From the time they hatch, baby chicks are ready for their first meal. Adequate nutrition in the first six to eight weeks of their life is integral to raising happy, healthy chickens. From starter feed to foraging for insects, timing is everything when it comes to feeding these hungry, peeping poultry.
Poultry feed is specially formulated to provide vitamins and minerals, fats and oils, carbohydrates, proteins and sometimes preventive medication. The ingredient sources are vast, and can include cereals and flours from barley, corn or wheat, as well as soybeans, peanuts and canola for protein.
Hatchling to 8 Weeks
The very first meal a baby chick needs is starter feed, specifically one that is at least 20 percent protein. This is more protein than other feed options, as the initial two months of a chick's life are when it grows the most.
Starter feed can be found at most farm supply stores, and comes in three varieties: crumbles, mash and pellets. There are no inherent nutritional differences to any of these styles. They simply represent how much the feed is ground down. Pellets of feed are broken to form crumbles, and crumbles are powdered to create mash. Baby chicks can eat crumbles just as well as mash.
Eight to 18 Weeks
When the chicks have grown a little, and begin to enter their adolescent months, the amount of protein they require lessens. At this time, they should be fed "grower feed." This feed contains 16 to 18 percent protein, and helps ensure that these young birds are not rushed to attempt eggs too early than is healthy for them.
Eighteen Weeks and Older
Adult chickens 18 weeks and older are ready to switch to "layer feed." Layer feed contains the same amount of protein as grower feed, but also benefits from added calcium. This supplemental calcium helps the hens produce eggs. For best results, however, a separate dish of ground oyster shells allow the hens to match their individual calcium needs. Not adding the oyster shells to the layer feed ensures that the hens are not consuming too much calcium with their meals.
Layer feed should not be fed to chicks younger than 18 weeks, as the calcium in the feed could severely damage their kidneys. Like starter feed, layer feed is available in mash, crumble and pellet sizes.
Fresh and Live Foods
Foraging is an instinctual chicken behavior, and includes the intake of many naturally occurring food sources, such as earthworms, clover, insects and grass. After a good rain, adult chickens and baby chicks both will take delight in running through damp grass, nibbling on whatever they may find. As long as they are free from pesticides, this foraging is a good social behavior, and is beneficial to growing chicks.
When it comes to table scraps, however, cooked and fresh scraps should be reserved for adult chickens only, and not baby chicks. Chicks that fill their crops with treats such as fruit, beans or berries are lacking the essential protein and nutrients that their growing fuzzy bodies need.
Homemade Chicken Feeds
Backyard flock owners want to do the best by their broods, and many believe that homemade feeds are a cleaner choice for chicks. According to Dr. Julie Gauthier, a veterinary epidemiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, DIY feeds should be left to the experts, as the risks to an entire flock are too great.
"The adventure of homemade chicken feed mixing isn't for the casual flock-keeper, though. You need a solid knowledge of poultry nutrition to balance a ration properly and avoid nutritional deficiencies. Feeding unconventional feed ingredients does carry some risk because unexpected problems may happen, such as digestive upset, toxicities or spoilage."
Chickens lack teeth, and need to consume small pebbles to help them grind up their food; these pebbles are known as "grit." Baby chicks also need grit, however pebbles and rocks are too big for them to swallow initially. By adding sand, parakeet gravel or canary grit to their food, you can help ensure their ability to fully digest their feed.
If your chicks hatch unexpectedly and you have no starter feed on hand, crumbled hard-boiled egg yolk will work in a pinch.
How Often to Feed?
Free-feeding your baby chicks is recommended for backyard flocks. The crops of chickens can only hold a small amount of food at one time, eliminating the possibility of overeating. Chickens on a restricted feeding schedule may end up not eating and skipping meals if their crops have not yet emptied, causing them to miss out on valuable nutrition.