In the days when my ‘Nana’ was a little girl, chickens were a rarity, their meat and eggs being saved for special occasions. Then came the war (two of them actually) and with the rise of the Victory Garden, chickens found their way into a lot more homes. Time continued forward though, as it always does, and the household chicken faded away against the onslaught of mass production and convenience.
My Nana has been gone for some time now. And I can’t help but wonder what she would think of how food works today. Here in the era where groceries are just an app click away, surely the backyard chicken would exist only in memory.
I’m happy to report, that is not the case.
The family flock is back – its return started by a few forward thinking rebels. And for them, it would seem quality – not convenience – is KING!
And the market knows it.
The selection of chicken breeds available today is astounding. Big birds, little birds, birds with amazing plumage. There are even birds that lay colored eggs.And running parallel with the rise of chickens is the demand for quality feed.
In this article, we will go through the many different aspects of a chicken’s nutritional diet; paying careful attention chicken type and its specific needs. Hopefully, by the end, you will have a solid grasp on this forgotten knowledge and the confidence to embrace a new flock of your own.
Baby Chicks And Water
It might seem a little odd to talk about water when focused on chicken feed. But the reality is, dehydration is a quicker killer than starvation. For this reason, you must ensure that your new arrivals know how find and drink the water they need.
Chicks are especially vulnerable to dehydration. In a normal situation where a mother hen is on-site, she will show the little ones where food and water is at. If, however, you are starting from scratch and there is no mama hen around to show them, then it is up to you to do this. Failure on your part could easily lead to the loss of a chick. Sadly, this is something I know from personal experience.
Our standard procedure for opening up a new box of chicks is to dunk their beaks in the waterer before releasing them to run around in the brooder. This way they’ve gotten their beaks wet and will have experienced what they need. This process has worked many times for us. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked every time!
Chickens can be surprisingly good at figuring things out…if they have the time. However, chicks that have spent 48hrs in the mail, don’t have a lot of time. They need fluid in them quickly. Which is why we have adopted an additional measure, one that has been extremely helpful. This method is incredibly simple and will significantly reduce your worry.
So what is it?
We hand feed them, or rather we spoon feed them water.
Chicks will instinctively peck at anything that strikes their curiosity. If you hold a spoonful of water, (we use a medicine spoon – easier to control), down at their feet, your chicks will give it a peck just to check it out. This is when you will know if they’re thirsty or not.
It can be a little tough to keep track of who has drank and who hasn’t, but I can’t tell you how incredibly relieved you will feel knowing that you just pushed back the ‘countdown’ on potential fatality.
For our chicks, I will spoon feed water to anyone who will drink, every hour for the fist 6 hours after they come out of the box. It’s important to note that I do not try and force them to drink water, I only offer it to them. After this, I will back off on offering the spoon water to every 4 to 6 hours, just for a couple of days. It’s been our experience that once the chicks have figured out the waterer, they stop showing interest in the spooned water.
Age Of Your Chickens
Unlike mammals that start on milk and are later weaned onto solid foods, baby chicks will eat the same type of food as their mama hen shortly after leaving the shell. There is no regurgitation like with some birds and basically no special dinner treatment at all for them. But that doesn’t mean your baby chick should eat adult chicken food.
Chicks grow at a phenomenal rate and as such have special nutritional needs. Giving them anything but chick feed puts their development at risk.
Likewise, feeding your six month old hen, starter feed, probably isn’t going to help her either. She will have specific needs of her own as she will probably be laying a lot of eggs. So it’s always important observe and make sure that each member of your flock is getting the nutrition (via a quality feed) that will best fit their needs.
That being said, please don’t feel like you need to throw out half a 50lb. bag of starter feed, simply because your birds have hit the next age group. Feeding an old bird a little bit starter feed isn’t going to hurt her. Feeding her starter feed exclusively, without supplemental calcium, could cause her harm.
So When To Switch From Chick Starter Feed?
This is one of those debates that can get you kicked off the Christmas Card List if you have the ‘wrong’ opinion. And to be fair, different breeds of chicken will have some varying in their development needs. So a lot of answers that you hear could be correct.
This is what has worked for us.
