Chick Nutrition – Start to Finish
What to Feed Baby Chickens So They Thrive
Knowing what to feed baby chicks is a critical first step to giving them a fighting chance. Precocial as they may be, chicks are still vulnerable to their environment, which is why we as good stewards must give them the tools to survive and thrive. Those tools, besides a well-managed brooder setup, is a rock solid nutrition plan.
Most hatcheries offer initial chick boosters, such as “Quick Chick” and “Grow-Gel” to compensate for shipping stress. If you’re concerned about how to care for baby chicks, then feel free to add these pick-me-ups to your nutrition plan, especially if you’ve ordered a small batch of chicks. I’ve tried these supplements before and although they certainly don’t hurt, I personally haven’t seen any hard evidence of their necessity or effectiveness. Don’t consider them mandatory, especially if you’re receiving full boxes of 100 chicks or more. Shipping full boxes of chicks greatly reduces shipping stress, which is better than trying to compensate for undue stress with supplements.
What to Feed Baby Chicks
Feeds come in different rations (a ration is industry speak for recipe or formulation) for different birds. The most common feeds available to retail consumers are Chick Starter Feed, Grower Feed, Layer, Fat and Finish, Breeder and Game Bird Feed (for game birds like pheasant and quail). Some feed mills combine names like “Start and Grow” or “Game and Show,” which may be confusing to you. When in doubt, look up that specific feed brand’s recommendations for what to feed chicks on their website. “Chick Starter Feed” or “Start and Grow” is what you should feed baby chicks. These rations will advertise between 18 percent to 22 percent crude protein content on the tag. Anything lower or significantly higher in protein content is inappropriate for use as a chick starter feed.
How Long to Feed Starter Feed
How long to feed starter feed largely depends on the specific ration you’ve chosen. Some feed brands have yet to combine their first two stages of feed rations, so their feeding recommendations may include a classic chick starter feed ration for the first eight weeks of age, then require you to move on to a dedicated grower ration and feed that until 20 weeks of age. Many feed companies offer a ration that combines these two feeds such as the “Start and Grow” feed ration I mentioned previously. Most companies who offer these combination rations suggest feeding them from day one to 20 weeks of age.
Almost all feeds are offered in a variety of consistencies. The usual available consistencies are mash, crumble, and pellet, which refers to the size of an individual piece of feed. Consistencies have more to do with the age of your bird and reducing feed waste than anything else. Mash feeds are a consistency similar to sand, which is what you should feed baby chicks because they can’t eat big pieces of feed yet. Crumbles are a mid-point between mash and pellet meant for growing juvenile birds, and pellet is the best consistency to feed adult birds.
Healthy chicks grow exponentially, so when I brood a group of standard-size chicks, I fill my feeders with a crumble, then top the trays off with a mash. By about four days old, standard-size chicks have grown large enough to eat the smaller crumbles they find, and they will dig around the big chunks they can’t eat yet. Before you know it, they will be dining on crumble exclusively.
Part of what to feed baby chicks to make them thrive is grit. Chickens don’t have teeth, but they still have to masticate what they eat so they can properly digest it. In lieu of teeth, chickens have an organ at the end of the esophagus called the gizzard.
The gizzard is effectively a big pouch of muscle with a thick and resilient lining. This muscular pouch contracts and squeezes the feed your bird ingested, but as resilient as the liner is, it’s not hard like teeth. Chickens throughout their life eat little bits of hard objects, usually little stones, and those stones live in the gizzard to serve as “teeth” to grind feed in the gizzard. Eventually, those bits of stone wear down and pass along the digestive tract, until they are once again reunited with the ground from whence they came.
Commercially available chicken grit is usually ground granite, sold in small quantities that come in different sizes. Buy a size specific to feeding day-old chicks, since a larger grit will be too big for them to use. Don’t buy too much grit, since all you need to do is sprinkle a little over top their feed once in a while. If you don’t supply your chicks with grit, it’s not the end of the world. Chicks will find little bits of hard substance in their bedding and in their feed, but it’s easier for them if you provide some grit.
Medicated Chick Feed
Medicated chick feed exists for one reason and one reason only; to confuse you. Alright, that’s not true, but for many beginning backyard flock owners, it sure seems to be one of the many unexpected things you find along the way. Medicated chick feed (or medicated chick starter) is a solution to a longstanding chick-rearing problem known as Coccidiosis.
