Raising healthy chickens are a staple of homesteading. The urban farming movement and trend toward a rural lifestyle shift has spurred an increased demand. Availability through online marketplaces has further fueled the desire and ease of raising livestock in our backyards.
Modern, healthy chickens need a larger diet because they’re bred to produce a greater volume of eggs and yield more meat. Their environment has changed from farmhouse to the backyard.
Domestication has led to healthier, vibrant flocks. Feeding Chickens: What They Need at Different Stages
Commercial feed is an easy solution for feeding chickens but not always the best option for their nutrition. Chickens eat plants, insects and fruits and vegetables, which make them omnivores. It’s important to include a nutritional variety. It’s easy to provide a sound nutritional plan to keep your backyard chickens healthy and happy.
Nutritional plan for chickens
What to feed chicks (up to 8 weeks)
Newborn chicks will need a feed that contains 18-20% protein to encourage growth and health. The starter feed has two options (medicated and non-medicated) depending on your need to protect the chicken from diseases.
The chicks beak is small so most starter feeds come as crumbles. Crumbles are simply larger pellets broken down to smaller sizes.
During this time, it’s important to introduce grit into their diets to help with digestion. Grit is stored in the gizzard and is usually sourced from when they pick at the ground. You could supply it through sand and dirt mixed into the food.
High calcium diets are to be avoided at this age because it may cause kidney stones and reduce the lifespan of the chicken.
What to feed adolescent chickens (8 – 18 weeks)
Switch to grain that contains 16-18% protein. Your options are called layer feed or a grower rotation. It’s a millet containing a variety of nutritional ingredients.
The feed is typically in pellet form at this stage in life. Grit will retain an important role to help with digestion and promoting healthy growth.
What to feed adult chickens (18 weeks+)
Stick with layer feed (containing 16-18% protein). The feed at this stage will have a mix of pellets, mash, and crumbles.
A layer rotation is recommended for chickens beginning to lay eggs. Calcium and grit should remain a staple of their diet though it will mostly come from their activity and feeding habits at this age.
Dos and Don’ts of Chicken Feed
You’d think it’s okay to let them “have at it” when eating but this is a detrimental approach to caring if you want healthy chickens. Store-bought feed or mixing your own batches will provide most of what you’ll need but there are other tidbits to remember.
- Offer insects, fruits, and vegetables
- Supply unlimited feed for their choosing
- Keep feed organized in buckets and with a feeder
- Include calcium via oyster or grit
- Feed extra carbs during winter
- Stick to pumpkin seeds, mealworms, or veggies for snacks
- Spread feed to prevent aggression while eating
- Overdo it with giving them treats
- Saturate the diet with starches like bread
- Give them grass and clippings
- Use “scratch” as their main source of food
It’s perfectly fine to mix table scraps with pellets (within reason). Don’t worry about invading insects because these provide a nutritious meal as well.
Those homesteading or living the rural lifestyle may desire to create a feed from scratch. Mixing feed isn’t the best option unless you have a keen understanding of the nutritional elements. It’s easy to misjudge ingredients and accidentally restrict your chickens from the nutrients they need.
Healthy chickens: Feed based on age
Chickens begin laying eggs at 4-6 months of age. Their egg laying depends upon if they’re hybrid or non-hybrid. Hybrid chickens lay earlier compared to their non-hybrid counterparts.
Domesticated chickens will typically lay eggs for 2-3 years. Egg laying will begin to diminish as they reach later years. Though, it’s not uncommon for older chickens to produce the occasional egg. Exposure to sunlight will also affect their egg laying. Fewer than 12 hours will lower their chances. Winter months tend to show a drop-off in production.
It’s important to begin feeding chicks and chickens a balanced diet from an early age. The balanced diet will help to improve their health and egg-laying ability.
Healthy chickens: Good environments
A chicken needs a safe, clean environment to lead a healthy life — just like us!
Chickens need the essentials:
- Good food and fresh, clean water
- Safe, stress-free environment
Chickens will drink from any source though it’s not the best due to bacteria and pathogens that are possibly present in the source.
Always supply clean water to the chickens and do a regular cleanup of the water source to prevent waterborne diseases.
The easiest way to manage the nutritional plan (and to keep them happy) is to allow chickens to free-range. This will give them access to feed and other nutritional sources found throughout the yard. Free-ranging becomes a hands-off experience which is beneficial for the chicken’s health.
Be aware of predators. It’s essential to safeguard their area from raccoons, coyotes, bobcat… whatever is in your area. Enclose the top as well. Consider using traps or repellents to deter predators from entering your space. Having a livestock guardian animal or livestock guardian dog works wonders.
Other environmental items include:
- Removing hazardous, toxic items
- Offering heat sources during colder months
- Keeping chickens cool in the summer heat
- Companionship to keep them social
- Use chicken toys and chicken swings to keep them busy
- Dirt mounds to prevent aggression
A clean, secure chicken coop and nesting box will suffice for the lifespan of your chickens. Fence in the remaining sections to prevent venturing too far and exposure to hostile environments.
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Delayed laying, loss, and moving forward
Late-stage egg production provides a sign of possible illness or malnutrition. Veterinary assistance and regular checkups will provide guidance and treatment.
Delayed laying and loss are expected when raising chickens. Yet, it provides a beneficial experience to understand the nutritional plan and environment to improve your success when raising healthy chickens.
Chickens are a fun, rewarding challenge
Raising chickens poses a challenge but one that’s rewarding. The reduced reliance on supermarkets and factory farming gives you a sample of possibilities when shifting from urban to rural living.
A nutritional plan is essential for raising healthy chickens. It does require extra effort but it’s worth it to have a happy and productive brood. This is but one of the many things to love about this lifestyle.
Raising chickens will provide inspiration and know-how to venture into bigger and more rewarding rural lifestyle experiences. Check out some of our other posts on raising livestock for additional inspiration and guidance.