What to Feed to Chickens: A Guide to Understanding Chicken Feeds

If you're a new to keeping chickens, you may be trying to figure out what to feed to chickens.

There are so many types of chicken feed available that it can seem overwhelming.  How do you know which feed is best for your chickens?  Should you get a pelleted feed or one that is in crumble form?

With so many options available, knowing what to feed to chickens can seem impossible.  There are a few different ways that you can look at chicken feed.  I'm going to break all of them down for you.  Buying chicken feed shouldn't be complicated!

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What to Feed to Chickens: Types of Feed

We can break the types of chicken feed down into two basic groups: complete feeds and supplemental feeds.  You can also purchase treats, which would fall into the supplemental category.

​So what's the difference between complete feeds and supplemental feeds?

what to feed chickens

Complete Chicken Feed

Complete chicken feeds are created to completely cover the nutritional needs of your chickens.  You can feed your chickens complete chicken feeds and be confident that their dietary needs are being met.

Complete feeds were created with the cooped up chicken in mind.  If you have chickens that live solely in a coop and aren't out to forage daily, this is the feed for you.  A complete feed can entirely replace your chicken's natural diet of grasses, seeds and insects.

These feeds will include the proper amounts of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals that your chickens need to live a healthy, productive life.

You can purchase complete chicken feeds for many different age groups and types of chickens (more on that below).

​They can be medicated to prevent coccidiosis or non-medicated.  You can also purchase organic and non-GMO complete chicken feeds.

what to feed chickens

Supplements and Treats

Supplemental feeds are intended to be fed in addition to the chicken's complete feed or a forage diet.  Supplemental feeds and treats cannot be the only food that your chicken receives.

These feeds are not nutritionally balanced for chickens.  Therefore, they will only meet some of your chicken's dietary needs.

One of the most common supplemental feeds available is scratch grains.  Chickens love scratch grains.  They provide many of the nutrients that your chickens need, but they do not provide everything.  Many scratch grains lack the protein, vitamins and minerals that your chickens need in their diet.

Scratch grains are full of energy for chickens.  They're similar to candy in our diets.  Although we really enjoy sweets, we cannot live on sweets alone and remain healthy.

You can also purchase chicken treat blocks.  These resemble seed cakes or suet cakes that you may feed to backyard birds.  They are full of seeds and many of them have meal worms as well to add a boost of protein.

Oyster shell and limestone are supplements that many chickens will need.  It's important to understand that the chicken's digestive system works much differently than other animal digestive systems.  The chicken's gizzard grinds up undigested food using grit.

Oyster shell can provide chickens with the grit they need to digest food properly.  It also provides calcium, which is especially important for laying hens.  Eggshells are made of calcium, so the calcium from oyster shell and limestone can be used to produce strong eggshells.

What to Feed to Chickens: Different Chickens Need Different Feed

You can also sort chicken feeds out based on the intended chickens that you'll be giving the feed to.  For the most part, you can sort them based on age or type of chicken.

When deciding what to feed to chickens, think about the age group of your chickens.

You also need to think about whether you have meat chickens or egg chickens.

What to Feed to Chickens Under 8 Weeks

Starter feeds are intended for young chicks.  Feed start feeds to chicks that are between 0-8 weeks old.

Since young chicks have smaller beaks, starter feeds are usually going to come in a crumble.  This makes it easier for young chicks, even day old chicks, to eat.

​Starter feeds are complete feeds and can make up the entire diet of the young chick.

what to feed chickens

The protein in starter feeds is higher than most other feeds.  Young chicks grow rapidly, so they need extra protein to support that rapid growth.

Protein levels in starter feeds is usually somewhere around 20%.  The exception to this is in starter feeds that are intended for meat chickens, which has more protein.  For a typical layer chick, 20% protein is enough.

Starter feeds can come in either medicated or non-medicated forms.  Young chicks are more susceptible to infections from the coccidiosis bacteria.  Medicated feeds have antibiotics that will prevent the young chicks from developing an infection from coccidiosis.

Non-medicated feeds do not prevent coccidiosis infections.  If you decide to feed a non-medicated feed, monitor your chicks closely to make sure that they do not develop coccidiosis.

​Starter feeds contain about 1% calcium.  This is enough to maintain good bone growth.  As the chicks age, the amount of calcium in the feed will need to be adjusted.

What to Feed to Chickens between 8-16 Weeks

Grower feeds are intended for young chickens between the ages of 8 weeks to roughly 16 weeks.  Chickens in this age group have slowed in growth and are starting to mature.

The slower growth rates means that they don't need quite as much protein in their diet.  Grower feeds usually have about 16-18% protein.  This is plenty of protein to sustain the chicken's last growth and normal body functions.

By this time, chickens can consume pelleted feeds just fine.  You can purchase grower feeds in a crumble or a pellet form.  Either is fine, but I would recommend feeding a pelleted feed when they are old enough to eat it without fear of choking.