What is Coccidiosis?
The disease known as Coccidiosis is not a virus or a bacteria, but instead an infestation of coccidia. Coccidia are protozoan parasites, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a microscopic critter. These microscopic critters are very common in the world of poultry, and the lion’s share of backyard chickens have experienced a run-in with one of the many varieties of coccidia. Under healthy circumstances, a chicken will ingest an oocyst (coccidia egg), the oocyst will “sporulate” (hatch) and the protozoan parasite will invade a cell in the wall of the intestine. In that cell, this little critter will produce more oocysts, which will cause the cell to burst and the new oocysts are carried out with the feces. One coccidia parasite can destroy over a thousand cells in a host bird, but chickens will build an immunity when faced with a low-level infection.
Chickens with low-level infections will not show any signs of illness, however, when you have a group of birds living in the same pen, one infected bird can cause a chain reaction and the whole coop can become a coccidia factory. When a chicken ingests too many oocysts, its gut gets overrun and too many cells become damaged for them to absorb food. Because of all the broken cells in the gut, chickens also start bleeding inside, which comes out looking like bloody diarrhea. Not only will birds be losing blood, but a secondary infection will occur, which leads to septicemia (infection of the bloodstream) and then death. All this can happen quickly and without warning, and before you know it you’ll have sick chicks everywhere.
Back to Medicated Chick Feed
One of the facts about baby chicks is they are born with underdeveloped immune systems and immunity to coccidia is not passed down through the egg. Fragile chicks are a prime target for coccidia, and that’s why medicated chick feed is so important to us. No, the medication in question is not an antibiotic, instead, it’s a product that serves as a coccidiostat or retarding agent that slows down the reproduction of coccidia. Amprolium is the most common brand name of coccidiostat sold in medicated chick feed, but whatever brand it is, it’s still a coccidiostat. Thankfully the FDA was wise enough to exclude Amprolium and its cousins from its Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) order, which is why we can still buy medicated chick feed here in the United States. Additionally, Amprolium also falls under the “Small Animal Exemption Scheme” (SAES) in the United Kingdom, so expect to see it readily available wherever you are.
Chick starter feed that has been dosed with a coccidiostat will say “Medicated” somewhere on the label or packaging. Amprolium is the most common, but remember it’s not the only coccidiostat available on the market.
Medicated chick feed is an all-or-nothing sort of thing; either you use it or you don’t. If you intend to use it, start from day one and keep feeding it per the feed mill’s feeding directions (usually found on the feed bag’s tag or their website). Be careful that you don’t accidentally buy a non-medicated bag of feed, otherwise, you just sabotaged yourself and left your birds unprotected. Switching back to a medicated feed after an accidental feeding of non-medicated feed is effectively throwing money out the window and is ill advised. Chicks should be fed a medicated feed continuously with no interruptions for best results, and be sure to follow the feed mill’s advice on how long it should be fed.
An organic alternative to Amprolium-treated feed would be the widely used apple cider vinegar trick. Organic certification groups suggest that their growers use apple cider vinegar in the water of chicks when brooding to control Coccidia populations within the gut. The theory is that the vinegar acidifies the digestive tract, making it difficult for Coccidia to thrive. This method has not been officially studied, but it is widely used. In my travels, I like to ask the opinion of people who know far more about chickens than me, and the unilateral response I’ve received when asking about this method is “Can’t hurt, might help.” That’s coming from poultry scientists and poultry veterinarians alike. The theory appears sound and it’s widely accepted, but no official study has been done to prove or disprove the practice.
If you’re a progressive type then you likely bought birds that were immunized for Marek’s disease, but did you know there’s a relatively new inoculation available called Coccivac? Coccivac is an optional inoculation hatcheries can perform, which is effectively a spray of solution on the backs of day-old chicks that is full of compromised (weak) Coccidia oocysts. These compromised Coccidia are ingested by the chicks as they preen, which then go about the business of infecting the bird. The trick here is that these Coccidia are weak compared to wild strains, and give your chicks the opportunity to build resistance before they can do any harm.
