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Chicken Feed

Chicken Feeds 101 - A Basic Guide by Nathalie Ross

When I first started with chickens, in my adult life (versus when I was younger and mom bought the feed) the first people that I asked about how to properly feed my chickens were the feedstore clerks.

Who better to know feed right?

Well unfortunately feedstore clerks aren't always the best people to tell you how to feed your flock. Mine sent me home with a big ol' bag of scratch. When my birds lost their vigor, and their plumage didn't grow in as well as when I bought them, I realized that something wasn't right and decided to investigate feeds. I'm glad I did! Now I'm going to pass on some information to you, the very basics, to help you understand how to make your own feed decisions and what your options are.

A healthy bird results in part from receiving a balanced ration of minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, etc. If they free range or are on the ground, they have the ability to choose some of these nutrients from the environment around them; proteins from bugs and better grains, minerals from the earth, vitamins from the grasses and the plants, and so forth.

However, the poultry that we now keep aren't the wild birds that once could survive in the wild on their own without feed. Our birds have been bred over the years to lay more eggs, grow faster, put on more meat, all of which require more nutrients than they can usually get walking around our yards alone.

So we buy feed to make sure our birds have everything they need in order to give us everything WE need from it, be it meat and eggs, or the enjoyment of having lovely birds. When you buy feeds, you'll generally have three choices: pellets (and crumbles), grains, or combinations of the two.

PELLETS and CRUMBLES Pelleted feeds (or their crumbled counterparts) are considered a "complete feed" because they often not only contain ingrediants like grains and protein, but also vitamins and minerals that a bird needs. They are the result of research into poultry nutrition and their use is usually stated on the label for your convenience.

Laying feeds are designed for birds to replace nutrients used during lay, or to enhance production. Growth and Starter feeds are designed for non-adult poultry. Breeder feeds are both for egg production with enhanced calcium/D3/phosphorus for eggshells, as well as nutrients for fertility, etc. The label tells you for what the feed is designed, and usually, for what age of bird as well.

ALL-GRAIN FEEDS All-grain feeds, like scratch, don't have a "supplement package" in them. "Supplement packages" are pellets that contain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. All grain feeds are designed either to make adjustments to a complete feed, to be used in combination with a Supplement Package by experienced poultrymen, or to be used (in the case of scratch) as a treat that you toss into the bedding to encourage the chickens to "scratch" around and fluff and aerate the bedding for you.

If you use an all grain feed for any reason, be sure that you've really studied your nutrition. It's best that you have a few years under your belt before undertaking this.

SCRATCH Scratch itself is a combination of milo and two other of the cheapest grains on the market at the time. It has no supplement package as it's an all grain feed. It's usually very low in protein, as cheap grains often are, and will take down the vital protein level of your feed very easily. It will also dilute the effect of the Supplement package by diluting your feed. As far as using it to fatten chickens, horse oats and/or corn oil are a much better choice.

COMBINATION FEEDS These are feeds that contain mostly grains but have pellets in them as well. A good example of this is Game Cock Feed which has corn, peas, wheat or oats, milo, and other grains as well as a Supplement Package. In the case of Game Cock feeds, it is a "complete feed" and designed to essentially meet most all of a rooster's nutritional needs. It's not fortified with calcium for layers, but we'll talk more about that under "SUPPLEMENTS". These feeds can satisfy our desire to feed grains (because the chicken doesn't HAVE to have them in their whole feed) without compromising the quality of nutrition.

SUPPLEMENTS In the best feeds, you'll often find (in the confusing language of the ingredients section) other products designed to encourage thriftiness of your bird and digestion of all the nutrients of the feed. One such bonus ingredient is the end products that gut bacteria make that in turn feed your bird or help digest feed. Those end products are usually listed as "_________ fermentaion product" or "_________ end product" with the blank being filled by a specific bacteria name like L. acidophilus, etc. This is a great addition to your feed!

CALCIUM: A laying or breeding feed will often contain a higher percentage of calcium than other feeds (somewhere around 1%). Theoretically you can go without any additional calcium while using those feeds. However, I find it's best to offer the option for your adult or laying age females the opportunity to decide how much calcium they need on their own. In all cases, giving them free choice calcium supplements like Oyster Shell will help them. You're not adding it into the feed and risking too much calcium, which can cause everything from pimples on the eggs to, in the extreme cases, an inability to absorb vitamins, fats and other nutrients... Instead, you're allowing the hens to pick and choose on their own. I keep mine in a separate rubber pan, or toss it out onto the ground. Calcium alone isn't enough for birds, so their complete feed should contain D vitamins and phophorus to help the calcium get absorbed.

GRIT: Pelleted and crumble feeds are designed to break down within the chicken's digestive system without the need of additional grit to grind the feed. In a situation where the bird is only caged and receives no other feeds (treats, grains, etc) this would work. However, most of ours aren't in that type of environment. So, it's always best if you offer your birds free choice grit. If they don't need much they won't take much. However, if they need it and don't have it you will end up with impacted crops which have the potential to kill a chicken. So considering the low cost of grit it's a good thing to have on hand. Oyster shell will not serve as grit as it dissolves in the 'stomach' of the bird before it goes to the gizzard. Instead, try sand for babies, and poultry or pigeon grit for adult birds. Even if your birds free range, hedge your bet and provide them grit. You'll not know when they need a particular size of grit to grind their feed. I like to just feed mine free choice with the oyster shell. I add more about once a week to once a month.


To make sure your chickens get all the benefits of their fresh feed, there are two other considerations: freshness and storage.

FRESHNESS When you purchase your feeds, make sure it's from a feedstore (and the particular feed as well) that has a high turnover. You don't want to take home a bag that has dust from sitting there because the most important ingrediants tend to lose their potency over a shorter time than you would think. How long depends on how processed a feed is.

Everytime you get your feed and empty it into a canister or scoop some up, you should take a moment to sift through it. Give it a good feel, smell, and look-over. A fresh feed will smell fresh - not odorless. It will not be dusty, and it will not have clumps or mildew in it. Some feeds even come with a date of manufacture.

STORAGE Your storage needs will vary depending upon what part of the country you're in, but there are a few rules that apply everywhere. First, feed should be kept in a container that is rodent proof to prevent the little thieves from emptying your pocketbook, as well as keeping them from leaving their droppings (and disease) in your feed supply.

The storage container and/or location should also be dry and cool so that nutrients are made ineffective by humidity and heat. Additionally, moisture can make foods mildew very quickly, especially in combination with heat.

Also, make sure that your feed store is doing their job of storing the feed properly before you buy it. You don't have to inspect their storage, but simply examine the bag. Check it carefully for holes that might be caused by weebles, or for watermarks or stains that indicate that the bag was wet. I tend to stand by the truck while the loader loads me up so that I can give a quick look at the bags while they're going in the truck. That way if I see a nasty or ripped bag, we can replace it right there without having to make another trip to the feedstore.

Proper storage and freshness of your feeds will help you to take advantage of almost the full nutritional value of the feed that you've taken so much time to choose.

SUMMARY With a little extra effort, you can take your birds from being just survivors to a beautiful, healthy flock. As with everything, the quality of nutrients that you put INTO your birds are going to reflect in the quality that you get out of them. Being tempted to buy a cheaper quality of feed can cheat you in small ways by causing you to have to feed more of it, or causing disease because of nutritional deficiencies. Granted, you don't have to search for the most expensive feed - just look for the most appropriate one. Your birds will love you for it! +



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