healthy snacks should only be given in moderation so as not to tip the balance too far in any direction.
I strongly recommend against dabbling in assembling homemade feed blends. Imprecise calculations and the wrong ingredients can affect growth in young chickens, egg production in layers and result in negative, long-term health consequences. "Mixing rations is the most complex aspect of poultry management and isn't something you should undertake if you're just starting out. Ration formulation requires:
- 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
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.
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 or liver and impede their bone development. Again, grit should be made available to teenagers 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 that is required 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.
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 not requiring as much.
Hens deprived of adequate amounts of calcium will begin utilizing the calcium stored within their own bones to produce eggshells.
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, eggbinding and reduced egg production.
In the wintertime, chickens expend extra energy to keep warm and scratch is a decent source of energy at that time of year. However, treats should not comprise more than 10% of a flock's daily diet.
(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