Choosing the best chicken feed for your chickens is super important, because it's the foundation for happy, healthy chickens. Chickens rely on feed for a significant portion of their diet and the type of feed you choose 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: Good quality feed provides the right amount of nutrients to keep your chickens healthy and productive. What you feed your chickens makes a huge difference to the health of your chickens and the quality and number of eggs they lay.
- Cost: Chicken feed is the main ongoing cost of keeping backyard chickens.
The trouble is, there are so many types of chicken feed that it can be super confusing to know what type of feed is best for your chickens. Pellet Feed, Mash, Crumble, Scratch feed, Medicated chicken feed, Chick Starter, Grower Feed and Layer Feed.
In this guide you'll learn about chicken feed ingredients, the different types of chicken feed and how to choose the best chicken feed for your chickens, based on the stage of your chickens development and your individual situation.
1. Chicken Feed Ingredients
When it comes to food, I believe that starting with the right ingredients makes a huge difference. Another way of putting it is, garbage in / garbage out. And this is just as relevant to chicken feed as it is to growing vegetables or cooking.
Understanding what is in Chicken Feed will help you understand all the different types of chicken feeds. 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 and stage of the chicken (chick starter, pullet grower, laying hen) and reason for raising the chicken (laying hen or meat chicken).
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.
(kcal / kg)
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.
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 manure to chickens! Chicken manure is fermented and dried and can make up to 40% of a layer feed without impacting laying performance.
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 Chicken Feed
Some chick starter feed and grower feed comes “medicated” which means it has a Coccidiostat additive. This prevents (but does not treat) Coccidiosis which is a parasitic disease. Chicks are exposed to coccidiosis parasites through spores in the soil or through the poo of other hens. Medicated chick starter feed helps to slow the growth of parasites until chicks develop their own natural immunity.
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 for chicks isn't necessary in many cases and I prefer non medicated chicken feed:
- Most day old chicks are vaccinated (you should check this when you buy your chicks)
- Good quality feed, clean water, shelter and a low stress environment builds a healthy immune system which will help prevent Coccidiosis.
2. Chicken Feed Types - Mash, Pellets, Crumble, Scratch
All the chicken feed ingredients are mixed and processed into different types of chicken feed. As you you'll see from the diagram below, the different types of feed are produced at different stages of processing.
A key concept to understand with chicken feed is "Complete feed." This means it provides targeted levels (and usually minimum levels) of nutrients. It is not made to be fed to chickens along with other food. Because of this, feed manufacturers usually recommend that other food such as scraps and treats are limited to around 10% of total food intake.
Comparing Chicken Feed
To make it super simple to compare each type of chicken feed and to choose the best feed for you, I've laid out the pros and cons of each type of feed. I have compared each chicken feed against four key areas:
- 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 too big, too small or too tough to eat?
- Cost: Cost is pretty straight forward. How much does it cost per kilogram?
- Mess and Waste: How much of the feed is wasted by being scratched, flicked or beaked out of the feeder and onto the floor?
- Health and egg laying: What impact does the feed have on the chickens health and the number, size and quality of eggs.
Important Note: this only compares the different forms of feed.
It's important to keep in mind that this comparison is only focused on the different types 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. 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.
Whole Grain Chicken Feed
Whole grain chicken feed is grains without anything else mixed in. Some of the most common grains used for chicken feed are wheat, corn, barley, sorghum and rye. Whole grains are not a complete feed.
- Chicken preference (Yum Factor): Whole grains can be more difficult for baby chicks and pullets (teenage chickens) to eat.
- Cost: Whole grains are low cost because they are not processed at all
- Mess and waste: When a single type of whole grain is used, there is very little mess or waste.
- Health and productivity: There are benefits of whole grains over crushed and processed grains.
- 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.
Chicken Scratch Feed
Chicken Scratch feed is a mixture of different seeds and grains such as sunflower seeds, wheat, corn and sorghum. Scratch can include whole grains and seeds or they can be crushed in the hammer mill. The size of the crushed grain in scratch can vary a lot, from finely ground to a chunky mix. It's important to understand that scratch grains for chickens is not a complete feed. This means it doesn't provide sufficient levels of key nutrients such as protein and calcium to keep your chickens healthy and productive.
