Basic Nutrition for Backyard Chickens

The feed which chickens eat is made up of water, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins. Each nutrient serves a special need. What we feed supplies the building material for the development of bone, flesh, feathers and eggs. When nutrients are properly formulated and balanced will produce fowl that produce in the manner they were designed, provide eggs for market, table or incubation, and develop a healthy meaty fowl. Each nutrient provides a solitary source, but is not complete, yet when gathered and combined provides the proper balance and energy that a fowl needs.


One of the most important, yet often overlooked nutrients, is water. A young chick needs a constant supply of fresh water to stay healthy. It doesn’t drink a lot of water at one time; therefore, it has to drink often. A fowl’s intake of daily water will depend upon availability and weather conditions. Desiring less in winter and more in hot summer months. Placement of water containers is essential, making easy access to old and young alike. Water also can be a source of bacteria, if not cleaned on a regular basis and therefore should be changed frequently depending upon weather, consumption and exposure. Stagnant or long term standing water can be a host and breeding ground for insects that carry disease to poultry.

Water carries waste products out of the body, helps cool the bird by evaporation, softens feed and carries it through the digestive tract. Water should always be available and fresh. During hot summer month’s water containers should be kept in cool shady areas and not allowed to become stagnant or develop algae build up. Which would allow for the ingestion of microbes or bacteria. Lack of free access to abundant water supply may also slow productivity down. Denial of water can lead to dehydration, molt, dry feathers without sheen, undue stress and the inability to properly digest food. Fowl consume their greatest amount of water following eating or right before roosting.


Carbohydrates include starches, sugars and cellulose. Carbohydrates in the form of starches, or simple sugars are needed for body maintenance and energy. Carbohydrates cost less than fats and are easily digested, absorbed and transformed into fat.

Important sources of carbohydrates in poultry feeds are corn, wheat, oats, milo and various other cereal grains. Since energy is provided by the intake of carbohydrates, whether it is for warmth in winter by adding extra grains like corn to the diet to naturally produce body heat, or energy to maintain a balanced and vibrant flock. An over abundance of carbohydrates in the diet can produce added amounts of fat cells reducing health benefits and productivity. Reducing the ration of corn, yet providing other beneficial grains, and increasing the sources of protein to provide the energy that a fowl needs for egg production, general health and energy, and the viability of the egg can be beneficial.

Whole Grains such as wheat, oats, barley, and corn are vitamin sources of the B complexes, E, folic Acid and Biotin. With wheat having the highest source of biotin and vitamin E, along with B/1 known as Thiamin. You may see it listed on feed sources as Hydrochloride. Another good source for the complex B vitamins is ground meals and dried yeast. B vitamins are depleted during stress and are essential in the release of energy from absorbed or stored carbohydrates and fats. B vitamins aids in disease resistance, fertility and viability of the embryo.


Animal and vegetable fats, such as cottonseed meal or fishmeal, are the highest energy sources in feedstuffs. They also improve the physical consistency in feed mixtures. Supplemental fats may increase energy utilization in adult birds in association with a decreased rate of food intake. The substitution of fat for a portion of the dietary carbohydrates may enhance energy utilization by reducing the heat created by carbohydrates. Fats should be stabilized by an antioxidant; otherwise they are likely to become rancid, especially in hot weather or long storage periods. Small amounts of fat are desirable since they supply essential fatty acids, fatty acids are essential for rebuilding and producing new cells, and improve palatability. Essential fatty acids require Vitamin E for absorption. Some good sources of essential fatty acids for poultry are found in vegetable oils and fishmeal. The oil content in fishmeal will range from 2% to greater than 14%. So thus it should not be the sole source of fat content.


