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    POULTRY NUTRITION

    Chickens have changing nutritional requirements during different stages of their life and they rely on you to make sure they're fed correctly.

    Your chickens will stay healthier and will produce more eggs if you make sure they have the right protein, vitamins, and minerals. Poultry feeds are specially formulated to help you with that.

    Use this guide to help figure out what — and how — to best feed your birds.

     

    STARTER FEEDS

    Chicks from 0-10 weeks old need different kinds of food than adult birds. Commercial feed companies formulate chick starter feed with more of the protein that these babies need — 16 to 22 percent.

    If you're raising them for broilers only, start them on 24 percent protein starter feed so they'll grow faster. That higher percentage, however, is not good for egg-laying chickens.

    Starter feeds sometimes include medication against coccidiosis, an intestinal disease that can be deadly for chicks. The dose in medicated feed is so low that chicks get enough exposure to acquire immunity without getting so sick that they die.

    Never substitute starter feed with adult chicken feed. The high mineral content in adult feed, particularly calcium, which is vital to laying hens, can damage a chick's kidneys.

    GROWER FEEDS

    When your chicks reach 10 weeks of age, replace their starter feed with grower feed.

    Grower feeds contain less protein — typically around 15-16 percent, which slows growth a bit, allowing bones to get strong and adult body weight to develop before laying begins.

    If you don't switch from a starter feed to a grower feed at the appropriate time, prolonged use of the higher protein in starter feed could cause the chick to develop too quickly and lay eggs too early.

    For game birds, feed the higher protein content — 20 percent — in starter/grower feeds.

    LAYER FEEDS

    Generally, chickens start laying eggs when they're between 20-26 weeks old. Prepare your young hens for laying by feeding them layer feeds when they're about 18 weeks old. This will be their regular chicken feed throughout the rest of their life.

    Layer feeds are designed and formulated to provide ideal nutrition for egg-laying hens with 16 percent protein and increased levels of calcium so eggshells stay hard.

    If thin shells become a problem in some of your chickens — which can happen in older layers — add supplemental calcium to their feed. Oyster shell is the most widely used form of supplemental calcium. If you feed an oyster shell supplement, add 2 pounds of shell to every 100 pounds of layer feed.

    WATER

    Chickens will drink about three times as much water by weight as they eat in feed, so it's necessary to always keep your chicken waterer filled with plenty of fresh, clean water for your birds.

    A good rule of thumb is to provide one quart of water daily for every four chickens. Increase that amount in hotter weather, because they tend to drink much more then.

    If you have newly hatched chicks, they should be offered only water — no feed — during the first hour. Adding electrolytes or ¼ cup of sugar per gallon can help boost immunity and reduce stress of shipping. Starting the second day, provide fresh, clean water only. Be sure to keep chicks' water clean and free of droppings.

    SCRATCH

    Chicken scratch feeds — usually cracked, rolled, or whole grains such as corn, barley, oats, or wheat — are basically a treat for your chickens, and it's good for encouraging the natural behavior to scratch the ground, providing exercise, and consuming the grit necessary for digestion.

    Scratch feeds are relatively low in protein and do not provide balanced nutrition like complete feeds. In fact, if too much scratch is added to an already complete feed ration, nutrient levels can be diluted. That's why scratch should be fed sparingly. A good rule of thumb is to feed only as much scratch as the chickens can clean up in about 20 minutes.

    If you feed scratch, it's also a good idea to include an insoluble grit such as granite or cherry stone. Oyster shell is not a substitute for grit, because it is too soft.

    GRIT

    Birds do not have teeth to break down food for digestion. Food is swallowed whole and goes to the crop to be stored and mixed with saliva. The feed then passes to the stomach where it mixes with digestive juices. From the stomach, the feed then passes into the organ called the gizzard. The gizzard contains small stones, which the bird has eaten to help the gizzard to grind up the food for digestion.

    The chicken must swallow the stones that the gizzard requires to grind up the food. Grit is the term for these tiny stones.

    Foraging chickens may pick up enough grit — sand and pebbles — to keep their digestion working properly, but grit naturally gets ground up in the digestive process, so chickens must be fed commercial grit to supplement what they manage to pick up. Granite and cherry stone are two recommended grits.

    FREQUENTLY_ASKED_QUESTIONS

    How often do I feed my chickens?

    Provide a constant supply of feed at all times. If hens don't get as much feed as they want, egg production can stop.

    How much do I feed my chickens?

    An average laying hen consumes about one fourth pound of feed per day, depending on factors such as size of the bird, weather conditions, and level of productivity.

    Is it okay to feed my chickens table scraps?

    While chickens love table scraps — wilted lettuce, vegetable peels, stale bread — they are not necessarily beneficial to productivity or egg laying. Feeding a small amount of table scraps as a "treat" is fine. However, the same rule applies to table scraps as scratch grain: feed only as much as can be cleaned up in about 20 minutes. 
    Don't feed your chickens spoiled food and avoid strong-tasting tidbits such as onions or garlic, because those tastes will show up in the meat or eggs.