Feeding backyard chickens is an imprecise science. It’s difficult to tell someone exactly what to feed, how much to feed, or even when to feed them. So many variables are involved: the type of chickens, whether they’re growing or laying, how active they are, the type of feeders you have, the number of free-loading pests you support, the weather, the type of feed available... This article should be used as an introductory guide to the different feed types and what to feed when. Chicken feed comes in different types, which have been formulated to suit chickens of different ages and dietary requirements. I will focus on the most common ones for the average backyard flock and when to feed which type. Let's start with:
The ration for chicks, usually called “starter rations,” should be around 18-20% protein. From the time they start eating, meat chicks however need a high protein feed of about 22 to 24% protein for the first six weeks. It’s called “meat bird starter” or “ starter.” Chick starter comes in medicated and non-medicated varieties and the difference between the two is that that the medicated starter contains a small amount of an anti-ciccidiosis drug, usually amprolium, which is a thiamine blocker used to prevent and treat coccidiosis. **Note: chicks that are raised on medicated starter can still get coccidiosis. The dosage is low and is simply added as a preventative, it is not a guarantee that chicks on medicated starter will be immune, they will simply have a lower chance of contracting this disease.
Grower rations for older chicks.
If you’re raising young pullets to become layers, you want them to grow slowly enough to develop good strong bones and to reach a normal body weight before they begin producing eggs. High-protein diets tend to hurry the birds into production before their bodies are quite ready, can cause other health problems as well as cost you a lot of money (see this post for more details). Therefore, the ration for growing pullets, from leaving the brooder at 6 weeks to about 14 weeks, should be about 18-20% protein.
Many feed manufacturers now offer a combined starter/grower feed which can be fed from hatch right up until the chicks reach laying age.
Feeding Laying Hens
Active layers' nutritional needs are differ from the rest of the flock in that they need extra calcium to help produce egg shells. The average laying hen's skeleton contains 20g calcium and one egg represents 10% of that. Hens do have calcium reserves stored up in their bodies, but if they do not get enough calcium from their food for their egg shells the stores will get depleted very quickly and they will stop laying soft-shelled or shell less eggs if not stop laying completely. It's important that laying hens get fed either a proper, balanced layer feed (mash or pellets) OR a good quality "all flock" feed with a calcium supplement like oyster shell offered free choice on the side. Keep in mind that the average hen needs roughly 5 ounces of food and 10 ounces of water to produce 1 egg, so make sure your layers get enough feed.
Feeding Cockerels, Non-Layers and Mixed Age Flocks
Cockerels and non-layers should ideally not eat layer feed, as the high percentage calcium in layer feed can cause long term health problems, such as kidney damage (in young birds and chicks) and gout. Many poultry keepers can and do feed cockerels the same feed as their active layers with no apparent adverse effects on their health. Some birds however are genetically predisposed to an inability to process excess uric acid, so some cockbirds will develop issues from eating layer feed and some can do it all their lives and never have a problem. Non-laying birds should be fed an "all flock" feed and in the case of a mixed age flock consisting of non-layers and active layers, the layers should be offered a calcium supplement in the form of crushed oyster or egg shells, offered on the side (do not mix it with their feed).
Feeding Broilers (Meat birds)
A special meat bird ration is available from most feed manufacturers. Meat birds are ravenous little eating machines, due to their incredibly fast grow rates. It takes about 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of body weight on a growing meat-type bird, so if a broiler weighs about 6 pounds at slaughter age (10 weeks), it will have eaten about 12 pounds of feed. Remember that it eats more as it grows and the amount of feed consumed increases each week. Most meat bird raisers will suggest offering meat birds unlimited feed 24/7 for the first 2-3 weeks and then 12 hours with feed and 12 hours without afterwards until they reach slaughter weight.
How and How Much to Feed
To cut down on waste and spoilage feed should be offered in a proper feeder, though scratch grains are often scattered around the yard/run, encouraging chickens to scratch and look for it. There are a range of feeders available to suit every chicken keeper's budget and needs and it is also quite easy to make your own homemade chicken feeders and waterers.
