Written for Ecopeanut.com
If you’ve ever stared at the huge range of chicken feed options and desperately wished your chickens could talk and explain to you what they eat... this is the guide you’ve been waiting for.
No... we certainly haven’t mastered the art of chicken communication yet, but we did collect the most crucial information to guide you in making the best chicken food decision for you and your flock.
With that said, chow down!
Importance of feeding your flock properly
Just like you need carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals to thrive, chickens need their own batch of nutrients to be healthy. When it comes to wellbeing, diet plays as important a role in chickens as it does in humans. Therefore, feeding your flock correctly must always remain at the center of your venture as a bird-keeper.
More often than not, backyard chickens need more than kitchen scraps and a single grain source to be fully nourished. And if you’re free-ranging your birds, most backyards are not large enough to supply enough (or a constant amount of) weeds, seeds, worms, and insects.
Each day, the standard hen requires about 300 kcal energy, 20 grams of protein, 4 grams of calcium, 2 grams of phosphorus, and modest amounts of vitamins and minerals. If we were to keep a flock on a corn-only diet, each bird would be getting 132% of energy supply, 54% of protein, and 0.6% of calcium. Therefore, not only would they lack both protein and calcium, but also miss most of their vitamins and minerals, as well as their correct rations of methionine and amino acids.
Learn more on Poultry Hub’s article about Common Problems and Treatment Methods for Backyard Chickens.
When it comes to confined-ranged chickens, a rich supplementary feed should be varied, be fed in a free choice fashion, and take into account all of the chicken’s nutritional needs without making assumptions of what they may or may not find in the yard.
Poor nutrition in laying hens can be easily identified by looking at their egg shells. For instance, irregularities such as calcium deposits, shell-less eggs, mottled yolks and soft shell eggs may be linked to poor nutrition or the excessive consumption of a certain nutrient.
Read Backyard Chicken’s post on Common Egg Quality Problems to learn more about the subject.
On the other hand, deficiencies of vitamins A, B, E, and biotin are amongst the most common in backyard chickens, with symptoms including poor feather growth, weakness, discharge from noses and eyes, and scaly skin.
Check out MSD Manual’s article on Vitamin Deficiencies in Poultry for in-depth information.
Back to the basics
To be able to formulate or choose a hearty feed for your flock, you first need to know the basics of what a balanced chicken diet looks like. It starts with knowing what (and what not) to feed your birds, and in what amounts.
What do chickens eat?
Thousands of years ago, the current domesticated chickens’ ancestors were ambulating around Asian jungles, foraging and hunting for food. Their job was to scratch the forests’ ground to find seeds, insects, and worms, to walk around munching on leaves, and to occasionally catch small animals and reptiles.
Now, you don’t need to watch chickens closely to notice that this is still exactly what they do. In fact, feral chickens are known to feed themselves similarly to their foregoers, the jungle fowls.
In an article titled Making Your Own Poultry Feeds: Part One, Harvey and Ellen Ussery explain how they learned to feed their flock naturally by taking a look at how their grandmother used to feed hers. They mention how she used to let her flock range freely across a colossal 100-acre farm and how the chickens’ would always opt for green plants, wild seeds, and animal foods… all of which shared one common trait: they were alive.
Therefore, a biologically correct chicken diet is composed of a vast array of living plants, seeds, and animals! In other words, the complete opposite of what is generally offered by commercial poultry feed brands.
To broaden your knowledge on what to feed your feathered fellows, take a look at our encyclopaedic guide on the topic!
Poultry feed composition table
Other than water, the five nutrients that need to be present in a chicken’s diet are:
Carbohydrates: A major source of energy.
Fats: A moderate source of energy that provide essential fatty acids.
Proteins: A small source of energy and vital for the synthesis of body tissue, physiological molecules, feathers, and egg production.
Vitamins: Aid in controlling bodily processes.
Minerals: Aid in controlling bodily processes and are required for health and growth.
Merck Veterinary Manual has published a set of nutrient requirement tables that offer guidelines for feeding pullets, laying hens, and broilers, in addition to outlining the linoleic acid, mineral, and vitamin requirements of Leghorn-type chickens.
It is important to bear in mind that factors such as temperature, the amount of physical activity, age, health condition, reproductive state, and genetics often influence the nutritional requirements of the birds.
For poultry feed composition tables, visit the National Academic Press’ publication on Composition of Feedstuff Used in Poultry Diets.
