Feeding chickens will be part of your daily routine on the homestead. What you feed them depends on the breed of chickens you have, their age, if they are meat or laying chickens and if they can forage for food naturally. It also depends on which commercial feed is available locally. Keep in mind that a chicken, while laying, and new chicks that can grow up to 4 pounds in 8 weeks, require more food.
Types of Feed
Commercial feed comes in three forms, mash, crumbles, and pellets. Mash is ground-up feed, similar to sand with different sized particles. Crumbles are ground but are processed differently so that it sticks or clumps together. Clumps are easier for newer chicks to pick up. Pellets are for older mature birds and are less mess on the ground. Although many feed stores offer different types of feed such as, broiler developer and broiler finisher, the three basic stages of feed are chick starter, poultry grower, and layer ration.
The first type of food, chick starter, is usually the first form of feed you will purchase if you are starting out with baby chicks, and is the most common. This feed comes in two basic forms, medicated and unmedicated. The medicated version is a preventative for Coccidiosis. Coccidiosis lives in the gut of every chicken but the birds usually develop an immunity to it by around 14 weeks of age. This disease can sometimes grow and worsen in unhealthy situations such as damp or wet litter, or in the feces of chicks which could be consumed by other healthy chicks. Symptoms include runny manure, laziness, listlessness, and later, bloody manure.Treatment involves removing the chick from the flock, cleaning the coop and introducing medicated chick starter. For more information be sure to read Common Ailments in Chickens.
Unmedicated chick starter is the exact same feed as mentioned above without the medication. This version can be harder to find. Both types of feed usually have around 20% to 24% protein, the highest amount of protein in feed for chickens.
- Use from 0 to 3 weeks in broiler hybrids.
- From 0 to 6 weeks for broiler and pullets, heritage, range, and commercial breeds.
- 0 to 8 weeks in pullets heritage breeds
This feed is the second step and helps the chicks during a growth stage where they are not yet laying. This feed comes in two different levels of protein, 16 to 20%, and 14 to 16%. For meat chickens, this is usually the last form of feed being fed before going to butcher.
16 to 20% protein
- 3 weeks til butchered in broiler hybrids
- 6 weeks til butchered in broiler heritage and range
14 to 16% protein
- 6 to 20 weeks in pullets for commercial breeds
- 8 to 22 weeks in heritage breeds
This feed is the last form of feed you will give your layer chickens. It is usually 16 to 18% protein.This feed is introduced right about the time layer’s start laying at 6 months.
- 20 to 22 weeks
- mature chickens
When feeding your chickens, you want them to have a balanced diet that includes all of the things they need to grow healthy and strong. All feed contains protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals. The protein assists the growth of bones, muscles, skin, feathers, and organs. Carbohydrates provide energy. Fat is stored for use in the future and vitamins and minerals supplement the needs of being alive. Soybean meal usually makes up the protein content and is the most expensive part. Corn, oats, and wheat make up the carbohydrates.
When feeding chickens, commercial feed should be readily available at all times. Adding supplements when feeding chickens can help cut the costs of feed. One option of supplements that is all-natural is allowing your chickens to forage. They will eat anything edible such as bugs, seeds, fruit, flowers, and grasses. Mostly everything a chicken needs can be found while foraging unless there is only sand and dirt available.
A lot of people provide kitchen scraps for their flock including, unfinished cereal, leftover salads, vegetable peels, meat scraps, and stale bread. Do not feed them garlic or onions because the taste and smell will transfer to the eggs being laid. Also, avoid anything spoiled as they could become sick. When being allowed to forage keep in mind that your chickens will grow slower and will lay fewer eggs.
Grit is small shaped stones that are anywhere from the size of sand to a small pebble. Chickens swallow grit to help them digest their food. The grit sits in the part of the chicken called the gizzard right above the intestine. Because chickens do not have teeth they need this grit to digest the food they eat. Chickens that are raised on commercial feed only do not need to have their diets supplemented with grit because the feed is small enough to be digestible.
Calcium comes in the form of dried oyster shells that are ground to a powder, limestone, or eggshells that are ground finely. It is needed only if your chickens are laying soft-shelled eggs, which comes from a lack of calcium. If using eggs shells take special care to make sure they are finely ground. If it resembles chicken eggs the chickens may start eating your eggs being laid.
This is newer on the market. Kelp meal is very rich in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids and is a healthy supplement to their diets. It may be hard to find due to its newness.
Feeding Your Chickens
Storage and Feeders
Always store your feed in plastic or galvanized containers with tight-fitting lids. This will protect your feed from being eaten by rodents and wild animals. It also will help keep the feed fresher, longer.
Make sure your feeders are also plastic and metal. Feeders can sit on the ground or hang from the ceiling. Feed that is set on the ground should only be done in the beginning when chicks are small because you will attract rodents easily in this way. Hanging feeders from the ceiling not only keeps the rodents from getting to it, but it keeps the feed contained because the chickens can’t scatter it with their feet. There are many types of feeder available. Check your local feed store or farm supply store for more options.
This is the most common type of feeder and there are many designs available. These types of feeders are designed to keep the chicken from roosting on the feeder and from stepping inside of it.
These can be adjusted as the chickens grow. Some come with adjustable legs and some can hang from a ceiling. These feeders should only be filled half way.
These are feeders that usually hang from an S-hook and a single chain and work on the first-in-first-out method, which means the oldest feed is out first. These feeders are filled from the top.
The rule of them with how high to hang the feeder is to put the ridge on the bottom even with the chickens back.
Carrying water can be time-consuming and strenuous work. Having a water source near the coop helps with this. Waterers need to be cleaned sometimes twice daily and will need to be filled as much if not more often. Conventional waterers come in both metal and plastic and range from a quart to a gallon, and five and ten gallons. Plastic ones tend to become brittle over time due to temperature changes, so a metal container is usually the better choice. As with feeders, the lip should come up to the chickens back. This may require you to place your feeder on a wooden base. I live in Florida so I prefer the gavanized feeders and waterers because the sun ruins anything plastic in the summer here due to the high heat.
Automatic waterers are another great option. Some of these have a cup that fills to a certain point then the water stops until the water level goes down. Some have nipples that release water as the nipple is moved. If you live in an area that water freezes, placing an electrical warming device near the waterer will help. A homemade option is a ceramic bulb base hung in a mason jar. The mason jar is placed inside of a cinder block and the waterer is placed over top.
Last Minute Reminders When Feeding Chickens
- When feeding chickens, laying chickens require different requirements than meat chickens.
- All chickens prefer routines, feed at the same time every day.
- You can introduce oats or wheat to their feed after 10 weeks until around 20 weeks.
- If food is all gone quickly you’re not feeding enough, if it sits a long period you are feeding too much.
Feeding chickens a healthy portion of the right type of food and at the right time will keep your chickens happy and healthy. By feeding them at the same times each day the chickens will start associating human contact with the reward of food. In doing these things, you are making a rewarding experience for both your chickens and you.
Do you have special treats that you share with your flock? Which supplements do you use when feeding chickens on your homestead? Share your ideas in the comments below.