Observing Your Birds In Cages To Assess Their General Condition

Observing Your Birds In Cages To Assess Their General Condition

By Ritzelle Maria Q. Capili, DVM

External manifestations

  • Birds should have a well-rounded and bright eye; slightly oval eyes means that birds are not fully alert.
  • Any bird that spends all its time huddled in a corner, taking no notice of an observer, is near death.
  • Mostly, if not always, by the time one realizes that a bird is coming down with an infection, it is usually sick.
  • Twisting of the neck (torticollis), paddling (circling), paralysis and spasms may indicate Vit B or E deficiency, infectious disease or poisoning.

Character of the droppings

  • ALWAYS examine fresh droppings dark-colored central part from the rectum and off- white colored surrounding portion consisting mainly of urate crystals from the kidneys.
  • Blood in the droppings may come from the intestines, rectum, cloaca or oviduct: may indicate ulceration, bacterial, viral or protozoal infection of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Yellow droppings may be associated with cholera or typhoid infection.

Breathing abnormalities

  • A dyspneic, gasping bird (difficulty in breathing) may not have a respiratory infection, but is certainly sick.
  • Blue discoloration (cyanosis) on the head region may indicate chronic viral respiratory infections.
  • Change in voice, which becomes harsh, or a change in pitch may indicate a problem in the upper respiratory tract.
  • Clicking or asthmatic noises (rales and wheezing) may be of viral, bacterial or fungal cause.

Physical examination of the restrained bird

Plumage (Feathers)

  • Should be free from external parasites like mites, lice


  • Swelling just above the eye may be evidence of sinusitis.
  • Brown, crusty eruptions around the eyelids and beak may be due to Fowl Pox
  • Mareks disease can cause tumors in the pupil and iris of the eye.
  • Foaming of the eye is common with many viral mycoplasmal or parasitic infections.


  • Cracking of the beak may be due to trauma or Vit A deficiency.
  • Abnormal beak formation may be due to Vit D, Calcium, Biotin and Vit B-complex.


  • Pectoral muscle should he symmetrical upon palpation.

On Tapeworms

  • Aim of satisfactory treatment: complete removal of both adult and larval stage
  • If destrobilization only occurred, the intact scolex is likely to regenerate another body in about 3 WEEKS.
  • Examination of the host’s feces for tapeworm segments is advised at 3-4 weeks following initial drug treatment

Causes of diseases

  • INFECTIOUS: bacteria, virus, fungi parasite, protozoa
  • NON-INFECTIOUS: mechanical (trauma), thermal (chilling, heat stress), nutritional (vitamin deficiencies, nutritional imbalance), metabolic, genetic, toxic, neoplastic, immunologic, aging, idiopathic (unknown cause).

Common clinical signs of digestive problems

  • Innapatence: birds stop consuming feeds.
  • Diarrhea; normal digestion is disrupted (usually first seen as inflammation of the cloaca).
  • Dehydration
  • Uneven growth rate of flock: mixture of healthy and stunted birds due to varying immune competence.
  • Pale shanks, feather abnormalities, improper bone growth: result of inadequate absorption of vitamins and minerals.

On Coccidiosis

  • Young birds (2-4 weeks) are more susceptible; sick and recovered birds may shed infection and become a carrier.

On Salmonella infection

  • Can he acquired via eggs of infected hens.
  • Infected chicks via egg or hatchery die during the first few days of life (up to 2-3 weeks of age).

Common signs of respiratory disturbances

  • Quiet and less active birds
  • Snicking and clicking
  • Swelling of eyelids
  • Rales and coughing, watery discharges from eyes and nostrils caused by excess mucus in the trachea
  • Difficulty in breathing with necks extended and beak open

On Fowl Pox

  • Dry lesions: occur on skin, head, legs- enlarged and filled with fluid, may blend together and turn dark brown or black
  • Wet lesions: occur in the pharyngeal area and upper GIT-interfere with breathing




Feeding Poultry

By Scott Shilala

How’d you get your chicks?

