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There’s a lot about chicken raising that isn’t clearly outlined for newcomers. Feed being one of those things. For a novice chicken raiser, mapping out the best feed options at which times can be quite daunting. I’m the kind of person that wants to know 110% about everything before I get into it. I want the outline, the parameters, the reasons, and to be given the ability to make an educated decision about what I’m purchasing. What I found during my quest to become the master of chicken feed, however, was that it wasn’t outlined in perfect clarity anywhere. Perhaps, because variables come into play and the answer just can’t be black or white. What I did find is that mapping out a general rule of thumb was quite simple. Luck you, I’m sharing it here today. This high-level look at chicken feed will give you an idea of feed type by age, plus an overview of what purpose each serves. This overview is specific to laying hens. Meat bird diets can vary and you’ll want to research that independently.
Scratch vs Grain
Grain is the primary feed you'll want to use for your Chickens. Scratch is meant to be used as a treat, but is generally sold close to the grain aisle, which leads to some confusion. Scratch grain is generally tossed on the ground to encourage the birds to scratch at and find the feed, as their instincts should insist. Scratch should make up no more than 10% of their diet and is only suitable for adult birds. It is a supplement and not a complete diet. Grain should make up the majority of their diet.
What to feed at what age
Chicks age 0 to 10 weeks
Chicks should be fed a 10-20% protein level during the ages of 0-10 weeks. This level of protein is ideal for egg laying breeds and a feed at this level would also contain the necessary nutrients required during this stage of growth. Meat birds would require a much higher level of protein that isn't appropriate for layers.
Chicks age 10 weeks to 18 weeks
After 10 weeks of age, chicks should be fed a grower feed with about a 15-20% protein level. This level promotes growth through maturity. Nothing over 20% protein should be fed to laying birds at this age.
Chick Starter/Grower Combination Feeds
If you have a small flock and want to go the combination route, you can do so with a starter/grower feed. A 20% protein level will carry your flock through 0-20 weeks. I've used this option with great success and found it to be a much simpler choice as our flock is quite small. I didn't have to waste any feed once they got beyond 10 weeks of age.
Laying Hens 18 weeks+
At 18-20 weeks your hens should be very close to laying their first eggs. Layer feed is the adult feed they'll need to be on for their daily nutrition going forward. Layer feed contains a protein level of about 16% and also has increased calcium levels which aids in proper shell development. You will want to supplement calcium in addition to the layer feed (see below) that you provide. While layer feeds do contain some level of calcium, it's often not enough on its own.
If you have birds, you should definitely understand how their digestion works. While birds do contain the gene necessary for growing teeth, they’re only blessed with beaks, sans teeth. Which means digestion has to take place in a different form. This form is called the gizzard. The bird consumes food through the beak, which then makes its way down the digestive tract and into the gizzard. The gizzard contains tiny stones, “grit”, from which it grinds down the consumed food to pass on for total digestion. This process is essential to the health and well-being of the bird. If you’re unsure whether or not your birds are getting grit through their environment, you must provide it to them. Commercially curated grit is available at all feed stores, including Tractor Supply. Grit and oyster shell are two totally different things, so do not confuse the two.
This is where the oyster shell comes in. Most layer feeds provide some level of calcium in the feed per industry standards. However, it is generally far lower than what is needed to ensure beautiful, thick egg shells. Lack of calcium in the diet can lead to soft or even nonexistent egg shells. You can introduce calcium into the diet as soon as the first egg appears, or around 18 weeks of age. Oyster shell is available at most feed stores, including Tractor Supply. If you’re in a pinch and can’t get any oyster shell, you can use egg shells ground in a food processor. If you choose this option, only use shells from eggs that were purchased locally and were from hens who were pasture raised. Using your hens’ own egg shells can work as well, but that would have to come after laying begins.
The flock block is an awesome supplement that's enriched with whole grains, oyster shell, and grit. It covers your calcium/grit needs all in one, and it's a great boredom buster for your birds. This genius invention is appropriate for adult birds, layer or meat. At $14 it is well worth the price.
Chickens love a plethora of goodies, including food scraps. This should be an occasional, not daily option. Their main source of food needs to be grain and whatever they scratch up in their environment. Treats should be just that—a treat.
Good treats (not an extensive list):
Melon (no seeds)
Apple (no seeds)
Herbs, fresh or dried
Fruits (no seeds, and no citrus)
Bad treats (not an extensive list):
Packaged or processed foods (no Cheetos for chickens!)
This list should provide you with a basic understanding of the available options and how to use them. If you have questions, leave them in the comments and I'll answer them.