Layer feed. I once fed it to my flock, too. But then one day, I began to have issues, so I turned to BYC. What did I find? Enlightenment. Super cheesy, I know. But I'm here to provide you with the exact information I was given two years ago when I quit feeding layer pellets to my flock, and why you should stop feeding it to your birds NOW!
Pellets are a great way to reduce waste...
What Layer Pellets (And Crumbles) Lack
Layer pellets, shockingly, lack a lot of great nutrients that birds need in their diets. We'll go over these individually, too, and their effects.
Layers pellets tend to lack in protein. Most layer feed has around 14-17% protein. Suitable for layers, but they sure don't thrive on that level.
Layer pellets also lack in animal proteins- important, because chickens are omnivores. Vegetarian diets work, but they aren't the best for chickens. Layer pellets also lack diversity- meaning they can only be used for one type of bird- a laying hen.
Eggs are the hallmark of most backyard flocks.
Layer Feed Protein
Laying chickens do lay on 14-17% protein levels. However, they don't thrive. Most layer pellets have around 16% protein- not formulated for increased egg size. Hens fed with higher protein levels (around 20 and 22%) often lay bigger eggs, over a long period of time. Young hens fed with high protein diets tend to lay more eggs, only to become bigger eggs later on. A higher protein diet in growing birds also directly results in their mature body weight, and it is commonly known that a big hen=big eggs. The effects of protein on laying hens have been studied, and it has been proven that hens do best on 20% protein. Unfortunately, this is something layer pellets often lack.
Birds that require higher levels of protein to lay well, like Leghorns and Easter Eggers, do much better on a 20 or 22% diet, whereas when fed layer pellets, they often don't lay as well, or as young. Layer pellets are formulated for a controlled, battery-type cage setup for laying hens, where there are no cockerels or roosters involved. Hens that sit in a cage all day require less protein than a chicken running around would, so unfortunately, layer pellets lack what backyard flocks- us- need.
Layer Feed Protein Sources
Layer feeds are almost always vegetarian. Of course, a lot of feeds are today, but the issue with this is that vegetarian feeds were formulated for "organic" or "humane" egg produce. People no longer bought eggs with animal proteins, believing it was some cruel, inhumane way to provide protein. So, in order to increase profit, egg companies started dishing out vegetarian layer pellets with vegetarian protein sources-allowing vegetarians to eat the eggs, but also omnivorous people. This may have been what people wanted, but chickens are actually omnivores, so animal-sourced protein is worth looking into for your backyard flock. Animal sources of protein also provide the amino acids that chickens (and people) need, whereas vegetable sources of protein must be supplemented... another thing worth considering.
Layer Feed Calcium
One thing layer feed does not lack is calcium. However, I'm throwing this under the "lacking" category, because it is not something chickens need. Layer feed is designed for laying-hens, not non-laying birds. In a backyard flock, where we often have roosters and chicks, or keep older, non laying hens, feeding layer pellets can actually be very dangerous. We'll go over these effects soon, but this is definitely something you want to pay attention to- which is why I'm listing it twice.
Do you want to kill off these cute little chicks? No? Keep reading...
The Effects Of Feeding Layer Pellets To Birds Younger Then Laying Age
Backyard flocks generally have a lot of mixed ages. Many of us have roosters and chicks, along with laying hens. Chicks are cute and fluffy, that's one thing we know for sure.
However, if they get ahold of those layer pellets, they can actually suffer severely for it- and so can you.
Delayed development happens a lot, something most of us don't want to deal with. When a chicken doesn't lay for 10 or 20 months after it reaches laying age, those on a budget suffer. Most layer pellet packages say to begin feeding at 16 weeks of age- laying age... but, there's a catch.
Many breeds aren't ready to lay at 16 weeks of age. Some don't mature until 36 weeks! When you start feeding layer pellets to non-laying-ready birds, it causes severe delays in maturity. The lack of suitable protein also can cause breeds like Leghorns and Easter Eggers to experience a delay in maturity.
Kidney or liver failure can happen in chicks that have been fed layer pellets. Layer pellets are high in calcium, which laying hens need. However, calcium is toxic in high amounts in non-laying birds. Chicks who are not laying, who get a bite of those layer pellets (or crumbles), risk overdose, and death.
Growth problems are another issue that can arise when fed layer pellets. This is not specific to only layer pellets, though. This issue is directly related to protein levels. Young, growing birds need a specific amount of protein. Those not fed enough can have small maturity weight, growing issues, etc.
The Effects of Feeding Layer Feed to Adult Non-Laying Birds
Adults that aren't laying in a backyard flock often get fed layer pellets, due to being lumped together with the others. However, non-laying birds can include roosters, non-laying pullets and cockerels, non-laying hens, molting hens, and old hens no longer laying. Feeding layer pellets to these birds can be harmful.
Feeding layer pellets to mature non-layers can cause calcium overdose, liver or kidney failure, or other issues related to a lack of protein (but, we won't go over that here- that's another topic).
Kidney damage is becoming more and more common in backyard flocks, even in laying hens that are meant for the layer pellets. Why? Well, layer pellets are formulated for commercial breeds that big companies use to produce lots of eggs. However, backyard flocks are generally made up of a variety of breeds, or heritage breeds, which lay less eggs compared to commercial breeds like Leghorns.
What To Do Now
Hopefully, once you've read this, you can decide what feed is right for your chickens. For most backyard flocks, layer feed is totally unnecessary. Our birds are pets, so we typically don't lock them up in battery cages to lay every day.
What can you feed instead?
I feed a 20% unmedicated grower feed to my entire flock. It's a one-size fits all feed, because it is suitable for growing chicks, too.
You can feed any feed that has 18%, 20% or 22% protein levels, or anything in between 18 and 22. Be cautious of feeding too much protein, though, because it has adverse effects, in both people and chickens!
The best feeds to decide on are grower, maintenance feeds, or all flock feed, or Flock raiser. You could also consider mixing your own feed.
Make sure that when your flock has laying hens, to provide oyster-shell free choice on the side. Always provide insoluble grit free choice on the side, and make sure treats (yes, that includes meat, veggie, and other scraps) don't make up more than 10% of the total diet.
Best of luck with your flock, reader!
Sources from articles, Backyard Chicken posts, etc. Linked posts and images credit goes to owner.