How much do chickens eat?
The truth is, there is no exact answer to this question, because it will depend on each chicken’s breed or strain, age, health condition, and accessibility to feed. Other factors that come into play include the climate, size of the backyard, and the nutritional composition of the birds’ feed.
However, if you are searching for estimated amounts to answer questions such as “how long does a 50lb bag of chicken feed last?” - it can range between 1/4 to 1/3 pounds per day per chicken. Just bear in mind that these measurements are based on what commercial chickens are fed, and the conditions under which these birds are kept are normally the antithesis of those in which backyard chickens should be raised.
One of the best ways to approach this conundrum is to feed your flock by using these standardized quantities while keeping track of how much they eat per day, and then adjust the amounts accordingly.
Perhaps the one stable law to be aware of is that with a drop in temperature your chickens will be demanding more food to regulate their bodies’ temperature and conversely, with a rise in temperature they will want to eat less.
Types of chicken food
Making sense of all the types of chicken feeds out there can be intimidating for most newcomers. The good news is that, apart from having to become acquainted with the extensive commercial feed slang, learning when to buy which specific type of food is pretty straightforward.
In most cases, different chicken feeds will be categorized by two factors: the age of the birds and their purpose.
Starter chicken feed
From the moment they hatch up to when they turn 6 or 8 weeks old, chicks can eat the so-called starter chicken feed, a.k.a. Chick Starter (although this may vary from brand to brand). This feed tends to be high in protein, because at this stage baby chicks are busy developing into young feathered pullets. The protein content of this feed normally ranges from 18% to 20%.
Another commercial alternative to this feed for future layer chicks is the starter-grower feed, which is said to be suitable from hatching up to when they reach 18 or 20 weeks of age.
For meat chicks this feed goes by the name of Broiler Starter and generally has a protein content of 22% to 25%. It is usually fed from hatching until they reach 10 days of age. For the most part, protein will be at the center of the difference between broiler feed and layer feed.
In its article on Understanding Protein Requirements, Poultry World thoroughly explains the role of protein in a chicken’s diet.
Chapter 5 of our ultimate guide on How to Raise Chickens in Your City talks more about Raising Baby Chicks - What to Feed Them and How to Care for Them!
Grower chicken feed
From 6 or 8 weeks of age up to when they turn 20 weeks old, teenage chooks can eat grower chicken feed. Because at this point chicks have already grown their feathers and gained some height, this feed’s protein content is slightly lower than that of the starter chicken feed, with most brands containing between 16% and 18%.
Note that it is extremely important to stay away from feeds that are too high in protein, phosphorus, and/or calcium during this phase, as it might cause problems in the chooks’ kidneys or even lead to death.
When it comes to future layer hens, the aim is to allow them to grow at a slow and steady pace so that they are able to develop a proper adult size as well as hardy bones before debuting as egg-producers.
For meat chicks this feed goes by the name of Broiler Grower and generally has a protein content of 21% to 23%. You can generally start to feed it to your chooks when they are 11 to 24 days old.
Pullet developer feed
Many brands skip this stage and just offer grower feed instead, while a few others do offer it. Pullet developer feed is meant to be given to 14 week old chooks up to 22 weeks of age or until they lay their first egg.
This feed regularly contains 16% of protein or less, and the aim is to allow the birds to grow at an unhurried pace while keeping them from putting on too much fat.
For meat chicks their last stage feed goes by the name of Broiler Finisher or Finisher Chicken Feed and generally has a protein content of 19% to 21%. It is usually fed to 25 day old chickens or older. Some meat bird keepers might skip the previous Broiler Grower stage and feed Broiler Finisher from 6 weeks until slaughter instead.
Our How to Raise Chickens Days 60 Onwards gives insight on all technicalities when it comes to caring for chickens this age!
Layer chicken feed
The most reliable clue as to when you should start feeding layer chicken feed to your hens, is when they lay their first egg! An approximate timing, however, is around 22 weeks.
Once chickens have laid their first egg, you can be sure they’ll need more calcium in their diets to keep on popping out first-rate eggs. Apart from calcium, this kind of feed is teeming with other minerals and vitamins that your hens will surely appreciate. Protein levels for layer feeds usually vary from 16% to 18%.
If you happen to own a few roosters, laying rations will also fulfill their dietary requirements.
Take into account that all the types of commercial feeds mentioned above tend to be complete feeds, which means that you do not have to provide any supplements or extra treats to keep your birds nourished.
