Protein and Enzymes in Organic Non-GMO Chicken Feed

Choosing Nutritious Organic Chick Feed and Layer Feed

Protein and Enzymes in Organic Non-GMO Chicken Feed

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Rebecca Krebs Feeding certified organic non-GMO chicken feed has become a popular choice for the home flock as people increasingly return to a natural way of life. Chickens’ diets influence the nutritional value of the eggs or meat they produce, so flock owners find it important to feed organically to avoid the genetically modified organisms, pesticides, and herbicides present in most conventional feed. The organic buying options have increased at a pace with the demand. Unfortunately, organic feed rations are not made equally. This is a serious problem because balanced nutrition is essential for chickens’ development, the correct maturation rate, egg-laying potential, and psychological well-being. It is, therefore, necessary for the flock owner to have a basic understanding of chicken nutrition to select a quality organic feed. For this discussion, we will address the nutritional factors of digestible protein and enzymes, two areas in which organic feed is often deficient. 

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In evaluating the protein content of rations, we will begin with peas. Since non-GMO peas are more available in some regions than non-GMO crops like corn or soybeans, peas are a common ingredient in organic non-GMO chicken feed. They are an acceptable ingredient in moderation; however, some manufacturers rely too heavily on peas for protein, failing to properly balance them with other elements so that the chickens have enough digestible protein in their diet. The protein in peas is not fully utilizable by chickens — the ingredient label may claim “18% protein,” but the actual protein chickens can use is less. Alyssa Walsh BA, MSc, animal nutritionist with the organic animal supplement manufacturer, The Fertrell Company, discusses this quandary: “Peas have tannins, which decrease the protein digestibility. Tannins bind to protein, thus making the protein less digestible. Peas are also low in sulfur-containing amino acids like methionine and cysteine. Methionine is an essential amino acid, meaning it needs to be provided in the diet at adequate levels to help birds grow and lay eggs. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and a protein source is only as good as its amino acid profile.” 

One way of providing a good amino acid profile is to find an organic non-GMO chicken feed that uses soybeans for protein. “Roasted soybeans or soybean meal is a great protein source because it has an excellent amino acid profile and can be used at unlimited levels once heat treated,” Alyssa Walsh says. Soybeans and corn work well together in a ration, as their amino acid profiles complement each other. Non-GMO soybeans can be difficult to find, though, and even if they are available, some flock owners prefer not to feed soy. In these cases, Alyssa points out that there are limits on how much of each of the alternatives can be added to the feed, so replacing soybeans requires four to five different protein sources. (Grains, other legumes, and flaxseed — among other things — may help meet this demand.) 

Photos by Joshua Krebs.

In solving this dilemma, there is an additional advantage to organic feed: it is possible to find an organic non-GMO chicken feed that contains animal protein, such as fishmeal, whereas this option is rare in conventional feed. Chickens are naturally omnivores, not vegetarians, so offering animal protein improves their overall health and is particularly beneficial in organic chick feed for young birds with their higher protein requirements. Alyssa is excited about this option. “The amino acids in an animal protein help to meet a chicken’s amino acid requirements for growth and development! Fishmeal is high in methionine, lysine, and threonine. All of which are essential amino acids. I really like fishmeal in a growing bird’s ration, especially in the starter.” Fishmeal must be kept at 5% or less of the diet for adult laying hens or broilers because too much can give eggs or meat a “fishy” flavor. 

Alyssa encourages chicken owners to “know where it’s coming from to avoid negative outcomes from feeding animal products. I prefer a wild-caught fish because that’s what I’ve had the most experience and success with. The fishmeal I use in rations is either a sardine meal or an Asian carp meal. Both are wild-caught. Meat and bone meal does not perform as well as fishmeal. If meat and bone meal is all you have access to, make sure it isn’t poultry-based.” Meat and bone meal — particularly poultry-based — can potentially transmit diseases to the chickens consuming it. This danger is virtually eliminated with wild-caught fish. 

The protein in peas is not fully utilizable by chickens — the ingredient label may claim “18% protein,” but the actual protein chickens can use is less.

Besides fishmeal, some organic non-GMO chicken feed manufacturers use soldier fly grubs or other insects to provide animal protein. This is an excellent option, with the additional nutritional benefits of the insects’ mineral-rich exoskeletons. The dried insects are available separately as well. They make a nutritious treat when chickens don’t have access to insects through free-range or to organic feed that already contains animal protein. Milk, whey, yogurt, or well-cooked chopped eggs are also great for adding animal protein to chickens’ diets. 

Once we’ve found a feed with complete protein, we need to look at what it has for enzymes. In some regions, organic non-GMO chicken feed manufacturers incorporate high levels of wheat, barley, and other small grains into their rations, all of which require special enzymes for chickens to digest them properly. It is common for these enzymes to be missing in organic feed. While it may sound daunting to determine if the feed contains the correct enzymes, Alyssa explains it simply: “Read the label. Look for ingredients like Lactobacillus acidophilusLactobacillus caseiLactobacillus plantarumEnterococcus faeciumBacillus licheniformis, and Bacillus subtilis.” These bacteria produce the necessary enzymes within chickens’ digestive systems. If the ingredient label lists only “dried Bacillus,” you can ask the manufacturer which species that includes. 

Photos by Joshua Krebs

Note that fresh greens and free-choice grit are also vital to chickens’ development and productivity. Organic feed often comes unground or coarsely ground, so grit (coarse sand for chicks or fine gravel for adults) helps chickens grind grains during digestion. Finely pre-ground feed like organic layer pellets or chick mash doesn’t require as much grinding during digestion, but feeding grit still improves feed utilization. Once hens reach laying age, in addition to their organic chicken layer feed, offer them free-choice oyster shell to meet their calcium needs for making strong eggshells. 

Owning chickens is a fulfilling pursuit, providing great homegrown food and constant enjoyment. And I have to say, it’s even better when I know my chickens are eating a nutritionally balanced organic diet that makes them happy and both of us healthy.

Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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