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Eat This, Not That

Your chickens require the right mix of nutrients to thrive, but how do you choose which diet is best for your flock?

Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

Gastronomes chickens are not, but our feathered friends do appreciate scratching and pecking for their daily rations, whether crumble, pellets, greens or grubs. If you’re like most poultry keepers, you probably head down to your local farm-supply store, pick up a bag of feed and offer it to your ladies without thinking twice about what’s in the mix. Chickens, however, require a careful balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals to fuel their metabolisms, build dense meat and strong muscles, and produce all those tasty eggs.

Before you fill your ladies’ trough with their delicious, nutritious morsels, read on to learn more about how to choose which diet is right for them.

Commercial or Homemade

Home-cooked diets are all the rage among dog and cat owners, but is it a good idea for chicken keepers? Homemade chicken feed can be made with the knowhow, tools and materials, but it may not be worth the effort.

Instead, chicken keepers should leave the food prep to the experts. Birds require diets with precise nutrient amounts, and most backyard or small-scale hobbyists won’t have the time or skill to whip up some chicken crumble in their kitchens. It is not recommended that non-nutritionists manufacture products for chickens. The birds have very specific requirements that change as they grow, and most people are not equipped to design feeds that will provide all the amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in the correct amounts and ratios to keep birds healthy.

Poultry experts point to prepared commercial pellets, crumble or mash manufactured by reputable poultry feed companies. It is generally cheaper and certainly easier to purchase a professionally designed and manufactured poultry feed from a company with a strong history of making quality feeds.

That makes perfect sense to Ann Wortinger, a veterinary technician instructor based in Belleville, Mich. Her flock of nine hens and one rooster gobbles down pelleted feed that she purchases at her local farm-supply store. "I barely have time to make my own dinner," she laughs. "Keeping the coop and pen clean and dry and the chickens fed consume the majority of my ‘chicken time.’ I have looked into homemade chicken feed, but I don’t have the time, energy or equipment necessary to formulate it. I instead opt to use a commercial brand that I trust."

Special Food for Special Peeps

The next factor to consider when choosing chicken feed for your flock: their age. Those adorable little peeps, adolescent pullets and full-grown adults each have their own nutritional requirements, so food makers have formulated different blends for various stages of a bird’s life.

Very young chicks have very high nutritional requirements and must be fed a chick starter feed to get a proper nutritional start. Without adequate nutrition, young chicks will not grow well, will have poor feather development, and they may revert to undesirable behaviors, such as feather-picking and cannibalism. Nutrient requirements are highest shortly after hatch and decrease as the birds get older.

The types of nutrients peeps require include high levels of protein while their tiny bodies grow, says Tom W. Smith Jr., Ph.D., emeritus professor of poultry science, with Mississippi State University’s extension service. "Feed chicks a ‘starter’ diet soon after they hatch," he advises. "Continue feeding it until they reach 6 to 8 weeks of age. The starter diet has the highest level of protein a chicken receives in its lifetime. As the chick matures, it requires a lower percentage of dietary protein and a higher level of energy."

Some starter diets contain medication to stave off diseases, like coccidiosis, and it’s a good idea to allow your peeps to dine on this treated food for the first four to five months of life. "Coccidiosis is best prevented by feeding a coccidiostat, or a drug added to feed at low levels," Smith says. "Feed [it] to broilers until the last week before slaughtering, and feed it to birds in laying flocks until about 16 weeks of age. Then replace it with a

On the Senior Menu

As your hens age, they’ll still require basic protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals found in layer diets, but they’ll likely eat less of it. They’ll require the same nutrients but at lower levels. Though they’ll likely lay fewer eggs as they age, they can still be fed a basic layer diet. Older hens will often lay fewer eggs, and they may even stop laying completely, so they do not necessarily need extra calcium. A layer feed, however, will not harm them, so there is no need to feed an older hen differently than the younger hens in the flock. A good quality layer feed will meet the requirements of hens of all ages.

Broiler or Layer?

Bird type — meaning broiler or layer — will dictate what type of diet you feed your birds, too. They all require the same nutrients, but in different quantities. They all need protein as a source of amino acids; energy; all of the vitamins except vitamin C; the macro-minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, salt and potassium; the micro-minerals, including manganese, zinc, iron, selenium, iodine and copper; and water.

Calcium is one nutrient amount that differs. Growing chickens, pullets and broilers only need about 1 percent calcium in their diet. The layer needs 3.5 to 4 percent in its diet because of the calcium need for the egg shell. Layers should receive a portion of their calcium in larger particle sizes, like oyster shells.

If they don’t consume adequate amounts of calcium, hens will pull calcium from their own bones to make egg shells. They will also have egg shells of poor quality, which results in increased cracking and breaking. That can, in turn, foster the very undesirable and uncurable habit of egg-eating. Broilers, because of the rapid growth rate in their short 7- to 10-week lifespan, must eat a food designed just for them.

Today’s broiler hybrids are genetically programmed for very large breast size and extremely fast growth, sometimes to the point of "going down on their legs," a condition in which the bird is perpetually squatting because it has grown heavier than its more slowly growing skeletal system can support. Broiler hybrids should be fed a high-quality feed designed specifically for them to safely support their fast rate of growth."

Heritage breeds and free-ranging meat birds will grow more slowly and have less extreme breast sizes, she adds, but they will take longer to grow to harvest weight.

Stay tuned for part two of our Chicken Nutrition Center coming next month.

Wendy Bedwell-Wilson writes from her 80-acre farm in southwest Oregon. Her Coop Corner column appears in every issue of Chickens magazine.

Are you feeding your chickens the right diet? Find out now.
Take our Eat This, Not That Quiz - click here to begin.


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Give us your opinion on Eat This, Not That.
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Good to know
Annie, Houston, TX
Posted: 5/26/2013 7:31:10 AM
If I ever get my own homestead some day, I'll probably make my own chicken feed.
Harrison, Dayton, TN
Posted: 8/6/2012 2:01:32 PM
Nice article except it got truncated. In the Special food for special peeps section it says: "Feed [it] to broilers until the last week before slaughtering, and feed it to birds in laying flocks until about 16 weeks of age. Then replace it with a" Nothing comes after the a.
Elizabeth, Conroe, TX
Posted: 4/10/2012 10:24:30 AM

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