For regular size egg-laying birds, such as the Orpington or Australorp, we will buy one 50lb bag of starter feed for batches of 5 to 7 chicks. That bag should run out around nine weeks of age, at which point, we will switch to normal feed – not be confused with the layer feed specialized for egg laying birds.
If our flock is exclusively egg-layers, then we will go to a layer feed at around 16 to 18 weeks of age. Layer feed will have extra calcium for those egg shells they’ll be making, as well as a lower protein content as the birds will have slowed down their growth rate.
### Important Note ###
It should be noted that our birds are outdoors and free-ranging as soon as the weather will allow. In this environment, the birds won’t eat nearly as much store feed as they prefer to scratch for their own food. Bugs and greens are much more appealing to them!
Also, when making the switch from one feed to another, we will mix the feeds; the intent being to allow our birds a chance to adjust to the change in diet.
If you have any questions or even a sense of unease regarding your specific flock, don’t hesitate to reach out to your feed manufacturer. You can also post your concern on a chicken forum. It’s been my experience that the people who raise these amazing animals are deeply passionate about it. They LOVE what they’re doing and will be more than happy to help you!
What Is The Best Feed For Laying Hens
It’s a fact! Eggs from your backyard coop taste waaay better than store bought. Granted, there might be a little bias in that statement, but I challenge you to a taste test to prove me wrong. The color is different, the yolk is thicker… it’s just an all around different experience from industrialized eggs. But delicious taste isn’t free – not from the hen’s perspective anyhow.
Today’s egg laying breed of chicken can really produce. A lot of these birds can lay 280 or even 300 eggs a year. And when you consider just how much calcium that is over the course of a year, then you can understand why the right feed is so important.
A good quality Egg Layer Feed should be the main staple for anyone raising their own eggs. To skimp in this area is to invite health issues to your flock. In the very least, you will see a lower egg production. This is especially relevant for birds that don’t have lots of access to the outdoors (including chicken runs).
Your backyard can provide a lot for your birds. Bugs of all kinds, grass, roots, tender shoots, wild berries… the list is extensive and all of it has value for your chicken’s diet. But in order to take advantage of this wild bounty they need to have access to it.
We have found that the more free-range our flock is, the more ‘wiggle room’ we have on feed. Not only do our birds eat less feed, but should we screw up and give them the wrong feed, it doesn’t affect them as much.
Unfortunately, this is not an option for everyone. Predators like the fox can be devastating. And for this reason, the flock must be protected, which usually includes limited mobility and limited access to wide open spaces.
In the situation where your egg-layers have to be behind fencing, supplemental grit and calcium are always an option.
Grit helps your chicken break down their food as they don’t have teeth to chew things with. Calcium, as mentioned before, is necessary for producing egg shells. While a quality Layer Feed should have everything they need for health, making grit and calcium available is just another level of insurance for you as their caretaker.
How To Feed Meat Chickens
A good example of what’s called a ‘meat bird’ is the Cornish Cross. This breed of chicken was developed specifically for consumption. It has enormous legs and breasts and grows very VERY quickly. Butcher time for our Cornish Chickens is right around 8 weeks.
Feeding meat birds is significantly different than feeding regular chickens. With regular chickens, you simply fill the feeder and walk away – trusting them to only eat as they need to. Meat birds must have their food supply regulated as they will eat without restraint – in other words, they will eat themselves to death.
For those who are raising the Cornish Cross meat birds, it’s best to consult the hatchery for a specific feeding schedule. However, here are some general guidelines that have worked for us.
- From hatched to 3 weeks of age – Feed them chick starter just like you would any other chicks. In other words, fill the feeder and let them eat as much as they want.
- From 3 weeks to butcher – Feed them 12 hours on and then take the food away for 12 hours. FYI, they are not going to like this. When food comes around after 12 hours of not eating, they are going to make a mad scramble for it. This is where injuries can occur.
### Note ###
We have found that it’s helpful for the birds to spend their 12 hours of fasting in a dark place as chickens tend to bed down at night. This is why we purchase our ‘meat chicks’ later in the summer, as the warmer weather eliminates the need for a heat lamp.
Unfortunately, summer nights tend to be shorter than 12 hours so if you are raising your meat birds outside in a chicken tractor (which we do as soon as the weather will allow) there will be daylight time without food.
