From chick to hen: What should I feed my flock?

Farm Forum

Shoreview, Minn. – Just as humans’ nutritional needs change from infancy to adulthood, backyard birds need different nutrients as they grow from chick to pullet to hen or rooster. Adjusting feed as birds grow can contribute to the flock’s health and happiness.

That’s according to Mikelle Roeder, Ph.D., a flock nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition.

“Would you feed the same food to your baby and yourself? The same is true for your flocks,” Roeder says. “Baby chicks require different nutrients than adults. To help your flock thrive, select a complete feed that is formulated specifically for your birds’ age, species or stage of production.”

Wondering which complete feed is right for your flock? Read on as we break down the essential ingredients for chicks, market birds, mixed flocks and laying hens.

Layer Chicks

A chick’s first feed can fuel its long-term growth potential. To support development, provide a complete starter feed that is formulated to include everything the baby chick needs from day one through egg laying.

A quality complete starter feed should provide protein, vitamins and minerals along with probiotics (live microbial cultures) and prebiotics (ingredients such as yeast promote growth of desirable digestive microbes).

“A feed with 18 percent high-quality protein helps support bone and body growth and gives chicks the power they need to stay healthy and active,” Roeder explains.

Vitamins and minerals are also required by the chicks. Both fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and water-soluble vitamins (all of the B-complex vitamins) are required by birds of all ages, but requirements are highest in growing chicks. Macrominerals (like calcium and phosphorus) and microminerals (such as copper, selenium, and other trace minerals) should be supplied in adequate concentrations to meet a growing bird’s requirements.

Thirdly, probiotics and prebiotics in the starter feed can promote healthy digestive and immune systems.

In general, chicks can be transitioned to a complete layer feed at 18 weeks of age or once they begin laying eggs.

Meat birds and mixed flocks

Broiler chicks – or meat birds – have considerably higher nutrient requirements than layer chicks due to their extremely fast growth rate and greater muscle mass.

“Flocks containing a mixture of species and ages can be optimally fed with one all-purpose flock raiser feed, as long as care is taken to choose the right product,” Roeder says, explaining that meat birds require 20 percent protein, turkey and gamebird chicks should be started with 28 percent protein and ducklings require higher niacin levels.

Similar to a complete starter feed, a flock raiser feed should also include optimal concentrations of essential amino acids for muscle and skeletal development, fat- and water-soluble vitamins and minerals. Added probiotics and prebiotics can help promote healthy digestive and immune systems, which can in turn support optimal growth.

“Feed a complete flock raiser formula to meat birds, ducks and geese as the sole ration from day one to either market weight or commencement of egg production and to turkeys and gamebirds from week 10 until start of lay,” Roeder advises. “Turkey and gamebird chicks will need an appropriate turkey/gamebird starter product from hatch to 10 weeks.”

Laying hens

When hens begin laying eggs, they require additional nutrients to support the added task of egg production. The biggest difference between a starter and a layer feed is calcium.

“Egg production requires very high levels of calcium to support strong eggshells,” Roeder says. “If the feed does not provide high enough calcium levels, hens may pull the nutrient from their bones, eventually causing a weak skeletal structure. For this reason, provide a complete layer feed fortified with calcium.”

When selecting a complete layer feed, look for a feed formulated with all of the nutrients required for egg production and maintenance of health. This includes calcium for strong shells; amino acids, vitamins and minerals for enhanced egg quality and hen health and probiotics, prebiotics and yeast to promote optimal digestive function.

“Make sure the layer feed comprises at least 90 percent of the hens’ total diet,” Roeder says. “Excessive dilution with scratch grains, treats, table scraps and other items can lead to osteoporosis, diminished production and other hen health issues. For even more nutritious eggs, look for a complete layer feed that also includes omega-3.”

To learn more about backyard flock nutrition, visit or like Purina Poultry on Facebook.