One of the most confusing parts of raising chickens is what to feed them. There is so much conflicting information online. And going to feed stores is no better. It seems that everyone has their own opinions about what you should feed your flock. What should I feed chickens by age? Keep reading this guide to find out!
What To Feed Baby Chickens
From hatch day to 8 weeks old, your chickens should be on a chick starter diet. These diets have 18-20% protein to support their rapid growth. It also has high amounts of vitamins and minerals to keep your chickens from getting sick. And to top it all off, starter feed is finely ground to make it easier for them to eat.
The only thing not included in the starter feed is calcium. Calcium is very deadly to baby chicks and leads to kidney disease. Some starter feeds will add a small amount of calcium to support bone health. But that amount is not deadly and is usually below 1.25%.
But chicken starter feed comes in two varieties. Unvaccinated chicks should get a medicated feed to prevent coccidiosis infection. But you don’t want to feed a medicated feed to vaccinated chicks. The medication in the food would inactivate the vaccine, leaving your chickens vulnerable.
So if you hatched your chicks, feed them the medicated version until you vaccinate. If you buy your chicks from a hatchery, ask them if they vaccinate against coccidiosis specifically. Just because they label a chick as vaccinated does not mean it was for coccidiosis.
What To Feed Pullets
The next age group is chickens 8-20 weeks old, called pullets. These hens have not started laying eggs yet, and still in a period of growth. Pullets eat a grower feed that supports their bodies and gets them ready for laying eggs.
The difference between grower feed and chick starter is it has 18% protein. Some chick starter feeds contain only 18% protein, and those work well for pullets. Some owners even prefer to provide a chick starter until they start laying eggs. The only real problem you will have is that the chick starter is very fine for small beaks. Pullets might find it challenging to eat ground food.
What To Feed Laying Chickens
Most hens start laying eggs around 21 weeks. Once they start laying eggs, their diet completely changes. So they will need chicken laying feed. The biggest difference in grower and layer feed is that layer has added calcium and only 16% protein.
Another option is chicken laying mash. Mash contains lots of calcium, protein, and nutrients to create flavorful eggs. Unlike scratch, the mash is a mixture of grains and foods that are healthy. So you can feed it as a primary diet without any issues.
Your hens are using a lot of calcium to make beautiful eggshells. So it only makes sense that they need added calcium to their diet during this time. The average hen needs about 4 grams of calcium per day, but sometimes they need more.
So, in addition to a layer feed, you also need to start giving them crushed oyster shells. Chickens love oyster shells, and it is an excellent source of calcium. Hens are very in tune with their bodies and know when they lack essential vitamins. So keeping it in a separate container to free feed lets them adjust their calcium when needed.
What To Feed Roosters
Roosters don’t need calcium like laying hens do. And they need more protein to keep them healthy than your hens. But they don’t make a rooster feed, so what do you feed them? The best food for roosters is either grower food or all-purpose poultry. So that works great if you only have roosters. But how many of us only keep roosters?
What To Feed A Mixed Flock
Most of us have a mixed flock of roosters and hens, at least. In these cases, your best option is a compromise. Hens can handle more protein than what we recommend. But roosters will develop kidney disease with too much protein. So the best feed is grower feed with plenty of oyster shells in a separate container. Your hens will get the calcium they need from the oyster shells, but you should always look for signs of calcium deficiency.
Grower feed is also best for a mixed flock of hens and pullets. Your pullets need that extra bit of protein for growth. And if you are giving enough oyster shells on the side, your hen’s eggs won’t suffer. Once your pullets start laying eggs, you can switch the whole flock to layer feed.
And the final mixed flock scenario is a brooder hen and her chicks. Chicks shouldn’t have high levels of calcium for fear of kidney failure. And if your hen is broody, she won’t lay any eggs during that time. So it is safe to feed starter food to your new family. After a couple of weeks, you should provide oyster shells to get your hen ready for laying again.
What About Hens That Don’t Lay?
Answering what should I feed chickens by age is easy when only considering egg production. But what about older chickens? Usually, around five years old, their egg production is next to none. At this point in their life, they don’t need the extra calcium as they did before. For this age group, you should feed them all-purpose poultry or a grower feed.
But most of you won’t have a flock of only non-laying hens. You might have a few pullets and laying hens with your older gals. For those cases, you will still want to feed a grower feed. But provide plenty of oyster for your laying aged hens.
What To Feed Broiler Chickens
We raise broiler chickens for fresh meat, and they have different requirements than laying chickens. Broilers grow rapidly and need lots and lots of protein to keep up with it. Feeding a broiler feed made for layers won’t result in the fattest chickens.
From hatch day to eight weeks old, you want to feed your broilers a broiler starter feed. This feed has 21-22% protein to increase growth and development. You wouldn’t want to provide this type of meal to layers because they would mature too quickly and lay eggs too early. All of which creates significant health problems.
Most people butcher their broilers by the time they are eight weeks old. But there are a few types of chickens that need a little longer to grow. After eight weeks old, you should feed your broiler a finisher feed. This mix has less protein in it at 20-21%, but it keeps your hens fat and full.
But you won’t have to feed this for very long. The longest time it takes to butcher a broiler is 11 weeks. Many broiler breeds don’t live long and healthy lives even if you decide not to butcher them. So you won’t need adult food.
What To Feed Molting Chickens
Every mature chicken goes through a molting period every fall. They lose all of their old feathers to make room for fluffy new ones. Chickens also go through their first molt around 16-18 months old to grow mature feathers.
All of this losing and regrowing feathers takes a lot of protein. Each feather needs protein and amino acids to grow healthy and strong. If your chicken doesn’t have enough protein, its feathers will take longer to grow back. And when they finally come in, the feathers will be dull and limp.
Coincidentally, during this time, your hen’s egg production will drop. So your hens won’t need as much calcium as they did during the spring. The best feed for a molting chicken is grower feed with a side of oyster shells. The extra protein will aid in feather regrowth and the side of calcium for when she lays again.
What Is Grit?
We use the term “feeding grit.” But grit technically isn’t a food. Grit is small pieces of rock and sand that a chicken uses to break down food. They swallow these little pieces and store it in the gizzard to crush hard to digest food.
Chickens of all ages need grit. Without it, they won’t digest harder seeds and tough produce. Hens and roosters that live outside usually have a good variety of grit available to them. But chicks that live in a brooder need grit available to them as well. So you will have to purchase a fine-grit just for them.
When Can I Start Feeding Treats?
When people ask What should I feed chickens by age, most people wonder about treats. Treats and chicken scratch feed can throw a balanced diet off-kilter. Even small treats for a baby chick can deplete it of the essential nutrients they need. To keep your flock healthy, we don’t recommend treats until after 20 weeks.
Treats and scratch shouldn’t take up more than 10% of your flock’s diet. But it can be used to enhance their diet and give your eggs a nice flavor. Some treats can even help increase egg production. But since they aren’t full of the essentials, there can be too much of a good thing.
What should I feed chickens by age doesn’t have to be complicated. With this guide, you will know precisely when to change your flock’s diet. You can mark it in your calendar and never have to worry about it again.
Below is a Pinterest friendly photo…. so you can pin it to your Backyard Chicken Board!!