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.
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 “broiler 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. Therefore, the ration for growing pullets, from leaving the brooder at 6 weeks to about 14 weeks, should be about 18-20% protein.
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)
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.
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