chicken feed

What to Feed Your Chickens, and What Not to Feed Them

A visit to the local feed store can be overwhelming, especially for new chicken owners. Each colorful bag of chicken feed contains a variety of terms from “mash” and “grower feed” to “medicated” or “un-medicated,” “fermented,” and more. So how do you make sense of all the jargon and choose the right food for your chickens?

Check out our chicken feed primer, where we simplify the jargon and show you how to feed your chickens at every stage of their lives. We also go over common fruits, vegetables, and plants to avoid so your chickens stay healthy and happy.

Chicken Feed Types

Chicken feed comes in a variety of textures that can make eating easier when chicks are young, or provide more convenience for chicken owners.

Pellets

Chicken feed pellets are simply compact cylinders of chicken feed. Pellets are convenient because they hold their shape well, so they are easy to pick up if your chickens happen to knock over their feeder. Pellets are also easy to serve and store.

Mash

Mash is a loose, unprocessed form of chicken feed that is commonly fed to baby chicks since it is very easy to digest. However, mash varieties of chicken feed are suitable for chickens of any age. Mash can also be combined with hot water to create feed with a porridge-like texture that many chickens love.

Crumble

Crumble varieties of chicken feed are coarser than mash varieties, but not as compact as pellets. Crumble is often used as a transition from mash to pellets within the flock. But crumble can be fed to chickens at any stage of life. It’s really a matter of what texture your flock prefers.

Shell Grit

Chickens require shell grit to keep their digestive systems functioning properly. Chickens store the grit in their gizzards to help them grind down their food to better access the nutrients. Shell grit also boosts calcium levels, crucial to bone health and egg shell strength.

Free range birds are usually able to find enough grit on their own. However, if your chickens spend most of their time in a coop run or fenced enclosure, you’ll need to provide shell grit for them. Serve shell grit in a separate container from regular feed. Chickens are able to regulate how much they need, so there is no risk of overfeeding.

Chicken Scratch

Don’t confuse chicken scratch with chicken feed. Chicken scratch is a mixture of cracked corn and other grains that serves as a treat or supplement to your chickens’ regular diet. Chicken scratch is a great source of energy and can help chickens stay warm on chilly nights. Be sure to feed chicken scratch in moderation since too much can result in unwanted weight gain in laying birds.

Medicated vs. Un-medicated

Starter and grower chicken feeds often come in medicated or un-medicated varieties. Medicated feed contains amprolium which is designed to prevent coccidiosis and other diseases in young chicks. If your chickens have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, don’t use medicated feed, as the effects of amprolium are not compatible with the ingredients in the vaccination.

Fermented

Any type of chicken feed can be mixed with water and allowed to ferment naturally. The process of fermentation releases many of the grain’s nutrients, making them more available for your birds. Fermented feed can also cut your chicken feed costs, since the added density of the feed helps chickens feel fuller longer.

Feed for Chicks

Chicken feed for baby chicks comes in two basic forms – starter and grower feed. As the name suggests, starter feed is fed just after chicks hatch. Typically, baby chicks are fed starter feed until they are six weeks of age. Starter feed is protein dense (usually 20-24% protein) and designed to meet the dietary requirements of baby chicks.

Chicks between 6 and 20 weeks of age should be switched to grower feed, which contains less protein than starter feed (16-18%) and less calcium than typical layer feed varieties. It’s important to make the switch to grower feed since feeding too much protein to growing pullets can cause kidney or liver problems later in life.

Feed for Egg-Laying Hens

Layer feed is designed to meet the needs of mature laying hens and contains a balance of protein, calcium, and other important vitamins and minerals that promote health and enhanced egg quality and production. Layer feed typically contains 16-18% protein, along with a generous amount of calcium to ensure strong egg shells. Layer feed should only be fed to chickens around 20 weeks of age or after they have begun laying eggs.

You can also supplement your chickens with added calcium by providing ground oyster shell or crushed egg shells.