Pelleted feed is less messy.  Chickens tend to waste crumble feed.  Crumbles on the ground get stepped on, become wet or get lost in bedding and are wasted.  Pelleted feed doesn't get wasted as easily. Less wasted feed means less money spent on feed.

Grower feeds will contain about 1% calcium, just like starter feeds.  These chickens aren't old enough to start laying yet and don't need extra calcium.

You can purchase grower feeds in either a medicated or non-medicated form.  Young chickens are still developing their immune systems and can be susceptible to coccidiosis.

Although they are less likely to get infections than young chicks are, a medicated feed may be a good idea if you have a large amount of chickens in a small space.

What to Feed to Chickens Over 16 Weeks

Layer feed is intended for adult hens that are currently (or about to be) laying.  It's safe to feed this once chickens are about 16 weeks old.

This feed is produced for adult chickens in mind and has the smallest amount of protein compared to other chicken feeds.  The protein content of layer feed is usually around 15-18%.  This is more than enough to meet the nutritional needs of the chicken and to produce eggs.

Laying hens require extra calcium to produce strong eggshells.  Layer feeds have about 3.5% calcium to support strong eggshell production.

Layer feed is usually non-medicated. Adult chickens are far less likely to develop infections from coccidiosis and don't usually require medication.

You can always treat chickens with coccidiosis if you need to, but the likelihood of adult chickens getting coccidiosis is much lower.

Pelleted layer feed is the most common.  Most layer feeds will come in a pelleted form.  You can purchase micropellets, which can come with a steeper price tag.  Adult chickens don't need a tiny pellet, so save yourself some money and purchase regular pelleted feed.

I have seen crumbled layer feed.  This is a waste of money in my opinion.  Not only will you pay more for it, but your chickens will waste more of it than they will pelleted feed.  Again, save yourself some money and buy regular pelleted feed.

For more information, check out Feeding Chickens for Egg Production.

What to Feed to Chickens -Raising Meat Chickens

Chicken feed for broilers, or meat chickens, is different than feeds for laying chickens.

Meat chickens have a much faster growth rate.  This means that broiler chicken feed will have a much larger amount of protein.  I have seen some broiler feeds with 26 and 28% protein.  That's significantly higher than normal starter feeds.

Keep in mind that although you want fast growth in your meat chickens, you don't want too fast of growth.  Rapid muscle development can outgrow the heart and lung development.

​This can lead to a deadly condition called ascites.  Ascites is not really treatable and is easier to prevent.  One of the ways to prevent it is with slower growth.

You can feed a 24% protein broiler feed to prevent ascites.  You'll still see rapid growth but you won't have to worry about your chickens developing ascites.

Broiler feed isn't usually broken into age groups like layer feed.  This is because the birds have such rapid growth their entire lives.  Also, these chickens are harvested once they're reached their full size, so adult feeds aren't necessary.

Broilers are more susceptible to illness than the slower-growing layer breeds.  Many broiler feeds are medicated to help prevent illnesses.  It's very easy to purchase non-medicated broiler feeds though if you want to raise your chickens without antibiotics.

​Similar to starter and grower feeds, broiler feeds do not need large amounts of calcium and usually have about 1% calcium.

What to Feed to Chickens- Supplements, Treats and Other Options

There are many options available if you don't want to feed your chickens plain old chicken feed.  Scratch grains, fermented feeds and sprouted grains are just a few of the many options available.

Scratch Grains

Scratch grain feeds were created with the chicken's natural feeding behavior in mind.  Chickens love to walk around and scratch the ground up to search for seeds and insects.

This feed is generally made of a combination of grains like corn, oats, wheat and barley.  The feed is scattered on the ground and allows chickens to 'scratch' it up and eat it.

It is a feed that is relatively low in protein and high in energy.  As I mentioned before, think of it like candy for your chicken's diet.  Although they love it, it cannot be their only feed source.

Chickens that are cooped need to be fed a complete feed before feeding scratch grains to make sure that the base of their diet is healthy.

Scratch grains can also be fed to chickens that are allowed to forage on pasture as a supplement to their diet.

This feed can be used to train chickens to come when you call them since it's like a treat to them.  If you want to put them in the coop when you call, use scratch grains as a reward from them coming to you.

If you feed scratch grains, make sure that your chickens have access to plenty of grit.  Oyster shell or limestone are easily found at feed stores and will ensure that they scratch grains are digested properly.

Fermented Feed

Fermenting feed is a way that you can cut your feed costs and maximize the amount of nutrition that is gained from the feed.

Many seeds and grains naturally contain inhibitors.  Inhibitors are chemicals produced by the seed or grain that prevent the precious nutrients from leaving the grain or seed when it's ingested.

Seeds and grains are ingested all the time and that ingestion by other animals is a way for the plants to disperse their seeds.  Otherwise, they adult plant would be overrun with its own offspring.

