When it comes to nutrition, especially if you’re a new chicken parent, you’re not just going to grab the first bag of feed you see on the shelf. You want to be sure you’re feeding your flock what they need for a healthy start and a long, happy life. But, what exactly do they need? Here at Home Fresh®, we’re obsessed with animal nutrition. We’ve pulled together some basics on chicken nutrition, a few tips and tricks, and most importantly, what to look for in a poultry feed at each life stage. We like to say that we take care of the nutrition for chickens, so you can focus on the nurturing. Let’s get started! A Healthy Chicken—Inside and Out First, a quick biology lesson. For a small animal, chickens have a relatively complicated digestive system. To understand their nutritional needs, some context is in order. Food’s first stop after being swallowed is a chicken’s crop, a pouch-like area where food can stay for up to 12 hours. From the crop, food makes its way to the gizzard. Like our stomachs, a chicken’s gizzard is where food is broken down to help make it easier to absorb nutrients. Unlike our stomachs, the gizzard grinds down food mainly using tiny pebbles and grit that chickens swallow exactly for this purpose (now you know why chickens don’t need teeth). From there, protein is digested by the chicken’s intestines while carbohydrates and fat are metabolized by the liver. Near the end of the intestines are two pouches called ceca which break down fiber. From there undigested waste material continues to the colon, and, well, now we’re no longer discussing nutrition… Assuming all these organs on the inside are working well together, what should you be seeing on the outside? Healthy chickens will be active and alert throughout the day. Their eyes should be clear and shiny, and their combs and wattles should be plump and glossy. Unless it is very hot, they should be breathing with their beaks closed. Feathers should be smoothed down, with no patches of missing feathers. Different Life Stages, Different Nutritional Needs Now that you know all that, what should you feed your chickens to get those curious eyes and smooth feathers? It depends on their life stage. Chicks, pullets and laying hens (and later, molting hens) have different nutritional needs. The two nutrients you’ll want to pay the most attention to are protein and calcium. Protein is the main building block for muscles, skin, bone and feathers. It provides energy and helps boost immunity. Baby chicks need higher protein levels because their bodies are working every day to form and grow bones. That’s why starter feeds like Home Fresh Starter AMP, Home Fresh Multi-Flock Starter/Grower and Home Fresh Organic Starter are very high in protein (20-23%). As chicks become pullets—in other words, move from childhood into adolescence after the first eight weeks—growth begins to slow. Because of that, grower feeds like Home Fresh Grow & Show and Home Fresh Organic Grower are lower in protein (15-16%) than starter feeds. Once your chickens have fully matured and begun laying eggs, too much protein can cause weight gain and interfere with egg production, so layer feeds are also lower in protein. When it comes to calcium, the situation is reversed. Laying hens need a high percentage of calcium (3-4.5%) to lay eggs with strong eggshells. To help with that, layer feeds like Home Fresh Extra Egg Layer and Home Fresh Organic Layer Pellet are fortified with extra calcium. Feeding baby chicks and teenage pullets too much calcium can cause kidney issues later. When it comes to calcium, the situation is reversed. Laying hens need a high percentage of calcium (3-4.5%) to lay eggs with strong eggshells. To help with that, layer feeds like Home Fresh Extra Egg Layer and Home Fresh Organic Layer Pellet are fortified with extra calcium. Feeding baby chicks and teenage pullets too much calcium can cause kidney issues later. That’s why if you’re introducing young pullets into an existing flock of laying hens that are being fed a high-calcium feed, you should switch back to feeding the entire flock grower feed until the entire flock is at least 20 weeks old. You can provide laying hens a supplemental source of calcium like ground oyster shells on the side. The one time you do want high calcium combined with high protein is when your hens start molting. Consider switching to a feed like Home Fresh Better Feather™, which is formulated specifically for this phase of life. It has the protein hens need to grow new feathers, combined with the same high calcium levels as a layer feed. Although hens will stop laying eggs during molt, high levels of calcium in their feed ensures they’ll have a healthy reserve of the mineral when they do start producing eggs again. If you notice that your hens are laying fewer eggs after molting, don’t worry! That’s natural. They’re still working hard—you’ll probably also notice that these eggs are larger than the ones they produced before molting. Complete, Balanced Nutrition Of course, protein and calcium are just two of the many vitamins and minerals that make up a complete poultry feed. Most of any feed is going to be cereal grains that provide necessary carbohydrates and fiber. Like humans, chickens need some fat in their diets to help absorb minerals and make feed more palatable, but too much can cause problems. Grains and scratch provide plenty of carbohydrates, fiber and fat, but not the complete nutrition of a balanced feed. Things like antioxidants and prebiotics help keep a chicken’s immune system strong, along with amino acids and enzymes to boost the digestive system’s ability to absorb nutrients. Looking at the list of ingredients on the back of a bag of feed may feel overwhelming. The good news is Home Fresh has done all the work of balancing these nutrients for you. You don’t have to know the difference between things like phytase and phosphorus—just that they both help with calcium absorption. Finally, if you’re wondering if there is a nutritional difference between crumbles and pellets: there isn’t. Smaller crumbles are easier for chicks to eat, but when it comes to the rest of your flock, whether they prefer the texture of pellets or crumble is up to them. Scratch, Scraps, Snacks and Grit Chickens scratch at the ground looking for grit or tasty snacks. Because you’re already feeding your backyard chickens a complete nutritionally balanced feed, scratch grains like wheat, oats or corn should be considered just a snack. Like junk food, scratch is tasty, but not very nutritious. It’s also perfectly fine to feed your chickens (fresh) table scraps as treats, but like scratch, in limited amounts. This is because scraps can adversely affect egg production, and when it comes to things with strong flavors, like onions, affect egg flavor. Snacks and scratch should make up only about 10% of your chickens’ diets. Save them for the afternoon, and only scatter as much as your chickens can eat in 15 to 20 minutes. Keep Them Healthy, Happy and Hydrated The importance of water often gets overlooked when talking about nutrition, but chickens need about twice the water than food, by weight. Providing clean, cold water is especially critical in summer, not only to keep your chickens hydrated, but also to help keep them cool. We recommend replacing fountains or gravity watering systems with tubs of water in a shady spot. This lets your chickens cool off by dunking their feet, heads or combs in the water. If you can’t keep the tubs continually refreshed with cold water, add blocks of ice or ice cubes to help keep the water cooler longer. In extreme heat, consider adding electrolytes to the water to help combat heat exhaustion. You can buy them pre-mixed or make your own from one of the many recipes you can find online. Since the added salt in electrolytes can be bad for your chickens’ health, limit using them to just a few days at a time. Some Final Words of Encouragement You’ll probably never have to think of the words “ceca” or “phytase” again, but hopefully now you’ve got a better understanding of your chickens and their nutritional needs. Stick with the right complete feed for each life stage and don’t overdo it on the treats. But most importantly, pay attention to your chickens. Once you get to know them, you’ll be able to get a better sense of what they need and like. Also, be sure to talk to other backyard chicken enthusiasts and learn from their mistakes and their successes. If you have more questions on nutrition for your chickens or any of your other backyard animals, Home Fresh and our animal health experts are here for you. See the difference our complete, nutritious feeds have on your flock. Get $5 off any Home Fresh Poultry Feeds product.