Mash, pellets or crumble feed? The result will surprise you!

So what’s the best type of feed for backyard chickens – pellets, mash, crumble or whole grains?

It seems like a simple question. But for some reason its one of those on-going debates that never gets solved. I’ve heard so many different opinions and anecdotes about why pellets, crumble or mash is better. Some people swear by mash. Other people swear by crumbles or pellets. The first time I went to the pet store looking for advice, I left more confused than when I started. 

So whats the difference and does it matter? Actually I think the feed you use is super important because its has a flow on affect on everything else. Such as:

  • Rats and mice: The type of feed affects the amount of mess chickens make. This then attracts pests such as rats and mice.
  • Health and productivity: The right feed provides the right amount of nutrients to keep your chickens healthy and productive. The form of feed also impacts digestive and immune systems.
  • Cost: Chicken feed is the main ongoing cost.

To help you choose the best feed, I have broken it down into 7 sections:

  1. What is chicken feed made of? Some of the ingredients will shock you!
  2. The different forms of chicken feed and how its made
  3. ​Chicken feed at different ages
  4. Which chicken feed is most popular and why?
  5. What chicken feed is best? A comparison of the pros and cons
  6. My recommendation on the best chicken feed - what works for me
  7. How to go about changing feed (chickens hate change).

This is the second post in a series on choosing the best chicken feed for layers. The first post focused on the benefits of choosing the right chicken feed.

1. What is Chicken feed made of? Some of the ingredients will shock you!

Understanding what chicken feed is made of will help you understand the difference between each type of feed. The main ingredients in chicken feed are cereal grains, protein meal, fats and oils, vitamins and minerals. All these ingredients are combined to create feed that meets the nutritional requirements of chickens based on the age of the chicken (chick, pullet, hen) and reason for raising the chicken (laying hen or meat chicken).

Cereal grains

Chicken feed has a large amount of cereal grains to provide the energy chickens need. Different grains are used in different countries, mainly based on availability and price.

Grain

Energy

(kcal / kg)

Protein %

Wheat

3100

13%

Corn

3200

9%

Sorghum

3200

9%

Barley

2800

11.5%

Rye

2700

12.5%

Source:  Poultryhub

Protein

A lot of people think that chickens don’t naturally eat animal based food. But chickens are omnivores, which means they eat plants and animals. In the wild, bugs and insets are a favourite. Protein used in commercial chicken feed is often plant based but can also come from animal sources.

Plant based protein sources

Most chicken feed contains plant based proteins. This comes from oil seed meals, which is the left over material from the oil extraction process. Soybean meal is the most common, because of its high protein content, good balance of essential amino acids and low cost. Other sources of vegetable protein are canola meal (rapeseed), sunflower meal, peas and lupins.

Source

Protein %

Soybean meal

48%

Canola meal

38%

Sunflower meal

47%

Peas

24%

Lupins

35%

Source:  Poultryhub

Animal based protein sources

Commonly used animal proteins are meat, bone meal and fish meal. These meals are made from all the left overs (by-products) of meat processing which is up to 50% of the whole animal. It's made by extracting the fat and water which leaves a ground meal which is high in protein.

Chickens fed to chickens

I was shocked to find that chicken is fed to chickens! Chicken can be included in feed in the form of poultry by-product meal and feather meal. Poultry by-product is made of the left overs from poultry slaughterhouses such as necks, heads, feet and intestines. Feather meal is made from feathers from chicken and turkey processing operations. Even weirder is feeding chicken shit to chickens! Chicken manure is fermented and dried and can make up to 40% of a layer feed without impacting laying performance. What I don't know is how common it is for chicken by-products to be used in feed. Is it mainly used in factory farms or does it also find its way into the feed we use in our backyards? Definitely something I will investigate further in a future post.

Source

Protein %

Meat meal

50%

Fish meal

60%

Poulty meal

60%

Source:  Poultryhub

Fats and oils

Up to 4% of chicken feed is made up of Fats and Oils, which is an important source of energy for chickens. Fats are also needed for the digestion of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and also provide essential fatty acids such as Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9. The fats and oils commonly used in chicken feed comes from both animal sources and vegetable sources.

  • ​Animal sources: Tallow (rendered beef fat), Lard (rendered pig fat)
  • Vegetable sources: Soy oil, sunflower oil, linseed oil and palm oil
Vitamins, minerals and amino acids

Vitamins, minerals and amino acids are essential for the health of your chickens and for egg laying. For example, laying chickens need calcium (3.5-4%), phosphorus (0.3-0.4%) and sodium (0.2%). 

While the other ingredients in chicken feed provide some of these nutrients, extra supplements are added to make sure the chickens get all the nutrients they need. This includes Lysine and methionine which are key amino acids that are deficient in other ingredients.

