What should chickens eat to keep healthy and happy?

Chickens should eat different types of food at different times of their life. Here's the why, the what and the when.

From hatch to adult – what should chickens eat at different life stages? Pin for later.

It's critical to your chickens' development that they get the right balance of protein, fats, carbohydrate and vitamins.

If you're anything like me, you will be completely confused as a new chicken keeper.

When I started keeping chickens I couldn't work out what that balance was, and the information was scattered all over the internet.

I wrote this article so that you won't be confused. It's based on my own experience together with information I've learned from these reliable sources.

Which is best - commercially produced or 'make-it-yourself'?

Many people worry about the contents of commercial food and so would like to make their own.

Personally I don't do this for one simple reason: the balance of nutrients is a very delicate one which commercially produced feed has come to by scientific methods.

It's very difficult to get the balance right when making your own. And an unbalanced diet can create health problems in the flock which I'm not prepared to risk.

It's not hard these days to find a source of food which is organic, free of antibiotics and free of genetically modified ingredients. 

I recommend some good quality products during the course of this article. But you don't need to follow my recommendations, and buying locally is likely to be less expensive.

Just ask at your feed store for a good quality product which is chemical and GMO free. The important thing is to make sure it's the right feed for the stage of development of your chickens.

Use these links to skip to a section if you're looking for something particular.

Free ranging hens with their rooster..Free ranging your flock is great if you can do it - but what else should chickens eat?

What should you feed baby chicks? From hatch to about 7 - 8 weeks.

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  • Chicks at the point of hatch do not need to eat immediately. The egg yolk which they absorb in the last day before hatching will keep them nourished for the first 24 to 48 hours.
  • After that they should be given a chick starter feed, also known as "chick crumbs". It's specially formulated with the high levels (about 20%) of protein and vitamins chicks need during this stage of rapid growth.
  • For the first couple of days, sprinkle it on some kitchen paper in their brooder box. The noise of the crumbs dropping will stimulate them to peck. After that, they can graduate to a chick feeder
Baby chicks investigate their chick feed in the brooder.Dropping chick crumbs onto kitchen paper will stimulate chicks to investigate by pecking.
  • Leave the food available to them all the time. They're not like puppies - they will regulate how much they eat. 
  • To make sure they're getting a balanced diet, chicks need to fill up on this before you give them any treats. 
  • Chicks should eat starter crumbs until they are about two months old. 
Click here to buy chick starter feed from Amazon.

Why 'about' two months?

  • Different feeds will have different recommendations according to the levels of protein they contain. You should take note of what is recommended on the product.  
  • If there's no recommendation, use the two month (8 week) point as the time to change – but don't panic about it. A week or so either way won't make much difference.
  • If you have chick crumbs left over at the eight week point, mix it with increasing quantities of  grower feed. That way, the chicks graduate from one to the other over a period of a couple of weeks. 
  • Don't leave any grain lying around thinking you'll use it with the next batch of chicks. It has a nasty habit of absorbing moisture and going mouldy which will cause major issues for the wellbeing of your next hatch.

Grower feed : Pullets and cockerels (roosters)  from 8 weeks to about 18 weeks.

Both male and female chickens should be moved from chick feed to a grower feed at around 8 weeks. They should remain on this until shortly before "point of lay" - the age when females begin to lay eggs.

  • Grower food contains less protein than the starter - around 16% - 17%. Chickens just don't need as much, as growth slows down.  
  • It's important not to overdo either protein, as found in starter crumbs, or calcium which is found in 'layer' feed. Both can do serious damage to the kidneys. 
  • A commercially produced grower product will ensure that your flock eats exactly the right balance of nutrients at the point of need.
Pullets looking like baby dinosaurs.Encouraging your growing birds to eat from your hand makes them easy to handle later.

Why 'about' 18 weeks?

  • 'Point of lay' is usually around 20 - 21 weeks, but chickens are not robots!  Some are much later. Around 30 - 35 weeks is not uncommon for larger breeds, and some individuals just take a long time to get into the swing of things.  I have had a hen not begin laying until she was a year old and I had almost given up on her ever giving me a single egg.
  • Again, don't leave food lying around if your chickens reach 18 weeks and you have some grower feed left over. It's fine to mix it with their "big girl" food so they graduate from one to the other over a couple of weeks. 
  •  Leaving it for your next batch of pullets runs the risk of it absorbing moisture and developing a mould which can be fatal.
Click here to buy from Amazon.

Layer feed : Point of lay onwards.

