Start Your Chickens the Right Way With Chick Starter Feed

Reader Contribution by Vicki Mattern
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Is 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 .