There are two dietary mantras repeated by chicken keepers: boost calcium for egg layers and give protein for sick or molting birds. Chickens do require both, but it’s important to understand when, what kind and why.
Too much of a good thing can cause health issues. Non-layers (i.e. young pullets, older hens and roosters) can’t utilize high amounts of calcium. The excess can lead to kidney issues like gout. And feeding the wrong protein means we are giving them the wrong amino acid balance.
Amino acids are organic building blocks that combine to form proteins and when those proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are what’s left behind.
They’re divided into two categories: non-essential are the ones that chickens can synthesize on their own; essential amino acids must be provided by their diet because they are not produced by the body or produced in too small an amount to meet their requirements.
The essential amino acids required by chickens are: arginine, glycine, histidine, leucine, lysine, isoleucine, methionine, cystine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
If you are interested in learning more about the amount of various amino acids that chickens require click here.
What Do Proteins Do?
Proteins are three-dimensional structures, which are broken down during digestion into individual amino acids for transport and use throughout the body. Once absorbed, these amino acids are then restructured back into proteins that the chicken requires.
Their function includes building muscle, skin and ligaments; DNA replication; cell structure, transportation of molecules and enzymes that speed up chemical reactions. In chickens, proteins form keratin structures like feathers, beaks and toenails.
Not all proteins contain every amino acid.
Protein For Molting
Lots of online groups suggest feeding molting birds increased protein to help them with feathering, because they’re comprised of about 90% of a protein called keratin. While feathers are mostly protein, it’s really the type of amino acids that are important.
Keratin is made from 18 different amino acids.
Manufactured feed is balanced for both the production of eggs and feathers. If you’re looking to give your birds a boost these are the most essential amino acids required for feather production:
Cysteine: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, egg yolks, garlic, wheat germ
Glutamine: dairy products, cooked beans, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale, fish, fermented foods
Serine: soybeans, eggs, cooked lentils and chick peas, fish
Proline: strawberries, soybeans, broccoli, eggs, dairy products, yoghurt, cabbage
Is Cat Food Recommended?
Again, this is a little tricky. Are we feeding the correct amino acids for what we are trying to achieve? I’ve read articles on both sides of the argument.
While cats’ and chickens’ nutritional requirements differ there is a lot of overlap. Cat food contains a number of amino acids that chickens can utilize and is in a bioavailable form, that is, meat or fish and not from synthetic sources.
Cat food contains arginine, methionine, histidine, phenylalanine, isoleucine, threonine, leucine, tryptophan, lysine, valine, and taurine.
Some folks say that taurine, which is essential for cats is not needed by chickens because they can synthesize it on their own. I found several studies that concluded that small amounts of dietary taurine enhanced oviduct health in laying hens.
I would suggest that if you are feeding cat food (kibble or canned) read the labels. You should be looking for limited ingredients, sources of meat or fish, with as few additives as possible. The body needs to work harder and have the right enzymes to convert synthetic sources into useable forms.
My local veterinarian donates all their unsold canned and dry cat and dog food to my flock (which I, in turn, share with friends). I certainly wouldn’t turn down a free source of chicken feed, but I also know it is high quality and give it to them in moderation.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Protein needs vary based on age and activity. Young birds require higher levels because they are growing and need protein to build muscles and organs. As birds mature, protein is used to maintain systems and their requirements decrease.
- Chicks up 6-8 weeks of age: 20- 22% protein.
- Young birds over eight weeks: 17- 18% protein.
- Once pullets start laying and throughout their egg-laying cycle: 16-17% protein.
- Molting birds can be fed up 18- 20% protein and less calcium.
- Male birds don’t require, and can’t utilize, the high amounts of calcium in layer feed. If you have a multi-aged or mixed-sex flock I recommend feeding them all Grower/All Flock with calcium (i.e. oyster shell) offered separately. Excess calcium has a number of health impacts on roosters and young pullets, including gout.
The Optimal Feed Balance
Manufactured feed varies a lot. When looking at our feed bag label we often focus on the percentage of protein it contains, but aren’t aware of how it was sourced and whether it can supply the correct amino acids.
Most feed stores only carry one or two brands of chicken feed so our options are limited. I looked at my feed labels, which only list the percentage of crude protein, but give no information on the source of that protein or what amino acids are contained in them. After doing a little research I discovered not all proteins are equal.
Without going into a lot of scientific detail, here is the summary. There are many protein sources that are commonly used in poultry diets. Some are sourced from plants (e.g. soybean meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, and sunflower meal) and others from animals (e.g. fishmeal, bonemeal and poultry products).
You can have three bags of manufactured feed that all have the same amount of crude protein. However, the percentage of digestible protein varies quite a bit between, for example, soybeans, meat/bonemeal and cottonseed. Without having some understanding of amino acids and how they are utilized we might mistakenly think those three bags of feed were interchangeable. They’re not.
Typically 10-15% of amino acids are not digested or stored, but excreted from the body. Improper feed ratios result in the break down of amino acids resulting in higher levels of nitrogens excreted from the body. The ammonia smell associated with chicken poop is the result of protein metabolism. Poor ventilation and high levels of ammonia can cause respiratory issues and damage to your birds’ eyes and trachea.
As you can see understanding the dietary needs of your chickens is a little more complicated than going to the feed store. In my experience, staff at those stores are not nutritionists and often have no clue what they are actually selling. Do your homework. Read the bag and research what you are actually paying for. And if you are providing your flock with ‘extras’ understand what nutrients they require and what you’re providing. Hopefully the two will coincide.
Credits: Hyline, Poultry DVM and Poultry World. Featured Image: ThoughtCo