So you are wondering what to feed your chickens? There are a lot of options and misconceptions about chicken feed. Organic, medicated, vegetarian, all natural, scratch and cracked corn just to name a few. I will try to clear up some of the confusion by passing along what I have learned over the years we have been chicken owners.
In order to sort through all of the confusion, first lets start by clearing up industry standard terms (adding some of my own commentary on each).
Organic means the feed is comprised of materials that are grown by a company or individual that has passed the USDA Certified Organic process. Take that how you will, that is a discussion for another time. It is much more expensive, but the bigger issue is finding a steady supply.
All natural, has no meaning what so ever. It is nothing more than a marketing term. Anything from nature, no matter what process was used to get it to its current state is “natural”.
Medicated starter feed is not antibiotics or growth hormones. It is formulated for chicks to help them combat coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a disease found in nature, carried by wild birds and prevalent in wet dirty coops. The medicated starter feed helps them build a resistance.
Vegetarian feed is feed that contains no animal products or byproducts. It is simply vegetable matter, mostly grains. While this may sound good, chickens are omnivores, which means they eat everything. And I do mean everything. They will peck at most anything to see if they like it. However, they will become rather picky and spoiled if they are anything like mine.
Laying mash is a chicken feed formulated to give the hens the nutrients they need to produce healthy eggs. It is perfectly safe for roosters as well. It is almost mandatory for laying hens. They can get the nutrients they need from foraging, but this helps fill in any gaps they may have in their diet. Some of the higher production layers can lay so many eggs that they start to be malnourished as they take from their body to make the eggs, so keep those girls full and pack with the nutrients they need.
Cracked corn, whole corn, and scratch are not complete feeds. They are great for treats and added energy in the winter, but they do not contain the required nutrition chickens need especially if you want them to lay eggs. We use scratch grains as a treat. It is a great way to lure the chickens back into the chicken run if you need to lock them up before they are ready to go in. We use whole corn as added energy in the winter when there’s not much to forage.
With all that being said, they are your chickens and you can feed them however you choose. We believe the more time they have to forage on the pasture (i.e. backyard) the closer it is to their intended diet. Even when they have a big area to forage, they need to have constant access to your choice of feed. While they will find what they need by foraging, they will lay better if they have laying mash at the ready to supplement what they can scratch out of the pasture. If you are raising meat birds, you want them to put on weight as fast as possible, so having constant access to feed is important as well. If you are just raising pets, you want them to be happy, so keep their feeder full. There will be days, even pastured chickens will be less than motivated to forage for their food. Most chickens do not like rain, and will spend most of a rainy day hiding and need that feed when they do not forage.
Medicated or not medicated chick starter is up to you. It won’t make you a bad person either way. You may want to use non medicated to keep your meat and eggs as natural as possible, or you may wish to use medicated to give your chicks a jump start and help them start off healthy.
We prefer to pasture our chickens and supplement with a standard laying pellet to make sure they have a full crop every night to maximize egg production as well as getting the benefit of healthy eggs from happy chickens. We have used both medicated and non-medicated, both with success.