A Chicken Feeding Guide to Balance Diet at All Ages
What can chickens eat and when should you supply grower feed for chickens?
Do you need a comprehensive chicken feeding guide for all stages of life? Chicks, hens, and roosters need different nutrients, and providing the wrong feed can be disastrous.
We know that laying hens need more calcium in their diet than chickens that are not laying eggs, but how much more? Chickens need different feed at various times in their lives and also according to gender, but what do you do when you have a mixed flock? How important is it that your chickens get the correct proportions of nutrients in their feed?
Feeding Baby Chicks
When your chicks are less than eight weeks old, they need a starter feed. This starter feed is higher in protein than any other chicken feed mixes, usually possessing 18-22% protein by weight depending on variety and often the area where you live. This feed is also low in calcium because excess calcium can cause deformations in the chicks’ growing bones and damage the kidneys even to the point of killing the chicks. The young growing chicks are so sensitive to the amount of calcium in their diet that in an emergency it is better to feed them pulverized scratch or ground oats and cornmeal (even with no protein) than to feed layer rations even for a day. The high amount of protein in the chick starter feed is imperative to growing healthy feathers because feathers are made of protein. Chick starter is also ground into much smaller pieces than feed for grown chickens so it is easier for the chicks to digest.
What Growing Chickens Need
Once your chickens are eight weeks old but not yet laying, they need a grower ration. Grower feed for chickens has less protein but still does not have the extra calcium needed for egg formation. The protein amounts for grower feed is usually 14-18% by weight. Most chickens will need this feed until 20-22 weeks of age when they are ready to lay their first egg. Some larger breeds that start laying at an earlier age will need to be switched by 18 weeks of age. The quality and balance of their diet when young affect the quality of the eggs they will lay later on.
What Laying Hens Need
As soon as a hen reaches the age of laying, she needs to have appropriate calcium in her diet, usually 2.5-3.5% of the feed by weight. If her calcium is not adequate, she will draw the calcium for laying eggs from her own bones, thereby weakening them. Low calcium will result in eggs with thin, brittle shells that may even break inside your hen as she tries to lay the egg. This usually results in her death as she can no longer pass the egg. Brittle and broken feathers can also indicate a need for more calcium. As your hens age, they will need more calcium in their diet. You can provide calcium supplements for chickens by giving oyster shell, limestone, aragonite, or soluble calcium grit. A cost-saving method is to recycle egg shells. Completely wash and dry eggshells then crush them so to be unrecognizable to the hens. This is so you don’t give them the idea of egg eating. Calcium supplementation in this form is an excellent way to give calcium to your laying hens when you have a mixed flock as they will eat what they need. Protein needs are at 16-18% of feed by weight.
What Roosters Need
What do roosters eat, since they don’t lay eggs? Roosters do not need any additional calcium and don’t even need as much protein as laying hens do; only 9%. If you are able to give separate feeds, you may mix your regular feed mix with some scratch grains to decrease the overall protein content for your roosters. If you need to separate feed with chickens that are housed together, you may decide to give feed at certain times of the day with individual dishes per chicken. This can be accomplished with a smaller flock but is not as feasible with large flocks.
When to Change Rations
There are certain times when you will need to adjust your chickens’ feed such as the extra calcium supplement for older laying hens. Chickens also need a little higher protein percentage in summer because the heat will cause them to eat less in general. They also need a little extra protein any time they are going through a molt as the new feathers will take a good portion of protein. Your roosters could use some additional protein during mating season as well. In contrast, wintering chickens need a higher amount of carbohydrates to give them energy for warmth. Adding protein can be accomplished with some cat kibble or giving some mashed boiled egg yolk. Another method for adding just a little extra protein is giving your chickens some milk separately from their normal feed. Increasing carbohydrates is easily done by adding a small amount of scratch grains to the feed. During winter, chicken scratch feed may be best given right before your chickens go to roost for the night as it will give them a little extra energy for warmth.
Other supplements besides calcium to consider giving separately are grit, phosphorous, or salt. Whether you need grit depends on if your chickens get pasture time and what type of feed you give them. If they have time outside in open grazing, they will pick up grit themselves and you do not need to supplement. If they do not have much time away from the coop but you give them grains such as corn for chickens (cracked or whole) or seeds they will need grit to help them digest. Chickens that are range-fed may not get the phosphorous they need as they are not getting as many insects to eat. They will need it supplemented in a separate dish. Salt may be needed if your chickens are range-fed, even if only part of the time. Chickens that are fed only commercially prepared feeds will not need these supplements as the feed has been carefully balanced. All supplements should be fed in separate dishes or hoppers and made available at all times.
Having unbalanced feed can impact a chicken’s laying ability or cause unnecessary weight gain. Extra fat can make it hard for your chickens to lay their eggs, and nutrient deficiencies can cause problems with the eggs. Nutrient deficiencies can also cause problems such as feather picking, egg eating, and cannibalism. It is extremely important that we keep our chickens’ feed balanced to their needs. By incorporating the suggestions given in this chicken feeding guide, you can help your chickens be healthy and keep laying well.
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Damerow, G. (1995). Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. North Adams: Storey Publishing.
Originally published in the June/July 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.