Proteins are complex compounds made up of amino acids. Feed proteins are broken down into amino acids by digestion. They are then absorbed and transported by the blood to the cells, which assemble these amino acids into body proteins. Body proteins are used in the construction of body tissue. Tissues, which mainly consist of protein, are muscles, nerves, cartilage, skin, feathers and beak. The albumen (white) of the egg is also high in protein. The main sources of protein in poultry rations are animal proteins such as fishmeal, meat and bone meal, and plant proteins, such as soybean meal, cottonseed meal, and ground alfalfa and corn gluten meal. There is no one source of protein that will provide all the amino acids in one feed ration. But when the proteins from different feedstuffs are used, the ration can be formulated to contain all the necessary amino acids. Excellent sources of proteins for poultry are ground alfalfa meal, meat and bone meal and fishmeal. A balanced diet of proteins should be formulated for each stage of a fowl’s life and needs according to growth desired and productivity. Too low of protein count and you can see poor development in young and the health and overall vitality of the old effected with excessive weight loss. To high of a protein count from gathered resources and optimum growth can result in a short period of time with excessive weight gain for the skeletal structure to support, to cases of gout. A vitamin A deficiency can affect the ability of a fowl to utilize protein. Meat proteins also provide the enzymes that aid in digestion and metabolism of proteins. Fishmeal is an excellent source of protein for poultry since it contains adequate quantities of all the essential amino acids required by chickens, and is an especially good source of lysine and methionine. Good quality fishmeal is a brown powder, which will average between 60% and 70% protein. It cannot be used as a sole source of protein. Thus when added to feed rations should be done so as to not exceed the protein requirement of the fowl but only to insure a proper and balanced level, or provide what may not be readily available in the ration due to a poor protein source. The protein content of wheat is higher than corn. Protein content varies from 11 to 19%, depending on type of wheat. Wheat can be added at higher rates in summer months with a decrease in corn, for the reduction of heat and still supply the energy a fowl needs. Wheat does not contain caratenoids and will create a slightly lighter yolk color. Many Game Bird feeds gather several sources of protein, with animal proteins in a higher percentage compared to other feeds, for a well-balanced supply of all the essential amino acids. All feed should be formulated in such a way to provide balanced nutrition for appropriate age levels. With a higher count for the young and a decreased protein count as a fowl matures and has developed. Added supplements of animal protein sources to a balanced ration should be done at 2 to 4% levels due to the source and structure of the proteins. Grain proteins can be added at higher level. Yet should not exceed that of other sources of animal protein diluting the count to such an extent proper nutrition is affected. It is a combination of these proteins that fulfills the required diet.

In reading the tag on a bag of poultry feed you will see listed the percent of crude protein. This tells you only the percentage guaranteed for optimum performance for a particular need or stage of development according to age. It is beneficial to check the sources of protein that the feed is comprised of. Your main sources of proteins for each particular brand will be listed as the first of several ingredients.


The mineral portion of the feed is inorganic matter. Minerals are absorbed through the small intestine. Minerals, especially calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, help build bones and make them strong and rigid. Laying hens also require minerals for eggshell formation. Other minerals are needed in trace amounts. Trace minerals are those minerals required at very low amounts for good growth and production. Potassium is essential in egg production and when depleted a drop may arise. Most feeds, in crumble, pellet or mash forms are formulate with a certain amount of trace minerals. Grains are low in minerals, so it is necessary to provide supplements. Calcium, phosphorus and salt are needed in the greatest amounts. Ground limestone and oyster shell are good calcium sources. Trace levels of iodine, iron, manganese and zinc are also included in mineral supplements. Bone meal, and ground limestone supply additional calcium and phosphorus. Phosphorus in meat and bone meal is almost completely absorbed by the bird. During stress related times and heavy production minerals such as calcium will be absorbed at a faster rate leaving the system depleted drawing its source form other areas such as bones resulting in brittleness, poor egg quality and lack of production. Calcium given freely in oyster shell form can be scattered or made available freely for a hen to consume, as her body desires to replace the loss during heavy production. Fishmeal is an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus for poultry. Fishmeal contains three major nutrients; protein, fat and minerals (ash). The ash (mineral) content of fishmeal is relatively high and is usually an indication of a higher calcium and phosphorus level. Another valuable source for minerals, protein and vitamins is Alfalfa. Many times it is offered in a feed ration as a ground meal form. Alfalfa meal contains Chlorine, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, and Sodium. Many Game Bird Feed rations will offer alfalfa meal as a protein source, but it also provides trace mineral elements. Those fowl; that do not have access to free ranging or forging and are limited to soil for dusting and consuming minerals may need periodic mineral supplements or mineral grit.


All feed rations will provide small amounts, and are absolutely necessary for growth, reproduction and the maintenance of health. They occur in feedstuffs in varying quantities and in different combinations. Regardless of brand or form vitamin supplements may be required periodically for health and vitality. Many things can interfere with the efficiency of vitamins; stress and antibiotics can deplete the body of many vitamins. Microorganisms of the intestinal tract produce some vitamins. A side effect of medications is the depletion of naturally produced vitamins in the intestines especially after cocci treatments. Vitamin D can be produced by sunlight on the bird’s skin. Caged fowl are more likely to need the aid of a D supplement. Other vitamins must be supplied in the ration. Vitamins are required for normal growth, feathering and leg development in the young and stamina, health, fertility and production in the old. A wide range of problems can arise and will depend on which vitamin or vitamins a fowl is inadequate in and how deficient the diet is. Many poultry diseases and illnesses can be often attributed to a vitamin deficient ration.

There are 2 groups that vitamins fall into, fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s fat and used when needed Water-soluble vitamins are not stored by the body and are lost through fecal droppings or stress. Water-soluble vitamins will need to be kept balanced in a diet.

Fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, K

Water-soluble vitamins: C, Thiamin (B/1), Riboflavin (B/2), Pantothenic acid, Niacin, Pyridoxine, Choline, Biotin, Folic Acid, B/12 and B complexes.

Vitamin A is necessary for the health and proper functioning of the skin and lining of the digestive, reproductive and respiratory tracts. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone formation and the metabolism of calcium and phosphorus. The B vitamins are involved in energy metabolism and in many other metabolic functions. On going studies are finding a relation between vitamin B and disease resistance. A vitamin premix is included in the commercial ration to provide additional supplements such as vitamin A, B/12, D/3, E, K, riboflavin, niacin, Pantothenic acid, and Choline. It was discovered that B/12 could be obtained by foraging through manure. Thus pecking at litter will maintain B/12 in a fowls system. Alfalfa meal added to feed provides K, A, C, B/3, D, and E. Housed flocks, or caged birds tend to have deficiencies at a higher rate than those that are allowed to run, scratch and forage. Access to soil minerals and fresh greens aid in replenishing vitamins and minerals lost to natural stress and stressful conditions. Some vitamins are not stable and their benefits can be lost in stored feed if not properly kept. If stored properly, to maintain the stability of vitamins, most feeds will remain stable for approximately 3 months.

On the other hand an excessive amounts of vitamins given in an improper balance can have serious health effects. There are specially formulated vitamin packs readily available in proper proportions, in the aid of a vitamin deficiency. Such additives that are aimed at providing vitamins are Cod liver oil, Wheat Germ oil, Brewers yeast or Dried Yeast, AD& E powders. These can be added to the diet during breeding, stress, or after medications, especially coccidiosis treatments or any illness that may have depleted the body of vitamins through stress of the illness or excrement. Many medications interfere with the absorption of vitamins.

Commercial poultry feeds contain numerous similar feed ingredients. There are, however, several different types of rations available. As an example: starter, grower, finisher and layer rations. These are designed to meet the specific needs of different type birds at different ages and developmental stages. All will provide ample nutrition if used in a proper fashion. Only the quality of each formulated ration will vary by the sources of Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats.

Feeding and Formulating the Right Ration

Commercial poultry feeds contain numerous similar feed ingredients. There are, however, several different types of rations available. As an example: starter, grower, developer, finisher and layer and breeder rations. These are designed to meet the specific needs of different type birds. All are basic in their design with all formulations gathering their sources from either animal or vegetable proteins. With the greater concentration and best source of protein for the young and their developmental rate. Grower and developers are designed to bring a young fowl into the mature stage of egg production. Growers and developers are designed for the “adolescent” stage of fowl. They will be slightly reduced in protein count yet should contain good sources for continuing muscle and structure development. Layers or breeders need a proper nutrient balance to be able to produce eggs whether for the table or those to be incubated. A breeder ration will have a slightly higher protein count than a layer ration with added vitamins and minerals for viability of the embryo. Whether layer or breeder they may require less protein but added energy foods for production. Both are formulated with trace amounts of calcium but during heavy production may require a supplement of oyster shell.

Chicks should never be feed solid grain feeds due to the developmental stages of the gizzard in digesting solid grains. Mashes are formulated for easier digestion and consumption. Their proteins sources should be gathered from high quality animal proteins and not total reliance on vegetable proteins.

When introducing grains to a proper formulated ration it should be done at as a gradual process. Whether it is to supplement due to stress, weather, production or viability of the egg. When feeds sources such as grains are added to concentrated rations they dilute the protein count. Choice of grains is essential in maintaining protein yet providing the energy a flock may need for health and production. A good rule of thumb in formulating a ration for your flock is to gather all your protein sources and add the count, then divide the number of sources to get an approximation of the average. Foremost one should know the quality of the source and what it provides in establishing a healthy and productive flock. In formulating feeds all things should be considered form growth and development to egg production and breeding. Establishing a proper diet and feeding program will aid in the knowledge of areas that may require attention or supplements. Though fowl on a well-balanced and proper diet are less likely to have health related issues and require less supplementation. Remembering that each source of a nutrient you provide is energy for a fowl to perform and maintain its health.

This document is to be used for educational purposes only. All subject material was gathered form reliable and varying sources from vitamin and mineral information to extension sites pertaining to feed studies and programs. No one source was used but only in a combination. For the use of this document other than what its intent is for please contact Debbie Porter at [email protected]

Copy write 2001

This article is reprinted on the Shagbark Bantams Poultry Health Articles Page with permission, and we wish to express our appreciation to the author. Shagbark Bantams may, or may not, agree with its content in its entirety, but feels that it is a well-researched and valuable source of information for the Poultry Fancy.