Chicken Nutrition (Chicken Feed, Chicken Scratch and Chicken Grit!)

But First…Let’s Talk Water!

First a word about the importance of giving your chicken enough fresh water. Did you know that if your chickens don’t get enough water they will stop eating? And If they stop eating, they’re going to stop growing and stop laying eggs. How much water do they need? As much as they want! You have to have it available to your chickens at all times.

Ok, so how are you going to make sure your chickens get enough water? Most backyard chicken owners will start with a 3-gallon chicken waterer, like the one pictured above. It’s also called a poultry fount or a poultry fountain. One gallon of water is enough for 12 to 15 chickens per day during cold weather, six to 12 chickens during hot weather.

Now, what if it’s 10 degrees outside and you’re worried that your water is going to freeze? Well, you could always check on it now and then to make sure it’s not frozen. That’s always alot of fun in the blowing wind and snow! Or, if you’re lucky enough to have electricity running to your coop, you could buy a heated chicken waterer like the one below:

Different Feeds for Different Ages

Now that we’ve talked about water, let’s talk about food! One of my favorite subjects! Depending on the age of your chickens, their nutrition needs will vary.

Baby chicks are classified as such until six weeks of age. You feed them what’s called starter feed (baby chick feed) . This feed should be around 20% protein. It usually comes in what’s called “crumbles,” which is a consistency half-way between pellets (hard little cylinders) and “mash” (almost powder). This feed can be medicated with an anti-parasitic agent called amprollium, which prevents a disease called coccidiosis. You should know that baby chicks you receive from a hatchery are already vaccinated against this disease, so you shouldn’t have to spend the extra money buying medicated chicken feed. Be sure to check with your hatchery, though, to make sure.

Although there are several manufacturers of starter feed, I am impressed with Scratch ‘n Peck feeds by far. Why? 

  • Its grains are grown and milled in the US
  • It’s an organic chicken starter feed
  • Because its consistency is “raw” ( not crumbles nor mash) you can make fermented chicken feed very easily from it (read about fermenting your feed here

At six weeks old, you would gradually change the feed to grower feed, which is about 15-16% protein. Be aware that in some parts of the country (United States I am talking about), the starter and grower feed is not sold separately but instead is sold as “starter/grower ” feed. So, I ‘m thinking there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two!!!  Nonetheless, for the same reasons as above, I would recommend the Scratch’n Peck brand for organic chicken grower feed.

Layer feed should be started once the chicken begins to lay eggs and not before. This is usually around 18 weeks or so. Its higher calcium content (3.5%) can be toxic to a chicken who is not laying eggs. Layer Feed is 16% protein.

I know this is going to come as a shock to you (not really!), but I am once again going to recommend the Scratch ‘n Peck brand of chicken layer feed!

How to Feed To Your Chickens (The Right Chicken Feeder)

OK, so figuring out how to feed chickens isn’t brain surgery. But, you would be surprised at the details involved in what I always thought was such a simple task. David Frame, DVM, of Utah State University Cooperative Extension, advises the use of a trough to provide feed for baby chicks. And, as a rule of thumb, a baby chicken feeder should provide one inch of linear space per chick. The one shown below fits the bill and can accommodate 16 chicks at once.

For full-grown chickens, a bucket type chicken feeder should be used. Bucket feeders can handle several days of feed, but you need to be make sure that the feed is not getting stale and moldy. Empty it out and brush it out frequently. Not to complicate things too much, but you also need to make sure that the feeder is raised off the ground, (or suspended from above) and positioned level to the mid to upper breast region of the chickens being fed. Well, that makes sense. How’d you like to eat your meals off the floor? There should be 2-3 linear inches of feeder space per full grown chicken. Here’s a nice example of a bucket-type chicken feeder that was also an “Amazon Choice” in the chicken feeders category.

Now along with the chicken feed, you also should be providing your chickens with oyster shell when they start laying. This is a great source of calcium, and your chickens will eat just as much as this as they need. Don’t worry about the “overdosing” on oyster shell calcium. Put this in a separate dish from your feed, though. 

