PRODUCTION

What to Feed Your Chickens: Chicken Food Guide


August 4, 2022

Chickens eating feed in bowl

Feeding your backyard chickens a balanced and complete diet is the best way to have a happy and healthy flock. On the farm, chickens raised for fresh eggs and meat need an optimal diet for maximum productivity.

What Factors Affect Your Chicken’s Feeding Requirements?

The primary part of your flock’s diet can come from a high-quality complete feed formulated for your chickens’ specific needs. Many factors affect what and how much food you give your chickens. Some factors include the type of bird, its stage of life, and the season.

Type of Bird

A chicken’s diet depends on whether it is a laying hen, a meat-producing bird, a dual-type, or a fancy or ornamental bird.

Generally, meat-producing chickens need a higher protein level (20-24%) for fast growth. Laying hens can thrive on a lower protein level of about 16% in their layer feed containing calcium for better eggshell development.

Meat-producing chickens will consume more and more quickly than non-meat-producing chickens. Egg-laying chickens’ feed intake increases as chicks transition from growers to layers.

Age

The feed your chicken needs depends on its weight and stage of growth. As the chicken matures, its feed intake may increase to provide energy for egg or meat production. Newly hatched chicks require a chick starter feed during the first weeks of life and transition to grower feed after about 6-7 weeks, and then a layer feed at about 18-20 weeks.

Season

Generally, wintertime feeding should focus on carbohydrates, while summertime feeding should focus on protein levels. During winter, carbs can give your flock the energy it needs. Eating more food during this time can help them keep warm.

During the summer, reduce the number of scratch grains you give your flock. For example, a diet high in corn can increase body heat and make them feel warmer.

Consult with a veterinarian for feeding recommendations.

Chicken Feed Nutrition

The right amount and type of nutrients give chickens the energy and substance needed for the healthy growth and development of bones, eggs, feathers, and flesh. The following compounds are essential to stave off disease and provide nourishment.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, also known as carbs, are macronutrients that make up the majority of a chicken’s diet and are used to produce energy. Carbs can be consumed in many forms, including starches, sugars, cellulose, and non-starch compounds. Poultry is not good at digesting cellulose and non-starch compounds, also known as crude fiber.

Starches and sugars are excellent forms of carbs. Carb sources for chicken diets can include barley, corn, wheat, and other grains.

Fats

A gram of fat has nine calories of energy, while a gram of carbs and protein has four each, less than half of the calories of fat. At room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid and saturated fats become solid.

Examples of saturated fats used in chicken diets:

  • Tallow
  • Lard
  • Poultry fat
  • Choice white grease

Examples of unsaturated fats used in chicken diets:

  • Canola oil
  • Soy oil
  • Corn oil

In complete feeds, supplemental fat comes in the form of vegetable oil, yellow grease, poultry fat, or animal fat.

Fats are made up of fatty acids, which help maintain the structure of cell membranes and promote hormone synthesis. Fatty acids are found in various forms, but the primary fatty acid they need is linoleic acid. Linoleic acid cannot be produced by chickens, so it must be obtained from their diet.

Fats play an essential role in proper vitamin intake. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K require fat in a chicken’s diet to be absorbed appropriately.

Fats are a binding agent for different feed components, such as minerals and amino acids, and improve their taste. In addition, fats can reduce grain dust, containing toxins, bacteria, and other respiratory hazards for chickens and humans.

Oxygen exposure to unsaturated fatty acids can make the feed go rancid. Antioxidants, like ethoxyquin, are usually added to chicken diets with fat to reduce the risk of the feed going bad.

Proteins

Proteins are complex molecules made from one or a string of amino acids. When chickens consume protein, they digest it and break it down into amino acids, which are absorbed into the blood and circulated to cells that convert them into specific proteins.

Proteins are an integral part of a chicken’s nutritional requirements. It is critical for promoting healthy growth, immunity, and egg production. In addition, it can assist with other biological functions regulated by amino acids.