- Chicken preference (Yum Factor): Chickens like the variety of different seeds and grains in scratch feed.
- Cost: Scratch is a lot cheaper than mash and pellets because it's made with very little processing and has no protein and vitamin supplements in it.
- Mess and waste: Chickens tend to make a mess of scratch feed by using their beak and feet to scratch through it and pick out the grains and seeds they like (perhaps this is why its called scratch).
- Health and productivity: Scratch is not a complete feed, which means it does not contain all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and levels of protein needed in a chickens diet.
So what is chicken mash? It's 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. Chicken mash feed is often used for young chickens (e.g. Chick Starter Mash), because it's smaller and easier to eat and digest. However Mash is also popular for Layers.
- Chicken preference (Yum Factor): Mash is easy for baby chicks to eat. It can take more effort (more time) for adult chickens to eat mash because of the small grain size. A bit of variety in the texture of mash can be appealing for chickens compared to pellets.
- Cost: Mash is cheaper than pellets because it requires less processing.
- Mess and waste: If the grains in mash are crushed to a more chunky size, chickens tend to make a mess when they pick out the grains they like by scratching and beaking at the feed. 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.
- Health and productivity: 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 chickens might not eat enough of the vitamin and mineral powder.
Pellets are made from mash, which is then heated and compressed into a hard compact pellet. Chicken feed pellets are designed to be a complete feed, with the right levels of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Because pellets are larger and more difficult to digest, they are generally used for adult hens and not for young chicks or pellets
- Chicken preference (Yum Factor): Can be eaten more quickly by adult birds because of the large pellets. However large pellets can be difficult to eat for baby chicks and smaller breeds like bantams. When you feed pellets to chickens, the downside is the lack of variety.
- Cost: Extra processing means that pellets are generally more expensive than mash.
- Mess and waste: Pellets are the best for a low mess and low waste solution, because they are eaten whole by chickens and there is no variety to encourage them to scratch through it. Pellets are also less likely to clog up your feeder.
- Health and productivity: Chickens are forced to eat all the different ingredients in each pellet which ensures a balanced diet.
Chicken Crumble Feed
Chicken crumbles are made from whole pellets, which are cracked or rolled into a smaller size. Chicken Crumble is designed to be a complete feed, with the right levels of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Crumble is a popular choice for pullets (teenage chickens) as a transition from mash to pellets. However chicken crumble is also used as feed for chicks and laying hens.
- Chicken preference (Yum Factor): Smaller broken up pellets makes them easier to eat and are a good option for chicks, pullets and smaller breeds. Chickens tend to prefer the smaller chicken crumble over the large chicken pellet. The downside (like pellets) is the lack of variety for your chickens.
- Cost: Extra processing costs to covert pellets to crumbles can mean that crumbles cost more than mash and pellets.
- Mess and waste: 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.
- Health and productivity: Chickens are forced to eat all the different ingredients in crumbles which ensures a balanced diet.
Pellet and Grain Mix
Pellet and grain mix is a mixture of whole grains and seeds (scratch) and pellets. The grain and seeds are usually whole but can also be cracked. The pellets used in this mix are often called micro pellets. These pellets are usually smaller and more concentrated than standard pellets. They are high in protein (e.g. 30-40%), fats and oils, vitamins, minerals and amino acid supplements. The pellets used in this mix are more concentrated to balance out the inclusion of whole grains and seeds, which are deficient in many key nutrients.
- Chicken preference (Yum Factor): Smaller pellets (micro pellets) make them easier to eat. Chickens tend to prefer loose mix over other feed because of the variety.
- Cost: Tends to be the most expensive feed because it is marketed as a premium product.
- Mess and waste: 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: Similar to scratch, the whole grains have been shown to be beneficial to health and egg laying. With the inclusion of the micro pellet, this feed has the benefits of whole grain while also being a complete feed (unlike scratch on its own).