Find out how Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily schedules the feeding of her flock, from hatchers to layers!
Different forms of chicken feed
As if the different stages of chicken feed weren’t enough, it also comes in different forms. These include whole grains, crushed grains or scratch, mash, pellets, crumble, and micro-pellet and grain mix.
The term mash refers to crushed grains that have been blended with protein meal, vitamins, minerals, and supplements to produce a mix powder. After mash has gone through a process of being heated and compressed, pellets are actually the final product. Crumble is the term used for split and rolled pellets.
Micro pellet and grain mix are a combo of grains, protein, vitamins, minerals and added supplements that come in the form of minute pellets.
Go through Patch to Table’s article to weigh the pros and cons of each of these different forms of chicken feed.
Sometimes amateur chicken keepers confuse grit with a form of feed, but it is not. Grit is little stones that chickens store in an organ called the gizzard. This organ’s role is to grind up food by using muscle power along with the pebbles that have been stocked. In other words, these tiny stones act as the teeth in the chickens’ peculiar digestive scheme.
Watch Nutrena’s explanatory short video to review chickens’ digestive system.
Some commercial feeds include grit, while others don’t. Always double-check and ask around before you leave the store empty-handed! Whenever you are preparing your own food though, or when your chickens are free-ranging in an area where you doubt they’ll find grit, it is of vital importance to provide it in a separate container.
Bonus: Fodder and fermented grains
Feeding backyard chickens with fodder or fermented grains has become popular over the past years because of its low-cost, easy-to-make, and nutritious nature. This is the sort of food you want to be giving your flock because it is alive… just like what they would eat in their natural environments!
Fodder is simply sprouted grain... be it wheat, barley, millet, amaranth, oats or almost any other grain. Many feed it to their birds during winter, when they have little to no access to weeds, grasses, and other fresh foods they may find while free ranging. Others use it as a year round healthy addition.
Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily goes through the ABC’s of sprouting fodder in her article Growing Sprouted Fodder for your Chickens.
Fermented grains are simply the first step of the fodder growing process. All you need to do is soak grains overnight or for 48 hours and then feed them to your chickens! The Frugal Chicken’s article on Fermented Chicken Feed: Why and How to Ferment Chicken Feed walks you through the process.
Hands-on: preparing your own homemade chicken feed!
Understanding the nutritional requirements of your chickens and the nutritional composition of the ingredients you will be using is the first step in formulating your own chicken feed. Don’t forget that we’ve included links to guide you through the process in the subsection, “Poultry Feed Composition Table”. Yet, making chicken feed is an inexact science… so don’t shy away!
How to make chicken feed for layers? – 3 chicken feed recipe examples
It is completely normal to get cold feet when venturing into the world of making your own chicken feed - especially when it comes to getting the quantities and chicken feed ingredients right. To ease your first efforts we have chosen three chicken feed recipes worth taking a look at.
If you can’t find an ingredient in your area or if you do not want to use a certain ingredient for X or Y reason, we recommend finding another one with a similar nutritional value to replace it. You can always play around with the elements of recipes as long as you provide all the nutrients your chickens need.
The simple chicken feed formula
Jill Winger from The Prairie Homestead has given insight to permaculture know-how Justin Rhodes’ recipe, and it is as clear-cut as it gets. The formula features eight ingredients:
Free choice kelp
Free choice aragonite or crushed egg shells
When it comes to the grains you can either grind them or leave them as-is. All you have to do once you’ve gathered the ingredients is to mix them by following the percentages in the recipe, and feed as you would any other chicken food.
Winger also offers a how to make chicken feed PDF eBook available for $9.99.
How to make cheap chicken feed – The inexpensive chicken feed recipe
The Frugal Chicken team has shared a reasonably priced chicken feed recipe. Most of the money savings of this formula come from sprouting the grains into fodder, thus, turning them into a more nutritionally-dense food. The formula features only five ingredients:
Sprouted wheat or barley seeds
After preparing the fodder all you have to do is mix the ingredients and add any of the supplementary ingredients mentioned in this video, if or when necessary.
For more economic chicken-feeding ideas take a look at how Justin Rhodes cut his chicken feed cost 100%!
The meticulous chicken feed formula
Harvey and Ellen Ussery disclosed their elaborate chicken feed recipe some time ago. Because it features a lot more ingredients, takes up a bit more time, and requires a feed or flour mill to grind up the grains, this formula is probably best fitting to chicken keepers who are raising a large flock.