Chicken feed usually contains 22 amino acids, 11 of which are considered essential. Essential amino acids cannot be produced in sufficient amounts by chickens, so they must be found in their feed. Non-essential amino acids can be naturally produced with the right level of amino acids.

Essential amino acids for chickens:

  • Arginine
  • Histidine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Isoleucine
  • Methionine
  • Cystine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Non-essential amino acids for chickens:

  • Glycine
  • Serine
  • Glutamine
  • Alanine

Chicken diets usually contain various ingredients, instead of a single one, to provide chickens with the appropriate concentration of amino acids.

Feed tags will only include the crude protein percentage in the feed, not the levels of amino acids. Chickens are especially dependent on lysine and methionine amino acids. Deficiency in these amino acids can reduce productivity and affect their health.

Complete feed may include lysine and methionine supplements and lower protein content. If the supplements are not included, the feed would need very high levels of the other amino acids to reach its lysine and methionine requirements.

Primary protein sources in chicken diets:

  • Soybean meal
  • Canola meal
  • Corn gluten meal
  • Meat and bone meal
  • Fish meal*
  • Blood meal
  • Feather meal

*Fish meal should account for less than 5% of a chicken’s diet to reduce the risk of giving meat and eggs a fishy aroma.

Vitamins

Chickens require small amounts of vitamins, which are water-soluble or fat-soluble organic substances. Although vitamin requirements are relatively low compared to other nutrients, they are critical to maintaining healthy body functions and growth. Vitamin deficiencies in even just one vitamin can lead to various diseases.

Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamin A is responsible for the healthy growth, maintenance, and reproduction of epithelial cells found on the skin and linings of their reproductive, respiratory, and digestive tract.

Minerals

Minerals are integral to several biological functions, including healthy bone growth and blood cell formation, enzyme activation, blood clotting, muscle function, and energy metabolism.

Minerals are classified as either macrominerals or microminerals. Microminerals include selenium, zinc, iodine, iron, manganese, and copper. Microminerals are essential but don’t have as high requirements as macrominerals.

Iodine helps produce thyroid hormones that regulate energy metabolism. Zinc is also responsible for a lot of enzyme-based reactions. Iron helps circulate oxygen in the body.

Macrominerals include magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and chlorine. Calcium promotes healthy bone growth and strong eggshells. In addition, it is crucial in blood clotting and muscle contraction.

Like calcium, phosphorus is also an essential mineral used for healthy bone and cell membrane development. Chlorine can help produce hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which aids in digestion. Potassium and sodium play a role in muscle, nerve, and metabolic functions. Magnesium helps with muscle and metabolic processes.

Since grains do not have sufficient minerals for chickens, mineral supplements are usually provided in complete chicken feeds. Calcium supplements can be found in the form of oyster shells and limestone. Phosphorus and calcium supplements are provided as dicalcium phosphate. Microminerals are included as a mineral premix.

Water

Water is a critical nutrient necessary for all life. Even a few hours of dehydration can lower a flock’s egg production. In general, chickens drink two to three times as much water as they do feed. Generally, giving a quart of water to every four chickens is recommended.

Chickens should have fresh and clean water available at all times. Avoid using unfiltered water from ponds or creeks that may be contaminated with parasites or microorganisms.

Automatic waterers provide a constant flow of water to your birds. If you’re manually refilling their waterer, do so twice a day. Hens can drink about 25% of their daily water intake during daylight’s last couple of hours.

Water requirements can vary depending on the temperature, composition of the diet, relative humidity, and growth rate. Water plays an essential role in the body by softening feed and carrying it through the digestive tract. In addition, it can distribute nutrients from the digestive tract to cells and remove waste products.

In the heat, water can keep birds cool through evaporations. Since chickens do not have sweat glands, they stay cool through fast respiration. Heat is released through the lungs and air sacs.

