Flock Management : Layer Nutrition

Backyard Poultry

Adjust Nutrients in Chicken Feed as Birds Grow

Mikelle Roeder

Mikelle Roeder

Ph.D. - Multi-Species Nutritionist

Birds require specific nutrients during each life stage.

Just as humans’ nutritional needs change from infancy to adulthood, our backyard birds need essential nutrients as they grow from chick to pullet to hen or rooster. By adjusting what we feed our birds as they grow, we can contribute to the flock’s health and happiness.

To help your flock thrive, select a complete chicken feed that is formulated specifically for its age, species or stage of production. Once you determine the complete feed you need, feed no less than 90 percent of the diet as the complete feed to help prevent essential nutrients from being diluted by snacks or treats.

Wondering which complete feed is right for your flock? Read on as we break down the essential ingredients for chicks, market birds, mixed flocks, laying hens and birds in molt.   

Layer chicks
The first feed you provide your chicks can fuel their long-term growth potential. As babies, chicks grow and develop almost every day – an exhilarating time for flock owners. To support development, provide a complete starter feed that is formulated to include everything the baby chicks need, like Purina® Start & Grow® Premium Poultry Feed or Purina® Organic Starter-Grower, from day one through week 18.

A quality complete starter feed should provide energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Energy is one of the most important nutrients for growing chicks. It supports bone and body growth and gives chicks the power they need to stay happy and active. Protein is the source of essential amino acids, such as lysine and methionine that ensure optimal skeletal, muscle and feather development. A good layer chick feed should have 18 percent high quality protein.

In addition to energy and amino acids, look for vitamins and minerals. Both fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and water-soluble vitamins (all of the B-complex vitamins) are required by birds of all ages, but requirements are highest in growing chicks. Macrominerals (like calcium and phosphorus) and microminerals (such as copper, selenium, and other trace minerals) should be supplied in adequate concentrations to meet a growing bird’s requirements. Added probiotics and prebiotics can help to promote healthy digestive and immune systems.

Be sure not to transition layer chicks to a layer diet before 18 weeks of age, as the extra calcium in the feed can cause permanent kidney damage and even death. Age at lay varies with specie and sometimes breed within specie, so it is wise to educate yourself regarding the particular birds you are raising.  For instance, coturnix quail may begin laying as early as 6 weeks of age, while most turkeys do not lay until 32 weeks.

Meat birds and mixed flocks
Broiler chicks have considerably higher nutrient requirements than layer chicks due to their extremely fast rate of growth and their much greater muscle mass. It is important to supply them with a high-energy feed that has at least 20% protein. Turkey and gamebird chicks have very high protein requirements – 28% for the first several weeks. Ducklings have an elevated requirement for niacin.  Flocks containing a mixture of species and even ages can be optimally fed with one feed as long as a little care is taken to choose the right product.

By selecting a complete flock raiser feed designed for multiple species, you can provide consistent nutrition for a mixture of starting and growing chickens, ducklings, turkeys/gamebirds (after 8-10 weeks of age) and goslings – all with the same bag of feed.

Similar to a complete starter feed, a flock raiser feed should also include optimal concentrations of essential amino acids for muscle and skeletal development, fat- and water-soluble vitamins, and minerals.  Added probiotics and prebiotics can help to promote healthy digestive and immune systems, which can in turn support optimal growth.

Feed a complete flock raiser formula, like Purina® Flock Raiser® Crumbles or Purina® Organic Starter-Grower, to meat birds, ducks and geese as the sole ration from day one to either market weight or commencement of egg production and to turkeys and gamebirds from week 10 until start of lay. Turkey and gamebird chicks will need an appropriate turkey/gamebird starter product, like Purina® Turkey and Gamebird Startena, from hatch to at least 8 weeks.

Laying hens
When hens begin laying eggs, they require additional nutrients to support the added task of egg production. Because laying eggs is a full-time job for hens, they should be fed a consistent and complete diet that offers all of the nutrients they need to produce nutritious eggs for your family.

The biggest difference between a starter and a layer feed is calcium. Egg production requires very high levels of calcium to support strong eggshells, which are formed in a surprisingly short time. If the feed does not provide high enough calcium levels, hens may pull the nutrient from their bones, eventually causing a weak skeletal structure. For this reason, provide a complete layer feed fortified with calcium, like Purina® Layena® Premium Poultry Feed or Purina® Organic Layer Pellets or Crumbles.

When selecting a complete layer feed, be sure it is formulated with all of the nutrients required for egg production and maintenance of health. This includes: calcium for strong shells; amino acids, vitamins and minerals for enhanced egg quality and hen health; and probiotics and prebiotics to promote optimal digestive function. Make sure the layer feed comprises at least 90% of the hens’ total diet.  Excessive dilution with scratch grains, corn, table scraps and other items can lead to osteoporosis, diminished production, and other hen health issues.

For nutritious eggs, look for a feed that includes Omega-3, such as Purina® Layena® Plus Omega-3 Premium Poultry Feed, which can result in 300 percent more omega-3 fatty acids per egg than eggs from hens fed a typical layer diet.

Birds in molt
After egg laying season, hens often stop laying eggs, lose their feathers and then proceed to grow new ones. This period, known as molt, typically occurs when days become shorter and temperatures drop. Molting is a healthy process, replenishing energy to the hen and producing a vibrant new set of feathers. This transition also provides a vacation from the demands of egg production.

Though molt is imminent, we can delay the process by providing additional light when days get shorter. Hens need a minimum of 17 hours of daylight to sustain strong production. Provide one incandescent 40-watt or LED 9 to 13-watt bulb per 100 square feet of coop space. Use an automatic timer to keep light and dark hours consistent so hens stay on a laying and sleeping schedule.

Even with additional light, molting will most likely occur during the winter season. Feather regrowth requires good quality protein with amino acids rich in sulfur (like methionine) but does not require great amounts of calcium, so, during molt, switch laying hens from a calcium-rich complete feed to a complete feed that is higher in protein, like Purina® Flock Raiser® Crumbles. The additional protein and energy in this complete feed can provide nutrients aimed towards the regeneration of healthy plumage.

If feeding a mixed flock of molting and laying hens, be sure to supplement the diet with Purina® Oyster Shell, free-choice, to help the laying hens meet calcium requirements.

Once hens return to egg-laying, gradually transition back to a complete layer feed, like Purina® Layena® Premium Poultry Feed, to help them continue producing nutritious eggs for your family.

We feed Purina Premium Poultry Feeds to our birds too! See scenes from our coops.