If you hatched your own, just give them Medicated Chick Starter Crumbles, sprinkled about on the brooder floor for the first couple days, then in a feeder. Non-medicated starter is probably a better idea, it’s a matter of choice, and availability.

Give them all they can eat, and keep fresh water in carefully cleaned waterers at all times. Now that’s easy! For a quick “pick me up”, crumbled hard boiled egg yolk is excellent for them.

A tiny sprinkle of probiotics in their feed is always beneficial. A sprinkle of freeze-dried kelp can also be an excellent edge to a good start.

Got them by mail?

Chicks arriving by mail have been stressed pretty heavily. Give them feed and water as if you hatched them yourself, and watch them closely. If they take to the feed and water quickly, you may not want to bother with anything else. They should be fine.

If they do not take to the food and water, you can help them along by dipping their beaks. You can also peck at the feed with your finger, it stimulates them to eat.

If they are still not responding, put marbles in the waterers. Show them how to peck, and keep their attention. Once you get a couple chicks to eat and drink, the others will quickly follow. You may want to add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to each quart of their water. Electrolytes will also help get them back on track. We are very proactive when it comes to shipped chicks. We take great care in offering everything we can to get them over the stress of shipping. Because of all the extras, we’ve never lost a chick that has been shipped to us, and have brought many back that were in really rough shape.

If problems persist with feeding, or you want to give them a quick pick-me-up, you can feed them some mashed hard boiled egg yolk in addition to the crumbles and supplements.

Are supplements or medications necessary?

Necessary? Maybe not. Beneficial? Absolutely.

Medicated Chick Starter has a mild Coccidistat (usually Amprolium), and that’s all. It supplies complete nutrition for growing chicks. Antibiotics, Probiotics, kelp, super-grow supplements and the like are just not absolutely necessary. Some things are very beneficial. It is easy to over-use medications and supplements, and it is likely that you will do more harm than good. Read instructions carefully and follow them to a “T”. Ask someone “what they think” who has lots of experience with the supplement or medicine you are about to use.

We never use any medications, wormers, or anything else as a preventative measure. We use them when it’s beneficial to our bird’s health. We don’t consider it a good practice to give our animals anything unless it is totally necessary, then it is important to do things “by the book”.


Article, The Gamecock, April 1995

CAN-DO By: Too Big To Handle

Article, The Gamecock, April 1995

Can-do is the spirit to accomplish any goal. This attitude comes from the Navy?s Sea-Bees Construction Battalion. I was a member of MCB-10, stationed at Hill 327 Dog Patch, Danang, Vietnam. Under fire, snipers, mines, mortar attacks, heat of 130 degrees, torrential rains, mud, and dysentery; they relentless in their pursuit to establish roads, air fields, bridges and camp sites for the Navy and Marines. It is this spirit that separates the hobbyist cockfighter, from the professionally minded. The will, drive and dedication to water every individual fowl, everyday, in freezing code of winter. The will to work harder to succeed when you go 0-3 in consecutive derbies. To pick yourself up and take a hard look at what your doing wrong. Let?s look at some of these problems.

Yard Feed: When I read where cockers say, ?Don?t use laying pellets,? I hang my head. Boys, there is a billion dollar inventory raising game chickens for meat and eggs. Their commercial scientists are not stupid. They developed starter, grower, layer and breeder feeds to accomplish their goals. You can feed your game chickens layer or breeder pellets! The commercial boys don?t want their laying hens fat. Thus, the laying pellet! They don?t want their breeding stock fat either, thus the breeder pellet. A grower/developer pellet will make your cocks fat.

Southern States makes the 22% super laying pellet. They also make a 15% pellet, they don?t carry the 22% laying pellet, tell them to order it. Don?t take no for an answer, even if you have to contact their mill or home office.

A layer or breeder pellet does not contain any substances to make your cocks sterile. Laying hens sure don?t need sterilizing and I know you don?t sterilize a brood cock or brood turkey.