Is there a recommended brand of oyster shell? Folks, this item should be considered a commodity, not a special product, so it was a simple enough process to simply look on Amazon for the lowest priced product with the highest number of good reviews. Amazon’s Choice in the “oyster shell” category happens to be Manno Pro Oyster Shell, so I would think it is good as any!

You may be wondering: Do I really need to give my chickens extra calcium from oyster shells if they’re already getting a complete chicken feed? Probably not, if your chickens are holed up in a coop and run all day long. But if they’re free-ranging frequently or if you like to treat them with some scratch during the day, they won’t be eating as much of the complete chicken feed. And if they’re not eating as much complete chicken feed then they’re not getting enough calcium to keep their bones and egg shells strong. 

How Much Should I Feed My Chickens Per Day?

The simple answer is, “about a quarter of a pound of feed per day for chicken.” However, most poultry experts recommend using the “full feeding method” for feeding your chickens. This is where you leave food out continuously, rather than feeding them at certain times during the day.

What About Chicken Scratch? What is Chicken Scratch???

According Joseph Hudson on his Chicken Scratch website, chicken scratch is composed of different types of seeds and grains that hens enjoy eating. It may contain cracked corn, barley, wheat, oats, or sunflower seeds. It’s essentially chicken “junk food” that your birds will “scratch” around in the dirt to pick up every last bit.

Scratch provides your chickens with two things: exercise and grit (from all that scratching of the ground). The caveat for how much chicken scratch to give your chickens is this: Only give that amount that your chickens can eat in 20 minutes. Obviously, you don’t NEED to give your chickens chicken scratch-you just WANT TO!

Which brand of chicken scratch should you buy? Once again, I go back to Scratch ‘n Peck. One of the few scratch products that is both made in the US, and is organic.

What is Chicken Grit and Why Do My Chickens Need it? 

Unlike humans, who have teeth to grind up food as it passes into our mouths, chickens swallow their food whole. The food then passes to the chicken’s crop where it is mixed with saliva. From the crop, the food then passes into the stomach, where it is mixed with digestive juices. Finally, it ends up in the gizzard, where tiny stones called grit are used to grind up the food for digestion, releasing its nutrients into the intestine.

Chickens that free-range can get all the grit they need just by scratching and pecking the soil. Chickens that only have access to a grass run, though, will need to have grit provided by you. Commercial grit is made up of small stones of granite, cherry stone, and other minerals.

Grit is typically provided to chicks after they have been eating starter crumbles for awhile and have started to eat treats or have been foraging. A smaller grit is used for chickens less than 8 weeks old. A larger size grit is provided to chickens older than 8 weeks.

Manna Pro’s Chick Grit gets high marks on Amazon and is listed as “Amazon’s Choice” in this product category.

For chicken older than 8 weeks, a larger size grit is recommended, like this one from Manna Pro as well:

Grit (as well as oyster shell) can be offered from a dispenser like the one shown below. Note that it is too high off the ground for small chicks. They will need to be offered grit in a small dish instead.

As you have probably guessed by now, around 75% of your cost of raising chickens comes from feeding them. Nonetheless, chicken feed is not the place to look for cutting corners, in my opinion. Back in 2007, approximately 3600 beloved dogs and cats in the US were poisoned by an industrial chemical found in their food. The pet food company, Menu, apparently had sourced some of their ingredients from China, and the industrial chemical, melamine, had somehow found its way into the food. Only one year later, that same chemical turned up in infant formula sold in China, causing over 54,000 hospitalizations and several deaths from kidney failure. So the long and short of it is that you can’t depend on the FDA to watch over your flock. Its up to you. My advice is to only buy feed that is sourced and manufactured in the United Sates. In addition, let’s make sure it’s certified organic. You may pay a little more but its more costly (and potentially heart-breaking!) in the end, if you buy an inferior product.