For the premix you will need:
And for the grind/whole portion:
They explain their method for making different kinds of feed - such as starter, grower, winter layer, and summer layer - in a third part of the article.
This last recipe is also a good guide for those wanting to know how to make chicken feed for broilers!
What about supplements?
If you are not providing the so-called complete feeds, which already contain every nutrient your chickens need to stay healthy, you can go ahead and provide supplements. One of the most common supplements for laying hens, for instance, is calcium; whereas meat birds are usually given protein.
Dried and crushed eggshells and commercial oyster are two of the most popular calcium supplements. Mealworms, earthworms, and black soldier larvae are amongst the most commonly used protein supplements for backyard chickens.
Remember that these supplements must be fed free-choice in a separate container. Giving excessive amounts of either calcium or protein to your flock may cause kidney issues or other health issues. If fed free-choice, chickens will know when they need these supplementary foods.
5 Wallet-friendly chicken feeding tips
Commercial chicken feeds are amongst the most expensive of livestock feeds, which spurs many homesteaders into finding economical ways to feed their chickens. Here are five easy ways to save money on feed:
Feed fodder or fermented grains
As mentioned earlier, making fodder or fermenting feed multiplies the nutrients contained in grains. Chickens don’t only get benefits from the seeds, but also from the roots, shoots, and in the case of fodder, even foliage. Fermented foods are also known to improve the birds’ immune system and contribute to producing eggs rich in vitamins D, A, and beta carotene.
Raise meal or red worms
These worms are high in protein and chickens tend to go nuts over them!
Allow them to eat from your compost pile
It is entertaining for chickens to go treasure hunting on compost piles. They will find everything from insects to seeds, and from scraps to leaves.
Grow your own feed
Clover, dandelion, kale, alfalfa, sorghum, and gourds are just a few of the countless plants you can grow as food for your flock.
Put an end to waste
Hanging feeders or installing a PVC feeder system that feeds a little at a time is a good way to start. Alternatively, you can place a mat or container under their feeder to catch whatever falls to the ground. When it is time to refill the feeder, just put the wasted feed back in - but skip the ones that have been pooped on!
Learn what the crew at Prairie Homestead does to save cash by reading their 15 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed post.
Best chicken feed – Chicken feed for sale online
If you haven’t had the time to make your own chicken feed or if buying commercial chicken feed works best for you, scroll down to find our top picks of chicken feed brands.
3 Highlighted brands of chicken feed for layers and broilers
What a luxury…
This family-owned brand supplies 100% organic, non-GMO, and non-medicated feed that also happens to contain zero artificial preservatives! That is to say, they sell perhaps one of the best organic chicken feed for laying hens.
Coyote Creek’s product line supplies starter, developer, and layer feeds in addition to a soy-free layer feed alternative as well as scratch.
Their products are also appropriate for broilers and they have published a guide on how to properly feed them.
These are available in 25 pound bags at a moderate-price and can be bought on Amazon.
Scratch and Peck Feeds
This is another top-quality feed that offers chickens a complete ration of organic, non-GMO, and soy-free food. And for those very demanding flocks, Scratch and Peck’s feeds are also whole grain, raw, and non-medicated.
Their product line supplies starter, grower, and layer feeds in addition to food that is fitting for broilers. These are available at a high-price and can be purchased on Amazon.
Kalmbach Feeds Organic Harvest
This brand offers several alternatives in the shape of medicated, non-GMO and organic feeds.
Their organic product line supplies starter-grower and layer feeds in the form of crumbles or pellets. Their non-GMO product line supplies starter-grower and grower feeds in the form of crumbles as well as layer feed in the form of crumbles or pellets.
Kalmbach Feeds also has feeds especially formulated for broiler chickens.
Organic products are available at a high price, and their non-GMO products at a reasonable price. Both variations can be bought on Amazon.
In the end… what should I opt for?
There will always be two factors you can’t ignore when choosing the right feed for your chickens: their age and their purpose. Based on these two aspects you’ll know what percentages of what nutrients you’ll have to feed your birds and this in turn will lead you to the right feed.
Once you’ve cleared that up you can decide whether it is more convenient for you to feed fodder, pellets, or whole grains… homemade or commercial.
In the end, the most important thing is to make a healthy decision for both you and your flock.
Please leave your thoughts, questions, or ideas in the comments below and remember to share this article with your farm-fowl aficionado friends!