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.

Keeping ‘Em Healthy

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War a vicious flu epidemic quickly spread around the world. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died. Centuries earlier waves of bubonic plague swept through Europe leaving death in its wake. More recently an outbreak of measles spread across the United States.

When WWI ended, millions of refugees roamed around seeking a home. Soldiers from dozens of countries boarded ships and trains as they bid the war and military goodbye and looked forward to peaceful civilian lives. Many carried the deadly flu virus in their bodies, spreading it around the globe and infecting people nearly everywhere. It even reached the Arctic and Pacific islands. 

Bubonic plague was also deadly but quite different. Carried by rodents, mostly rats, and spread to humans by biting fleas, upwards of 100 million people died. The disease was deadly because people lived crammed together in filthy buildings and towns, allowing rats and their fleas to thrive.

Lack of sanitation and the movement of microbes enabled diseases to thrive and spread. Lessons learned from human disease can help keep chickens healthy.     

Chickens are amazingly healthy animals. Given good care they rarely get sick. Many people keep a flock for years without ever losing a bird to illness. However, chickens are vulnerable to many diseases. Some are aggressively infectious and can quickly devastate a flock. Wise people heed the lessons learned from human flu, measles, and plagues and work to prevent deadly chicken diseases from sickening or killing their birds. 

The keys to keeping chickens healthy are to provide them a clean place to live, quality nutritious food, clean water and isolation from pathogens.

Maintain a Healthy Flock

Crowding in filthy cities gave The Plague an opportunity to kill millions of people. Chickens crowded together in moist, dirty housing are ripe for disease. Here are simple ways to keep chickens healthy and productive:

Give them space. Backyard flock owners typically have tiny coops. They are often tempted to crowd too many birds together. Crowding encourages cannibalism, egg eating, fighting, odor and disease. Good flock managers give chickens room to roam.  Larger breeds need a minimum of four-square feet of coop space each. Light breeds only slightly less. However, the more space they have the better. Access to a clean outdoor run offers healthy sunshine, fresh air, and lets the hens fluff up and clean feathers as they bathe in the dust. 

Keep them dry. Once litter gets wet, smell follows from enthusiastic bacteria multiplying in dampness. Keep the coop dry. If litter gets wet from a tipped over waterer or a leaky roof, immediately scoop out and compost the wet stuff, replace it with dry wood chips, and fix the roof or secure the waterer so it can’t tip. 

Feed them well.  Always provide chickens with fresh nutritious feed. Commercial rations, such as Nutrena NatureWise Layer Feed, are a healthy complete diet that birds can supplement with occasional tasty bugs and worms they discover in the run.

Protect them.  Make sure the flock is safe from furry predators, biting insects, and winter drafts.

Keeping Diseases Away

Keeping diseases away from a chicken flock helps prevent outbreaks. Fortunately, most backyard flocks are protected by isolation. A common scenario in an American suburb is that only a few families keep chickens. One flock is typically a long way from the next closest one. Microbes have a hard time getting to a flock – unless humans inadvertently bring germs to their chickens either on their clothes or shoes or in the bodies of other infected birds.

Detailed information on biosecurity can be found on many websites and is often printed in chick catalogs, magazines, and books. Some basic tips for keeping germs away from a backyard flock include:

  • Buy chicks from a hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), has appropriate permits, and ensures that their breeding flock and chicks are free of infectious diseases. Many hatcheries print biosecurity information in their catalog.
  • Be wary about adding new chickens to a flock. An easy way for a microbe or parasite to infect a healthy flock is to hitch a ride on a chicken. Backyard flock owners are often tempted to add a new bird or two to their flock. Make sure the bird comes from a flock that has not experienced any recent diseases and has been kept in a clean coop. Putting the newcomers in quarantine for a month removed from the rest of the flock gives time to allow a potential disease to show up in the newcomer.
  • Keep clothing and shoes clean. After visiting a poultry show or another flock change clothing and clean shoes. Even tiny scraps of manure or dirt hitchhiking on shoes or pants can bring disease to a flock. Make sure visitors who have been in contact with other chickens also practice sanitation.
  • Clean feeders and waterers regularly.
  • Limit flock exposure to wild birds and mice that may carry pathogens.
  • Vaccinate if appropriate. It’s not practical or possible to vaccinate chickens to prevent all diseases, but most hatcheries will vaccinate chicks for a few common diseases. Medicated chick feed may help reduce coccidiosis; a common disease caused by a protozoan.

When small, healthy chicken flocks are kept in a clean coop, fed nutritious food, and isolated from disease they’ll likely never get sick. The hens will enjoy a long, healthy, and productive life.

