To grow, lay eggs and stay healthy, chickens need good nutrition (which includes a balanced amount of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fats). However, with so much contradictory information out there, what should we be feeding chickens? Are table scraps and treats okay for chickens? Do chickens need supplements? What are all the different ration feeds for?
Chickens are foraging omnivores. When considering chicken nutrition, it is good to remember what wild chickens (Jungle Fowl) where designed to eat (sorry chickens… cinnamon rolls are not in your natural diet):
What Where Chickens Made to Eat?
In the wild, chickens primarily consumed bugs (lots of protein & B vitamins), vegetables/plants (fiber, phytonutrients and vitamins/minerals), fruits (carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins/minerals), seeds (fats, vitamins/minerals and protein), small amounts of whole grains (carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins/minerals) and whatever else they could find.
Conclusions & Modern Applications on Natural Chicken Diets
Chickens ancestors did not consume large amounts of legumes (beans, peas, peanuts and etc…) or grains (corn, rice, wheat and oats). Such things are not good for them outside of moderation and to much often results in pasty stools and/or diarrhea. Also, though many grains are healthy, since many are low in both essential macro and micro nutrients (including, but not limited to: certain proteins, fats, vitamin B12, vitamin C, Calcium and vitamin A). A grain based diet (particularly without supplementation) can lead to reduced egg-shell quality, reduced egg production, brittle feathers, lessened immunity, obesity (which often leads to joint and heart/respiratory problems), preen gland malfunctions/blockages (which is often the result of vitamin A deficiency) and reduced bone mass (a result of long-term calcium and vitamin C deficiencies). This is why scratch grains should not be the bulk of chickens’ diets. However, fear not… You do not have to worry about calculating your chickens’ daily needs! That is what ration feeds are for.
Commercial ration feeds are formulated by avian nutritionists and designed to keep chickens healthy and productive for as inexpensive as possible. Plus, it is often cheaper than formulating your own chicken feed at home. Where I live, layer ration ranges from $11-$17 for 40-50lbs of layer ration feed (non-organic. Organic is at least 2x the price though). Though needs vary, I calculated that one bag of non-organic layer pellets lasts 10 chickens for a month.
What to Feed Chickens
Like people, chickens have different nutritional requirements/needs at different growth stages. For this reason, there are different types of feed that where specially designed for chickens at different ages and growth levels. However, though this may seem confusing at first, poultry nutritionists have made it as simple as possible to get your flock well nourished. Here is a basic guide to chicken feeds for different types of chickens at different ages.
For Egg-Laying & Ornamental/Show Chicks:
For young chicks (0-10 weeks), they should be fed Chick Starter (10-20% protein). Chicks over 10 weeks should be switched to Grower Feed. Layer Ration Feeds are for egg-laying chickens and are thus enriched with ‘extras’ of specific nutrients used to produce eggs (such as calcium). Layer Ration should generally be given to chickens 18 weeks and older (unless the chicken begins laying before then).
For Meat Production Chicks:
For Modern Meat Production Birds: Chickens that are being raised for meat should be fed chick starter from week 1 to week 4-5. After week 4-5, they should be switched to grower until week 7. Then, they should be switched for the last time to chick finisher until they reach appropriate age for slaughter (week 9-12).
Feather Repair Feeds: Feather growing feeds (such as Naturwise Nutrena Feather-Fixer) are designed for molting chickens as well as chickens that are struggling with feather loss. According to Nutrena, Their Feather Fixer should be fed to chickens 16 weeks or older at first signs of feather loss. However, Nutrena also says that their Feather Fixer is formulated for year-round use in laying hens.
In order to ensure you are getting the best out of your chicken feed, here are some tips:
Fresh is Best:
Make sure that where you buy the feed from has a rapid turnover rate and is restocked frequently. Buying chicken feed that is sold indoors is safer than buying feed that is stored outside. Before purchasing feed, quickly check it. Make sure the bag is dry, free of rips/tears (which can mean stale feed) and not smelly… Chicken feed has a natural odor (which some say is not very pleasant. I don’t think it smells bad though… just smells a little grassy). However, after you purchase feed a few times (particularly if you fancy a particular brand), you will get accustomed to the specific smell. Unusual/different odors can indicate spoiled or moldy feed. Also, check the bag’s color. The bag should be not faded (faded feed bags often indicate excessive exposure to moisture, which often means stale/moldy feed (don’t ask me how I know).
Keep it Clean:
Avoid feeding chickens spoiled/moldy food. Also, try not to leave food out or feed chickens off the ground. Chickens often consume parasites, harmful bacteria and fecal matter when they eat feed off the ground. Plus, food on the ground attracts rodents, bugs and wild birds (which can transmit certain diseases to chickens).
Keep it Simple:
To many treats/scraps and thus alter the nutritional percentages that have been so carefully calculated by avian nutritionists. Optimally, only 20% or less of the chickens’ total feed intake should consist of treats/scraps. However, I lean towards the idea that quality is more important than quantity.
For example, flock A receives their 20% treats/scraps through cinnamon rolls. Group B receives the over the recommended 30% of treats/scraps through tomato/pear/apple cores, lettuce, oyster shell, wild bird seed and mealworms…. I don’t know about you, but I’d say Group B is going to be far better off health-wise.
As with all treats, it’s not wrong to treat chickens with not-so-good-for-them things from time to time… Just simply, for a healthy flock, keep unhealthy treats occasional.
Foods That Can Be Harmful to Chickens:
- Uncooked Rice: Though I don’t have substantial medical evidence to back up this idea, I have heard from many sources that rice can swell in chickens’ crops and stomachs, sometimes leading to bloating and sour crop.
