When it comes to feeding your flock, just as feeding yourself, it’s important to know good quality food from poor quality food. Additionally, it is just as or even more important to know HOW to feed them. Although the ingredients used in different types of feed are similar, the proportions vary depending on the particular age and use category of chickens being fed. Each bag of feed is labeled with its specific use. So before selecting the top choices for chicken feed, let’s start by explaining the necessary types of food appropriate for the different ages of chickens we keep:
Day-old chicks through 18 weeks old require starter feed, aka starter crumbles, containing 20-24% protein. Starter feed contains the highest percentage of protein of any type of commercial feed, appropriate for the amount of growing the average chick does in its first few weeks of life.
Starter feed for chicks can be purchased in both medicated and un-medicated varieties. Your decision with regard to purchasing medicated vs. un-medicated might hinge on the vaccinations, if any, your chicks received before you bought or hatched them.
Pullet Grower Feed
Once the chicks hit six weeks of age, feed them pullet chicken grower until about age 20 weeks. The dietary requirements for a chicken between 6 to 20 weeks old is different than both a baby chick and a laying hen. Essentially, grower feed contains a protein content that is between 16-18% but has less calcium than regular layer feed. If you feed high-calcium diets to growing chickens, kidney damage can result, so it’s best to feed these adolescents food with a good balance of high protein and average amount of calcium.
Once your chickens start laying eggs (around 20 weeks of age) they should be switched to a layer feed. Layer feed is commonly available in mash, crumbles and pellet forms, all of which describe the size of the feed. Mash is the smallest and pellets, the largest. Layer feed generally contains 16-18% protein and has added calcium, which is necessary for strong bones and creating healthy eggshells.
While layer feed contains a decent amount of calcium, an additional source of calcium such as crushed oyster shells may be made accessible to laying hens in a separate dish, that is available but not a part of, regular feed.
In addition to a decent standard feed, there are some general ‘add ons’ that make good sense for a backyard flock:
–Scratch: Chicken scratch is a common term for random mixed grains, such as corn and wheat. It serves as a cheap way to supplement your hens’ diet by providing grain and providing them with added incentive to scratch. It’s important to realize that scratch should not be something used in great amount; too much grain supplementation can throw their diet off balance and affect egg production. Rule of thumb is with scratch, limit it to 10 percent of your backyard chickens’ diet.
–Grit: Another addition that makes for a complete feeding for some backyard chickens is grit. The term grit describes hard materials such as sand, dirt or small stones that aid in digestion. While starter feed and layer crumbles and pellets need no help being digested, treats, grains and other fibrous foods require grit to help digest them. Since chickens have no teeth, fibrous foods are ground with grit in the gizzard (a muscle in the digestive tract). Chickens foraging outside will naturally pick up bits of grit from the ground, those that do not forage outside must have grit supplied to them in a dish apart from their feed.
–Oyster Shell: The eggshell for each egg that your hen lays is about 95% calcium carbonate by dry weight. When they’re in active lay, they use four times as much calcium as a non-laying hen. If a laying hen does not receive enough calcium in their daily food, their body begins taking it from their bones. This can then lead to weak and brittle boned chickens. The addition of oyster shell to a hen’s diet can protect against this, and if offered as a separate entity next to their daily food, a hen will naturally consume the oyster shell in quantities her body might need to make up the difference in calcium she requires. Important note: Only hens who are laying eggs need to be given additional calcium in their diet, too much calcium in a hen’s diet can lead to kidney damage.
–Water: Continuous access to clean, fresh water for your backyard hens is a must. When a chicken becomes dehydrated, reduced egg production is one of the first things that happens.
Layers vs. Broilers
Another thing to mention here is that food for chickens raised for meat should have a higher protein percentage than that for layers, to facilitate quick growth for earlier butchering. This food is referred to as Broiler Rations. These high-protein feeds are for meat birds, particularly Cornish X Rock crosses that grow extremely fast. Broiler rations are typically 18 to 20%protein. This is also sometimes called “grower-finisher” feed. For heritage and pastured meat birds, protein content can be lowered to 16 percent after 12 weeks of age until butchering. Some may choose to keep the heritage meat birds on the higher grower-finisher rations until slaughter.