Since this is a natural way of dispersion, the plant developed these inhibiting chemicals that prevent the nutrients from being absorbed by the animal that consumed them.

Fermenting feed uses probiotics, which are helpful bacteria, to break down the inhibitors.  This makes the feeds more nutritious for chickens to eat.

Fermented feed not only makes the nutrients more accessible, it adds more nutritional value to the feed.  It adds probiotics, extra B vitamins, vitamin K and additional enzymes that weren't in the feed before fermentation.

​Read Cut Your Chickens Feed Bill By Fermenting by the Permaculture Research Institute for more information about the benefits of fermenting feed and how to do it at home for your chickens.

Organic Chicken Feed

There has been a rise in the concern over what goes into chicken feed.  Many companies have started developing lines of organic chicken feed.

Knowing what to feed to chickens can seem even more complicated if you want to raise your chickens organically.  You can purchase feeds that are certified organic to provide your flock with organic nourishment.

Organic chicken feed is free of chemicals such as pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Organic chicken feed is natural and hasn't been manipulated by people.

There is a lot of controversy about the pros/cons of organic feeds.  Many people are concerned over the little understood long-term effects of hormones, antibiotics and GMOs in feed.

There is a higher price tag associated with organic chicken feed. 

This is due to the increased amount of labor involved with organic ingredients.  Organic grains used in feed are produced without the help of pesticides.  This means that more human labor is required to produce those grains, therefore increasing the cost.

To read more about organic chicken feed, read Organic Chicken Feed: What to Know Before Buying by the Happy Chicken Coop.

Growing Chicken Feed- Sprouted Grains

Sprouted grains are an excellent way to decreased your feed costs.

You can provide your chickens with sprouted grains or fodder.  They are produced the same way.  Sprouted grains are simply fed before the greenery has exceeded 4" in length; fodder is over 4" in length.

There are many sources out there that state that sprouted grains can be a complete feed for your chickens.  You can also use it as a supplemental feed.

Sprouted grains are an excellent way to make sure that your chickens are receiving plenty of forage in the winter when most grasses are dormant or covered with snow.

To sprout grains, you'll need to purchase seed and put it in trays of water.  Sprouting grains doesn't require anything else.  The seeds have all of the nutrition that they need to sprout, so don't worry about adding soil or fertilizer to them.

It's essentially a free way to make more feed with no extra costs.  Some grains can be sprouted and increase their mass by as much as 9x in as little as 7 days!


One of the best ways to feed your chickens is to let them forage.  This also takes the guesswork out of deciding what to feed to chickens.

Pastured chickens are healthier than cooped up chickens

They require less feed than cooped chickens.  In fact, the only time that I spend money on chicken feed is when they are young and require a brooder!

​Chickens that forage will consume insects, seeds, grasses and even berries that they find.

This can significantly reduce the amount of pest insects in your yard without the use of harsh chemicals.  Pastured chickens are less likely to have cannibalistic behaviors and are happier than cooped up chickens.

​If you decide to raise pastured chickens, make sure that they have access to a chicken coop for safety.  Also, pastured chickens will provide themselves with a dust bath.  Chicken dust baths are a vital piece to chicken health.

What to Feed to Your Chickens

There are many things that you can consider when deciding what to feed to chickens.

I would start by determining what kind of chickens you're going to be feeding.  Are you feeding broiler chickens or layer hens?

If you're feeding broilers, don't feed the highest protein feed.  You don't want to deal with ascites if you can help it.  24% protein is a safe choice to stay away from ascites and still have rapid growth.

Layer chickens can be fed based on the age group.  Feed smaller chicks a crumbled feed and older chickens a pellet.  Reserved crumbles for the smaller chickens so that less feed is wasted.

Decide if you want to feed medicated or non-medicated feed.  Remember, younger chickens are more susceptible to coccidiosis than older chickens and many grower and starter feeds are medicated.

Organic feeds are available at a higher price tag than conventional feeds.  Organic feeds don't have added hormones, chemicals, medications or GMOs.

Sprouting grains and fermenting feeds can lower your overall feed cost without much input from you.

​You can also opt to feed your chickens more naturally on a pastured diet.  Chickens that are allowed to forage have less health problems and require less feed.

​If you haven't yet, grab your FREE copy of the Homemade Chicken Recipes guide and get instant access to 25 recipes for making homemade feed, treats, herbal blends and more that your flock will love!

what to feed chickens, free guide for homemade chicken feed, treats and herbal blends

Check out these other chicken posts:

How do you feed your chickens?  Do you prefer a certain type of feed or do you sprout grains or ferment feed?  Let me know below!

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Hey, I'm Shelby!

Founder of Garden. Farm. Thrive.

I'm a multigenerational homesteader, former high school and college agriculture teacher, and your guide for embracing a simpler, more traditional lifestyle. Come along as I teach you how to grow your best garden, raise chickens and other livestock, learn traditional skills and create the homesteading haven of your dreams.

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