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Start Your Chickens the Right Way With Chick Starter Feed

5/16/2012 12:20:00 PM

Tags: chick starter feed, oyster shell

Start Your ChickensIs it really necessary to give my new chicks “chick starter” feed? Any reason why I can’t simply give them “layer” feed right away? And what about oyster shell — if the feed formula is “complete,” as it says on the bag, do I need to supplement with oyster shell? 

Yes, it’s important to start chicks on “starter” formulation and then switch them to “layer” formulation about two weeks before they start laying — typically at 16 weeks (for hybrids) to 22 weeks (for heritage breeds). The place where you acquired your chicks will be able to tell you whether your birds are hybrids or heritage breeds.

“There is a big difference between the two commercial formulations, and it matters,” says Harvey Ussery, author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. Ussery says starter feed has more protein — as much as 20 percent — which chicks need for healthy growth. Layer feed has less protein (about 16 percent) but more minerals, especially calcium, which is necessary for producing strong eggshells. If you feed the high-calcium layer feed to your chicks, the excess calcium may cause developmental problems, such as weak legs, reproductive or kidney damage, or even death.

And while the calcium in commercial layer feeds is usually enough for mature hens, it’s still a good idea to supplement with calcium-rich oyster shell.

“Commercial formulations assume the chickens are confined and eating only the commercial feed,” Ussery says. “If your birds are foraging outdoors, they are taking in other things besides their feed, so it’s possible they will need more calcium. By offering oyster shell, free choice, they will take only what they need. It’s cheap insurance.”

There are other reasons to give layers oyster shell, too. “The actual amount of dietary calcium required by any individual layer varies with her age, diet, rate of lay and state of health,” says Gail Damerow, author of The Chicken Encyclopedia. “Older hens, for instance, need more calcium than younger hens because laying depletes their bones of calcium. And with layers, a calcium supplement such as oyster shell can double as gizzard grit.”

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Photo by Terrie Schweitzer 

Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .

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Diane Katz
6/21/2012 12:30:56 AM
i just got 7 baby chicks. 2 day old. mother han is taking care of them. SOOO CUTE! i give them chick starter (actually, i ran some thru food processor to break it in a few pieces - i thought the little pellets are too big for their little beaks). mother han is trying to teach them to eat whole corn - that's what she eats now. so, i put some whole corn in food processor to break it down, so they can pick some pieces. maybe, i should not do that, but i couldn't resist. just trying to help.

6/13/2012 12:35:10 AM
I started feeding my chicks little bits of snacks (chopped up veggies, yogurt, greens) around 2 or 3 weeks old. Just make sure to offer them grit, too, once you start offering anything besides the chick starter. I wait on table scraps until they're a bit older.

Sue Wade
6/11/2012 6:23:22 PM
at what age can chicks start eating fruits,veggies, table scraps, etc.?

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