Isolation Helps Keep Small Flocks Healthy

Many people dread taking an airplane trip to a distant city.  It’s not the flying they’re afraid of. It’s sitting in an enclosed metal fuselage filled with coughing and sneezing fellow passengers. Sure enough, healthy passengers often come down with a cold a few days after being cooped up in an airplane. Here’s how to help keep small flocks healthy.

Microbes have many techniques to move from a sick individual to a healthy one but most require close proximity. The closer people are crammed together the more likely a disease will spread.

The same goes for chickens. When crowded together, as sometimes tens of thousands of layers or broilers are in commercial operations, a sickness can quickly spread from just one ill bird and infect the entire flock. Commercial growers are well aware of the threat and practice careful biosecurity to keep disease away.

Small flock owners tend to be less aware of biosecurity. In many ways the keepers of backyard chicken flocks are fortunate. Their birds are protected by isolation.

Even though thousands of families have started raising chickens in recent years they still are a tiny minority of households. Typically, a family flock lives in a small coop miles from the next chicken. Given nutritious food, a clean place to live, plenty of space for exercise and privacy, and protection from predators, backyard chickens live healthy lives.

Many families have kept flocks for decades without ever experiencing a sick bird.

Isolated flocks make it hard for a germ to spread – as long as chicken owners exercise caution. Recently growing interest in backyard chickens may be a disease’s best friend.

People love their chickens and often enjoy keeping several breeds in a small flock.

There’s always the temptation to add a new bird or two to the flock.

Swapping chickens is common and sometimes a family needs to disband their flock and is happy to give the birds away.

That’s a concern. A new bird may bring hitchhiking microbes that could quickly infect an otherwise healthy flock.

Here are some ways to reduce the odds that newcomers will bring a disease with them:

  • Before accepting a new bird ask the owner if the flock has had any evidence of disease or if any birds have died or gotten sick recently. If so avoid taking a bird.
  • Inspect the living conditions of the donor’s flock. It should be clean, tidy, and have good ventilation. All the birds should look healthy.
  • Carefully examine the new bird to be added to a flock. Does she look healthy. Some signs of a healthy hen include clean feathers, an alert and active temperament that resists being captured, and no sign of discharge from the eyes, nostrils, or vent.

Even the healthiest appearing hen can carry a disease. Most poultry experts recommend keeping a new bird or birds in isolation from the flock for about a month.  If no sign of disease appears the bird probably is healthy enough to integrate into the flock.

Unfortunately, quarantine isn’t feasible for most backyard flock owners since isolation requires keeping the new birds in a separate coop a distance from the original flock. Few people have two coops. Still, it’s good advice.

Diseases don’t always move from chicken to chicken. Germs can hitchhike on the clothing or shoes of a coop visitor who inadvertently delivers them to his healthy flock.  After visiting a distant flock change into clean clothes and disinfect shoes before entering the backyard coop.

As a general rule here are some tips for keeping chickens healthy:

  • Start the flock with chicks from a reputable hatchery.
  • Always provide chickens with quality nutritious food and clean water.
  • Keep the coop dry. Dampness enables disease.
  • Give the birds plenty of space. Cramming many birds into a small area fosters aggression, odor, and disease. Just like humans, chickens are healthiest when they have access to fresh air, sunshine, and room to exercise and stretch.
  • If a chicken dies immediately remove its body from the coop and dispose of it properly. Most municipalities allow the body to be placed in the trash if it is in three layers of plastic bags. Then watch the rest of the flock for signs of disease.  If others sicken consult a veterinarian immediately.

Good Practices Also Keep People Safe

A sick chicken can spread disease to other birds but generally people aren’t susceptible to bird diseases. There are a few scary and rare exceptions. A common human health threat that can come from chickens is salmonella.

After being in the coop it’s always a good idea to clean up. Thoroughly washing hands before eating is essential to reduce possible human illness. Adults need to make sure that children also wash well after being in the coop.

Fortunately, most owners of small backyard flocks never have to contend with a sick chicken. When well cared for chickens are amazingly healthy animals, but careful attention to sanitation and biosecurity reduces the odds of disease outbreak.

Backyard Poultry Biosecurity In 6 Steps

Backyard Poultry Biosecurity? What exactly is it? As a poultry owner, you know how important it is to keep your birds healthy.

By practicing biosecurity, you can help reduce the chances of your birds being exposed to animal diseases such as avian influenza (AI) or exotic Newcastle disease (END).

“Biosecurity” may not be a common household word. But, for poultry and bird owners it can spell the difference between health and disease.

Practicing biosecurity can help keep disease away from your farm, and keep your birds healthy.

Backyard Poultry Biosecurity

Recommendations provided by the USDA, for more information on this and other topics, visit www.ahls.usda.gov/.