Nutrition in Backyard Layer Flocks
By Randi Clark
Raising chickens as a hobby has swept the country and, while a few may acquire these feathered friends as simple companions, the vast majority of birds will be expected to earn their keep. A chicken’s production, no matter the type, will be tied intimately with its genetic potential and nutrition. The genetic component should be weighed heavily during the bird selection process. Are these animals primarily for eggs, meat, or both? Beyond normal maintenance, what is expected out of this bird at this time? Hens that lay year round are in need of a constant supply of higher calcium while birds that lay only in the summer will need their diet adjusted with the seasons (Blake, et al.). We will focus mainly on the nutritional requirements of the laying hen.
Poultry feed should include three main components – protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Of these three, carbohydrates provide the largest source of energy (Fowler). While digestible carbohydrates, such as starch, provide energy for the birds, non-digestible carbs like cellulose are necessary for intestinal health. However, it is important that non-digestible carbohydrates remain limited and do not interfere with the intake of other important components. Carbohydrate sources include corn, wheat, sorghum, barley, and rye (Fowler).
A bird’s protein needs will steadily decrease over the first four months of life. Protein provides the amino acids chickens cannot synthesize, such as methionine and lysine (Fowler). Those birds being reared for egg production require 20 to 22% protein until six weeks of age. The required protein drops to 16 to 18% between weeks seven and 13. At 14 weeks these birds can be placed on a developer feed containing 14 to 16% protein. Sexual maturity, which initiates egg production, occurs between 18 and 22 weeks of age (Blake, et al.). During her first twenty weeks of laying a hen is still requiring protein for growth and feather development as well as egg production. Therefore, she will on average need 17 grams of protein per day. Protein requirements drop slightly post-42 weeks of age. At this time the hen is putting less protein into growth, but she is maintaining a large body and usually producing larger eggs (Blake, et al.).
Feed intake fluctuates with changing temperatures. During cold months a bird will eat more feed to produce heat through metabolism. At this time the feed’s nutrient level may be decreased, as the bird’s requirements will be met through quantity alone. The largest source of calories and metabolizable energy is provided through fats in the diet (Blake, et al.). Fats help meet the necessary caloric intake and are vital in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins. They also may quickly become rancid, especially in hot months; therefore, antioxidants are often added to commercially produced feed (Fowler).
Another major change in feed content occurs when egg production begins. A hen laying full time needs feed containing between 2.5 to 3.5% calcium and may require some supplementation such as oyster shell, calcite or limestone (Blake, et al.). This increased calcium in layer feed is the major reason it is detrimental to feed growing birds a layer diet. The increased calcium interferes with the body’s normal calcium metabolism leading to abnormal bone development.
Vitamins and minerals are commonly supplemented by using premix packets. The expiration dates of these packets should be monitored closely as out of date vitamins can degrade and ultimately, the birds receive no supplementations in spite of the farmer’s efforts (Applegate 73). Salt is a necessity in an animal’s diet. Sodium is required for the body to maintain homeostasis. A disruption of this balance can be devastating to a bird’s reproductive system (J. P. Jacob). Though lack of these components carry serious consequences, an excess of some can prove even worse. Toxicoses may occur due to excess salt, phosphorus, and vitamin D – all requirements in a standard diet (J. P. Jacob).
Providing birds with scratch grains can increase welfare by allowing the freedom to express normal behavior. However, caution must be taken that low protein scratch grains do not become filler, diluting the amount of complete feed the bird consumes. Scratch grains also provide “grit” which helps grind the other grains that make up the majority of their diet. A common misconception is that oyster shell provides adequate grit. Unfortunately it is too soft and should only be fed to full time laying hens due to its high calcium content. (J. Jacob) It is also important to note that hens should not receive laying feed and calcium supplementation during their molting period. At this time a developer feed is appropriate (Blake et al.).
In general, commercially processed feeds contain adequate nutrient values for backyard flocks. It is noteworthy that a standard feed label will not list nutritional composition but only feedstuffs used. The most common mistake is feeding the wrong feed type in reference to a bird’s life stage. Other common mistakes include lack of available water, storage errors leading to degradation of vitamin efficacy, and “dilution” of dietary nutrients (Applegate 73). Water should be continuously available and intake amounts can be monitored as a first alert to illness within the flock (Fowler).
Numerous poultry diseases may be curtailed through proper husbandry and strict biosecurity standards. Taking time to ensure proper nutrition can greatly increase yields in egg and meat production as well as provide an improved quality of life for the birds. A properly balanced commercial grade food and ample water supply will, in most circumstances, be the best nutritional support these birds can be provided.
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"Basic Poultry Nutrition - Extension." Basic Poultry Nutrition - Extension. Extension, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2016.
Blake, John P., Joseph B. Hess, and Kenneth S. Jacklin. "Nutrition For Backyard Chicken Flocks." Aces.edu. Alabama Extension, 10 Apr. 2007. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
Fowler, Justin C. Nutrition for the Backyard Flock. N.p.: U of Georgia Extension, 2015. Web. 07 Oct. 2016
Jacob, Jacquie. "Feeding Chicken for Egg Production." Extension. N.p., 05 May 2015. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
Jacob, J. P., H. R. Wilson, and R. D. Miles. Factors Affecting Egg Production in Backyard Chicken Flocks. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2016