Winterizing Your Flock; A Winter Menu for Poultry

Changing Poultry Feed By The Season

Winterizing Your Flock; A Winter Menu for Poultry

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Lisa Jansen Mathews

I receive calls each winter concerning loss of chickens or the reduction in egg production. Both of these issues are related to diet. The callers are pleased to get manageable answers. I am not sure why the poultry feed industry builds its rations on growth stage alone. It is true that chicks need the higher protein in chick starter. Layers require less protein and higher calcium found in layer rations. However, these are not the only nutritional needs of the flock. As a college nutrition science major I look at poultry diet differently. I look at the calories, vitamins and minerals needed for the stage of development, the desired output, and the weather.

Spring Means Higher Protein Rations
In the spring I allow my hens to hatch chicks. I prefer to renew my flock in this manner. Breeding and setting require more protein. I put my breeders on 20 percent or higher rations. Additionally, in spring my layers increase their egg production. They are putting out a high protein, high calcium, high fat and vitamin A and E product. They require an increase in these same nutrients. If you pasture your flock you can choose pasture grasses that contain good levels of these nutrients. I plant alfalfa and legumes in my pasture. Alfalfa is 20% protein and high in both vitamins A and E. Legumes are high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A. Adding scratch to the diet increases vitamin E.

Winter Means Increased Calories
In winter my flock reduces egg production and has to endure cold weather. These are the issues about which small flock owner’s contact me. To meet these changes I reduce calcium and protein while increasing calories. The increase in calories allows the bird to stay warm. When birds are able to stay warm they are less likely to become ill or die. I decrease their protein intake to 17 percent. This is the standard protein content of most layer rations. I reduce calcium by reducing the availability of oyster shell. To increase calories I increase the proportion of scratch. Scratch is low protein but high calorie. I allow my hens to reduce egg production in winter to prepare for spring breeding. If you don’t want to allow reduction of egg production you can increase protein with sprouting.

Increase Protein With Sprouts
Sprouting is simply allowing grains and legumes to sprout. This source of amino acids, vitamins and calories will increase winter egg yields and boost your birds’ immune systems to ward off illness. Poultry get cold and flu viruses just like we do. Sprouting can be done in your kitchen window. Fill a mason jar 30% full with wheat, barley, and oats or any bean. Cover the seeds with water and tuck the jar away in a warm dark place. Empty the jar of water after eight hours. Then rinse the seeds daily. Drain the seeds well. When they begin to sprout place the jar in a sunny kitchen window. Continue to rinse daily. When the sprouts have greened up nicely feed them to your birds.

My husband is a hopeless junk collector. He is always bringing home items discarded at work. One day he came home with a stack of plastic yellow toolbox trays. They sat in front of the barn for months. When trying to streamline my sprouting process, I discovered I could sprinkle sprouts on a thin layer of potting soil in the trays. The trays are easy to place in with pullets. I limit the time I leave the tray in the pullet enclosure so the birds don’t munch the sprouts down to the plastic. When the tray is removed it can be watered and continue to grow for another serving. My junk-collecting husband is a genius!

Chickens love sprouts no matter how

you serve them. I have sprouted flax, mung beans, vetch, lentils, buckwheat and alfalfa in addition to the seeds mentioned above. I have omitted poppy seeds to avoid getting my chickens loaded. I am not sure but I think poppy seeds are an opiate. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply offer a number of seeds and seed blends in their cover crop section I like to sprout. Their website is

A jar of sprouts plus good information from the AAFCO Official Publication equals great eggs and healthy chickens.

Compare & Adjust Rations
In order to properly provide and change poultry diet as needed one must learn to read poultry ration tags. The tag is usually attached to the bottom of the bag. I keep a collection of poultry tags to show students in my poultry classes. Poultry rations are required to have the percentage of protein, fat, fiber and ash listed on the tag. The tags list the ingredients too. I like to know the sources of nutrients. Ingredient listings can help you adjust nutrient levels in the diet and compare the quality of rations. For example, there are three brands of layer feed sold in my area. One of them is slightly cheaper but, according to the tag, contains a lower percentage of protein. Therefore, the cheaper feed is not a savings but a lower protein feed.

Knowing ingredients is useful information. An example of this is the brand of food I always tell my students about. I will not mention the brand name, but it contained dried bakery products. Some folks may not mind feeding their birds dried bakery products but I do. I am looking for nutrient dense foods, not empty calories and sugar. I advise my students to read their feed labels on a regular basis. The above-mentioned food did not contain bakery products when I began purchasing it. I also keep tabs on the amount of soy in rations. I have a theory about plant estrogens and ovary diseases in layers.

If you want to know even more about what you are feeding your birds I recommend “The Association of American Feed Officials’ Official Publication.” This publication defines the ingredients listed on poultry and other feed labels. If your layer ration lists soybean meal as an ingredient it means “the grindings of soy flakes after the extraction of most of the oil from dehulled soybeans.” Ground corn means the entire kernel of corn ground up. Dried bakery goods is “a mixture of breads, cookies, cakes, crackers, flours and doughs, which has been mechanically separated from non-edible materials.” (Association of American Feed Officials’ Official Publication, 2004) For further information about obtaining a copy of the American Feed Association Publication go to

At times I have mixed my own rations. Knowing the nutrient content of each grain or other ingredients, such as fish or kelp meal, is necessary. A good table for nutrient content is in the book Ducks & Geese in Your Backyard, by Rick and Gail Luttmann. I have a copy of the 1978 edition. The nutrient table is on pages 122 and 123. Some poultry keepers prefer vegetarian ingredients only. I have a great respect for fishmeal with its 65 percent protein level. I encourage you to think about what you expect from your birds and then look at the rations you feed. If you expect your chickens to survive cold winters in poorly insulated housing be sure to increase their calorie intake. If you want rich healthy eggs provide rich healthy rations!

Originally published in the October/November 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry.

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