What Do You Feed Chickens

If you have had chickens for awhile, you probably know chickens will eat just about everything! But if you’re wondering what to feed them to keep them healthy and laying eggs, then you have come to the right spot!

Chickens Eating Chicken Scratch and Layer Feed

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I have had chickens my entire life and they are the greatest addition to my little farm. They are easy keepers, provide me with delicious eggs, and surprisingly have big personalities!

Therefore, they are really great to have around!

But if you are just starting out with your chickens you’re probably a little overwhelmed with all that you should and shouldn’t do.

You may even be a little lost after years of having them. I can tell you from my own experience of trial and error of caring for my chickens that I am always learning.

Just once I think I have it figured out, I learn a better way, and really, that’s just a part of life. We continue learning and we continue getting better.

So I hope my experience will help you answer all of your questions about how to best feed your backyard chickens.

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Most Common Types of Chicken Feed

When it comes to picking out the type of chicken feed you are going to give to your birds there are many things to keep in mind.

Such as, are they chicks, laying hens, meat birds, free range, etc. As well as what time of year it is which will determine things such as the weather and if your chickens are in molt. Both of which require a few different needs.

I will get into each of these specifics throughout the article, but for now these are the most common types of commercial feeds.

Medicated Chick Starter:

Medicated chick starter should be fed to chicks that have not been vaccinated. Common diseases that chicks are susceptible to are coccidiosis and Merricks disease. If you aren’t sure if your chicks have been vaccinated then I recommend a medicated chick starter for the first 3-4 weeks.

Non Medicated Chick Starter:

Non medicated chick starter should be fed to all chicks after about 4 weeks old. If your chicks have been vaccinated then you can choose to feed a non medicated feed from day 1. If you prefer that your chickens have no exposure to medicine then you should also choose a non medicated chick feed.

Layer Pellets, Crumble and Mash:

Layer pellets, crumble and mash all have the essential nutrients for overall health and egg production and should contain a minimum of 16% protein.

Whichever layer feed you decide to give to your hens is up to you, and you can decide by seeing which one your hens like most.

Layer pellets are compressed into small pellets that tend to be less messy. They are a little bit larger for some chickens to eat such as bantams, but I have never had any issues with any of my chickens eating it.

Layer crumble is pellets that have been cracked into a smaller size, making it a bit easier for chickens to eat, but likely will make more of a mess.

Layer mash is just as is sounds and is mashed up layer feed that is very fine. A problem with mash is that chickens will scratch through it, often making a mess and only eating particles in the feed which means they may not get all of the nutrients they need.

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Chicken scratch is a mixture of grains and corn and should only be fed to your hens in small amounts.

Scratch does not contain all of the nutrients that hens need for egg production and so too much scratch can reduce the amount of eggs they are laying.

Scratch should never be fed to chicks under 8 weeks old because it is hard for them to digest. Then once you start feeding it to your hens, think of it as a treat and just feed it a couple times per week.

Best Chicken Feeders

Depending on how many chickens you have will help you best decide what feeder to get. I have around 40 hens and so I have a huge turkey feeder that can hold 200 lbs. of feed at once.

A Large Chicken Feeder to Feed My Chickens

I prefer feeders that can fit at least a week worth of food, or having multiple feeders that can hold that amount of food.

The reason being is so that you can give your chickens enough food for a week if you’ll be out of town for an extended period of time. Plus, I like to free feed so that my hens can eat whenever they want to. Having a large feeder allows me to give them enough food at once so I am not having to throw feed to them everyday.

So when it comes to picking your feeder there are a lot of good options. I like hanging feeders that you can hang a few inches above ground in the chicken run or inside the chicken coop. This way your hens can’t scratch out all of their food.

If I didn’t have my huge turkey feeder, I would have multiple Free Range Plastic Hanging Poultry Feeders.

They have a twist on bottom that stays secure, they have a no-scratch base which helps to prevent the chickens from scratching their food out, and it allows you to hang it.

Feeding Baby Chicks

When it comes time to feeding your baby chicks you should either feed them a medicated or non medicated chick starter.

If you are not planning on raising all natural chickens, I’d suggest feeding a medicated chick starter, unless you’re certain that your chicks have been vaccinated.

I feed my chicks medicated chick starter for about the first 3-4 weeks. Then unmedicated chick starter until around 12 weeks old. After that I will start switching them over to laying mash or crumble and begin integrating them into my older flock.

At about 12 weeks you can also choose to give them a grower feed which is made specifically for pullets and then start feeding them layer feed once they begin to lay.

The grower feed has less calcium than layer feed and so it is healthier for young hens that aren’t laying yet since too much calcium at a young age can be damaging to their health.

Since I have older hens that need layer feed I let my 12 week and older chicks start eating layer feed and I will also provide another feeder with non medicated chick starter so they have another option for feed as well.

After a few weeks I will only have them eating layer feed. If you’d like to learn more about raising chicks in depth check out How to Care for Baby Chicks.

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Feeding Laying Hens

From the time your chickens lay and on, they should only be fed a layer feed. They can have scratch in small amounts but you can think of that as a treat for them.