If you did receive Coccivac-treated chicks, do not use medicated chick starter or apple cider vinegar. Using either of these methods will wipe out the “good” coccidia and put your chicks in harm’s way.
What Chicken Grower Feed is Right For You?
Chicken grower feed and adult feed rations are a critical part of raising healthy, productive chickens. Once your chicks pass 20 weeks of age, they’re really not chicks anymore and shouldn’t be fed as if they still were. Juvenile birds require a different feed ration to perform, grow, and live well. That feed ration is a chicken grower feed and which one you use will largely depend on what kind of birds you’re growing, and for what purpose.
For layer or dual-purpose birds, like the Leghorn or Rock, you need to feed them a poultry feed formulation for layers to get the best results. Starter, grower or combo rations will be way too high in protein for your layer-type birds and will not have the calcium levels to support strong shells. For these birds, which constitute the vast majority of backyard birds, a standard chicken layer feed with an advertised crude protein level between 15 percent and 17 percent is ideal. At this point, maintaining the same brand and feed ration is critical to keeping your birds in lay. Any sudden change to a different brand of feed may bring your layers to a screeching halt in production. Additionally, if you feed a ration that is “too hot,” or higher than 18 percent crude protein, you will see abnormal behavior in your birds. A feed that is too high in protein can cause birds to become agitated, self-mutilate by pulling feathers, and all sorts of odd behavior.
If you’ve gone the miniature chicken route with fancy Bantam breeds, then you should consider your options. Back when I started with show chickens, most feed companies offered a breeder formula meant for show birds. That’s becoming harder to find these days because most feed companies have combined their game bird and show bird formulas since they were closely related anyway. These feeds range between 15 percent and 22 percent crude protein typically, and you should research what feed ration is recommended by your chosen feed company. Don’t rely on the store associates recommendations; follow the feed mill’s advice since they know the product far better than any store clerk.
Top flight show birds like this handsome Belgian can benefit from a show bird ration designed to keep them in top condition.
Chicken Grower Feed
If you’re growing birds for meat, you have options. Many feed companies offer different stages such as chicken starter feed, chicken grower feed and possibly a “fat and finish.” I’ve used fat and finish rations with my turkeys and my broilers and have found it to be largely undesirable. These fat and finish rations were prevalent in the days of caponizing (castrating roosters, typically of a “dual-purpose” breed), but today’s modern meat breeds don’t require such a ration. If you do use a fat and finish ration with your modern meat birds, expect to be disappointed with all the wasted fat on the inside of the body cavity.
One exception may be the newer “slow grow” meat birds like Red Rangers. I maintain my commercial broilers on a standard grower feed until slaughter, which is at six weeks of age. Many feed companies now suggest using their grower or one of their lower protein game bird rations for meat chickens. Expect a ration recommendation with a crude protein between 17 percent and 24 percent.
Your typical turkey grows much larger and faster than your typical chicken. As such, your turkey poults need a feed ration that is considerably higher in crude protein than your chickens to support their growth. A feed ration around 30 percent crude protein is an appropriate benchmark for a turkey starter, and many feed companies will offer this feed labeled as a “Game Bird and Turkey” ration.
Feed Like a Pro
Using the right chicken feeders is almost as important as feeding the right chicken grower feed. I’ve tried all sorts of feeders, and I’ve come to some realizations after spending more money than I ever should have. For my situation, I’ve completely abandoned chick feeders of every style and description. I have found that buying a high-quality, commercial-grade adult feeder (such as Kuhl) is a far more effective use of my time and money versus buying the retail-grade stuff they offer at your local feed store, with one exception.
This screw-type quart jar feeder is very useful when modified. I use these for small batch brooding in plastic bins.
For small batch brooding, I have found the small gravity-fed feeders to be exceptionally useful. These are those small screw-base feeders usually sold under the brand of Little Giant, but they’re not perfect. When I use these feeders, I use a hole saw to cut a large hole in the top of the “jug” or “jar” to make it into a real gravity feeder. This is the only time I suggest an off-the-shelf chick feeder to anyone, otherwise, an adult-sized feeder is the best option.
When using a standard gravity feeder, be sure the lip of the feed tray is hung at the same height as the height of the back of your shortest bird. This reduces feed waste and spoilage in both juvenile and mature birds. For day-old chicks, however, set the feeder on the ground and ramp up to the feed tray lip with your pine shaving bedding. This will let your day-old chicks gain access to the feed. Your industrious little charges will soon be digging the shavings from around the tray, and by then it will likely bring the lip to the right height for the time being, or they’ll just jump in.
