How to Feed Chickens the Right Way: All You Need to Know


Hens are eating corn cob in the courtyard. Poultry farming in the countryside.

Chickens are omnivores and should be given feed that has enough protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins for proper bodily functions and growth. Once you know how properly feed chickens, your feathery flock will be strong and thrive.

Feeding chickens is an art, not because it’s an overly complicated endeavor but because chickens require various types of nutrients during different stages of their lives.

Chickens’ dietary needs vary with age, but that is not the only factor that comes into play. Numerous other factors, for instance, if chickens are egg-layers or whether the flock is free-ranging also play a part in how they should be fed. The key to understanding how to feed chickens properly lies in the knowledge of:

  • Recommended feed for chickens, depending on various factors
  • What kind of treats are healthy for chickens
  • When should you feed your chickens
  • How much should you feed your chicken
  • Foods that should not be given to chickens

This comprehensive guide will cover all aspects of feeding chickens; what to feed, how to feed, as chickens feeding well as do’s, and don’ts.

Feeding Chickens Based on Age

A good way to ensure that your chickens are fed correctly, whether they are free-ranging or not, is to just keep the nutritional needs in mind – plain and simple. Nutrients that chicken must have in their diets are:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein and Amino Acids
  • Fats
  • Minerals (Calcium, Phosphorus, etc.)
  • Vitamins

What to Feed Young Chicks?

Chicks, 0-10 weeks old, require chick starter feed which contains around 20% protein and 1% calcium. Chicks require a good amount of protein to grow fast and healthy.

You can choose between mash and crumble. Chick starter feed can be medicated or unmedicated. The difference is that medicated feed contains amprolium to prevent coccidiosis which is a common and lethal intestinal ailment. If your chicks are vaccinated for coccidiosis, it is suggested that you purchase unmedicated feed.

Chicks can go without added grit as long as they are on starter feed, but if they eat anything other than the feed on their foraging adventures then providing them with grit is a good idea. But grit is not required for starter feed digestion.

A quick chick feed checklist:

  • Starter feed Containing 20% protein approximately
  • Can be crumbles or mash
  • Grit is optional
  • Unmedicated feed for vaccinated chicks is recommended

What to Feed Pullets?

At the age of 8 weeks, chicks can be transitioned into grower feed. Grower pellets, crumbles or mash contains around 16% to 18% protein and 1% calcium.

They can eat this feed until they start laying eggs, which is at around 18 weeks. Grower feeds also comes in medicated and unmedicated varieties and grit is not really required for digestion.

What to Feed Egg-Laying Chickens?

Egg-layers have very different dietary requirements, as they need around 3.5% calcium and 15% to 18% protein. For egg production, layer feed has a higher amount of calcium.

If sufficient calcium is absent from an egg-laying chicken’s diet, the required calcium will be taken from her bones. It also affects the quality of eggs as the egg-shells get very soft. The chicken may stop laying eggs altogether if the diet does not contain enough calcium.

A quick layer feed checklist:

  • Must contain 3.5% calcium
  • Should contain around 18% protein
  • Unmedicated
  • Comes in pellets, crumbles, and mash form
  • Grit is needed, particularly if chickens are not free-ranging or are confined

What to Feed Meat Birds?

Meat birds require more protein in their diet – approximately 22% to 24% protein.

Since broilers are ready for culling in just around 20 weeks, a high protein diet will help them grow to full size.

Can Young Chickens Eat Layer Feed?

The answer is a big no! Young chickens should not be fed layer feed as the calcium contents are too high and can be deadly for young chickens as it leads to kidney failure.

Can Cockerels Eat Layer Feed?

It is not suggested to feed cockerels layer feed.

There are poultry farmers that feed cockerels layer feed without causing any health issues for the chickens, but it is strongly recommended to keep layer feed away from cockerels.

How to Feed a Mixed Flock of Layers and Non-Layers?

It is easy to get overwhelmed if you have a mixed flock with pullets and non-layers and egg-layers in it. In that case, you can provide your flock with an “all flock” feed. But do not forget to provide your flock with calcium supplements separately.

Crushed eggshells and oyster shells serve as a great natural calcium supplement, but you should provide it in a separate feeder or dish. This is how egg-layers can fulfill their supplement needs while eating the same feed as other chickens in the flock.

A Word on Grit 

Chickens are good at pecking, but they can’t bite onto things. They do not have teeth to grind the food, hence they need grit. Grit, depending on the type and source, is mainly small stones and pebbles that help chickens grind their food in the gizzard.