As mentioned before, it’s best to consult the hatchery for a feeding schedule regarding your specific breed of meat bird. The Rainbow breed is another popular meat bird that grows to ample portions, however its feeding needs are slightly different – as is its time to butcher.
Types Of Feed
With more and more people raising their own chickens, the market has responded by providing more and more options on how to feed these chickens. Take a stroll through your local feed store and you might find it a little overwhelming. But don’t get too discouraged.
You will generally find three main categories feed: Chick Starter Feed, Egg-Layer and Meat Bird. If you are fortunate enough to have a large store available, you may also find feed for feather care, wild game birds and even 50lbs bag of scratch grains (treats). The choices are astounding.
- Chick Starter Feed – is exactly what you need for those fuzzy little chicks that will spend the next few weeks growing in the brooder. This feed generally has a protein concentration of around 18% and is designed for their specific metabolisms.
- Egg-Layer – is definitely what your hens are going to need when they start producing eggs. Making egg shells requires a fair amount of calcium which the layer feed will provide. This feed generally has a protein concentration of around 16% as the hen will have reached maturity and no longer needs the extra protein for growth.
- Meat Bird – is a feed focused on adding weight, specifically muscle weight, to your fast growing bird. Your Cornish Cross chicken can be harvested anywhere from 7 to 9 weeks of age. And with chick feed being necessary for the first 3 weeks, this only gives your birds 4 to 6 weeks to bulk up. For this reason, you should look for a protein concentration of at least 20% (we use 22%).
### Note ###
Providing the right feed can be tricky with mixed flocks. For example, should you have a rooster eating layer feed? The extra calcium might not be good for him. You could put two different feeders out, but good luck getting him to eat out of the right one or vice versa.
It’s been our experience that free-range roosters seem to do okay with the higher calcium concentration layer feed. Between table scraps and the outdoor forage options, our roosters have never shown any health issues other than their grumpy personalities. That’s not to say that they can’t, only that ours haven’t so far.
What we won’t do, is give our egg-laying hens Meat Bird feed as the protein content is just too high. With our hens being free-range, the effects wouldn’t be immediate, but it could still cause them health issues over time. Chicks, however, absolutely must only be given chick starter feed.
Medicated Vs. Non-medicated Feed
This is another one of those debates that can get you kicked off the Christmas Card List. Some people swear by it, believing the medication is prudent while others see it as a waste of money – providing you keep things clean of excessive poo.
Medicated chicken feed is meant to prevent Coccidiosis, or commonly referred to as Cocci. This is a condition where microscopic parasites grow in your birds’ guts causing digestive issues. If you’ve ever seen a dog with a bad case of worms, then you know exactly what can happen to your chicken. Obvious signs will be a lower energy level, diarrhea, weight loss and eventually death.
Cocci is generally found in poo and can be transferred from bird to bird (including wild birds). All that is needed is to get the infected poo in their beaks and they can have the parasite.
Cocci does especially well in wet conditions. For example, if a bird were to poo in the waterer and another bird come along for a drink, then you have the perfect set of variables for a bad situation.
In our case, our chicks are generally isolated in an indoor brooder for the first few weeks. So unless they came with the parasite, then theoretically, they shouldn’t be at risk for it. For this reason we do not give our indoor chicks medicated feed.
With regards to our outdoor adult birds, we are careful to change their water everyday – making sure to dry out the waterer with a paper towel and then adding a spoonful of apple cider vinegar to the new water as a disinfectant. These birds do not get medicated feed either.
However, for any chicks hatched the old fashioned away – aka mama hen – we would certainly recommend medicated starter feed as these birds are outside and the extra insurance is completely warranted.
Using medicated feed really is a matter of personal choice. As for us, we try to keep things as natural as possible…and to us, constant medication is not natural. However, we will not hesitate to take the available precautions if there is even a hint of cause to do so.
Chicken Feed Organic Vs. Non-Organic
This is one that is sure to make your head spin as everyone wants to wear the label organic. Consequently, there is a lot of ‘sales talk’ that, while not being dishonest, can definitely lead you to a wrong conclusion.
For chicken feed to be labeled ‘Organic’ there are two main points of focus; how the ingredients were made and what are the actual ingredients in the feed recipe.
