.
If you feed your birds manufactured feed do you know what to give them at the varying stages of their development? What is in their feed? How to supplement with making fermented feed or giving them table scraps or produce gleaned from food recovery programs?
If you are interested in how to use those products here’s a little info:
Chicks don’t require any food or water for @48 hours after they hatch. If you are using an incubator that means you don’t need to remove chicks as they hatch. Minimizing disruption with incubator humidity is important, so leave them there as long as possible. If, like me, you have hen-raised chicks, then they are out on the soil within the first day pecking at whatever their mother tells them is food.
For the first eight weeks, I also feed them starter crumbles, which is a high protein (20-22%) product providing the nutrients they need to grow. Too much protein can cause liver and kidney damage (like gout) so make sure to transition them onto the next stage by the time they are ten weeks.
It’s a bit confusing in that there is another product called Starter/Grower which can be used for their first twenty weeks. Check the labels or talk to staff at your local supplier if you are unsure which product is most appropriate.
Medicated vs. Unmedicated?
The former doesn’t contain actual medication, like antibiotics, but amprolium which is a thiamine blocker. Coccidiosis mostly affects young birds under the age of six months and requires thiamine in order to reproduce; so starving them of this essential component impedes their ability to survive. It will only provide your birds resistance to the pathogen for the duration they are eating it, not in the future. By then, like many adult birds, they will have developed resistance to coccidia. If your chicks have been vaccinated against coccidiosis don’t double-dip by giving them medicated feed because the two interfere with each other.
Think of this as food for growing teenagers: it contains 16-18% protein, but less calcium than layer pellets which aren’t required until your pullets start laying. You can buy it in a crumble or pellet form.
Once your birds start laying or @20 weeks switch them over to layer pellets, which contain a balance of 16-18% protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals required for adult birds and laying hens.
The amount of energy needed to lay an egg, relative to their size, is equivalent to a human running a marathon. My hens work hard, I feed them well and let them take plenty of breaks. I dislike when folks refer to their hens on hiatus as slackers – it’s as though they are supposed to be production machines. I don’t use lights to force them to lay, let my hens go broody and raise chicks, go through molts and weather changes – all the things that affect their laying cycles.
I think many new chicken keepers think chickens start laying young, lay an egg a day without interruption, and lay for years – total myth unless you’ve got production layers bred to do just that (unfortunately the result of that is premature death).
Chickens don’t have the benefit of teeth, but digest their food through their crop and gizzard. Grit helps them to grind food in order to digest it. If your birds are outside they are pecking in the dirt and ingesting natural grit: sand and small pebbles. You can offer grit in a separate container so they can freely take what they need. Oyster shell is a rich source of calcium, a requirement for egg laying.
Chicken scratch is essentially snack food: cracked corn, peas and grains. It’s a great source of calories for your flock, but shouldn’t be fed on a regular basis. The best time to feed it is in the winter for extra calories.
Everyone I work with seems to be into fermenting. I haven’t experimented with it yet, either for myself or my birds. It’s an easy way to increase vitamin, enzyme and prebiotic intake, as well as making food easier to digest.
I’ve never raised meat birds. Incredibly these breeds are designed to be eating machines that are able to put on a lot of weight in a short time so they are ready for slaughter when they are 6-10 weeks old! There are various feeds made especially for them which are denser in protein, encouraging the flock to grow bigger, faster. Don’t use this type of feed for your layers, or vice versa.
Impact of Feed On Eggs
Most manufactured feed contains 85% grains and grain by-products, protein producing seeds, canola, soybean meal and fats. Different makers tweak the recipe to achieve different results: flax or fish oil increases Omega 3 content in eggs; adding vitamin D to feed gets passed on to the eggs; corn intake contributes to darker yolks, while wheat creates a lighter yolk. Some types of feed have prebiotics or probiotics added for the health of the layers.
The nutritional content of eggs is about the same, regardless of yolk colour. They contain about 13 grams of protein; omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids; vitamin B12, which protects against heart disease; vitamin A, key to healthy skin and eyes; vitamin D, for healthy bones and teeth; vitamin E, an antioxidant; and choline, critical to brain function.
In Canada, laying hens are not given hormones; the use of antibiotics was banned in 2014.
Organic vs. Non-Organic
In my area, organic chicken food is roughly double what the non-organic costs. Feeding a large flock that can get pricey. If you’re selling organic eggs the hens have to be fed an exclusive diet of organic feed. I feed non-organic manufactured feed, but get lots of free certified organic produce from our local food recovery program.
How To Feed Birds Of Different Ages
If you have a multigenerational flock that’s housed together you’ll have to juggle what they eat. I often have a broody hen and her chicks in a separate pen. They all eat chick starter. The teenagers in their pen are on grower. If younger chicks are in with the main flock I have layer available in the coop and starter or grower available where only the youngsters can access it. If young chicks get too much calcium it can damage their kidneys, leading to gout.
Some folks worry about what to feed their roosters who don’t need the calcium content of layer pellets. Some people offer feed without calcium to the flock at large and have crushed oyster shell available separately for the hens (I’m not sure how they keep roosters from eating it, or if they even want to). I asked my local feed store if they had a product like All Flock, and surprisingly not only do they not carry it, they had never heard of it. Since I don’t have the option of purchasing that product I, like most people, feed all the adult birds layer pellets, so far, with no adverse effects.
It’s important to remember that chickens have survived for many generations without eating store-bought food. If you feed them a well balanced diet and understand some basics of what they require they’ll be fine. Often we buy into the notion that the sky will fall if we don’t follow exacting guidelines set out by a particular industry.
In this case, remember that it is in the vested interests of big feed companies to have us use their products. I’m not suggesting that they aren’t good for our birds – I use them – but I also supplement with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, yoghurt, garlic, herbs, garden weeds and kitchen scraps. And folks like my friends, Thomas and Elizabeth, don’t buy feed at all and have a healthy and happy flock relatively untouched by losses.
One last observation and pet peeve: I see an increasing use of plastic in the packaging of animal feed. Our local feed store has no option, but to carry chicken feed packed in plastic feed bags because that’s what their supplier has available. I prefer to buy elsewhere and get feed in heavy paper bags (which I’ve never had an issue with) and then recycle them.
I have seen some folks repurpose the plastic bags into products like shopping bags or aprons, which is great because the graphics are beautiful and it keeps more plastic out of our landfills.