healthy snacks should only be given in moderation so as not to tip the balance, or scale, too far in any direction.
- availability of appropriate feedstuffs
- analysis of feedstuff composition
- knowledge of the nutritional needs of chickens
- ability to mix feed in quantity your flock will use within four weeks."1 Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, Damerow
Day-old chicks through 8 weeks old require starter feed containing 20% protein. Starter feed contains the highest percentage of protein a layer will ever consume, which makes sense given their astronomical rate of growth in the first few months of life.
medicated and unmedicated varieties. Medicated feed contains amprolium, which protects chicks from the progression of coccidiosis, a common and deadly intestinal disease that is spread in fecal matter. Chicks that have received the coccidiosis vaccine should not be fed medicated starter, as the amprolium will render the vaccine useless and the chicks vulnerable to the disease. When purchasing 'vaccinated' chicks, it's important to know which vaccines they received.
I no longer give my baby chicks medicated feed after having learned that it is unnecessary when chicks are being kept in clean, dry conditions with enough space per bird. When conditions become overcrowded, filthy, wet and warm from the heat source, coccidiosis can thrive. These types of unhealthy conditions are significantly less likely to occur with pet chickens than they are with commercial poultry operations, for example. Chickens build up a natural immunity to the organisms that cause coccidiosis with or without medicated starter. Allowing chicks to build up an immunity in clean, dry conditions will serve them well when they are ready to head out to the big kid coop.
With its higher protein content, starter ration can rush a young pullet's developing body into egg-laying before it's ready. Adolescent chickens (I call them teenagers) should be provided with grower ration containing 16-18% protein, slightly less than starter.
Layer feed should never be fed to chickens younger than 18 weeks as it contains calcium that can permanently damage the kidneys, cause kidney stones, reduce lifetime egg production and shorten a bird's lifespan. Again, grit should be made available to teenagers that do not foraging outside who consume treats.
Layer feed is available in mash, crumble or pellet forms, all of which describe the size of the feed; mash is the smallest, pellets, the largest. Layer feed contains 16-18% protein plus added calcium, which is necessary for eggshell production. Laying hens can be fed layer ration as early as 18 weeks or as late as the arrival of their first egg, but should not be fed to birds younger than 18 weeks old.
additional source of calcium, such as crushed oyster shells or clean eggshells, should be made available in a separate dish, apart from the feed. All laying hens have different calcium requirements and will consume as much calcium as they need. Oyster shells should never be added directly to feed as excess calcium can be detrimental to those birds not requiring as much. Hens deprived of adequate amounts of calcium will utilize the calcium stored within their own bones to produce eggshells, which is unhealthy for them.
Commercial layer feed provides all of the daily nutritional elements a chicken requires. Providing snacks, treats or table scraps in addition to their feed interferes with that balanced diet to a degree, depending on the type of treat and amount consumed. Limiting snacks and treats, even healthy choices such as mealworms, homemade flock block substitute and pumpkin/pumpkin seeds, ensures that flock members are getting everything they need and avoids problems such as obesity, feather picking, egg binding and reduced egg production.
In cold weather, chickens expend extra energy to keep warm and a small amount of scratch just before dusk is a decent source of energy at that time of year, but too much can contribute to obesity and obesity-related deaths. Brooding hens will also benefit from the extra calories in scratch.
(gratuitous scratch frenzy video)
1 Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, Damerow, Gail. Storey Publishing, 1995, pg. 49.
2 The Chicken Encyclopedia, Damerow, Gail. Storey Publishing, 2012. pg. 235