Medicated feed

Some feed (starter and grower feed) comes “medicated” which means it has a Coccidiostat additive. This prevents (but does not treat) Coccidiosis which is a parasitic disease passed through droppings. Coccidiosis affects the chickens intestinal tract and reduces nutrient absorption. Depending on the medication used, there are usually withholding periods of up to 2 weeks (follow product guidelines). Using medicated feed comes down to personal preference. My view is that medicated feed is not necessary:

  • Most day old chicks are vaccinated (you should check this when you buy your chicks)
  • Coccidiosis is not common in backyard chickens which are kept in low densities compared to industrial farming
  • Good quality feed, clean water and shelter builds a healthy immune system which will help prevent Coccidiosis.

2. The different forms of chicken feed and how its made

All the ingredients are mixed and processed into different forms and types of chicken feed. As you you'll see from the diagram, the different forms of chicken feed are produced at different stages of processing.

1. Whole Grains

Whole grains without anything else mixed in and are often sold as a blend of different grains. Some of the most common grains used for chicken feed are Wheat, Corn, Barley, Sorghum and Rye. Grains on their own are not a complete feed, because they don't contain all the protein, fats, vitamins and minerals that chickens need.

2. Crushed Grain (Scratch)

Crushed grain (often called scratch) is whole grain that has been crushed in a hammer mill. Scratch is usually sold as a mix of different grains such as wheat, corn and sorghum. The size of the crushed grain can vary a lot, from finely ground to a chunky mix.

3. Mash

Mash is made from crushed grain, that is mixed with protein meal and supplements. The protein meal in mash is a fine, almost powdery mix. Mash is designed to be a complete feed with the right levels of proteins, vitamins and minerals.

4. Pellets

Pellets are made from mash, which is heated and compressed into a hard compact pellet.

5. Crumble

Crumble is made from whole pellets, which are cracked or rolled into a smaller size.

6. Micro Pellet and Grain Mix

Micro pellet and grain mix is a combination of:

  • Grains: Usually a combination of grains such as corn, wheat and sorghum. The grain is usually whole but can also be cracked.
  • Micro Pellets (Protein & Supplement): Protein and supplements are provided in a small pellet (sometimes called a micro pellet). It's high in protein (e.g. 30-40%) and includes fats and oils, vitamins, minerals and amino acid supplements.

3. Chicken feed at different ages

Different feed is designed for chickens at different stages of development, to meet their specific nutrient needs.

Starter feed (Chicks):

Starter feed is for Chicks up to 8 weeks old.

  • Form: comes in a mash or crumble form so that its easy to eat.
  • Protein: ~20%. The highest level of protein of any of the feeds because high levels of protein are needed for rapid growth.
  • Calcium: 1%. A lot less than for layers.
  • Medication: Comes either medicated or non-medicated to prevent coccidiosis.

Grower feed (Pullets):

Grower feed is for pullets which are teenage chickens between 8 weeks and point of lay at about 18 weeks.

  • Form: Typically comes in a mash or crumble form so that its easy to eat.
  • Protein: ~16-18%. Protein levels are lower than starter feed, but usually have a slightly higher level of protein than layers. Pullets are still growing but at a reduced rate and are maturing to lay their first egg.
  • Calcium: 1%. A lot less than for layers.
  • Medication: Comes either medicated or non-medicated to prevent coccidiosis.

Layer feed:

Feed designed for Laying chickens from the “Point of Lay” onwards.

  • Form: Comes in all different forms.
  • Protein: ~15-18%. Protein levels are usually maintained within a range of 15 to 18% depending on the brand and quality of feed.
  • Calcium: ~3.5%. Laying Chickens need much higher levels of calcium for egg development. Be careful not to feed this to younger chickens which are not laying eggs. To much calcium can cause health problems and slowed growth.
  • Medication: Not medicated. After chicks and pullets are fed a medicated diet, there is usually a period you have to wait (withholding period) before the eggs are safe to eat. Follow the guidelines from the feed manufacturer.

4. Which chicken feed is most popular and why?

 A poll of 600 people shows that pellets are the by far the most popular feed (52%) and then crumbles (35%). Thats 87% that prefer pellets either whole or broken up. The main reason given for preferences were very consistent for each type of feed:

Pellets: Low mess and waste

Crumble: Chicken preference over pellets and easier to eat.

Mash: Low cost and chicken preference over pellets.

Micro pellet and grain mix: Chicken preference, health and productivity​.

Source: Backyardchickens.com

5. What chicken feed is best? A comparison of the pros and cons

To make it super simple to choose the best feed for you, I have laid out the pros and cons of each type of feed. And because I know some people are just looking for the definitive 'answer', I will tell you what feed works best for me. Before I get into that, its worth thinking about your situation and what you want to get from your chickens.