List of Top Chicken Feed
When it comes to a “Top 10” list, it is the criteria of the ranking that determines who is at the top, and who is at the bottom of the list. Since animal feeds, chicken food being no exception, are not getting ranked by the consumers themselves, all we humans can do is look at the nutrition information of different brands/types of feed specific to the age of our chickens, compare them to the standard for each age, and figure in the price we are willing to pay. Our top chicken feed list, specifically tailored to the needs of our own flock, will result. To that end, I’ve included what is largely considered to be the most helpful tool for comparison of brands and types of chicken feed, the poultrydvm.com interactive comparison chart. It’s a straightforward, organized way to research and pinpoint the exact makeup of the food you desire to feed your flock.
Here is the web address: http://www.poultrydvm.com/feeds.php
For those of us with little time for digging into website tools and interactive lists, here is a short list of brands that are ranked according to nutritional information and price. The generally recognized top five BRANDS of food on the market are those that are most popular among consumers, keep a consistently high standard of nutrition regardless of age-range formulation, and are moderately priced. Keep in mind that certain store brands may be just as well made, for instance Tractor Supply Company sells their own DUMOR brand. For some backyard chicken farmers it’s the most practical food choice because it is local, covers all the nutritional bases, and cheaper than mail order. That said, here are some top brands that come most highly recommended:
1) Hiland Naturals
Hiland Naturals has feed suitable for all three ages: starters, growers and layers, but the Non-GMO Chicken Layer feed specifically rates very highly on top feed lists. Their ingredients include soybeans, corn, soybean meal, and a large amount of vitamins and supplements. It’s herbicide and pesticide free, non-medicated, high in protein and high in calcium, so supplements are not needed with this formula. It also ranks very highly because of its very competitive pricing.
2) Scratch and Peck Feeds
Scratch and Peck Foods also ranks highly as a brand that sells food for all three ages; starter, grower and layer. This feed has ingredients such as wheat, barley, peas, sesame meal plus vitamins and supplements. It is corn and soy free, non GMO, organic, and also contains ground limestone and oyster shell. Scratch and Peck feed has also been frequently said to be a consumer (of the hen variety) favorite!
3) Manna Pro
Manna Pro ranks highly because it not only sells chick, grower, and layer feeds, but also a large variety of specialty foods such as “Omega Egg Maker Supplement”, 16% pellets or crumbles with probiotics, meatbird starter with 22% protein, grit with probiotics, oyster shell, vitamin supplements, and even an “All Flock” blend for different types of poultry, and a “Golden Girls” senior hen food. Manna Pro has a specialty food for any scenario, and it is easy to find in such stores as Walmart, Tractor Supply Company, Chewy.com, and Amazon.
The following feeds do not offer all three growth stages, but the types they do supply are very well regarded.
4) Prairie’s Choice Non-GMO Backyard Chicken Feed
Prairie’s Choice currently sells grower formula and layer formula. Their niche is specializing in non-chemically processed food, generally regarded as a healthier option, as well as non-GMO ground corn. Also balanced in their feeds are protein, fat, fiber, calcium, phosphorus and salt, and vitamins A, D-3, E, B12, and more. It is a great choice for separate ages of layers and growers, but definitely specialized enough so feeding should be limited to the age of chicken it was intended for.
5) Kalmbach Feeds
Another brand that offers only grower and layer feed, Kalmbach is unique in its commitment for providing nutrition that contains high calcium, amino acids, and Omega-3, and results in hens laying eggs with strong shells and a high Omega 3 fatty acid content. For this reason, it is highly regarded for layers.
6) Brown’s Layer Booster Chicken Feed
Brown’s Layer Booster is unique in that their feed uses only natural plant protein. Their grower/layer food contains no animal proteins or fats, and adds vitamins and minerals in proportions designed for dense outer shells. Because of the amount of protein and calcium in this food, it is not recommended for chickens under 18 weeks. Their feed cost is not the most competitive in the market, but if you’re looking for a food free of animal protein, this is a good choice.
7) Kaytee Chicken Starter Grower Crumble
Kaytee Starter Diet is a complete vegetarian diet for newly hatched and growing chicks. This simple and relatively inexpensive starter crumble is high in protein for growing chickens with added vitamins, minerals and probiotics.
All in all, choosing a feed for your flock is a very personal choice, generated by parameters such as flock age, flock type, price, and preference as to status of GMO, organic, and vegetarian type feeds. This guide is meant to be a tool in starting the search for a diet to suit your own flock’s best nutritional needs. Trial and error might be necessary to find the exact fit for you.