Feeding Chickens

By Kelly Klober

Ration tweaking has been a longtime practice among small scale, purebred poultry producers. Most have a trick or two for use in each and every season of the year. I pull dandelion plants (roots and all) and give them to our birds as a bitter green throughout the spring, summer and fall. As long as the birds consume them eagerly then they are providing for a nutrient need.


A hard and fast rule to be noted here is that feedstuffs are never a place for cost cutting. They must be fresh, properly formulated, and in a form that encourages consumption and reduces waste — such as crumbles for young birds which progress to small pellets as they mature. Cut bird numbers before feed quality is reduced.

If you do need to feed a grit product, or feel the need to do so, cherry granite grit in the size appropriate to the age of the birds is the best choice. 
Read and follow closely all company directions on how best to use grit with their feeding products. From time to time we will go to a nearby creek and scoop up a bucket or two of sand to dump into our pens to give the birds something to scratch through and gather some grit.

chickens eating
When consumed, grit moves to the bird’s gizzard where it is compartmentalized to help with the breakdown of grains in the digestive process.

A good heirloom poultry farmer is like a good chef. He or she seems to know just when the birds need a little extra soup can of something. The heirloom and rare breeds often seem to need something in the way of a boosted ration to compensate for a lack of vigor or libido that can stem from an overly narrow genetic base.

Quite often it is a nutritional problem that sets the stage for a great many health and performance ills. Ration boosting can be quite simple and involve the most basic of items. The key is to use them in a timely manner and not in a way apt to cause any further upset or stress. Sudden, drastic changes in rations, even if intended for the best, could be very upsetting to a bird’s well being.

Poultry are fed to improve their performance, to advance the birds, and not to simply save money. Good feedstuffs are an investment in the current and future productivity of the flock or flocks.

Along with good variety, you should be concerned with the freshness of their feed supply. Feed left stacked for extended periods in the far corner of a warehouse will suffer nutritional and quality breakdowns. Problems can develop with dustiness (fines), caking, water damage, vermin contamination, mold, and the like. Buying in modest amounts that will be used in rapid order will do much to assure that fresh supplies of feed are on hand at all times. This is a practice that can also help to even out the highs and lows in feed prices.

All birds consume feeds in such small amounts that every measure possible should be followed to assure that they get maximum benefit from their feedstuffs. With smaller numbers the higher costs of commercially prepared feed products is generally offset by convenience and versatility in their use.

Optimizing Commercial Poultry Rations

The following are some tips to get optimal value from commercially available poultry rations.

  • Smaller pellets, sometimes called mini-pellets, seem to be consumed better by started and adult birds than meal or crumble type rations. Pelleting has also reduced feed wastage for us as pellets tossed or scratched from the feeder are often retrieved and eaten by the birds later in the day. I would like to see a grower feed offered in a pellet and would not be surprised to see the development of a gel-type starter product one day. A gel-type hydration product is now available for birds of all ages when in transit.
  • Unmedicated chick starter feeds are now much more widely available than even a few years ago. A great many will carry some level of the product Amprolin that is used for the control of coccidiosis. This product is said not to harm baby waterfowl.
  • Follow feeding instructions to the letter. The same is true for all drug products. Do not make any abrupt changes in ration types or sources. Achieve such changes gradually over a period of three to five days.
  • Many poultry rations are now built entirely with vegetable matter that can add to costs. Also feed with higher levels of crude protein may be harder to obtain. Some producers will even provide added vitamin and mineral supplementation when feeding with these products. In times of stress or change we always add a vitamin/electrolyte product to the birds’ drinking water. Birds will drink when sometimes they won’t eat.
  • Many still believe a source of animal protein is needed if the birds are to achieve optimal levels of performance. Birds left on their own will eat a lot of “meat” whether it is worms, insects or any other creepy crawlers. If feeding from a totally distinct species such as fish, I feel there should be no real concern for any special crossover from potentially harmful organisms.
  • Most feedstuffs for young birds are designed to be fed to birds of specific ages. Follow those recommendations and possibly even extend them a bit for late-season hatched birds.
  • Commercially available feedstuffs from a company working to stay current in the field is a good base from which to begin building an heirloom breed feeding program. There are supplementation measures and specialty products that individuals can use to further ramp up performance from their birds.

On Feeding Broilers

Broilers, as fast growing birds, need access to a carefully formulated ration that accounts for their growth rate and frame development. With the “fast broilers” many producers now limit their birds access to feed after they are about four weeks of age. They will pull the feeders away from the birds from roughly seven in the evening until seven the next morning.

broiler hen on grass
Broilers on range really get very little benefit from green feeds. The real pluses for them are really the fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.

Shop carefully for broiler growing rations and match the rations carefully to the breeding behind your birds. Don’t assume that because they’re on grass that they will self-balance their rations. What goes into that feeder has to meet one hundred percent of a fast growing bird’s needs.

Don’t Forget the Water

Many don’t think of it as such, but drinking water is also a feedstuff. In fact, it is one of the most important of all feedstuffs.

Water should be before the birds constantly and in containers that will keep it clean, fresh, and appealing. In very hot weather it may even be necessary to offer the birds fresh water two or even three times a day. In winter many will offer warmed water twice a day. In cold weather I’m a firm believer in the old practices of giving everything a good drink and plenty to eat before the long winter night falls.

Hen with chicks
It has been my experience that keeping the birds hydrated, well fed, dry, and comfortable is the big half of chicken health care.

Also, just as with their rations, some producers like to tinker a bit with the drinking water. I have already outlined our reliance upon vitamin/electrolyte products in the drinking water for all classes of birds. We use this product almost daily in one pen or another and reach for it at the first sign of any sort of stress or health ill. Just as with baby chicks, we will use hydrogen peroxide in the drinking water of both growing and breeding birds.

I have also encountered drinking water infused with a number of different things. As noted earlier, white sugar will boost energy levels and can be used with debilitated birds as well as baby chicks. Two other common infusion products are red cider vinegar and dried hot pepper.

We have used both and generally have on hand a gallon of vinegar steeping with the addition of a couple of heads of garlic and a large, dried pepper. We add two to four ounces of this per gallon of drinking water a couple of times a week. Six ounces of red cider vinegar per gallon of drinking water is held to be a good natural treatment for coccidiosis. The garlic, pepper, and vinegar mix seems to contain a natural antibiotic that invigorates our birds. We use the mixture to help them maintain condition when under stress.

Source: Talking Chicken