What Chickens Can Eat
What chickens can eat is a commonly misunderstood topic, which is why many beginning chicken keepers wind up on the wrong foot with their bird’s nutrition. One of the problems I run into is people feeding their birds to death, which you can do without knowing it. The negative physiological impact of overfeeding can be easily avoided, but let me explain what that impact is first.
Obesity in Chickens
Unlike humans, chickens store their fat internally in what we call the “fat pad.” This fat pad lives in the body cavity, sharing space with critical organ tissues. When chickens find an abundance of energy-rich food, their body stores it as fat to serve as an energy reserve. This is a great mechanism for wild birds that may experience an abundance of foodstuffs during the year, especially if they can expect a shortage of food over the winter. For our chickens, however, that lean season never comes and their stored energy never gets burned up.
Results of Overfeeding
As the fat pad begins to crowd internal organs, a chicken’s body responds with physiological changes. Just like the human body will prioritize bodily functions, a chicken’s body will make decisions based on survival needs. In this case, the bodily function of reproduction is the first to go, causing the reproductive tract to shrink to save internal space. Hens that are being overfed will stop laying to make room for more important functions.
Fat may weigh less than muscle, but added fat does weigh down chickens. This means more effort is required to mobilize themselves, which causes the heart and lungs to work harder. This added effort can become taxing.
Chicken lungs are a rigid structure, unlike the elastic balloon-like lungs of mammals. Still, chickens need to move air through their lungs to absorb oxygen into the bloodstream, and they use air sacs to do so. Air sacks are thin, fragile structures that occupy the free space within the body cavity. Chickens use them much like a bellows for a fire, by compressing them with their breastbone. As fat intrudes into the body cavity, space and capacity are lost, and your overfed hens will have a harder time breathing.
Very much like humans, a chicken’s heart has a hard time coping with all this added stress. The job of moving blood through the body becomes more and more of a chore, and much like how your biceps grow in response to heavy use, your chicken’s heart muscle grows. Unlike your biceps, the heart of a chicken will grow and expand, until it can’t close its valves anymore. When that happens, blood stops moving and you now have a dead chicken.
Scratch grain is a holdover from the old days before livestock nutrition was really understood.
Classic scratch feed (not to be confused with a balanced ration) is the chicken’s equivalent of a candy bar. Scratch feed, or scratch grain, is a treat and you must feed it sparingly if at all. Scratch feed has been around since before balanced feed rations existed. Nutritionists have since learned that scratch feed is terrible for birds, but tradition has kept it alive and selling. If you don’t already feed this stuff, then don’t. If you do feed scratch, then feed it sparingly. A 25-pound bag should last 10 hens a year or more in my opinion.
Corn is also not a healthy thing to feed too much of. I don’t have a need for it and haven’t fed it to my birds for years, but cracked corn makes a good distraction, gives birds an extra calorie boost for a cold night, and it works well as bribery. The commercial feed you purchase at the store is already predominantly corn or soy based, so they really don’t need more of it. If you opt to feed some anyway, then use cracked corn since chickens have a hard time crushing whole kernel corn in their gizzard.
The long list of what chickens can eat includes many things, including chicken! As far as feeding chickens scraps go, feel free to feed them meats, cheese, vegetables, fruits, bread, French fries, boiled eggs and most anything else in small quantities. What not to feed chickens; onions, chocolate, coffee beans, avocados and raw or dried beans. These things can cause health problems in chickens.
How Much is Too Much?
With the exception of modern meat-type birds, you shouldn’t be worried about how much to feed chickens, but you should instead be more concerned about what chickens can eat all the time. Ideally, for top performance, chickens should be fed a balanced ration (such as a layer, grower or starter feed) as “free choice” (always available, all the time). That balanced ration is everything they need, but if you desire to give them treats or use them as a replacement for your InSinkErator, don’t let the treats or scraps constitute more than 10 percent of their daily diet. Even at 10 percent, you are running the risk of loading them up with too much fat and not enough of the good stuff they need to live a happy, healthy, long-lived life.