Free-range chickens usually have enough grit from their daily foraging adventures, but chickens enclosed in an area need added grit. Adding shell grit containing oyster shells to free-ranging chickens feed is also beneficial.

There are two types of grit that you can purchase: Insoluble grit and soluble grit. Insoluble grit consists of crushed granite. Soluble grit is made from seashells for extra calcium and is great for egg-laying chickens. These two types of grits can also be mixed. You can either add the grit in the chicken feed or provide it in another dish.

How Often to Give Chickens Treats

Chickens are omnivores with a voracious appetite and would gladly accept any treats. But it is the keeper’s job to make sure that treats make up no more than 10% of a chicken’s daily diet.

Being generous with treats will dilute chicken feed nutrients, tip the balance, and cause the chicken to pick feathers. It can make the chicken susceptible to obesity and being egg bound.

The production of eggs is affected if a chicken is given too many treats. Only 2 tablespoons of treat can be fed to a chicken per quarter cup of feed.

Treats are not sugary snacks but kitchen scraps, vegetables, fruits, scratch, and mealworms. Although there is a big list of the things that you can offer as a treat, knowing when and how to provide these treats is crucial. They are also foods that you should avoid giving to the flock as they can be toxic for the chickens.

Healthy Treats for Chickens

There are numerous safe treat options to get your chickens running to you. They can be broadly categorized into fruits, veggies, and grains.

Fruits for Chickens

ApplesRaw apple without seeds
BananaPeel and feed
BerriesRaw
GrapesFeed without seed
MelonSeeds and Flesh
PomegranatesIncluding seeds
PeachesRaw

Vegetables for Chickens

AsparagusCooked and Raw
BeetsCooked only
BroccoliWhole head
CauliflowerRaw
CarrotsRaw and Cooked
CucumbersSeeds and Flesh
EggplantSeeds and Flesh
Lettuce (Leafy veggies)Raw including spinach
PeasPeas and flowers
Bell PepperRaw
PotatoesStrictly no peels, Cooked
PumpkinRaw
SproutsRaw
TurnipsCooked

Grains and Miscellaneous

BeansCooked only
BreadIn Moderation
CerealNo Sugar
CheeseIn Moderation
Live CricketsHigh Protein treat
CornRaw and cooked
EggsCooked
FlowersPesticide-free flowers only
MealwormsProtein treat
OatmealRaw and Cooked
PastaCooked
RiceCooked
PopcornPlain (no salt)
TomatoRaw and Cooked
YogurtPlain

Best Time to Give a Chicken Treats

Although these treats can be fed at any time of the year, it is beneficial to know what treat suits which time of the year.

  • Fall: Mealworms and other protein-rich treats will help the chickens with molting.
  • Winter: Scratch with a mixture of grains is great in winter as it is fatty food.
  • Spring: Provide laying chickens with calcium-rich treats along with their layer feed.
  • Summer: Leafy greens, fresh vegetables, and fruits make a great treat in the summer. Get creative, for instance, refrigerate melon and feed it cold to the chickens.

What is Chicken Scratch?

Scratch is a mixture of a few grains including cracked corn, oats, wheat, and rye.

It is fatty food, full of carbs but it is not an alternative to chicken feed. It does not contain the protein and vitamins required in a chicken’s balanced diet. Feeding chickens scratch in winter, in moderation, is recommended.

List of Foods Unsafe for Chickens

There are foods that you should avoid feeding your chickens at all costs as they can be toxic or otherwise harmful.

  • Raw potatoes
  • Potato peels as they contain Solanine, a toxic substance
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Citrus Fruits
  • Avocado
  • Apple Seeds
  • Chocolate
  • Pet food
  • Uncooked Beans as they contain hemagglutinin which cause digestion issues
  • Uncooked Rice
  • Candy and Sugar
  • Raw Eggs
  • Rhubarb as it contains anthraquinones, which acts as a laxative
  • Salty Food

Now that you know what items to keep off the menu, you can feed and treat your chickens the correct way. But how much chicken feed does a chicken really need?

How Much Feed Do Chickens Need?

On average, a chicken eats ¾ cup of feed every day which is a quarter-pound of feed.

The recommended method of feeding is the free-feeding method. Free feeding your chickens means that they have a constant supply of feed available. Chickens do not have three square meals a day, as their digestive system requires that they eat small portions of food throughout the day at regular intervals. Free feeding is known to be the best option, as restricted feeding can affect egg productivity.