Little Giant Plastic Poultry Waterer

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Little Giant Complete Plastic Poultry Fount 1 gal.

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What to Feed Chickens

Chicken feed on white background

Chickens need various nutrients for healthy growth and development, including carbs, proteins, minerals, fats, vitamins, and water. Complete chicken feeds are designed to provide different types of birds with basic nutritional requirements during different stages of life.

As omnivores, chickens can eat a wide range of foods, including meat, plants, insects, and seeds. They also love to forage for plants, herbs, and seeds. Foraging also helps them beat boredom and stay active.

Although you can make your homemade chicken feed, making sure it has a complete and balanced selection of nutrients can be complex and expensive compared to buying premium chicken feeds with everything your flock needs.

Starter Feed

You can give chick starter feed to baby chicks from the moment they hatch until they move to the next life stage. If your chick will eventually lay eggs, give them a starter with around 20% protein. Meat birds can get a starter feed with a 22-24% protein concentration.

Chick starter feed is available in medicated and non-medicated versions.

Chicks should be fed a commercial starter feed without grit. Chick feed comes in a small, manageable size that chicks can digest without grinding. Over time, you can feed chicks mealworm treats and table scraps alongside grit.

We recommend feeding your chicks commercial starting feed until they are about 3-4 months old to give them a complete and balanced diet.

Feeding chicks a layer diet can have serious adverse health outcomes, including improper bone growth, kidney failure, or death.

Purina Start and Grow Medicated Crumbles Premium Poultry Feed

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Hen Up® Organic Starter Grower Crumbles Chicken Food

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Mash vs. Crumble vs. Pellet Feed

Chicken feed is usually sold as a mash, pellet, or crumble. Pellets are the biggest sizes of feed. Crumbles are smaller and look like crushed pellets. Mash is the smallest size and has a finely ground appearance. Chicks are better able to feed on mash and crumble.

Crumble and pellet forms require more processing and therefore have a higher cost than mash complete feed, but they have some advantages. Chickens are able to eat and metabolize a larger amount of feed and get a complete feed unit with all the important ingredients. In addition, pellet forms are easier to handle and reduce feed waste.

All-Flock Feed

If you have other birds in your home, consider feeding them an all-flock feed formulated for mixed flocks. These feed types have 17-18% protein and can be used as a turkey finisher.

Purina Flock Raiser Non-Medicated Pellets, 50 lb.

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Feather Fixer Feed

Feather fixer feed is formulated for birds going through the molting phase in the fall. This feed gives them the nutrients they need to grow healthy feathers and eggshells.

Broiler Feed

During the first four weeks of life, broiler chickens require a starter free that contains 20-23% protein. From week 4-8, you can switch to a 19-20% protein feed. After 8-9 weeks, give them a broiler finisher diet with 15-18% protein. Heritage breeds and free-range birds can be offered a 16% protein feed after about 12 weeks of age.

Finisher diets are formulated to give your chickens a nice layer of fat. It is usually given in the last 10 days before slaughter. Avoid feeding your chickens a finisher diet for longer than two weeks since it can make them too fat.

If you are raising roasters, they require a different feeding schedule. Roasters are raised for about 12 weeks or up to 5 months. Start by giving them a broiler starter feed. The pullet feed will have less energy. At 12 weeks of age, feed them a broiler grower diet and a cocidiostat-free finisher diet during the last 7-10 days before slaughter.

In some cases, chicken keepers may not want to feed their meat birds several diets throughout its life for many reasons including its price. Instead, they may opt to buy a 20% protein feed in bulk to feed them throughout their lifetime.

Purina Meat Bird Non Medicated Crumbles, 40 lb.

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Scratch Grains

Chicken scratch is a mix of oats, barley, corn, wheat, millet, and sunflower seeds. Feed your flock scratch grains sparingly to prevent nutrient dilution

If your flock is eating a complete diet, feeding them scratch grains may not be necessary. Feeding them only scratch grains, however, won’t provide them with sufficient nutrient levels. For example, scratch feeds are low in protein compared to a complete feed but are high in fiber and energy.