Your situation and priorities

When it comes to chicken feed, there is no black and white answer on which is best. Thats because everyone has a different setup and different priorities. Some of the key things to consider are:

  • Time available: If your life is busy and you're strapped for time, convenience is likely to be your top priority. This means low waste and mess will be important.
  • Feeding method and type of feeder: The best chicken feed for you will depend on the way you feed your chickens and the equipment you use. For example, if you hand feed your chickens every day, messy feed is not going to worry you. On the other hand, if you use a feeder, eliminating mess and waste will be much more important to you. However, some chicken feeders can also reduce or eliminate problems with messy feed.
  • Productivity: If you have a small backyard, with only a few chickens, the number of eggs you get each day is likely to be way more important than saving a few dollars on chicken feed. However, if you have 50 chickens, the cost of feed is going to add up quickly.

Comparison

I have compared each feed against four key areas:

  • Chicken preference (yum factor)
  • Cost
  • Mess and waste
  • Health and egg productivity

Against each of these areas I have nominated which one I think is the best.

Note: this only compares the different forms of feed.

Its important to keep in mind that this comparison is only focused on the different forms of feed. I have not considered quality at all, which can have a big impact. Chickens might hate some pellets because the ingredients are low quality, which is completely unrelated to the type of feed. Quality can also have a big impact on price because of the cost of ingredients. Soy free and organic feed will cost a lot more no matter what type of feed it is. There can also be a lot of variation in chicken feed between brands and products. For example, mash can be finely ground or a more chunky mix - depending on the product.

Chicken preference (Yum factor)

The Yum Factor is about how much your chickens like the feed. Do they only eat it if they're starving. Or do they go crazy for the feed and can’t get enough? This also looks at how easy the feed is to eat. Do chickens struggle because it’s to big, to small or to tough to eat?

Feed type

        Pros and Cons

Best?

Grain mix

Whole grains can be more difficult for baby chicks to eat. Chickens​ like the variety.

Mash

Easy to eat for baby chicks. Can take more effort (more time) for adult chickens to eat because of the small grain size. Variety is appealing compared to pellets.​

Pellets

Can be eaten more quickly by adult birds because of the large pellets. Large pellets can be difficult to eat for baby chicks and smaller breeds like bantams.

Crumble

​Smaller broken up pellets makes them easier to eat and are a good option for baby chicks and smaller breeds. Chickens tend to prefer the smaller crumbles over the large pellets.

Micro pellet &

grain mix

​Smaller pellets (micro pellets) make them easier to eat. ​Chickens tend to prefer loose mix over other feed because of the variety.

Cost

Cost is pretty straight forward. How much does it cost per kilogram?

Feed type

Pros and Cons

Best?

Grain mix

Cheapest feed because its not processed and has no protein and vitamin supplements.

Mash

Cheaper than pellets because it requires less processing.​

Cheapest complete feed

Pellets

Extra processing costs means that it has a higher cost than mash.

Crumble

Extra processing costs means that it tends to have a higher cost than mash and pellets.

Micro pellet &

grain mix

Tends to be the most expensive feed because it is marketed as a premium product.

Mess and waste

How much of the feed is wasted by being scratched, flicked or beaked out of the feeder and onto the floor?

Feed type

Pros and Cons

Best?

Grain mix

Chickens tend to make a mess when they pick out the grains they like by scratching and beaking at feed.

Mash

Chickens tend to make a mess when they pick out the grains they like by scratching and beaking at feed. This depends on how finely the grains have been crushed and if the grains have been crushed the same size. Mash is harder to clean up off the ground which can then attract pests like rats and mice. It does not flow as well in gravity feeders and is more likely to clog up with moisture.

Pellets

When pellets are crumbled, some of the finely ground ingredients breaks apart like dust. Chickens don't tend to eat the dust which causes more waste and mess. Its also harder to clean up which then attracts rats and mice. It doesn't flow as well as pellets in gravity fed feeders and is more likely to clog up with moisture.

Crumble

When pellets are crumbled, some of the finely ground ingredients breaks apart like dust. Chickens don't tend to eat the dust which causes more waste and mess. Its also harder to clean up which then attracts rats and mice. It doesn't flow as well as pellets in gravity fed feeders and is more likely to clog up with moisture.

Micro pellet &

grain mix

Chickens will scratch and beak at the feed to sort through it and get the grains they want. This can cause a lot of mess and waste.

Health and productivity

What impact does the feed have on the chickens health and the number, size and quality of eggs.

Feed type

Pros and Cons

Best?

Grain mix

Does not contain all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and levels of protein needed in a chickens diet.