Layer hens also need grit to aid in digestion, especially if they aren’t able to free range.

In addition to a good quality layer feed, layer hens also benefit from a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits including:

  • Bok choy
  • Silverbeet (aka chard)
  • Endive
  • Chickweed
  • Cabbage
  • Cucumbers
  • Melon
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Vegetable peels
  • Fruit peels

Pastured hens will find beneficial greens on their own and may not need extra fruits and vegetables.

Feed for Meat Chickens

If you are raising meat chickens, you’ll want to feed them broiler varieties of chicken feed that come in 3 basic forms – starter, grower, and finisher.

Broiler varieties of chicken feed are dense in protein, which encourages fast growth. Don’t feed broiler varieties of chicken feed to laying hens, since the excess protein can be detrimental to their health.

If you are raising broilers, be sure they have access to food 24 hours a day, to encourage maximum growth and weight gain.

Foods to Avoid

Fatty Foods

Excessive amounts of fatty foods like suet (flock blocks) and sunflower seeds have been linked with Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome that can kill your birds without warning. Fat builds up around the liver, making the liver soft and prone to bleeding. Hens who suffer from Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome are usually laying hens who are 20% or more overweight.

Excess Salt

Chickens can suffer from salt poisoning since salt is generally not a normal part of their diet. Make sure any scraps you feed your chickens don’t contain high levels of salt.

Plants from the Nightshade Family

Plants in the nightshade family contain solanine and/or oxalic acid, compounds that are toxic to chickens and can cause kidney failure. Plants in the nightshade family include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and rhubarb leaves. Cooked varieties of these plants are generally okay, since cooking breaks down dangerous toxins.

Onions

Do not feed onions to chickens in large quantities. Onions contain thiosulfate which can destroy red blood cells, causing anemia or jaundice that is sometimes fatal.

Avocados

Avocados contain a toxin called persin that has been linked with myocardial necrosis in chickens, a condition that results when the heart stops beating.

Apple Seeds

Apple seeds contain cyanide which can kill your chickens. Feel free to feed other parts of the apple, just be sure you have removed all of the seeds to be safe.

Citrus Fruit

Citrus fruit should only be fed to chickens in moderation as it can cause a drop in egg production.

Dried, Raw Beans

Uncooked beans contain hemagglutinin which is toxic to chickens. Cooked varieties of beans can be safely fed to chickens, however.

Chocolate

Chocolate contains the methylxanthine theobromine, which is toxic to chickens.

Moldy Food

Moldy grain can make chickens sick or even cause death. Also avoid offering moldy bread or overripe plants that have become moldy.

Toxic Garden Plants

While chickens are generally good at staying away from toxic plants on their own, it’s still a good idea to check your garden or flower beds to be sure your chickens don’t have access to any of the following plants:

  • Belladonna (aka Deadly Nightshade)
  • Bloodroot
  • Bull Nettle
  • Bracken
  • Bryony
  • Carelessweed
  • Castor Bean
  • Cocklebur
  • Curly Dock
  • Delphinium
  • Fern
  • Foxglove
  • Ground Ivy
  • Hemlock tree
  • Holly
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Horseradish
  • Hyacinth
  • Hydrangea
  • Ivy
  • Laburnum (seed)
  • Lantana
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Lupine
  • Periwinkle
  • Rhododendron
  • John’s Wort
  • Tulip
  • Water Hemlock (note that this is one of the most toxic plants in North America, also to humans)
  • Yew

Now that we’ve broken down the jargon, we hope you have a much better understanding of chicken feed types and have gained some valuable advice for keeping your chickens well fed, happy, and healthy.

Have questions about chicken feed? Need help finding baby chicks to start your flock? Freedom Ranger Hatchery is always here to help! Our family-owned and operated NPIP-certified chicken hatcheries are located throughout Lancaster County, PA. We ship baby chicks each week direct to your door nationwide.