If you are feeding your chickens scratch grains, make sure to offer them an insoluble grit such as cherry stone or granite to help them grind down the fibrous feed. Oyster shell, in this instance, is not hard enough to digest scratch grains.

Purina Scratch Grains Premium Poultry Grains

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Hen Up® Organic Scratch Grains for Backyard Flock

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Grass

Chickens are natural foragers. If you give them a chance to roam free, they’ll munch on grass, bugs, seeds, and more. Chickens prefer to eat young and green grass full of nutrients. Older, browner grass is harder for them to digest and can cause impaction. If your chickens will be eating the grass, avoid using chemicals on your lawn.

Weeds

Have weeds on your lawn? Chickens can feed on those pesky weeds as nutritious treats, although not all plants are safe for chickens to eat.

Here are a few weeds that your chickens can feast on:

  • Crabgrass: Crabgrass clumps can affect the appearance of your lawn. Keep your lawn perfectly manicured and your chickens happy by feeding them young and tender shoots full of crude protein and fiber.
  • White Clover: White clover is relatively drought-tolerant, giving your chickens a nutritious feast during the summer.
  • Dandelion: Harvest their young lion’s teeth leaves before they become too bitter and tough to eat. Harvest dandelion flowers when they just blossom for a better flavor. Dandelions can provide vitamin A, B2, and K and the xanthophyll pigment that can make egg yolks color’s richer.
  • Chickweed: Chickweed, a cool-season annual plant, contains minerals such as potassium, iron, zinc, silicon, copper, and manganese.

Grit

Since chickens don’t have teeth to break down their feed to digest it, they need a different form of digestion. When they eat food, they swallow it whole and the food goes into its crop, a muscular bag found below their neck. It’s used to store feed throughout the day and mix with saliva.

After it’s time in the crop, feed travels to the stomach, where digestive acids and enzymes break it down. After being broken down in the stomach, food moves into the gizzard, an organ that helps chickens digest food.

Chickens peck on the ground for natural sources of grit such as pebbles, coarse sand, and gravel. These are forms of non-soluble grit. Soluble grit includes mineral grit and an oyster shell that can be offered in a bowl. Oyster shells are ground down into smaller pieces that are more manageable for chickens to eat.

In the gizzard, these hard substances are used to grind the food. This is especially helpful when chickens eat coarse, hard, or fibrous feed such as whole grain. As the food passes through the intestine, nutrients are absorbed.

Table Scraps

Chickens love to feed on table scraps like carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, swiss chard, squash, strawberries, kale, turnip greens, blueberries, and lettuce, but feeding them too much of this can be detrimental to their health and performance. Kitchen scraps fall under the treat category, which should only make up less than 10% of your flock’s diet.

Layer Grower Feed for Hens

Once your baby chicks are six weeks old, you can transition them to a starter grower feed and layer feed at about 18 weeks. Layer feed has 16-18% protein levels and added calcium and minerals for healthy eggshells. However, feeding baby chicks layer feed too soon can be detrimental and cause kidney damage.

Feeding laying hens oyster shells can be a natural solution to a calcium deficiency. If your hen is laying eggs with a thin shell or no shell, a calcium supplement is in order. Complete layer feeds can provide the proper nutrients for strong shell production.

Purina Layena Pellets Premium Poultry Feed

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Purina Layena Plus Omega-3 Layer Pellets Premium Poultry Feed

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Hen Up® Organic Layer Pellet Chicken Food

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Medicated vs. Non-Medicated Feed

Child feeding chickens feed

Chicken feed is available in non-medicated and medicated forms. Medicated feed can contain a coccidiosis preventative drug. This helps prevent infection from the coccidia intestinal parasite.

