Today, we dive deep into all of the most up-to-date guidelines for feeding backyard chickens.
After tons of research, I compiled the best practices from poultry extensions, commercial feed companies, and hatcheries into one location for your use.
If you are just getting started in the backyard chicken realm, start with How to Raise and Care for Backyard Chickens (Birth to 18 Weeks) to get a well-rounded foundation before continuing.
Layer Hen Specifics
Birth to 8 Weeks: Starter Crumbles
Starter feed has the highest protein content of any type of feed to allow for the rapid growth the chicks will experience in the first 8 weeks. It is sold in both medicated and unmedicated forms.
If your flock has not been vaccinated for coccidiosis, you should get the medicated crumbles.
Medicated chick feed contains amprolium. Amprolium is an organic compound used as a coccidiostat in flocks of poultry to protect against the development of coccidiosis in their earliest weeks.
Coccidiosis is a common but potentially deadly infection caused by the microscopic parasite Coccidia. It is transmitted through the poop of infected birds. Coccidiosis primarily affects young birds.
As chicks have immature immune systems and are the most susceptible, adding amprolium to feed offers the flock the best chance at health. Eventually, healthy birds will develop immunity and tolerance to Coccidia. Amprolium gives them the support they need while this happens.
Amprolium is NOT an antibiotic and does not contribute to any form of antibiotic resistance. It is a coccidiostat that slows down parasitic development in a host cell.
If your flock HAS been vaccinated for coccidiosis, do not give them medicated chick feed. Buy unmedicated.
Feeding vaccinated chicks medicated feed containing amprolium renders the vaccine useless. Feed your flock unmedicated chick feed in these cases.
8 Weeks to 18 Weeks: Grower Feed
Grower feed helps chicks transition into egg-laying hens. It allows their reproductive systems to continue to develop avoiding premature egg production. If you can’t find grower feed in your area, continue with starter feed until 18 weeks.
18 Weeks & Older: Layer Feed
Layer feed is formulated specifically for hens that will be producing eggs. It contains a higher calcium content and lower protein content than feeds at earlier stages.
A hen should be transitioned to layer feed at 18 weeks or when she lays her first egg if sooner than 18 weeks.
*Note: You can give older birds starter/grower feed but you cannot give younger birds layer feed. The high calcium levels cause permanent organ damage and interfere with bone development. If you have backyard chickens of different ages, give them all starter/grower feed until 18 weeks or they lay their first egg.
Broiler/Meat Bird Specifics
Certain breeds like the Cornish Rock and Cornish Cross are bred specifically for their rapid ability to convert feed to muscle weight. They are generally processed at 6 weeks for the market. This is in contrast to heritage breeds which are slower growing and take 16-18 weeks to process.
We are going to cover the Cornish needs as these are the most common.
Birth to 10 days: Broiler Starter Feed
The 10 day brooder period serves to develop a good appetite and maximize growth. On average, a Cornish chick triples its birth weight during its first week of life.
Day 11 to Day 26: Broiler Grower Feed
The grower feed transitions the bird from starter crumbles to feed pellets.
Day 26 to 24 hours prior to Butcher Day: Broiler Finisher Feed
According to Dr. Michael Corre, a poultry extension specialist at UConn:
“Broiler Finisher feeds account for the major cost of feeding…Changes in body composition can be rapid during this period and excessive fat deposition and loss of breast meat yield need to be carefully considered.”
Be sure to invest in a high-quality finishing feed during this last stage of growth.
It is common practice among chicken keepers to fast the birds for 24 hours prior to processing. Provide constant access to fresh, clean water.
Other Feed Considerations
Changing From One Food to Another
Abrupt changes to feed sources can cause significant issues in otherwise healthy birds. To avoid issues, a new feed should be gradually introduced over a period of several days following the structure below.
- Day 1: Mix new feed in with the old feed at a ratio of 20/80.
- Day 2: Increase the amount of new feed to 40/60.
- Day 3: Mix 50/50 new with old.
- Day 4: Mix 60/40 new with old.
- Day 5: Mix 75/25 new with old.
- Day 6: Transition to 100% new feed.
Chickens don’t have teeth and require assistance grinding down ingested material for digestion. This is accomplished within the gizzard muscle, aided by chick grit.
Chick grit can be purchased or acquired naturally in free ranged birds in the form of sand or tiny pebbles.
Chickens that are solely fed commercial feed do not require chick grit since the pellets and crumbles dissolve in the digestive system.
Backyard chickens that are confined to a chicken run or those that are fed treats in any form require the availability of chick grit. Grit can be offered as early as 2 weeks of age.
Crushed Oyster Shells (Laying Hens Only)
Supply crushed oyster shells in a small ramekin for laying hens to consume as needed. Oyster shells are digested slowly providing the constant source of calcium needed for eggshell formation which takes place overnight.
Layer feed has calcium added, however, food passes through chickens 90 minutes after consumption rendering it ineffective for shell integrity.
Chicks who are not yet 18 weeks old should never be allowed access to oyster shells for the risk of organ damage.
As chickens become more like family pets, well-meaning and loving keepers enjoy providing their companions with treats. There are many different opinions and schools of thought on this. Considering you’ve read this far, I’ll share with you what we do.
From a health standpoint (and as an RN for humans), I don’t agree with replacing any portion of nutrient-dense chick feed with treats until their periods of rapid growth pass – generally after they’ve been switched to grower feed.
Nutritional requirements of baby chicks are very specific and there are entire teams of poultry nutritionists hired by commercial poultry farms dedicated to determining the best formulations for adequate growth. Additionally, there are literally zero vets in my area that will treat chickens.
I’m not comfortable interfering with a process that I don’t understand enough about. For this reason, we hold off until 8 weeks. At 8 weeks, they’re outside beginning to free-range and adapting to frequent human handling. Treats assist in training protocols.
If you do supply treats, always offer chick grit freely.
Do what you’re comfortable with.
Homemade Chicken Feed
While I enjoy homemade things, I’m not a poultry nutritionist and don’t have the level of knowledge required to create a homemade, nutritionally balanced feed for my flock.
We buy organic layer feed and allow our girls to free range the entire property.