The scratch doesn’t provide them with the overall nutrients they need for a balanced diet or to produce eggs.

In fact, if you’re feeding too much scratch your hens may fill up on that and start laying less since they won’t be getting all the nutrients they need from their feed. So you can choose to not feed scratch at all or you can feed it in small amounts a couple times a week.

As your hens begin to go through molt they should be fed a higher protein feed to help them recover faster. A feed with 18-20% protein such as Feather Fixer is a great option for a couple months during molting.

Feeding Meat Birds

Meat birds grow so fast they need a diet extra high in protein. If you’re raising chickens for meat you can buy a feed specifically made for broilers with all the correct nutrients.

Feeding Free Range Chickens

Having free range chickens is great for so many reasons. They can help keep down on bugs and weeds around your yard and they will cost less in feed.

But if you’re wanting your free range hens to still lay eggs consistently you will want to be sure they are still eating layer feed. This will ensure they are getting the required nutrients needed on top of all the extra feed they will be getting from outside.

If you lock up your chickens at night you can provide layer feed for them in the coop before they go to sleep and before you let them out in the mornings.

Additional Products Needed for Balanced Diets

On top of a good layer feed, chickens will often need a few extra things here and there for good health. A couple products they should always have access to is oyster shell and grit.

Oyster shell provides them with the extra calcium they need for hard eggs shells and they will eat it as their body needs it. If you’d like to find out all of the information on why chickens need oyster shell check out 3 Reasons for Feeding Chickens Oyster Shells.

Grit is also important, and it will help with your chickens digestive health.

The last thing I like to constantly provide for my hens in a flock block. This gives them added vitamins and minerals needed for overall health and they enjoy pecking at it for fun.

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Pros and Cons of Table Scraps and Chickens Treats

Chickens are pretty much little garbage disposals which is another reason why I love having them around. With chickens I never feel like I am wasting any food because they will eat just about everything.

So the pro of table scraps is that chickens love them and it will cut down a bit on the amount of food they are eating.

The cons of scraps and treats is that if the chickens fill up too much on them they won’t get enough of the actual nutrients that they need for laying eggs.

So as a rule of thumb, treats and scraps should be 10% or less of their overall diet.

A few things you should never feed your chickens are:

  • Avocado pits or skin
  • Undercooked or dried beans
  • Rhubarb
  • Moldy or rotten foods

To learn more about what chickens should and should not eat check out this great article from Purina Mills. 

Changing the Chickens Diet for Hot Weather and Cold Weather

As the weather gets warmer and chickens are trying to stay cool they should be fed a lower protein diet. But never less than 16% protein if you want them to continue laying.

On the other hand, added protein helps their bodies retain more heat, so as weather is colder you can feed them a feed higher in protein.

Summary of What to Feed Your Chickens

Overall, feeding your chickens should be pretty easy!

  • Start your chicks off with a medicated chick starter for the first 3-4 weeks, then feed unmedicated chick starter until 12 weeks old.
  • At 12 weeks until the hens begin to lay feed them a grower feed or switch them to layer crumble.
  • Once hens begin to lay, feed them a layer feed forever.
  • Keep scratch, treats, and table scraps to 10% or less of their diets.

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  1. Just getting started with chickens and am thankful for all the content and instruction you provide. I have been told if you use a feeder they will eat all the time which increases your feed spending versus feeding them once daily. Is this true?

    1. Hi Todd, thanks so much! I’m glad it’s been helpful. No, I have never found this to be true. I have always fed in a free reader and my chickens never overeat. I’ve paid close attention to the amount of food they eat and it’s right at the average amount that chickens eat daily. I definitely think free feeding is the way to go 🙂

  2. Hi Audrey!

    Thank you for all of the amazing and helpful information you share on chickens, correct zone gardening and homesteading. I greatly appreciate your advice!

    I’ve had chickens for five years and just read your article on what Chickens should eat. I was looking for guidance on how to feed my 60 birds more economically, since my bird food bill is close to $600/month. Thanks to your article, I discovered that I am feeding my birds way too much scratch with my current 50/50 ratio of scratch and crumble!! So, starting today, I will start feeding a 90/20 lay crumble ratio and add some grit to their diets, too.

    I like your idea of using a 200lb Turkey feeder so you don’t have to feed everyday, and am curious how your 40 birds share it. Do you have more than one feeder that size for so many birds? Also, how do you avoid having the rodents who love chicken food from consuming the endless supply of food in your large feeders?? I have tons of ground squirrels, gophers, and some rats, too.

    I currently feed my birds (50ish chickens & roosters, 3 Peacocks, 3 Peahens, 3 teenage Pea chicks, three turkeys and loads of small native birds who free range in my aviary) everyday by putting small piles of food in many places so the birds all have easy access in their own “neighborhoods” within the aviary. I also fill two plastic cat litter boxes half full with food for the turkeys to eat from.

    Now I am considering changing my feeding techniques to include a 200lb food dispenser (or two!), as you do, so I don’t have to feed every day. I look forward to your answers to my questions above about a large flock sharing the feeders and also how you manage rodent control while providing free range food in such large amounts.
    Thanks in advance!! Susan

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