  • From just before the point they begin to lay eggs, chickens should eat a good quality layer feed, which is balanced to make sure hens get the correct levels of calcium to promote healthy bone growth.
  • Adult hens need less protein but more calcium and phosphorous than youngsters. A typical layer product will contain around 15% protein but an increased calcium ratio of about 2%.
  • Despite the increased calcium, making an egg requires a larger amount than feed alone can give. For this reason, laying hens need additional calcium, fed in a separate container.  
  • For more information about this see this link which will open in a new window so you can come back and finish reading this page.
Laying hen in her nest box.Laying hens need more calcium and less protein than youngsters.
  • Layer food comes in either pellets or 'crumbles' (sometimes also called 'mash') and it really doesn't matter which you get – the content is the same.  Pellets tend to be a little less messy as they're not as easy to kick out of the feeder.
  • Chickens should have layer pellets or crumbles available to them all day. You don't need to worry about them over-feeding themselves; they're very good at regulating the amount they eat.

What should roosters (cockerels) eat?

  • Roosters need a diet which is lower in calcium than hens. I have a detailed article about the evidence for this, and how to manage it in a mixed flock. 

Should chickens eat medicated or unmedicated food?

  • Poultry food can be found in both medicated and unmedicated form and it's a question I'm often asked - should chickens eat a medicated feed? 
  • A medicated product protects against (but does not cure) the disease coccidiosis, an infection of the digestive system which is most common in young chicks and can be fatal. It tends to breed in warm, moist conditions.
  • Personally, I have never used medicated products with any of the chicks I've hatched myself, nor with any of my adults. I keep my chickens and their environment clean and dry, so don't see the need.  
  • Through good animal husbandry, I have never had a problem with chicks picking up any form of illness or virus. I prefer them to build up their own immunity.

Why do people recommend it? 

  • Chickens hatched in large-scale commercial farms are given medicated feed because they're raised in close proximity to other birds, often with insufficient space and, sadly, in less than ideal conditions.  
  • They are far more likely than a backyard flock to develop illnesses which then spread very quickly across the entire flock.
Barn raised flocks.Even chickens described as 'barn-raised' are often in crowded conditions and need medicated feed.
  • Some people who raise backyard flocks decide to give a medicated feed as a kind of 'just in case' insurance against coccidiosis. 
  • Of course, it's a decision you must come to personally. But if your flock is well cared for, it's my opinion that there really should be no need.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) feed.

GMO feed has been given to chickens in the commercial farm industry since the mid-1990s. Many food products available to backyard chicken owners contain genetically modified corn.  

Government departments will state categorically that :

"There is no food safety — or any other risk — to the health and well-being of consumers when they consume chicken or other animal agriculture products (e.g. eggs, dairy), which have been raised with genetically modified feed ingredients". (National Chicken Council, 2012).

Despite this, many individuals do not wish to give genetically modified feeds to their chickens. It is entirely possible to buy products which have no genetically modified ingredients. 

Any product that has the label 'Certified Organic' is not permitted to use GMO ingredients. It will generally also be prominently labelled 'Non GMO'. 

The only drawback of non-GMO feeds is that they tend to be more expensive. But many backyard chicken owners, including me, feel the additional cost is worth it for the peace of mind of feeding a natural, organic product.

Grit and oyster shell: why chickens need them. Link.

More about grit and oyster shell.

Chicks should eat grit as soon as they begin to eat anything apart from commercial feed. 

Laying hens need to eat oyster shell from the point immediately before they begin to produce eggs.

This article deals with why they're such a critical part of the diet, when to start providing and how to offer them.

Just click on this picture to find out. Missing it could cost you dearly. 

Here's more information about feeding chickens. 

Thumbnail link: how to raise happy chickens in 5 easy steps.
What do chickens eat? Covering food, treats, and how to keep chickens cool in summer and warm in winter.
Automatic chicken feeder review - link.
Thumbnail link: can my chicken eat...
Which plants are good for chickens? Link.
Choosing weeds as chicken treats - link.
Treats for chickens: which are healthy? Link.
Thumbnail link to article: how to care for hens.
Thumbnail link to article: is oyster shell necessary for chickens?

Sources and further reading.

A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.

The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.

Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.

1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration : 'Foods derived from genetically engineered plants'. Pub. April 2013.

2. The Chicken Vet : 'Coccidiosis'.  Pub. St David's Poultry Team, UK, 2014.

3. Ussery, Harvey : 'The Small Scale Poultry Flock : An all natural approach to raising chickens and other fowl for home and market growers'. Pub. Green Press, 2011.

4. Extension (US Research-based Learning Network : 'Feeding Chickens for Egg Production'. October 2014.

Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.