Hatching the Facts on Medicated Chick Starter Feeds for Layers
By Tiffany Towne, Nutrena Poultry Expert
So you have your chicks, heat lamp, brooder, bedding, feeder and waterer. You stroll over to the feed aisle to pick up a bag of feed, only to face yet another choice: medicated or non-medicated starter? Confusion reigns in most online and in-store discussions. Further complicating the debate is the introduction of the coccidiosis vaccination within the past 10 years.
To make an informed choice, it’s important to understand what the medication in chick feed is, what it prevents (and doesn’t) and when to use it. Much of what you feed will depend on your preference. If you feel strongly about raising your birds without medications, you may opt for the non-medicated version. On the other hand, many people wouldn’t dream of not feeding a medicated starter; they like the added security of knowing they have a preventive measure in place.
Why Use Chick Starter?
First, let’s review the purpose of chick starter feed. Chick starter is a specialized type of feed designed for a very specific purpose: to nourish baby chicks so they can grow and thrive. This feed is formulated to what a chick’s digestive system is set up for — early protein. A mother hen takes her babies outdoors to find tasty bugs, nutritious weeds and greens, which provide the protein and energy necessary for proper development. But not many chicks have the luxury of a mother or access to insects. Chick starter contains highly digestible proteins, usually around 18 percent; amino acids and carbohydrates in a small crumble form. These small particles are important to encourage consumption for a small chick.
How Long to Use Chick Starter?
Some feed manufacturers, such as the makers of the Nutrena brand, recommend a diet of chick starter for up to four months. Other manufacturers suggest anywhere from two months to until the chicks start laying, and then switching to layer feeds. Be sure to read labels carefully and do research on your specific breed or breeds.
How Much To Feed?
Although they look small and weigh next to nothing, baby chicks aren’t shy when it comes to eating. An average chick will consume around 10 pounds of feed during the first 10 weeks of life. It’s important to make chick starter feed available around the clock, since the chicks will self-regulate how much they eat. Raising the feeders off the ground a bit will help reduce waste. And, just like with your adult birds, access to clean water is an absolute must.
What Medicated Chick Starter Does
Medicated chick starter is like an insurance policy, aimed at preventing a single disease called coccidiosis, caused by an intestinal parasite. This parasite is widespread and found in just about every chicken yard. It thrives in damp conditions and with brooder-raised chicks. It is the number one cause of death in chicks throughout the world.
The medication in medicated starter feeds, such as Nutrena Medicated Crumbles, is called Amprolium and is a coccidiostat. Meaning, it’s an agent added to chick feed to help prevent coccidiosis in young birds. No matter how hard you work to keep the coop and pen clean, as chicks scratch, peck and explore their world, they ingest the coccidiosis from the feces around them. It’s normal for birds to ingest a few of these organisms and to build up immunity over time. But cocci multiply rapidly in the gut and too many mean trouble.
Symptoms of infected chicks include a red or orange tint to the feces, a drop in feed consumption, huddling and acting lethargic. For beginning poultry enthusiasts, the symptoms may be hard to spot, and chicks can become permanently stunted, or even die, before you get medication. The low dose of coccidiostats used in medicated chick starter feed allows a small amount of coccidiosis to survive so that the birds can naturally build up immunity to it.
What Medicated Feed Does NOT Do
- It does not guarantee your birds will not get sick from coccidiosis, nor is it potent enough to cure an outbreak. There is only enough medication in the feed to act as a preventative measure. Once your chicks become sick with coccidiosis, their feed intake usually drops dramatically. Depending solely on a medication in the feed is not a good idea. The addition of a water-soluble coccidiostat is a good route to go if you experience an outbreak.
- It is not targeted to prevent anything other than coccidiosis. It is not an antibiotic, dewormer, respiratory medication, etc. It will not make up for dirty coops and poor air quality.
- It is not necessary for ducklings and other waterfowl. They are usually very hardy birds and not as susceptible to coccidiosis as chicks. Plus, few feed additives are approved for waterfowl and may be harmful, so read your labels carefully.
- It does not harm laying hens. If your hens accidentally ingest some medicated chick starter, their eggs are still safe to eat.
Medicated Feed and Vaccinations
Medicated chick starter is not recommended if your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis at the hatchery. The vaccination provides a small dose of cocci to the chicks to help them build immunity. Feeding medicated starter will kill off this small dose and nullify the vaccination. However, the coccidiosis vaccination is relatively new and fairly rare, so chances are your chicks have not been vaccinated. If they have received the coccidiosis vaccination, it is the only vaccination that would react to a medicated feed; other vaccinations will not be impacted.
When Medicated Starter Is a Smart Choice
There are certain instances where it makes good sense to feed a medicated starter and give yourself some added peace of mind:
- Brooding large batches of chicks, such as 50 or more at one time
- Brooding large batches consecutively
- If you live in a hot, humid environment
- If you have a history of coccidiosis in your facility
Steps for Prevention
Whether you choose a medicated or non-medicated chick starter, there are additional steps you can take to help decrease the chance of a coccidiosis flare-up in your flock. Chicks kept on wire have less access to peck at feces, which reduces their chances of becoming infected. Clean your coop regularly, change litter frequently, and keep the brooding area dry. And don’t crowd your birds. Overcrowding quickly leads to unsanitary conditions.
Keep in mind, the availability of chick starter feeds varies by store. Some stores carry only non-medicated feeds, while others will carry only medicated feeds. Call ahead to your local retailer to make sure they have the type of feed you want. To find a Nutrena dealer near you, visit www.nutrenapoultryfeed.com.
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