Free-feeding means that the feed is made available at all times, which can lead to a concern that the chickens may become overweight. Chickens are good at self-regulating and usually eat when they are hungry, and with daily foraging and running around, there is low to no chance of a chicken becoming overweight from free feeding.

If you decide to restrict feed, make sure that your chickens are getting enough to eat and are fed on time, frequently and at regular intervals.

Mash, Crumbles and Pellets

When it comes to chicken feed, you have a couple of options to choose from. These options mostly differ in their consistency. For instance, mash is powdery whereas pellets are coarser.

Mash is crushed whole grains mixed with the protein and supplements. Pelletized mash makes pellets, and crushing the pellets with a crumbler makes crumbles. For baby chicks, mash is easier to eat.

The main reasons poultry farmers prefer pellets or crumble over mash is that chickens can pick their preferred feed from the mash and leave the rest whereas, with the compact pelletized feed they get all the nutritions in each bite.

Since there is an additional production process related to pellet making, it altså cost more than mash. In terms of cleaning, feeding mash is messier and the mess can be difficult to clean which also leads to more waste.

You should consider the pros and cons before purchasing a certain type of feed. In case you decide to transition to another feed type, you should introduce the new feed gradually. Mixing new feed with old feed is a good way to start the transition.

Feeder Guide

A chicken feeder is the dish or the container that you serve the feed in.

Chickens love to scratch and peck, hence, a chicken feeder should be sturdy enough to not get knocked over. Finding a food feeder that keeps the chicken feed dry can be a challenge.

There are a few more things that you should consider before purchasing a feeder. Chickens have a pecking order, and this can lead to chooks at the bottom of the order to be deprived of sufficient feed. You should provide at least two feeders to ensure that all chooks in the flock have access to the food.

Three types of feeders are commonly available for purchase; suspended feeders, treadle chicken feeder, and PVC chicken feeder.

Suspended chicken feeder, as the name suggests, can be suspended from the roof. It is hanging low enough for chickens to get to the food, but they cannot scratch it.

A treadle chicken feeder is essentially a big tray with a platform. Chickens step on the platform and the lid of the tray opens, this keeps the unwanted pests out of the chicken feed.

PVC chicken feeders are made of PVC pipes but since the food in these feeders is always exposed, it is more likely to attract pests. Any type of feeder should be kept in a place where the feed stays dry.

A Word on Fermented Feed

Many farmers swear by fermented feed and its benefits. It has been proven that fermented feed makes chicken healthier and eggs bigger and tastier. Many farmers use it to save money on chicken feed as fermented feed has higher nutrition and fills up chickens quickly. The probiotics in the fermented feed make chicken’s digestive system healthier.

Fermenting feed may reduce the cost, but it does take a bit of time to ferment the feed. If you want to save money and have enough time to invest in the process, fermented feed is a good option.

What to Avoid When Feeding Chickens

An informed chicken keeper is less likely to make mistakes. Although the list of things to avoid is short, being aware of what can hurt your flock will help keep chickens happy and strong.

The first thing to remember is that good commercial feeds have all the nutrition that your chickens need. While feeding grains, kitchen scraps, or inappropriate food like duck food can be done, it requires some considerations.

Do not feed chicks and young chickens layer feed. If you decide to be a little adventurous and make your feed at home, make sure you have done enough research to make a feed that fulfills all the dietary needs of your chooks.

Avoid feeding your chicken stale feed as it lacks in nutritional value. Store the feed in a closed container in order to make it last longer and to keep rats out.

Keep the 90-10 ratio in mind when giving treats to your chicken. Too many treats upset the balance in diet and can cause issues including a decline in egg production.

Do not rely on scratch or corn to keep your chickens healthy and make sure that they have access to multiple drinkers with fresh water at all times. Stay informed, act responsibly and proactively to give your feathery flock a great life.

In Summary

  • Provide your chicken feed suitable for the age
  • Make sure they have access to freshwater
  • Provide your chickens with grit
  • Limit treats; provide safe treats in moderation
  • Do not rely on scratch or tables scrap to serve as chicken feed
  • Provide more than one feeder to ensure all chickens have access to food
  • Provide calcium supplements to egg-layers
  • Do not feed chicks and pullets layer feed
  • Do not over-supplement feed
  • Do not feed treats that are toxic, sugary, or salty
  • Free-feeding is recommended

Rasmus

Hi, My name is Rasmus. I am a hobby "polytarian" and a backyard farmer. Ever since I was a baby, I have been surrounded by poultry of all kinds. This blog is my way of sharing what I have learned from my bird-crazy family, books, and my personal experience.

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