Chicken feeding
Updated: May 11, 2022
By Jonathan Moyle

Feed represents about 70 percent of the cost of raising a chicken. Commercial poultry farms use bulk feed programs in which a single delivery of 12 to 30 tons of commercial poultry feed is common. Such high-volume handling results in a relatively low cost per pound of feed and explains why supermarket prices for poultry products are also relatively low. The small flock owner deals in smaller quantities of feed – typically 50 to 100 pounds– and thus pays a higher cost per unit for feed. Chickens must be fed an adequate diet for maximum productivity. There are six categories of nutrients that are required in a diet to maintain and promote a healthy flock. These nutrients include water, carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Birds of different ages and function have specific nutrient requirements, which are met by mixing together different feed ingredients. Formulating and mixing poultry feed is a complex process that ensures a diet contains all of the nutrients required by the bird. Specialized software programs are usually required to formulate a poultry ration. Therefore, it is recommended feeding a high quality commercial feed which can be purchased from most local farm stores. Veterinarians in poultry diagnostic laboratories note that nutritional deficiency diseases such as curly toe paralysis, nutritional coryza and rickets were ordinarily seen only with poultry being fed homemade (non-commercial) rations.

 Commercial poultry feeds contain numerous similar feed ingredients and several types of rations are available (for example: starter, grower, finisher, and layer rations). Different types of rations are formulated to meet the specific requirement of different types of birds. It is important to choose the right ration for the type (pullet, layer, or broiler) and age of bird being fed. Do not feed layer rations to younger birds or starter/grower rations to birds producing eggs. If a young chicken is fed a layer diet, the calcium level is so high that the chick will experience improper bone formation, kidney failure, and possibly death. In contrast, feeding a broiler starter diet to a laying hen will result in poor egg shell quality. Problems associated with inadequate nutrition can occur quickly in the growing bird and often these problems are irreversible. What you think you may be saving in feed may cost you in bird performance. Table 4 outlines typical feeding programs for chickens of different ages and function. Use Table 4 only as a guide.

Feeding scratch grains to chickens is not necessary when they are receiving a complete diet. Scratch grains typically are cracked, rolled or whole grains such as corn, barley, oats or wheat which are low in protein and high in energy or fiber depending on which grains are used. When scratch grains are fed in conjunction with a complete diet they dilute the nutrient content of the prepared diet. Therefore, if you decide to feed scratch grains to your birds it should be provided sparingly. Generally scratch grain should be about 10% of the birds total daily food consumption. An insoluble grit should be provided when feeding scratch grain so the birds can grind and digest the grains properly. If the birds have access to the ground, they usually can find enough grit in the form of small rocks and stones.
Birds grazing on pasture can attain a portion of their nutrient requirement from grasses and insects. It is estimated that chickens can obtain 5 to 20% of their feed requirements by grazing. Nutrition obtained from pasture depends on the forage quality of the pasture and chicken breed.

Laying hens require large amounts of calcium for egg shell development. Diets formulated for layers should contain all of the calcium required by the hen. An extra source of calcium can be offered free choice in the form of ground oyster shell, calcite, or limestone.
Commercial poultry feed is available in mash, crumble and pellet form. Processing feed into pellet or crumble form increases the cost over the mash form. However, there are some advantages to feeding pellets or crumbles. Since feed is packaged in pellet form, the bird is able to consume and metabolize a greater amount of feed. Feed in pellet form is a complete unit of feed and birds cannot pick out individual feed ingredients. Pelleting feed can also improve handling quality and reduce feed wastage.

Regardless of what form of feed you decide to feed your birds, it is important to handle it properly to maintain its nutritive value. Nutrients in feed are broken down during extended holding times. Also store feed in a clean, dry, rodent free area. Do not store feed bags on a concrete floor because feed picks up moisture from the concrete. It is recommended to store feed bags in covered plastic trash cans or on wooden pallets so air can circulate under the bags.

Typically, feed is available as medicated and non-medicated. Medicated feed usually contains a coccidiosis preventive drug. Birds can become infected with an intestinal parasite called coccidia. A coccidiostat is typically added to diets of chickens raised on the ground. Many coccidiostats need to be withdrawn from the feed for several days before the birds can be marketed. Always read the feed label to ensure the proper withdrawal time.

In most cases, birds should have continued access to feed so that they are provided with the proper level of nutrients at all times. Vest and Dale (2002) reported estimates of feed consumption for layers and meat birds at different phases of production (Table 5).

Table 4. Typical Feeding Programs

Layer Layer Replacement Broiler Roaster

20 weeks- production cycle,

Laying mash

0-6 weeks

Starter (mash form)

0-3 weeks

Starter (mash form)

Same as broiler to 7 weeks of age

3-6 weeks

Finisher (mash or crumbles)


6 weeks- market

Withdrawal (mash or crumbles)

May be fed all mash or mash-grain method

6- 13 weeks

Grower or Pullet developer (15% protein)


Broiler finisher and corn or whole grains until 2 weeks prior to market

Insoluable grit may be fed if whole grain is used.

Free choice:

Calcium (oyster shell or limestone) may be fed for good egg shell quality. Soluable grit may be fed if whole grain is used.

13-20 weeks



This schedule should be used as a guide only.

A suitable coccidiostat must be included in feed for young chickens (see poultry disease section) read the feed tag or make sure your feed store provides a Starter or Grower with a coccidiostat.

Table 5 - Amount and type of feed required for one chicken by age and purpose (Vest and Dale, 2002)

Bird Type Age Total Amounts of Feed (lbs) Ration Type
Layers (Brown Egg Type) Day old to 6 weeks 4 Starter
  7 weeks to 18 weeks 46 Grower
  19 weeks to 70 weeks (onset of lay to termination) 104 Layer
Layers (White Egg Type) Day old to 6 weeks 3 Starter
  7 weeks to 18 weeks 12 Grower
  19 weeks to 70 weeks (onset of lay to termination) 80 Layer
Meat Birds Day old to 3 weeks 2 Starter
  4 weeks to 7 weeks 7 Finisher