Whole wheat has been shown to improve health and egg laying. The benefits of whole grains:

  • More nutritious: ground wheat loses nutrients over time from oxidisation.
  • Improves digestion: Whole grain kicks the digestive system into action. The gizzard (which grinds food like a mechanical stomach) gets bigger and digestive processes are stimulated in the small intestine.
  • Improves the immune system: Whole grains decrease the gizzard pH which stops some bacteria from entering through the feed.

Mash

If particle sizes in the mash are different, it may lead to an unbalanced diet. Chickens tend to pick out larger pieces (e.g. crushed grain) and scratch aside the finer grains. This means they might not eat enough of the vitamin and mineral powder.

Pellets

Chickens are forced to eat all the different ingredients in each pellet which ensures a balanced diet.

Crumble

More waste and mess with more finer particles than pellets. Chickens are more likely to scratch, peck and throw it around that whole pellets.

It is harder to clean up than pellets which can then attract pests like rats and mice.

It does not flow as well as pellets in gravity fed feeder systems and is more likely to clog up with moisture.

Micro pellet &

grain mix

Whole wheat has been shown to improve health and egg laying. The benefits of whole wheat:

  • More nutritious: ground wheat loses nutrients over time from oxidisation.
  • Improves digestion: Whole grain kicks the digestive system into action. The gizzard gets bigger (which grinds food like a mechanical stomach) and digestive processes are stimulated in the small intestine.
  • Improves the immune system: Whole grains decrease the gizzard pH which stops some bacteria from entering through the feed.
Comparison summary

To sum up, the best chicken feed depends on your situation and priorities. The best feed against each criteria:

  • Chicken preference: Micro pellet and grain mix gives your chickens the variety which they love. Its also easy for different sized chickens to eat because of the smaller pellet.
  • Cost: If your primary focus is on cost then grain mix is the cheapest. However grain mix is not a complete food, so they would need extra protein, vitamins and minerals either from forage or supplements. Mash is the cheapest complete feed because it requires less processing.
  • Mess and waste: Pellets are the best for a low mess and low waste solution. And they are less likely to clog up your gravity feeder.
  • Health and productivity: Micro pellets are the best option for maximum health and productivity. This is because of the benefits of whole grains on the digestive system, while also providing protein, vitamins and minerals in the micro pellet.

Feed type

Chicken preference (Yum factor) 

Cost

Mess and Waste

Health and

productivity

Grain mix

Mash

Cheapest complete feed

Pellets

Crumble

Micro pellet and

grain mix

My recommendation on the best chicken feed - what works for me

I use the Micro pellet and grain mix with a PVC feeder designed to eliminate mess and waste. This means I get the best of both worlds. The chickens love it, its great for their health, they lay lots of eggs and there is very little mess and waste. Its definitely not the cheapest feed, but for me health and productivity is way more important.

Feed type

Yum factor

Cost

Mess and Waste 

Health and

productivity

Micro pellet and

grain mix

(with DIY PVC feeder)

How to go about changing feed (Chickens hate change)

Chickens don't respond well to change in general and especially when it comes to a change in their feed. If you decide to change their feed, do it gradually. Research has shown that it takes time (2-3 months) for a chickens digestive tract to adapt to a change in diet. For example, the gizzard (which is essentially a muscle that grinds food) will increase in size when fed whole grains compared to ground grains (mash). This means that it will take time for a chicken to adapt to and thrive from a change in diet. It might also seem like the chickens don't like the new feed, however it could be that they just need time to adjust. It could also be that they just don’t like it! Some tips on introducing feed:

  • ​Mix the new feed in with the old feed
  • Use both types of feed at the same time. You could use a seperate feeder (if you have one) or even use hand feeding
  • Alternate between the old and new feed for a while.

Leave a Comment:

(2) comments

alan vroom December 4, 2016

Hi Marcus, Thank you for the excellent info, in particular, I did not realise how difficult it is to change their diet
I thought that I had mentioned to you the article: ‘Why no soy… the phoenix organic food supply co.’
They present articles by a ptofessor of biology at Ohio State University, specialising in chickens, and someone
Doing a Master’s Degree, which te professor oversees. They bot were (may be still are) pro soy, but found that some amazing things happen to people who eat soy, in particular breast feeding women, and a test on rats ( no human tests
available), where the offspring of rats eating soy tended to be infertile.
I personally became interested in the ‘no soy’ after coming across a ‘vedic cook’ at a meditation session.
If you are interested you have to read the article yourself.
Thanks again for the exellentinformation you supply, Alan

Reply
    marcus December 5, 2016

    Glad you liked it Alan. Thanks for the article link, I will check it out. I have a post on Soy in chicken feed planned, so keep an eye out for it

    Reply
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