Demystifying Chicken Feed

April 18, 2019

When it comes to food, chickens are just like people. Both need a nutritious well-balanced diet to be both healthy and productive. 

That’s a simple concept but visit a feed store and a customer confronts a dizzying array of feed types. There’s starter feed, both medicated and unmedicated, layer feed in crumbles or pellets, feed for molting birds, meat bird feed, organic feed, scratch, and cracked corn. Figuring what bag to buy can be confusing.

There is a simple solution. Read information printed on most feed bags and on the label to decide what’s best to buy. Usually the label is a small piece of paper sewn into the bag’s seam. It tells exactly what the contents are.  Usually bags also have helpful chicken rearing tips printed on them, and normally the protein content is listed in large type.  Our partners at NatureServe feed make it easy to follow feed guidelines. Their all-in-one feed is packaged in bags labeled with lifetime feeding guidelines for chickens!

After deciding what type of feed to buy a customer still faces decisions. Often feed is sold in 10, 40, 50, or 55-pound bags.  Some stores sell many feed types in different size bags and made by two or three manufacturers, so there can be upwards of 20 or more choices. Shopping can be complex but, choosing the proper feed for a small backyard flock can be easy.   

Feeding Future Layers

Feed is manufactured to mimic a healthy natural diet common to many wild birds.   Chicks need a protein rich diet for proper growth. In nature most young wild birds feed heavily on insects, but once mature their bodies need slightly less protein, so they shift to eating more seeds and fewer bugs. Starter feed usually has about 18% protein and should be fed to baby chicks until they mature and lay their first egg when they are 20 to 24 weeks old.Then switch to layer feed, which has 16% protein and more calcium to help layers replenish the mineral that’s needed for sturdy egg shells.   

Chick starter is sold as medicated or unmedicated. Medicated feed is treated to help prevent coccidiosis, a disease of the intestinal tract that can infect young birds. It does not prevent any other disease. Medicated and unmedicated feed are otherwise identical, and whether to use one or the other is simply a personal choice.

To add potential confusion, layer feed is often offered as a premium or basic product.  Premium feed usually has marigold petal coloring added. It helps hens produce eggs with dark yolks that most people desire. Basic feed often is a store brand and contains all the nutrition birds need but lacks the coloring agent. Premium feed is somewhat more expensive. 

Pellets or Crumbles

Most manufacturers offer feed either as crumbles or pellets. Pellets are tiny cylinders that can be placed in feeders or sprinkled on the ground for hens to scamper about and find. Crumbles work best in feeders. The nutrition and price of the two types are usually identical, so chose the one most convenient.

Special Feeds

Feed stores often sell a wide variety of specialized feeds.   Just a few include:

Meat Bird Feeds: Usually it has around 22% protein and is designed for birds being raised solely for butchering. It is well suited for Cornish Rock broilers and other specialty meat strains but shouldn’t be fed to chicks being raised for egg production.

Organic Feeds: Organic feed often has similar ingredients and protein content as similar feeds not certified as organic. Organic feed costs about twice as much.  Buying it is a personal choice.  

Vegetarian Feed: Some manufacturers sell feed with ingredients containing no animal products. More commonly available feeds may include fish meal or ingredients derived from animals. It is another personal choice item.

Molting Feeds:  These are specially formulated for older birds in molt. Using this feed may give them a nutritional boost.

Egg Producer Feeds: These formulations often have a protein content of around 21% and are designed for flocks fed a large amount of scratch, cracked corn, or other grain.   Grain is relatively low in protein, so the blend brings their combined consumption to about the 16% protein level considered ideal for layers.

Game Bird Feeds: These are specially crafted for pheasants and other game birds.

 Cracked Corn or Scratch

Grain is low in protein and should be fed only as a chicken treat, not the main course. 

Chickens love snacking on it. Feed stores sell bags of scratch, cracked corn, and whole corn. Scratch is a blend of seeds that usually contains cracked corn, wheat, and milo.   Sometimes other seeds are added, and the percent of each seed type can vary widely. 

Milo is an inexpensive seed produced by a type of sorghum. Few birds, including chickens, like it. Scratch provides chickens a diversity of seeds but is about a third more expensive than cracked or whole corn. Whole corn kernels are large and challenging for small chickens to swallow. Cracked corn makes dining easier.  

Chicken have built in grindstones, called a gizzard, where powerful muscles force grain against tiny stones that pulverize it. Feed stores sell bags of grit, often composed of bits of granite. Hens need grit to digest grain, but foraging hens usually find plenty of natural stones in their run. If confined to a coop putting a small amount of grit in the feeder will aid digestion.

Feed Bag Size

Forty, 50- and 55-pound bags of feed all look about the same size in the store, so be sure to read how much feed a bag contains before buying. Shop for the best price per pound. Many stores also sell feed in five- and ten-pound pouches. These are convenient but often the per pound cost is about double that of identical feed contained in a big bag.  Many people find it easier to carry a 40-pound bag than a 50.

Storing Feed

Feed is best when fresh. Heat and humidity can cause feed to quickly mold. Mice, rats, and even raccoons and opossums love eating chicken feed, so it’s best to store it in a metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid to exclude both humidity and furry thieves.   

Despite the many types of feed available buying the right type isn’t difficult. Read the information on the bag and bring home the type best suited to the birds living in the backyard coop.

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More about Rich Patterson

Rich Patterson is a retired naturalist that enjoys raising chickens in his urban backyard. His experience in practical chicken keeping and homesteading will keep you enjoying life your with chickens!

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