Coccidiosis, also called cocci, is a parasite found in the dirt transmitted through the feces of mature chickens who had coccidiosis and developed an immunity. The parasite can wreak havoc on a chicken’s intestinal wall and even cause death.

Medicated feed contains a low dose of Amprolium, a medication that inhibits the parasite’s replication ability when it’s in their gastrointestinal tract.

Watch out for coccidiosis infection symptoms such as bloody feces.

Keep in mind that coccidiostats must be removed from the feed for several days before the chickens are marketed for sale.

Since Amprolium is a thiamine blocker, feeding your chicks medicated feed can lead to a thiamine deficiency. Feeding them a thiamine supplement wouldn’t help since Amprolium will block its absorption. To reduce the effect of this side effect, feed medicated feed between week 1-5, when your chick is most vulnerable to the parasite. Then give them a non-medicated chick feed with thiamine supplement to fill any nutritional gaps.

Chicks raised in a brooder away from dirt do not need to be fed medicated feed since they are not exposed to the coccidiosis parasite. Feed them unmedicated feed until about a couple of weeks before you move them to the coop if you are worried about a parasite infection.

Pasture Raised

If your flock has access to pasture, feed them a complete feed in the morning to avoid nutrient dilution. Pasture-raised chicks still need grit because you can’t be sure they’ve foraged for enough stones to grind their food correctly.

Specialty Feeds

Chicken feeds can come in organic, non-GMO, and soy- or corn-free forms. These specialty types of chicken feed are more expensive than standard chicken feed. Organic chicken feed does not have pesticides. Soy and corn-free versions can be a good alternative if you have an allergy or sensitivity to these ingredients.

Earth First Layer Pellet, 40 LB

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How to Store Feed

Keep your chicken feed stored indoors in a dry, clean, and well-ventilated area to keep it safe from excess heat and moisture. Avoid storing feed in bags directly on the concrete floor since it can absorb moisture from the ground.

To keep your chicken feed fresher for longer, store chicken feed bags in plastic containers such as trash cans. If trash cans aren’t available, invest in some wooden pallets to raise the feed off the ground and improve air flow under the bag.

If storing chicken feed outdoors, store it in a dry and shaded spot that protects the feed from environmental elements. Keep your feed storage area clean. If racoons, squirrels, and other critters find any spilled feed, they may come back to eat some more.

How Much Should You Feed Chickens?

On average, laying hens can eat about a half a cup (about 0.25 lbs) per day. The exact amount of feed depends on your bird’s size, weather, and performance. Refer to the chicken feed manufacturer’s feeding guidelines.

How to Feed Chickens

You can feed your chickens in the morning and in the evening. They prefer to eat in smaller portions rather than one big meal. You can throw chicken feed straight onto the ground and let them peck at the food or put the feed in a feeder to keep it dry and clean. Keep the feeder outside the coop in the run to encourage the chickens to be outside.

Little Giant Plastic Flip-Top Poultry Feeder

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Little Giant Metal Slide-Top Poultry Ground Feeder 12 in.

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Little Giant Plastic Hanging Poultry Feeder 3 lb.

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Signs of Good Nutrition in Chickens

You can identify several physical signs of nutrient deficiencies by watching your flock. Ideally, chickens should have clean and smooth feathers and bright eyes. Any abnormalities here mean your chickens aren’t absorbing sufficient protein, vitamins A and E, and fat.

What Not to Feed Chickens

Feeding chickens the wrong type of food can quickly have negative health consequences. You may notice your birds getting sick or lower quality egg production. Some foods can affect their weight, digestion, egg laying, and even be toxic to them.

Here are a few food items to avoid:

Avocado peel and pit: Avocado pits and skins have a fat-soluble toxin called persin, which can cause respiratory issues a couple of days after eating it. Feeding them the avocado flesh is okay.