Southern States super laying pellets contains a small amount of bacitracin, gram-positive, antibiotic for intestinal tract problems. I?ve fed these pellets for twenty-five years and Coccidiosis has never been a problem for me. I also use Sulmet (sold somewhere), every three months. Cost of Sulmet is cheap, approximately $30.00 a gallon compared to other medications. To use Sulmet: give one ounce to one gallon of water for two days, then ? ounces to one gallon of water for four days. Be sure to cut it (in half) after two days. It is potent. The sun effects Sulmet. You must change it daily. Give the fowl eight ounces each, everyday. You can replenish it every day to save money.

Back to the pellets. The medication will not take any so-called edge off your cock?s performance. After using it daily, his brain and nervous system is not affected by it.

When I see these Hatch/Canadian Clarets of mine hit, my heart skips a beat now. If eliminating this antibiotic from their feed made them hit any faster, I couldn?t stand it. The pellets contain animal and plant protein products and a number of vitamins/minerals. The Southern States Super Laying Pellets were designed to be mixed with grains. Don?t get the mash, get the pellets. Please don?t tell me your cocks won?t eat pellets. Don?t feed them anything but pellets until they do. After three days they?ll eat the barrel they?re standing on.

I told my daughter, ?Why don?t you feed that 90 pound mutt of yours 27% protein Dryco dog food., instead of that high priced stuff you?re using. Her reply, ?Oh dad, my dog won?t eat anything else.?

I went and got a 50 pound bag of Dryco for $9.00. It took five days but that dunghill started eating Dryco.

Now you?ve got these pellets, what do you do with them. Get some $10.00 trash cans: two for pellets, one larger for (good) scratch feed with wheat in it and one for whole corn and one for soaked oats. Get you a 2 ? pound coffee can and do this: Use a trash can large enough to feed your fowl for a week. Now mix: 3 cans of 22% pellets; 2 cans (good) scratch feed with wheat; 1 can of whole corn; 2 cans of 22% pellets again. It mixes better this way with pellets on top and bottom. Mix it up good with your hands in the barrel. Keep this up until you fill the trash can full. Now what have we got?

5 cans 22% pellets 5 X 22 = 110% 2 cans 10% scratch 2 X 10 = 20% 1 can whole corn 1 X 8 = 8% 138% (Divide 8 parts feed into 138 and get 17.25% diet.)

Now get the other empty trash can. Put 100 pounds of good western or northern whole oats in it. Fill it with water. Tomorrow it will need filling again and the next day, as the oats swell and soak up the water. Let these oats sit and ferment until they are a golden yellow. Your cocks don?t like dry oats but they love fermented golden yellow oats.

Now this is important. Get ready to feed your yard. Get you a three gallon feed bucket and do this: First get you a can about the size of a large tomato juice can (about ? gallon size), put three cans of your already prepared mixed feed of pellets/grains into bucket. Add one can soaked oats after you dumped the water out. Just reach in those stinking oats, get a ? gallon bucket full, hold your hand over it and pour water off. Pour oats in feed bucket and add three more cans of mixed feed. Pour ? this in another bucket, mix up well and pour back in one bucket. Make sure all the feed is well mixed. Now what have we got? Six cans of mixed feed at 17.25%; 6 x 17.25 = 103.5%. One can of soaked oats = 12%; 1 X 12 = 12%; 103.5 + 12 = 115.5%; 115.5 divided by 7 = 16.5% diet.

This is perfect for a gamecock.

Don?t burn your cocks up with high protein diets. Everyone who comes on my yard, whether it be spring, summer or winter, always comment on how healthy my cocks are.

Don?t bother with oil additives to shine feathers. Oils blocks absorption of feed in the intestines. You?re wasting your money. Feed soaked oats every day unless they?re froze in the barrel. Keep feed barrel in the sun with the lid on. On sunny days the top oats will be warm. I know this works. I wouldn?t be sitting here writing all this down. If I don?t feel this is one of the most important areas you can mess your fowl up.

