SHOREVIEW, MN - Graduating school. Getting married. Having children. Retirement. We celebrate many milestones in life. Key moments also happen for backyard chickens. While flocks won’t be buying their first new cars any time soon, each bird will also go through important life stages.
Patrick Biggs, Ph.D., a flock nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition, says many backyard chicken journeys begin each spring at local Purina® Chick Days events.
“As we get started on the journey with baby chicks, it’s important to look forward to the milestones birds will celebrate,” Biggs said. “From baby chick to retirement, there are six important growth stages. Each stage signals nutrition changes.”
Biggs recommends using these six milestones as a roadmap to creating a complete feeding program:
Start your birds strong by providing a complete starter-grower feed with at least 18 percent protein to support chick growth. The feed should also include amino acids for chick development, prebiotics and probiotics for immune health, and vitamins and minerals to support bone health.
“Chicks are also susceptible to illness,” Biggs said. “If chicks were not vaccinated for coccidiosis by the hatchery, choose a medicated feed. Medicated feeds like Purina® Start & Grow® Medicated, are not impacted by the Veterinary Feed Directive and can be purchased without a veterinarian.”
During weeks five and six, chicks will go through visible growth changes, including new primary feathers and a developing pecking order. Growing birds are now referred to differently. Pullet is the term for a teenage female, while a young male is called a cockerel. Between weeks seven and 15, the physical differences between genders will become even more obvious.
“Continue to feed a complete starter-grower feed during the teenage stage,” said Biggs. “Along with 18 percent protein, make sure the feed contains no more than 1.25 percent calcium. Too much calcium can have a detrimental effect on growth, but a complete starter feed has just the right balance for growing birds.”
“Around weeks 16 - 17, people begin to check their nesting boxes for the coveted first egg,” said Biggs. “At this point, consider layer feed options so you can make a smooth transition.”
As compared to starter-grower, a layer feed has less protein and more calcium. This added calcium is important for egg production.
“Look for a complete layer feed that matches your flock goals – whether that’s organic, added omega-3 or strong shells,” Biggs explained. “In any case, be sure the layer feed is made with simple, wholesome ingredients and includes 16 percent protein, at least 3.25 percent calcium as well as key vitamins and minerals.”
The first egg
When birds reach 18 weeks old or when the first egg arrives, slowly transition to a layer feed. Biggs’ advice is to make the transition gradually to prevent digestive upset.
“On our farm, we have found it’s best to transition over time rather than all at once,” he said. “We mix the starter and layer feed evenly for four or five days. If birds are used to crumbles, start with a crumble layer feed. The same goes with pellets. The more similar the two feeds are, the smoother the transition will go.”
Once the first egg has been laid, it’s business as usual for a while. Around 18 months, feathers will likely begin to cover the coop floor. Welcome to molting season.
“The first molt usually occurs in the fall when days become shorter,” said Biggs. “Your flock will take a break from egg laying and shed feathers for a few weeks. This is a completely natural annual occurrence.”
Protein is the key nutrient in a flock’s diet during molt. This is because feathers are made of 80 - 85 percent protein, whereas eggshells are primarily calcium.
“When molt begins, switch to a complete feed with 20 percent protein,” Biggs adds. “A high-protein complete feed can help hens channel nutrients into feather regrowth. Once birds begin producing eggs again, switch back to a layer feed to match their energy needs.”
One day, around year five or later, the time may come for the veterans of a flock to take a permanent vacation and retire from egg-laying. Although a hen will stop laying as she ages, she still has an important place in the flock as a steady companion who brings joy to the entire family.
“At this point, transition back full circle to a higher-protein feed,” said Biggs. “If you have laying hens in the flock, supplement with oyster shell to assist their egg production.”