The Ins and Outs of Chicken Feed
Humans have been keeping chickens for thousands of years and for most of that time chickens have lived a life more suitable to a stray cat than what we see today. They usually lived free range and ate bugs and various plants. Some may have been lucky enough to get the occasional kitchen scrap or have access to a compost full of refuse and worms. However most backyard chickens today live in confinement so they can't wander off into the neighbors yard. It doesn't take long before these animals eat down the grass to nothing and before you know it they are eating nothing but grain feed. Cows were the first animals to eat grain feed back in the 1880's. Chickens started eating mostly grain feed after World War II when they started to be raised on industrial farms. We've learned a lot since those early days about what a growing bird needs and have invented a variety of feeds for all different reasons. Below I will describe the common varieties and feed and their uses.
Chick Starter is the grain feed with the highest amount of proteins of all the varieties. It comes in what is called crumbles, which will look a lot like grains of sand or dirt. The extra protein is so that they can grow in a quick and healthy manner and the crumbles are so they can swallow it with their small size. This is the feed you give chicks when they hatch and you want to continue feeding it to them until they graduate to grower feed at 4-6 weeks of age.
Grower feed has less protein than the starter but still more than layer feed. It is to support growth of birds after six weeks of age until the hens start laying their first eggs. Depending on the bran you may find it comes in the crumble variety or pellets. Some people prefer pellets as they feel the waste is less. Some people prefer crumbles because they can make fermented feed or mash out of it by mixing it with water making a sort of porridge. This also greatly reduces waste.
Layer feed is made for hens to support their bodies through times of heavy egg production. It is very high in calcium for this purpose. Of course calcium is great for these hens when they are producing eggs but high calcium is actually harmful to the liver and kidneys of younger birds who are not yet laying, roosters who will never lay, and older birds who are past their laying years. It is however the cheapest and usually pelleted.
So what do you feed a flock that has mixed ages and purposes? There is something called Flock Raiser that is on the market right now just for that. It is most similar to grower feed and in a pinch you can use grower feed if you can't find Flock Raiser. It has enough protein for growing birds and lacks the calcium that could be bad for roosters, chicks, and elderly birds. However since it does not have this added calcium it is not great for laying hens whose shells will become weak and who may not be able to support laying. This is why if you have laying hens within your mixed flock you will need to make sure they have another source of calcium. These days most people opt to use oyster shell for this. It can be bought in fifty pound sacks at any feed store and should be offered in a separate bowl all the time. The hens who need it will eat it and most of the ones who do not should leave it alone.
Broiler feed is very high in protein, probably more than you'd normally want for most situations. It is made for very fast growth and nothing else. This is what you feed commercial broiler birds to raise them up for slaughter. It grows them up ridiculously fast and they will be ready to slaughter at eight weeks which means no effort whatsoever has to be put into making this feed healthy or sustainable since the birds eating it only have to last eight weeks. If you are raising heritage roosters to eat they grow much slower and are usually ready to slaughter between 4-6 months of age and are better off just sticking to regular grower feed.
Game Bird Feed
Game Bird Feed is sometimes fed to show chickens as the protein is higher and it can make their feathers shinier and their bodies a little more weighty. Some people also feed it to elderly birds who need a little help keeping weight on or roosters. It is most often more expensive than other options and most people do not use it for whole flocks because of this.
Fermented feed can be just about anything but these days the easiest way to make it is by taking the grain feed of your choice, mixing it with warm water, sealing it into an air tight bucket, and letting it sit in the warm or hot weather for 2-5 days. This begins a fermentation process that changes the chemical composition and adds a lot of beneficial bacteria. It is the chicken version of pickles and sauerkraut. The idea behind it is that by eating these beneficial bacteria the gut of the chicken is able to process nutrients easier meaning theoretically they will have to eat less food overall. It is said to heighten the immune system and help with general health and longevity. It is a lot like the chickens of yesteryear who used to scavenge composts for food.
Cracked corn is very very cheap but it is not a sustainable diet for chickens. It is very high in fat and very low in nutrients. It's great to give as a very occasional treat or sometimes it is nice to have on hand during particularly cold winter days. Empty calories can be helpful to keep warm during these times of unusual cold. All my chickens get a handful every time the weather goes into the negative degrees.
Scratch is a bit of an older form of feed. Before pellets were available you would be lucky to make your own feeds which resemble today's scratch. Scratch is a composite of various grains and can vary greatly in nutrition because it's all different. It makes for a great treat or can sometimes be used for fodder but as a whole it shouldn't be a chicken's main source of feed.
Creating Your Own Feed
Some people who have a lot of chickens find it is cheaper to make up their own feed. Often these feeds are composed mostly of grains that are easy to obtain in the area with various supplements mixed in to add calcium and various other nutrients. It is not at all uncommon to find oyster shell, sea weed, and a number of other perhaps somewhat unnatural things in these feeds. This is just our way of trying to perfect a diet of an animal we are still learning about. What you need to know about any and all animal feeds is that none of them are perfect or complete. Just think for a moment what the perfect human food is. Could you create the perfect human diet and process it into a type of granola bar? No one can because we are still learning what we, as humans, need for an optimal healthy diet. So if we don't know what the perfect diet for a human is how are we supposed to come up with the perfect diet for something as alien to our own nature as a chicken? It's a tough job for sure! So have fun with your birds, pay attention to their overall health, feed them lots of table scraps and bugs, and change their feed when you feel it's best. Sometimes it takes switching brands a few times before you find out what works for you - and that's perfectly fine! So good luck to you and all your lovely birds!