3. Chicken Feed Stages - Starter, Grower and Layer Feed
The nutrient content and type / form of the chicken feed is tailored for chickens at different ages / stages of development.
Age and Stage
Chick Starter feed is for Chicks up to 8 weeks old.
Ingredients and Nutrients
Chick feed ingredients are similar to other types of chicken feed. However chick feed has a different level of nutrients needed at this stage of development. It has the highest level of protein of any of the feeds (20-24%) because high levels of protein are needed for rapid growth. It also has a lower calcium level (~1%), which is a lot less than for layers because chicks are not yet laying eggs.
There are two types of chicken starter feed:
- Chick Starter Mash
- Chick Starter Crumbles
Starter feed comes in mash or crumbles so that it's easy for them to eat.
Medicated chick feed
Chick feed comes either medicated or non-medicated to prevent coccidiosis.
So how long to feed medicated chick starter? Usually until 8 weeks of age, when free range chicks develop some natural immunity. However if chicks have been inside in sterile conditions they may have been protected from exposure to these parasites (coccidia). In that case, when chicks move outside and transition to grower feed, then a medicated chick grower feed could be beneficial.
Chicken Grower Feed
Age and Stage
Grower feed is for pullets which are teenage chickens between 8 weeks and point of lay at about 18 weeks.
Ingredients and Nutrients
Protein levels in grower feeds are lower than starter feed (about 16-18%), Pullets are still growing but at a reduced rate and are maturing to lay their first egg. Pullets are not yet laying eggs, so grower feed has low levels of calcium compared to layers (~1%).
Grower feed for chickens comes either medicated or non-medicated to prevent coccidiosis.
Grower chicken feed typically comes in a mash or crumble form so that it's easy to eat.
Chicken Laying Feed
Age and Stage
Layer feed is designed for chickens from the “Point of Lay” onwards. Point of Lay is a term used for a chicken that has laid its first egg. This is often at around 20 weeks of age, but can vary a lot based on the breed of chicken.
Ingredients and Nutrients
Protein levels are usually maintained within a range of 15 to 18% depending on the brand and quality of feed.
Laying chickens need much higher levels of calcium (~3.5%) for egg development. Be careful not to feed this to younger chickens which are not laying eggs. Too much calcium can cause health problems and slowed growth.
Layer feed is not medicated.
Layer chicken feed comes in lots of different types
- Laying mash
- Layer Pellets
- Layer Crumbles
When to Switch to Layer Feed?
Layer feed should be fed to chickens at point of lay (when they lay their first egg).
Medicated chicken feed should not be fed to laying hens because it can contaminate eggs. After chicks and pullets are fed with medicated feed, there is a withholding period. This is the period you have to wait to ensure eggs are not contaminated and are safe to eat. Often this can range from 7-14 days, however you should always follow the guidelines from the feed manufacturer.
4. Changing Chicken 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 the feed of laying chickens, 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.
5. Which Chicken Feed is the most popular?
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 in whole form 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 because it is easier to eat
- Micro pellet and grain mix: Chicken preference, health and productivity.
6. What is the best chicken feed?
Which chicken feed is best - Mash? Pellets or crumble? The best chicken feed depends on the needs of your chickens, their stage of development and also on your individual situation. Thats because everyone has a different setup and different priorities. To help you make a decision, check out the summary below.
For those that are looking for more of a definitive answer, in many cases I think pellets are probably the best option. A micro pellet and grain mix feed can also be a good choice when combined with a No Waste feeder like this one:
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Here is a summary of the best chicken feed types against each of the criteria:
- Chicken preference: Micro pellet and grain mix gives your chickens the variety which they love. It's also easy for different sized chickens to eat because of the smaller pellet.
- Cost: If your primary focus is on cost then scratch feed is the cheapest. However scratch 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. Crumble can be a good alternative to mash for chicks and pullets, however you need to make sure they are crumbled small enough so they are easy to eat.
- Health and productivity: Micro pellet and grain mix 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.
Chicken preference (Yum factor)
Mess and Waste
Cheapest complete feed
Micro pellet and