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How to Care for Baby Chicks | Almanac.com

What to Feed Chickens: From Baby Chicks To Hens

Two chickens feeding out of a trough
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Feeding chickens at different ages

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Learn everything you need to know feeding chickens for every stage of your birds’ life cycle—from baby chicks to adult chickens. We’ll also discuss the pros and cons of different types of chicken feed.

Not everyone realizes, when they start raising chickens, how complicated the question of what to feed them can be. There are many options beyond just a traditional commercial feed. You’ll have to decide between layer and broiler feeds; mash, crumble, and pellets; different protein contents; and different types of treats—and that’s just for adult birds. Chicks, pullets, and older birds all have their own unique dietary needs, all of which will require their own feeds. 

We’re here to help, and break down all of these different kinds of feeds for different kinds of chickens, and give you all the information you need to decide which food is best for your birds.

What to Feed Chicks

Chicks are baby birds under about 12 weeks of age, but even in this short span of time, they will generally need two different types of feed.  

  1. For the first six weeks of their lives, chicks should get a starter feed, which has a higher protein content than other types of feed. Chicks need this higher protein content to help them grow, but if they continue to get that much protein after six weeks, they can essentially overdose on protein and develop liver and kidney problems. Most commonly, starter feed comes as mash, which has a fine texture similar to sand or soil. This makes it easier for tiny chicks to eat and digest. You can also choose to feed starter crumbles, which have a slightly rougher texture—more like granola—and are often easier to store and clean up. Each option has its defenders; ultimately, feed texture is a matter of personal preference.
  2. After six weeks, your chicks can transition to a grower feed, which has a lower protein content— usually about 16 to 18 percent—but also less calcium than a layer feed, because it doesn’t need to support egg development. Some brands make a combination starter/grower feed that covers both of these stages.  

What to Feed Pullets

A bird is usually considered a pullet between 12 weeks of age and when she lays her first egg. (The same life stage for male chickens is called a cock.) See our glossary of terms every backyard chicken keeper should know.

Pullets should be fed the same grower feed they started on as chicks, and can continue to eat that until they either start laying or reach 20 weeks old—whichever comes first. Transitioning them to layer feed too early can slow their growth or cause them to build up too much calcium in their bodies; waiting too long can result in weak eggshells. 

When choosing starter and grower feeds, owners will have to decide between medicated and unmedicated feeds. Because chicks and pullets have weaker immune systems than adult birds, some brands add amprolium to their starter and grower feeds to help protect young birds against deadly diseases like coccidiosis. However, if your birds have already been vaccinated against these diseases, as many are by their breeders, you can skip the medicated feed entirely.  

What Chickens Eat Once Adults

Once your birds reach 20 weeks old or start laying eggs, you can transition them to a layer feed. Layer feeds have the same 16 to 18 percent protein of a grower feed, but also added calcium to support eggshell development. See how many eggs a chicken lays each day.

Adult feeds usually come in three textures—mash, crumbles or pellets. Many owners prefer pellets because they are easiest to store, serve, and clean up, but you and your birds may have your own preferences.

If you’re raising your birds primarily for meat, rather than eggs, the feed for this stage of their life will be called a finisher feed. Like broiler feeds for all life stages, this feed will be very high in protein, which can be damaging to a bird’s long-term health but is perfect to make them grow as big as possible as fast as possible to produce a lot of delicious meat.

Feeding Chickens As They Get Older

As your hens get mature, their egg production will decline, which means they will need less protein and especially less calcium than they got from their layer feed. Depending on their breed and the individual bird, egg production usually starts dropping in their third or fourth year. As it drops, you’ll want to transition them to a lower-calcium all-flock feed. Learn more about what to do when a chicken stops laying eggs and how long they live.

You might also consider offering your older birds fermented feed. Fermenting your feed makes the nutrients easier for your birds to absorb and helps them feel fuller—for older hens that aren’t expending as much energy producing eggs or exercising, this can help prevent obesity.

Supplements

At all stages of their life, birds can benefit from being offered supplemental grit. Grit essentially acts as a bird’s teeth, helping her grind up and digest her food.

Another crucial supplement for layers is calcium carbonate, usually offered as oyster or eggshells. Even with a high-calcium layer feed, active layers sometimes need extra calcium to form healthy eggshells.

For both calcium carbonate and grit, you can offer them to your flock separately from their regular feed, and trust your birds to know their bodies and take as much as they need to maintain their health.

Chicken Treats

There is a wide variety of things you can offer your birds as treats, from kitchen scraps (in most places) to garden rejects to chicken scratch. You can be guided mainly by what your girls most love to eat, but remember that moderation should be your watchword here. Chickens who get too many treats can face a myriad of health problems, from obesity to liver and kidney problems to heart disease.

That said, regularly mixing treats into your birds’ diets can benefit them mentally and physically. The more variety of nutrients they have in their diets, the more physically robust they will be. In addition, chickens who are fed the same thing every day will quickly get bored; adding in treats can keep them stimulated and happy.

Kitchen scraps are a great option for anyone looking to reduce their environmental impact by limiting the amount of food waste they generate. Chickens can eat many of the same things that humans can, including unexpected things like fish, as well as things humans don’t enjoy at all, like bones and vegetable rinds. However, they can’t eat everything we do; for example, alliums, like onions and garlic, are toxic to them. Many spices are dangerous to chickens, so it’s best to give them kitchen scraps, but not table scraps—uncooked, unseasoned food is best for them.

Chicken scratch is another common chicken treat. Scratch is usually a mixture of cracked corn and other high-fat grains. In addition to being a tasty treat, scratch can give your birds an energy boost, which makes it an especially good treat for cold days when they might be burning more energy just to keep warm.

Feeding chickens can be complicated, but it’s also important to get it right. The correct diet is crucial to raising a happy, healthy flock that lays good, strong eggs for many years to come.

About The Author

Chris Lesley

Chris Lesley has been raising backyard chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth-generation poultry keeper. Read More from Chris Lesley
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