Nutrients for Chickens and Gamefowl

Nutrients for Chickens and Gamefowl

Nutrients  Debbie Porter

The feed which chickens eat is made up of water, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins. Each nutrient serves a special need. What we feed supplies the building material for the development of bone, flesh, feathers and eggs. When nutrients are properly formulated and balanced will produce fowl that produce in the manner they were designed, provide eggs for market, table or incubation, and develop a healthy meaty fowl. Each nutrient provides a solitary source, but is not complete, yet when gathered and combined provides the proper balance and energy that a fowl needs.


One of the most important, yet often overlooked nutrients, is water. A young chick needs a constant supply of fresh water to stay healthy. It doesn’t drink a lot of water at one time; therefore, it has to drink often. A fowl’s intake of daily water will depend upon availability and weather conditions. Desiring less in winter and more in hot summer months. Placement of water containers is essential, making easy access to old and young alike. Water also can be a source of bacteria, if not cleaned on a regular basis and therefore should be changed frequently depending upon weather, consumption and exposure. Stagnant or long term standing water can be a host and breeding ground for insects that carry disease to poultry.

Water carries waste products out of the body, helps cool the bird by evaporation, softens feed and carries it through the digestive tract. Water should always be available and fresh. During hot summer month’s water containers should be kept in cool shady areas and not allowed to become stagnant or develop algae build up. Which would allow for the ingestion of microbes or bacteria. Lack of free access to abundant water supply may also slow productivity down. Denial of water can lead to dehydration, molt, dry feathers without sheen, undue stress and the inability to properly digest food. Fowl consume their greatest amount of water following eating or right before roosting.


Carbohydrates include starches, sugars and cellulose. Carbohydrates in the form of starches, or simple sugars are needed for body maintenance and energy. Carbohydrates cost less than fats and are easily digested, absorbed and transformed into fat.

Important sources of carbohydrates in poultry feeds are corn, wheat, oats, milo and various other cereal grains. Since energy is provided by the intake of carbohydrates, whether it is for warmth in winter by adding extra grains like corn to the diet to naturally produce body heat, or energy to maintain a balanced and vibrant flock. An over abundance of carbohydrates in the diet can produce added amounts of fat cells reducing health benefits and productivity. Reducing the ration of corn, yet providing other beneficial grains, and increasing the sources of protein to provide the energy that a fowl needs for egg production, general health and energy, and the viability of the egg can be beneficial.

Whole Grains such as wheat, oats, barley, and corn are vitamin sources of the B complexes, E, folic Acid and Biotin. With wheat having the highest source of biotin and vitamin E, along with B/1 known as Thiamin. You may see it listed on feed sources as Hydrochloride. Another good source for the complex B vitamins is ground meals and dried yeast. B vitamins are depleted during stress and are essential in the release of energy from absorbed or stored carbohydrates and fats. B vitamins aids in disease resistance, fertility and viability of the embryo.


Animal and vegetable fats, such as cottonseed meal or fishmeal, are the highest energy sources in feedstuffs. They also improve the physical consistency in feed mixtures. Supplemental fats may increase energy utilization in adult birds in association with a decreased rate of food intake. The substitution of fat for a portion of the dietary carbohydrates may enhance energy utilization by reducing the heat created by carbohydrates. Fats should be stabilized by an antioxidant; otherwise they are likely to become rancid, especially in hot weather or long storage periods. Small amounts of fat are desirable since they supply essential fatty acids, fatty acids are essential for rebuilding and producing new cells, and improve palatability. Essential fatty acids require Vitamin E for absorption. Some good sources of essential fatty acids for poultry are found in vegetable oils and fishmeal. The oil content in fishmeal will range from 2% to greater than 14%. So thus it should not be the sole source of fat content.


Proteins are complex compounds made up of amino acids. Feed proteins are broken down into amino acids by digestion. They are then absorbed and transported by the blood to the cells, which assemble these amino acids into body proteins. Body proteins are used in the construction of body tissue. