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What Should I Feed my Chickens?

Chickens require a balanced diet for optimal health and egg production.

Like all animals, and people too, chickens need a balanced diet to stay healthy and live long lives. 

But what exactly does that mean? 

I get lots of questions asking "what should I feed my chickens?" There's starter feed, grower feed, and layer feed. There are organic and non-GMO options. 

And there is pelleted feed, crumbled feed and whole grain feed. Then there's cracked corn and scratch grains. 

It can all get a bit confusing.

What Should I Feed my Chickens?

Maybe even more so than other types of livestock, chickens specifically need to be fed the proper ratios and amounts of nutrients since they expend so much energy laying their eggs.

Growing chicks, of course, require different amounts of protein and calcium than mature birds, so this handy feed chart can help you navigate the different feed formulas as your chickens get older, as well as answer questions about what to feed a flock of different ages.

Chicken Layer Feed

But for the majority of their adult lives, chickens should be eating layer feed. 

Contrary to what some people believe, switching to the layer feed won't magically make your hens lay, but it will provide them the proper amounts of calcium. 

If they don't have adequate calcium for their eggshells, laying hens will begin to leach the calcium from their bones to make their eggshells So, layer feed is extremely important in a hen's diet.

However, feeding layer feed to younger, non-laying chickens can lead to kidney problems later in life, so it's important to wait until they're close to POL (Point of Lay) to switch them to the layer feed. 

Healthy treats are an important part of a chicken's diet as well, but treats should be limited to about 10% of the diet and the healthier - think leafy greens, vegetables and lean proteins - the better.

Organic vs. Non-Organic Chicken Feed

The decision to feed organic feed to your flock or not is a personal one. Organic feed is more expensive and can be harder to find. 

There are also non-GMO options, or feeds made without corn and soy - two of the largest GMO crops.

If you can't afford organic feed or can't easily source it, don't feel bad. By raising chickens you're still being more sustainable, knowing where your food comes from, and you're providing a healthier diet for your family.

Types of Chicken Layer Feed

Once your chickens are laying, around 18 or 20 weeks old, they should be fed a good-quality layer feed. Layer feed has elevated levels of calcium that hens need to lay eggs with nice strong shells

There are several forms of layer feed to choose from. One isn't better than another. It comes down to personal preference, availability, and your budget.


The most common form of chicken layer feed is the pelleted form. The various ingredients are pressed into pellets that are easy for the chickens to pick up in their beaks - and ensures that they're getting a balanced set of ingredients in every bite. 

Your local feed store should carry several various brands of layer feed to choose from or you can look online for layer pellets.


Crumbles are the next most common form of chicken layer feed. Crumbles are just pellets that have been pulverized. 

The pieces are smaller, so some chickens seem to prefer them. Also, chick feed is crumble-sized, so it's something they're used to. Again, crumbles ensure a balanced bite. 

Your local feed store should also offer a choice of crumbled feed or you can look online for layer crumble.


Mash is a powder-ish form of chicken feed. It's made from unprocessed whole grains and seeds. Not particularly common, I personally find it too dusty. 

I think if you're going to feed mash, it's best to add a little water to it to make a slurry for your chickens to make it easier for them to eat.

Mash is generally sold at local grain mills.

Whole/Cracked Grain

This is the most expensive form of layer feed and can often be hard to find except for online. Often non-GMO or organic, this feed formula includes things like whole or split peas, whole wheat, sunflower seeds, etc. 

Very popular with chickens, some owners worry that their chickens pick out the things they like best and leave the rest, resulting in an unbalanced diet. 

Personally, I feel that chickens know what they need best and ultimately, it all ends up working out. 

The best selection of whole/cracked grain layer feed can be found online. 

Types of Chicken Treats

Scratch Grains/Cracked Corn

Neither scratch grains nor cracked corn are a balanced diet for chickens. Scratch grains are a blend of healthy seeds and grains, but they're not mixed in any set formula to provide optimal protein for chickens. 

Cracked corn provides energy, but not much nutrition. 

So scratch grains and cracked corn should both be reserved for occasional treats, and preferably just during the cold weather. Just a tablespoon or two per chicken is the perfect amount of scratch grains to feed them.

These products are generally sold in 50-pound bags at your local feed store or online.

I suggest offering treats of any kind only in the late afternoon, once they've already filled up on their feed. 

Final Thoughts on Feeding Chickens

chicken will eat about 1/2 cup of feed per day. Just as much as she needs to get her daily energy and nutrient requirements.

Since chickens won't overeat, you can leave feed out for them during the day and let them nibble and pick at it as they wish. Make sure they always have fresh, clean water any time you offer food.

Feeding outside in the run will keep any moisture, mold, flies or rodents out of your chicken coop, keep the coop much cleaner and make it a healthier environment for your flock.

In addition to their daily feed, chickens also need a calcium supplement, either crushed oyster shell or crushed eggshell, which should always be offered free-choice so each hen can eat as much or as little as she needs.

Chickens also need some sort of grit which they use to grind up the food they eat since they don't have teeth to do the job. If your flock free ranges, they'll pick up the coarse dirt and small stones they need, if not, you can buy commercial grit.

One Note on Feeding Ducks

We also raise ducks. Our ducks share the coop and run with our chickens and eat the same chicken layer feed diet as the chickens do. 

Because ducks need more niacin than chickens do - and more than is typically in chicken feed - I add Brewers Yeast with Garlic to my flock's daily feed. The ducks need the niacin in the yeast for strong bones, and it's also super nutritious for the chickens. 

You can find my entire line of all natural poultry supplements here. They help to support strong immune, respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems. 

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References/Further Reading

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