- How the ingredients were made. In order to wear the label of organic, the ingredients included should never have been exposed to chemicals. This means things like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, ect. Nor can any of these ingredients be genetically modified – such as GMO corn or soy.
- The ingredients in the feed recipe. There can be no hormones, animal by-products or medication included in the feed recipe.
One might think this makes a pretty clear case against Non-Organic feed. However, there are a few caveats to your boycotting of Non-Organic feeds.
- Medicated feed – such as used to prevent Cocci – can not be considered organic.
- Animal by-products, the list of which is certain to be long and disgusting, can not be included in any ‘Organic’ feed. (It is at this point I feel it necessary to remind readers that we’re talking about chickens. These are animals that will claw through cow pies in order to eat grubs and maggots. I seriously doubt any animal by-products, no matter how revolting, are going to be an issue for a chicken.)
### Note ###
For personal backyard flocks, Non-Organic feed is certainly a viable option – especially if your flock is free-range as they will be finding and eating plenty of ‘all natural’ stuff on their own. However, if you are raising birds for profit (selling their eggs or meat) and want to have the ‘Organic’ label, then you will want to spend the extra on pure organic chicken feed.
Chicken Feed Crumbles Vs. Pellets
Besides the incredible selection of feed types, you will also have to choose between Crumbles and Pellets. Honestly, I’m not sure how this came to be.
Basically, you can buy the exact same product (meaning the ingredients) but you have to choose what shape it comes in. I guess that’s kind of like ice cream – do you want it on a cone or in a bowl? (Only in this case, the bowl would have be edible like the cone.)
The only exception to this is Chick Starter Feed which only comes in crumbles.
- Crumbles – are basically smashed pellets. There is no rhyme or reason to their size or shape. Some pieces will be big and some of your feed will just be dust.
- Pellets – like you might expect are uniform and cylindrical, like mini hot dogs.
### Note ###
We have found our flock to show no significant preference of one over the other. However, I see a lot less on the ground, going to waste, when I use pellets.
If you’re curious, try a bag of pellets for your flock. You can always mix it with crumbles or smash it with a hammer if your flock decides to boycott.
How Much Should You Feed Your Chickens Per Day?
This is one of those questions that really bothers me. You will often find an ‘expert’ who has calculated an amount and is more than willing to stand by their numbers. Please disregard this person!
The amount of variables involved with a chicken’s daily consumption needs are considerable. Breed, sex, temperature and daylight hours are just a few of the factors involved. Then there will be the wild cards such as being broody, illness, injury or even molting. These can all affect your birds’ appetite. Now throw in the fact that each of member of your flock will have their own personality and you’ve got an impossible equation.
With the exception of meat birds and their 12 hours on, 12 hours off feeding regime, your best practice for feeding your flock is to simply make sure that their feeder has something in it at all times. This is usually a simple matter of filling the feeder once a day. Believe me, that’s a whole lot easier than trying to count calories for each and every one of your birds!
### Note ###
Despite the fact that your birds are less active in the winter, they will probably eat more as it takes energy to stay warm as well as having less forage available to supplement.
How Long Can Chickens Go Without Feed?
Our very first batch of birds were Golden Sebright Bantams. We bought them because the salesman told us they were good foragers and we had an over abundance of ticks that we were looking to get rid of.
These birds were, of course, free-range and upon release, I was amazed at how little feed they consumed. I have no doubt that this particular breed of chicken could have gone the summer with only their foraging skills to feed them. However, there are a few important things to note.
- Breed and foraging – While almost every breed of chicken has an innate drive to scratch and forage, some of them do better than others. For us, the breeds that have needed the least store bought feed are the more ‘wild and gamey’ sort of birds. They also tend to be smaller (or at least skinnier) breeds.
- Foraging and meat/egg production – As mentioned above, our sole purpose with having a flock of Bantams was to reduce the tick population. We did not buy them for eggs, meat or even any sort of interaction. For us, we would simply release them in the morning and basically not see them again until evening when it was time to go back to the coop. This is not the kind of flock we have today. Since then, we’ve learned to enjoy their eggs and the occasional chicken dinner that the bigger, less wild breeds offer. But with these bigger birds, optimized for egg/meat production, comes higher feed requirements. In other words, if you want consistent egg production, then you’ll need to provide more feed consistently.