Chocolate: You may have heard of chocolate being toxic to pets. It’s also harmful to chickens, too. If they eat a smidge of chocolate cake, they should be fine, but we wouldn’t risk it. Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which can lead to heart issues and even death if they eat too much of it. Dark chocolate contains higher levels of theobromine than milk chocolate.x

Onions: In moderation, onions can be a nutritious snack for your birds, but feeding them too much onions (over 0.5% of their body weight) can be toxic, causing damage to red blood cells and Heinz body anemia.

Uncooked or dry beans: Uncooked or dry beans have a compound called hemagglutinin, which can stop digestion and cause death.

Bell pepper leaves: Feeding your flock ripe bell peppers is safe, but unripe peppers, stems, and leaves contain solanine, a toxic compound that can cause diarrhea, convulsions, paralysis, respiratory problems, and neurological issues.

Rhubarb: Chickens can eat rhubarb stalks in moderation, but its leaves have a higher concentration of oxalic acid. Eating too much can lead to jaundice, tremors, and excessive salivation.

Green potato skins: Green potato skins contain a high concentration of the solanine, a toxic compound for chickens. Feeding them green potato skins can cause gastrointestinal and neurological problems.

Dog or cat food: Like many other food items, dog and cat food is not recommended but can be given as a treat or leftover in very small amounts. Avoid feeding them a diet mainly of dog or cat food since it is not formulated to meet poultry’s nutritional requirements.

Dairy: Although chickens are not lactose intolerant, too much milk can cause diarrhea. You can feed small amounts of dairy such as yogurt, cottage cheese, or buttermilk in small amounts.

Salty, sugary, and fried treats: Giving your chickens an excessive amount of sweet, salty, and high-fat treats can make them overweight and affect their laying ability.

Spoiled or rotten food: Avoid giving your chickens any spoiled or rotten food. Any food with mold on it can make your birds sick.

Apple seeds: Apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide. A few seeds won’t cause much harm but eating a whole bunch will.

Acorns: In the fall, acorns are more common, but they can be harmful to chickens. Make sure your flock does not eat oak leaves, twigs, buds, and acorns, especially freshly fallen ones and young leaves, since these have the highest level of tannins. Tanning can damage their gastrointestinal tract and kidneys.

Healthy Chicken Treats

Chickens eating feed in a pen

Although 90% of your flock’s diet should come from a complete feed, the remaining 10% can account for healthy chicken treats. Common chicken treats include scratch grains, mealworms, and table scraps. They’re nature’s candy for birds.

Since laying hens eat about half a cup (0.25 pounds) of complete feed per day, the recommended treat amount per day would be about 2 tablespoons, which is 10% of ¼ of a pound. This would look like a few small treats per day.

Interested in making homemade and healthy chicken treats? You can make a mealworm treat with mealworms and whole wheat flour. Make sunflower seed crusts by crushing the seeds, mixing them with water, and pressing them onto crackers or bread. Oatmeal raisin treats can be made with feed and oatmeal.

If you don’t have your own treats available or just want to spoil your chickens a bit, here are some healthy chicken treats you can buy:

  • Pullet Together Chicken Treat: A wholesome treat made with sunflower seeds, barley, cracked corn, and oyster shell.

Pullet Together Chicken Treat 29 oz.

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  • Little Farmer Add a Bug Chicken Treat: Give your feathered friends a mix of crickets, mealworms, and silkworm pupae as tasty treats.

Little Farmer Add A Bug Chicken Treat, 3 lb.

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  • Pecking Order Boonworms Premium Treat: Feed your chickens these high-protein and calcium-rich black soldier fly larvae treats to improve their egg laying.
  • Purina Farm to Flock Hen Treat: A healthy treat alternative featuring a blend of amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and grains.

Purina Farm to Flock Protein Blend Hen Treats

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Shop for Premium Chicken Feed and Treats at Wilco Farm Stores

Keep your backyard flock in good spirits and health with high-quality chicken feed and treats from Wilco Farm Stores. We have a wide selection of chicken feed, including organic, starter feed, complete feed, layer, scratch, and other poultry feed.

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