The variety of choices found in feed stores can be overwhelming: pellets or grains, conventional or organic, soy or not... And it becomes even more difficult when you start researching online and find home-mixed formulas or blogs praising the benefits of fermented and sprouted feed. Chickens are omnivores and eat just about anything, but they do need a balanced diet to stay healthy. Their food must nutritionally meet their needs based on the season, the temperature, her age, weight, and number of eggs she lays.
For most keepers, using a commercially prepared feed is the easiest way to provide the right mix of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fat to the flock. Commercial feeds are formulated according the chicken lifecycle and include chick starter, grower, developer, and layer rations (note that the naming can vary per manufacturer). Feeding the wrong feed can be problematic. For example feeding layer ration to baby chicks may damage their kidneys because of its higher mineral content. Feed designed for adult chickens is usually in the form of pellets, which consist of ground-up ingredients that are mixed and compressed. It’s highly digestible. It comes also in the form of crumbles that are simply crushed pellets. This is best for chickens who have been debeaked or with beak deformities. Crumbles also make eating last longer, which makes the chickens less likely to get bored and start causing mischiefs. :) There is also grain feed that has been formulated to be complete and nutritionally balanced. The main drawback is that the vitamins and minerals are often added in powder form which tends to sift down to the bottom of the feeder and not be eaten. Hens can also pick out the grains they prefer in this type of feed, and end up with an unbalanced diet. Note that whole grains are less digestible than pellets, and require grit to help the chickens’ gizzard grind them down.
A few keepers forego commercial feed and make their own mix. Refer to the "General Formulas for Home Mixes" table in the "Feeding Chickens" leaflet from the University of California to make sure your mix is well balanced. Here is a recipe by Animal Place that can be found in their free online chicken care information booklet. Home-mixes are usually whole grains as most people don’t have milling equipment. And they are not necessarily cheaper as good quality grains are quite expensive when not bought in huge quantities.
Lots of keepers like the look and natural feel of a whole grain feed, and believe it is the best possible nutrition available. But pellets made from fresh whole grains are as good, more efficient and cost-effective. Choosing organic or conventional is really a matter of preference. Organic usually means that it’s free of GMO, pesticide, and herbicide. Some people choose soy free feed to avoid GMO as 94% soybeans grown in US are genetically modified. When selecting the best feed for your chickens, read the labels carefully and do some research on the manufacturer. This feed is the bulk of your chickens’ diet. They should have access to it all day long. In part 2, we will discuss all the other foodstuff that chickens need including calcium, grit, and greens.