- Bread, Bread Products & Boxed/processed/sugary foods: Bread consists primarily of carbohydrates. Many store-bought breads are low in protein and many essential nutrients. Sprouted grain, whole wheat and seed breads are not so bad but as with any poultry dietary supplementation, moderation is key. However, both bread and boxed/sugary foods have been known to lead to digestive problems and sour crop in poultry.
Supplements: Are they Healthy & Do Chickens Need Them?
Just like many supplements for people, some are healthy and others are not. Here is a list of some common chicken supplements.
Note: Supplements are often not exactly what they are labeled as… so be wary. Additionally, even many good supplements are not good for animals when given in high dosages.
Dietary Supplements That Can Be Harmful To Chickens:
Rooster Booster Multi Wormer Triple Action Vitamin Supplement
This product is advertised as a vitamin supplement for chickens. However, the label is a little confusing to some… This product contains Hygromycin B… which is an ANTIBIOTIC. Although antibiotics are occasionally necessary for medical treatment, chronic use is not healthy. When given to chickens long-term, antibiotics can cause digestive problems (such as undigested matter in the chickens’ droppings and diarrhea). Before buying supplements for your chickens (particularly when planning on using them long-term), it is a good idea to read the ingredients.
Dietary Supplements That Can Be Good For Chickens:
Crushed Oyster Shells
Oyster shells are now commonly sold in most farm and feed stores… And why? Because they are high in calcium! However, keep in mind that to much calcium can cause egg shell defects (such as calcium deposits). If you are concerned that your chickens are not getting enough calcium, supply chickens with crushed oyster shells on the side of their feed and let them decide if they need it. If you begin noticing white splotches or raised, white bumps on eggs, your chickens may be getting to much.
Baked, crushed eggshells
A cheap alternative to oyster, eggshells are high in calcium, as well as many other minerals that hens need to lay. Baking and crushing them keeps chickens from knowing that they are eating eggshells (which can lead to hens breaking and eating their own eggs). I have never had egg-eating issues with my girls since I started offering them baked eggshells.
Although this sounds weird, it takes a lot of good stuff for a hen to create an egg. Laying hens often benefit from the nutrients in eggs. Scrambling the eggs helps mask the eggs’ identity, which helps keep chickens from eating their own eggs. Because of eggs’ nutritional density, many chicken keepers are turning to them for sick/injured birds.
Mealworms (darkling beetle larva) are a classic chicken treat. They are not just rich in protein but are also ooh so yummy (to the chickens of course)! While mealworms are commonly sold in stores (with the animal feeds), you can raise your own for much cheaper. You can visit this helpful article for more on raising your own mealworms: How to Raise Your own Mealworms – BackYard Chickens Forum
Vitamin C is an acidifier, mildly altering the PH of a chicken’s digestive tract. This helps in the prevention of internal parasite and bad bacterial overpopulation. For this reason, it is highly beneficial in the treatment and prevention of digestive problems (such as pasty manure and diarrhea) and vent gleet (an overgrowth of bad bacteria). However, vitamin C also has immune boosting properties which may help prevent and aid in the treatment of some diseases.
Probiotics are living bacteria. However, unlike the bacteria that cause digestive issues (such as vent gleet), probiotics are good bacteria. They mutually benefit the host by aiding in digestion and keeping bad bacteria out. Probiotics also aid in the absorption of nutrients and many types release vitamins as byproducts of digestion (cool, huh? Like a vitamin supplement inside!). Also, a healthy gut bacterial population may help prevent Salmonella (internal bad bacteria issue) in chickens. Some commercial ration feeds have added probiotics. However, not all do.
ACV (Apple Cider Vinegar)
ACV is a common poultry water additive. It changes the PH of chickens’ digestive tract and helps prevent internal parasitic growth. However, it also delays bacterial overgrowth in waterers. ACV is best used 1-2 weeks on and 1-2 weeks off.
Black Strap Molasses
Black strap molasses contains many essential vitamins and nutrients (including, but not restricted to iron, potassium and B vitamins). Interestingly, it is often used for the effective treatment of vent gleet in chickens. After hearing positive reports on the use of molasses to treat vent gleet in poultry, I used it on a Rhode Island red hen and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly her messy rear cleared up. I am still researching it’s effectiveness and safe use.
Did you know that chickens can’t taste spicy? Try putting a little Cayenne pepper in a food chickens like and you’ll see what I mean. Cayenne specifically has been known to help with internal parasite prevention. For this reason, many natural geared backyard chicken keepers are using Cayenne. However, until I do more extensive research on the use of Cayenne pepper in poultry, I recommend using it in moderation, if you decide to use it.
Oregano is a common herb/seasoning/spice. The oil is now being sold for use in poultry. Why though? Oregano is exceptionally high in antioxidants… However, it also contains thymol and Carvacol, two medically proven antimicrobial compounds. This makes it a natural antibiotic (like plantain). Oregano also contains beta-caryophylin, which is an anti-inflammatory substance (likely why it is sometimes recommended by naturopaths for patients suffering from inflammation). Several studies indicated that Oregano oil also has antiviral properties and aids in the treatment of respiratory infections. However, Oregano’s potential antiviral properties are still being researched.
Supplement I use & Recommend:
Alltech’s 4 way acid Pak: This is a supplement added to chickens’ water. It contains a combination of vitamin C (derived from Citrus fruits) and Probiotics. It also helps prevent parasitic overload in poultry (and other livestock). Not only is this supplement inexpensive and healthy, but it’s super easy to administer! Alltech’s acid Pak is best used a few weeks on, then a few weeks off.
Note: I am not affiliated with Alltech…. Just a fan of their livestock supplements.
Here are some other supplements I offer by flock from time to time:
Baked Egg Shells or Oyster Shells (separate from feed)
Apple Cider Vinegar
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