Choosing the Right Chick Feed

Did you know that choosing the right chick feed can help your chicks develop healthy digestive systems? A healthy digestive system is key to a healthy chicken. It aids in the development of the immune system and promotes absorption of nutrients. Professionally formulated feeds provide your birds with proper nutrition at all stages of life.

The Importance of Chick Feed

Chicks need a feed that is different from adult layer feed. Chick starter-grower feed is 20% protein, compared to 16% to 18% in a layer ration. Chicks grow very quickly, and they need more protein to support their bodies in this important process.

Chicks also need less of certain vitamins and minerals that are necessary for laying hens. For example, chicks do not require as much calcium as laying hens; in fact, too much calcium can cause kidney damage. Be sure your chicks get a starter-grower feed, rather than a layer ration. At 16 weeks, you can switch from starter-grower to a layer diet.

Gut Microflora

A nutritionally balanced diet with proper amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals supports your chicks’ growth. Some diets also provide gut bacteria for an extra healthy start! When chicks hatch, they have no gut bacteria. They develop their gut bacteria by consuming some of their mother’s droppings and absorbing her microflora [MY-kruh-FLOOR-uh], gut-friendly organisms that include certain kinds of bacteria and yeast. These tiny living things populate the digestive system, aid in digestion, and prevent harmful organisms from flourishing in the gut.

However, many chicks are hatched and brooded by humans, rather than a hen, and will not get supplemental microflora until they are allowed access to the outdoors. In fact, chicks that are raised in a completely germ-free environment develop inferior digestive systems. If your chicks are not raised by a mother hen, they will benefit from a high-quality feed that contains the varied elements necessary for gut health.

Some feeds provide the following components for an extra-healthy boost:

  1. Fungal Components: Also called yeast cultures or fermentation metabolites, these additives are made up of beneficial compounds produced by fermentation of dietary yeast. When added to a chicken’s gut, yeast culture supports the immune system and gut microflora.
  2. Probiotics: These live microorganisms aid in digestion, support the existence of beneficial bacteria, and can protect against bad bacteria. They also help the gut to better absorb nutrients and can prevent or cure diarrhea. Here are a few you will see on feed labels:

ProbioticPronunciationPurpose
Lactobacillus acidophilus[LAK-toh-buh-SI-luhs a-suh-DAH-fuh-luhs]Helps ferment carbohydrates in feed, produces compounds that support growth, reduces impact of harmful micro-organisms
Lactobacillus casei[LAK-toh-buh-SI-luhs KAY-see-eye]Helps ferment carbohydrates in feed, reduces colonization of bad bacteria, reduces impact of harmful micro-organisms
Bifidobacterium thermophilum[bye-fih-DOH-bak-TEER-ee-um ther-muh-FIH-lum]Helps ferment carbohydrates in feed, benefits immune system
Enterococcus faecium[en-tuh-row-KAW-kuhs FEE-see-um]Helps ferment carbohydrates in feed, reduces impact of harmful micro-organisms

  1. Prebiotics: The prefix pre- means “before,” and prebiotics pave the way for probiotics to do their job. They serve as food for good bacteria, supporting their growth and strengthening the chicken’s ability to resist bad bacteria.

Learn more about NatureWise® Chick Starter Grower with FlockShield™ healthy flock support, which promotes gut health and supports bird immune systems.

Feeding Tips

Here are a few tips to help your chicks on their way to living their best lives.

  • Learning what to eat: After your chicks have learned to drink, scatter some feed on the floor of the brooder. They will naturally start to peck at it. You can tap your finger on the feed, similar to how a mother hen uses her beak to show the chicks where the food is.
  • All-day buffet: When you hatch or bring home your chicks, you’ll want to provide chick starter-grower feed 24/7.
  • Using a proper dish: Provide starter-grower feed in a chick feeder, which is a shallow dish with a lid. The lid has circular holes cut in the top to allow the chicks access to the feed. This prevents the chicks from dusting or sitting in the feed. It also helps keep droppings and bedding out of the feed.
  • Feeding (and limiting) treats: After 6 weeks, you can provide treats such as scratch grains, mealworms, or kitchen scraps. If they eat anything other than starter-grower, provide fine grit in a separate feeder. This will help them digest these foods. Be sure to give treats for only 15 minutes once per day and remove what they don’t eat. About 85% of their diet should come from a formulated feed, rather than from treats.
  • Duration for feeding starter-grower: Continue to provide chick starter-grower until the chicks are about 16 weeks old. Then it’s time to switch to layer ration. (Note: Meat birds have different dietary requirements.)
  • Providing clean feed and water: Make sure to keep your feeders clean, even if that means dumping out soiled food. Also be sure your chicks have access to fresh, clean water at all times.

Medicated Feed, Nonmedicated Feed, and Coccidiosis Vaccines

You’ve no doubt heard of medicated feed, and you may be wondering about what it does and if it would benefit your chicks. Here are some facts to help you decide whether to use medicated feed.

Medicated feed helps chicks develop resistance to one organism: coccidia. These parasites live in the soil and their oocysts, similar to eggs, invade a chick’s digestive tract. The parasites cause a disease called coccidiosis. Most cases occur at 4 to 5 weeks of age and can produce bloody droppings. The chicks stop eating and growing and may be hunched with fluffed-up feathers.

Most retail medicated chick starter and starter/grower feeds use the drug amprolium to control coccidia and allow chicks’ immunity to coccidia to develop. Retail medicated feeds have low levels of amprolium that are toxic for coccidia but safe for other species. Amprolium reduces the amount of thiamine available in the intestinal tract of a chick, and coccidia will die without enough thiamine from their host. The amount of thiamine allows some coccidia to remain alive in the chicks’ digestive system. The birds’ bodies then can build resistance to the parasites without dying from the infestation.

A second line of attack against coccidiosis is a live vaccine. The vaccine works differently from medicated feed. The vaccine contains a controlled amount of live coccidia, which allows chicks’ immune systems to develop resistance. You can ask your hatchery to vaccinate for coccidiosis when you order your chicks. If you purchase chicks from a store or farm, always ask if they have been vaccinated for coccidiosis. Note that the vaccine is not 100% effective. It does not prevent against all strains of coccidia.

  • For chicks that ARE vaccinated for coccidiosis, there is no need to provide medicated feed.
  • For chicks that ARE NOT vaccinated for coccidiosis, DO provide medicated feed.

Regardless of whether you choose the vaccine or the medicated feed, make sure to provide a warm, clean, draft-free brooder to further protect against coccidiosis.

Facts about Medicated Feed with Amprolium

  • Amprolium is the most popular drug used in medicated feed.
  • Medicated feed protects ONLY against coccidiosis. It does not protect against Marek’s disease or parasitic worms, such as roundworms (ascarids). It is not an antibiotic. 
  • Medicated feed is not a cure for coccidiosis. If your chicks get sick, medicated feed will not help them.  
  • Too much amprolium can cause serious vitamin deficiencies. Follow all written product instructions for medicated feed and other products containing amprolium.
  • If you use a medicated feed, do not provide liquid-solution amprolium (Corid) in drinking water.
  • If amprolium is fed to waterfowl, it is off-label use and should be done under advice from a veterinarian.

See the post “Medicated Chick Starter Facts” for more information on medicated feed.

The next time you examine a feed label, keep these points in mind. Now that you know more about chick feed ingredients, you can get your birds off to a healthier start and well on their way to living their best lives.