On how much to feed, there are a lot of factors involved when it comes to how much to feed your flock. If you are unsure and worried you may not be feeding them enough, fill the chickens’ feed dishes so food is available much of the day, or use feeders that can hold several day’s worth of feed. You can use this feeding method for all types of chickens. It’s the way chickens would eat in nature; they eat small amounts frequently. Chickens (with the exception of meat birds) are good at self regulating and I have in my years as poultry keeper only seen one "over eater" who didn't seem to know when to stop.
You can use the free choice feeding method if you like, or you can feed your chickens at certain times of the day. (Most people who use this method choose morning and evening.) This allows you to control the amount of feed that may attract pests and again cut back on waste. This method works well for all but meat birds. Old timers say feed a chicken as much as it can consume in 10 minutes twice a day, but I personally prefer to leave a bit extra in the feeders, unless my flock has access to good pasture for free ranging. Laying hens, pets, and show birds are fine with restricted times of feeding and don’t need feeding at night. Make sure your flock goes to roost with a full crop in the evening though, by feeding them just before dusk.
**Don't feed moldy food, which can kill or harm your chickens, and make sure food is stored so it won’t attract rats, coons, and other pests. If you’re using a lot more feed than you think you should, or notice a sudden big increase in the amount of feed consumed, it's likely that you're feeding the neighbourhood birds and rats as well. You may want to empty feeders at night or put them inside a pest-proof container.
Chickens are omnivorous and can eat most of the same things we eat, but certain things such as salty food and overly sugary snacks, such as candy, should be avoided. Member Buff Hooligans put together a wonderful "treat chart" with a list of safe treats for chickens, such as food scraps, vegetables and the ever popular mealworms in his handy Chicken Treat Chart. All treats, including scratch grains, should be fed in moderation and should equal no more than 10% of the chicken's daily food consumption. It is very important that chickens have access to grit if anything other than commercial feed is offered. Free ranging chickens can get enough grit and roughage naturally, if they have access to soil, but confined flocks, chicks in brooders and flocks kept over winter should be given grit, which can be purchased at feed stores. For small chicks, sprinkling a little clean sand over their feed would be adequate.
**Please note: Oyster shell is not grit!
**A note on scratch: I have seen many poultry keepers feed scratch as the main feed and we often hear the argument that Grandpa and Grandma fed their flocks only scratch and they were fine. Yes, it can be done, BUT only if the chickens free range/have access to good quality vegetation and plenty bugs to supplement their diet. Scratch grains contain nowhere the nutrients required by growing chicks and laying hens and should be fed as a treat only.
Frequently asked questions
Q: At what age can I start feeding my chicks treats?
A: From the age of 1-2 weeks chicks can be offered some treats, but in small amounts only and remember to offer grit when feeding anything other than their starter.
Q: What treats are safe to feed to chicks?
Q: At what age should you switch to layer feed?
A: Feed manufacturers recommend switching to layer feed once the pullet is 16 weeks old, but it's better to wait until you see the first egg before switching.
Q: Can a broody hen eat the same feed as her chicks?
A: Yes, and she will likely benefit from the slightly higher protein levels in the chick starter. The entire flock can safely eat chick starter, even if it's medicated starter.
Q: My chicks accidentally got into the layer's feed. Will they be o.k?
A: Layer feed is unsuitable for chicks, due to the high calcium content, but a small amount consumed by the chicks will not likely do any harm. Do take precautions when feeding layers though and do not offer it to broody hens who are raising chicks as a. she does not need the extra calcium and b. she will offer it to her chicks.
Q: My laying hens ate some medicated chick starter. Are their eggs safe to eat?
A: Most medicated chick starters are dosed with amprolium, which does not leave a residue in the eggs, so yes, the eggs are perfectly safe for human consumption.
For more information on feed, feeders, treats and alternative feeds:
Feeding & Watering Your Flock (Forum section)
Home made chicken feed recipes:
Everyone, post your best homemade chicken feed recipes
Feed Recipe - Not Sure How Much Of What...
Fermenting Feed for Meat Birds
FERMENTED FEEDS...anyone using them?
Saving money on feed costs:
How to save money on chicken feed?
"Topic of the week" forum discussions on different aspects of feeding:
Topic of the week - Feeding table scraps to your flock
Topic of the Week - Feeding Chickens - What to feed and when?
Topic of the Week - Feeding Treats
Topic of the Week - Toxic treats and foraging
Topic of the Week - Saving Money, Feeding Chickens
Topic of the Week - "Off-grid" Feeding - Homemade feeds, etc.