This article, by Jo Montagu, BSc (Hons), nutritionist for Marriage’s Feeds, considers the dietary requirements for your chickens and we think this is possibly the most comprehensive guide to feeding your poultry you will find on the web.
There are many different poultry feeds available on the market today. With vivid packaging and ranging costs, choosing the right product can seem like a challenge. Knowing the differences between feeds and the importance of their main components will help you to make the best choices for your poultry.
WATER: THE ESSENTIAL NUTRIENT
Before selecting the perfect feed, remember that there is an essential nutrient in a chicken’s diet without which they cannot survive, and that is water. Half of a chicken’s body is made up of water, and eggs are made up of around 65 per cent water. During the winter months it is important to check that drinkers are not frozen, and that a continuous supply of fresh water is available. Feeders should be emptied and cleaned regularly, as the damp winter weather can encourage feed to go mouldy.
If a hen is deprived of water for 24 hours, she may be staggering around, sitting hunched, or lethargic. Fresh, clean water should be provided immediately. If she will not drink, dip her beak into the water to encourage her, and if the problem persists, seek veterinary advice.
BUILDING A SOLID FOUNDATION FROM CHICK TO GROWER
Good quality nutrition right from the start will give your chicks the best possible chance of survival. When a chick is born it will live off its yolk sac for twenty-four hours, but then a good quality chick crumb should be introduced. Chick crumbs have a fine consistency and are available with or without a coccidiostat. A coccidiostat aids the prevention of coccidiosis, a disease that can be fatal in young chicks. It will give the extra protection that chicks require and enable them to become strong and healthy. Coccidiostats are not suitable to feed to ducks or ducklings.
A good quality chick crumb has a high protein content, typically 18 per cent, and should be fed for approximately the first five weeks before moving on to a grower’s feed. Grower’s feeds are either pellets or mash. When moving from crumb to pellet, gradually mix the pellets in with the crumb over the period of a week. Once a grower’s feed has been introduced we are aiming for steady, gradual growth, and a lower protein content of around 15 per cent will help enable this. Having correct levels of the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine present within your grower’s diet encourages excellent continued growth and feathering. A grower’s diet should be fed until point of lay, which is approximately nineteen weeks, but can vary depending on breed, type, and time of year. From point of lay, a layer’s pellet or layer’s mash ration should be provided.
LAYER’S PELLETS OR LAYER’S MASH?
There is no nutritional difference between layer’s pellets and layer’s mash. Both contain all the ingredients required to produce strong, healthy birds and effective egg production. The difference comes in the form. Layer’s mash is a coarsely ground mix of ingredients; layer’s pellets contain the same ingredients, but they have been pressed into a pellet.
Feeding pellets is popular because it can often produce less wastage and dust. Mash is useful in helping to encourage foraging, especially for hens with limited ranging space. Feeding mash will keep them occupied for longer and can reduce feather pecking and other boredom-related issues. Ex-battery hens will usually have been fed on a mash and may need time to adapt to eating pellets.
Choice of feed is down to personal preference, so just see what works out best for your birds. If you do change from one feed the other, it is important to do so gradually. Mix in a little of the new feed and slowly increase the ratio over a week. Not only does this give the hens’ digestive systems time to adapt to the new feed, it also allows them to become familiar with its appearance.
Hens select their feed by size and texture, so changing from one form to another may mean that they do not initially recognise the new feed as something to eat. They will get used to it in time, though.
WARM MASH ‒ A WINTER FAVOURITE
An old favourite in the winter is to provide a warm mash in the mornings. This can help to keep your birds warm and increase their energy. The benefit of using a good quality layer’s mash over, say, porridge oats is that you will ensure the birds are receiving all the vitamins and minerals essential to meet their basic nutritional requirements. To make a warm layer’s mash, simply add warm water gradually to your mash and stir with a wooden spoon. Keep adding water slowly until you reach your desired consistency.
If you add too much water, the feed will become wet and sloppy and the chickens will not find it appealing. In the winter months, ensure that you keep an eye on your warm mash, as if the temperature drops, the water content will freeze solid relatively quickly and your birds will not be able to eat the mash.
GOOD QUALITY PROTEIN
A good quality layer’s feed for laying hens, or a breeder feed for showing birds, should be between 17 and 19 per cent crude protein. Most birds can be fed ad-lib, as they will regulate their feed intake to meet their energy requirements. This may mean that it is more economical to feed what initially appears to be a more expensive, higher specification feed. The birds will simply eat less of this than of a cheaper, lower specification product.
During the winter months, chickens may stop laying. Highly productive hybrid hens may lay even when the day length is short, but may not have enough time to eat sufficient food. They need to keep their energy level high enough to keep warm and lay good eggs.
Many chickens also completely cease laying during moulting, as they need to channel all that energy and protein into growing out their feathers. Along with feathers, eggs are also mostly protein, so cutting back on rations or feeding cheaper feeds such as wheat is a false economy, especially in winter.
Birds need different levels of nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals, depending on their type and age. It may seem easier to buy only one product if you have a mixture of ages, but birds will benefit from diets that are specific to their needs. For example, separating growers and layers will benefit both groups of birds nutritionally.
The production of animal feed is subject to strict legislation, and all reputable feed manufacturers should belong to UFAS (Universal Feed Assurance Scheme). UFAS strictly audits ingredients and production methods used by feed producers to ensure they are of a certain standard.
By law all poultry feed declaration labels must include the following information:
- The name/description of the feed.
- The type of bird for which it is intended.
- Key nutrient values/percentages.
- A list of ingredients, including additives.
- Batch number.
- Best-before date.
- Manufacturer’s contact details.
Many poultry feeds now also contain genetically modified ingredients, most commonly soya or maize. If this is something that you wish to avoid, there are feed mills producing non-GM or organic feeds. Check the declaration label on the bag carefully: if an ingredient is genetically modified, it legally must be labelled as such.
TREATS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Hanging green vegetables up in the run provides entertainment, especially in the winter months, and can help to relieve boredom. Treat blocks are another great way to provide an extra stimulus and can help to amuse birds, preventing them from pecking at each other.
Feeding treats, such as a good quality mixed corn late in the afternoon, is a great snack, and it not only fills your chickens up but also provides them with warmth during the cold winter nights. As chickens digest corn, their digestive systems get to work, producing heat inside their bodies. < pic 6 with caption: Feed a small quantity of good quality corn in the late afternoon. >
There are many additional supplements available on the market for chickens in winter. They can help to aid a nutritionally balanced diet. Stress can lower the immune system and cause disease in chickens. Snowfall in the winter months is a good example of a stressful environmental change. Apple cider vinegar is proven to help prevent stress and can help to support your birds during this time.
Apple cider vinegar should be diluted at a rate of 2 per cent in fresh drinking water. This is the same as saying 20ml per litre. Make sure you are using plastic water containers, as the vinegar is acidic and will corrode galvanised containers. It is still important to check that water drinkers have not frozen, as adding apple cider vinegar will not prevent this.
W & H Marriage & Sons manufactures compound animal feeds and coarse mixes for a wide variety of species. It is a family-owned company based in Chelmsford, Essex. Marriage’s fleet of vehicles delivers bulk and bagged products across East Anglia and south-east England. Please explore this site for more information on our commercial feeds. Click here to see their retail range for smallholdings and pets.