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    Chicken Feed

    By Erin McIntyre

    While chickens are certainly one of the easiest and most rewarding backyard livestock to keep, they require specialized feed and care just like other animals.

    And as they grow from those fuzzy little peeps into full-grown hens or roosters, their nutritional needs change. In fact, giving chickens the right feed at the right time is vital to not only achieve the results you want, but also to assure their health and well-being.

    If you start with chicks, it’s important to provide starter feed in the beginning, as it’s formulated to help the babies grow and mature into adults. Just like human babies need different nutrition than adults, chicks need special nutrition.

    Chicks require a higher concentration of protein in their feed than adult chickens require, according to Dr. Yuko Sato, Iowa State University extension poultry veterinarian.

    “A young, day-old chick is going to be eating about the amount of feed that would cover the surface of a quarter,” she says.

    While adults eat roughly 100 grams of feed per day, chicks cannot eat anywhere near that amount, so their food needs to be more nutrient-dense to supply them with the nutrition they need. The general guideline is to keep chicks on starter feed until they are seven or eight weeks old.

    Feed for teenage chickens, also called developer, grower, or pullet feed, nourishes chickens until they reach maturity, around 18 to 20 weeks of age. Most breeds of chickens will begin laying eggs at that point, and their nutritional needs change notably at that point, because their bodies are using calcium for the eggshells.

    “You have 2.5 grams of calcium in an eggshell,” Sato says. To avoid having the hen’s body sacrifice its own calcium to produce the eggs, she needs to have a four-fold increase in calcium. It’s important to remember that laying hens put the same amount of calcium into their eggs, no matter the size of the eggs. When a hen starts laying, the eggs will be smaller but the shells will be thicker. As the hen matures and her metabolism slows, her eggs will grow in size but the shell will be thinner.

    Dr. Elizabeth Bobeck, assistant professor of poultry nutrition at Iowa State University, recommends offering oyster shell separately from feed so hens can eat it as needed. Oyster shell is also a digestive aid.

    “It’s like offering them teeth,” she says. “It helps them grind up that food.”

    If laying hens don’t receive adequate calcium, it can be deadly, Sato says. Possible consequences include brittle bones, osteoporosis, prolapsing of the cloaca, or what poultry experts refer to as “cage layer fatigue,” which means they no longer have the energy to stand or to produce the muscle contractions required to lay eggs.

    Low calcium in a hen’s diet can also result in thin eggshells, making them susceptible to breakage. When eggs break in a nesting box, curious hens peck at them and discover they like eating eggs, which can become a bad habit.

    On the other hand, too much calcium can also cause problems, which is why backyard chicken keepers should avoid transitioning to layer feed before their pullets are ready. A condition called avian urolithiasis can happen, where excess calcium causes problems with processing waste.

    “In severe cases, they can be dead in 24 to 36 hours,” Sato says.

    Chicken owners should avoid feeding their flock too many treats, because it dilutes the effectiveness of their formulated feed, and can lead to vitamin deficiencies and nutritional disorders, Sato says.

    “The general rule is, feed them only the amount of scratch they can eat in less than 15 or 20 minutes,” she says. “Don’t make that the main part of their diet.”

    While chickens love people food, it’s not a good idea to give them leftovers or clean out your fridge for the chickens, Bobeck says. “They eat everything and everything is not good for them,” she says. “Their digestive systems are delicate compared to a dog.”

    Some foods can lead to problems like impacted gizzards or sour crop, she says, as chicken digestive systems weren’t designed to effectively digest and use fiber.

    The bottom line, Bobeck says, is that commercial chicken feed is specially formulated for flocks to have optimal nutrition and performance.