- Optimal health – One thing to remember when considering forage vs. feed, is nutritional balance. Yes, there are all kinds of wild birds out there (ducks, geese, partridge, ect.) that live healthy lives wholly on foraging. But these are not your domesticated fowl. These birds are wild and in the case of ducks and geese, learn foraging from observing other ducks and geese. Your backyard birds are not going to get the benefit of this tutelage. Adding to this is the fact that they can not fly elsewhere when the food is exhausted – causing them to be thin and susceptible to illness (not to mention hungry).
Grit For Chickens
As chickens don’t have teeth, they do their ‘chewing’ in the gizzard. It’s here where food is broken down in order to access the nutritional benefits of whatever they have eaten. However, the gizzard doesn’t have teeth either. Consequently, chickens will eat small pebbles or rocks to do the crushing work that teeth would normally do.
If your flock has access to the ground, then there’s a good chance they can scratch up whatever they need to help them break down their food. However, if you live somewhere where it snows a lot and the birds can’t get at the soil, then supplementing their diet with some sandy grit would probably be prudent.
One thing to note, oyster shells and digestive grit are not the same thing. I have seen oyster shells advertised as ‘soluble grit’. This makes no sense to me. I don’t want my rocks to dissolve, I want them to be tough enough to break food down. Yes, I can understand how sand could potentially bind up your birds digestive track. But chickens are built for this. Just think of the size of an egg.
My philosophy is, ‘if they can swallow it, chances are they can pass it’ (very young chicks withstanding). I could be way off on that, so use your own judgment. Just know that oyster shells are primarily beneficial for helping to form egg shells, while grit (non-soluble) is beneficial for breaking down food.
This is the fun part!
It is flat out therapeutic to feed treats to your flock. I like it, my family likes it, even the delivery man gets a kick out of tossing treats to the birds. Young, old, male, female, it makes no difference. EVERYONE enjoys giving treats to those greedy little feather balls!
And the chickens like it too!
While perusing forums for flock enthusiasts (which I highly recommend) I have seen comprehensive lists made by the truest of chicken fans as to what makes a good treat for your bird. Seriously, someone could make a book on just this subject.
Chickens will eat almost anything – except french fries (don’t ask, as a huge french fry fan I just don’t get it). But the two treats that have never failed to get our flock excited are grapes and corn on the cob. Honestly, I don’t see the connection, but they do love them both. (FYI, think leftover food, not fine dinning.)
Of course, there is a whole gambit of berries, grasses, grubs, ect. that you can treat you flock with. But I can tell you, if your birds get spoiled on grapes, then tossing them blueberries might get you a dirty look. They’ll eat them, but they’re not excited about it.
Being cheap, I try to stick with table scrapes for treats. But there are commercial treats available for purchase. Scratch grains, for example, can be purchased in 50lb bags and are ideal for getting the flock out of the coop in the winter. Dried meal-worms are also an option, but I have had limited success with those – especially in the summer time.
Every flock tends to be different. So experiment a little with your birds and let them be the judge.
Despite the fact of its obvious importance, feeding your flock should not be a cause for major stress. Chickens are remarkable little omnivores and the feed options available today offer significantly more than what was being used in the days when my Nana was a little girl. Understand, that between these two positives, you have a very high chance of success!
Just be sure to do a little homework ahead of time. Know what type of chicken you’re getting (meat bird vs. egg layer) and buy the appropriate feed. Information is readily available, both on the feed manufacturer websites, as well as, chick hatcheries. Also, join a chicken forum for networking – the help I’ve gotten from there has been incredible!
But above all else, enjoy the new life you’ve added to your backyard. Steel yourself against the bad times – a sad reality inherent to all animal husbandry – but with proper homework and a little bit of luck, these bad times should be few and far between.
For the record, chickens are an absolute blast! Their feathered antics will never stop to amaze you… or entertain you. The activity they add to your backyard can nurture you in a very soulful sort of way. So sit back and relax. Force yourself to forget your daily toils, if only for a moment, and take in the amazing world that is… your backyard chicken.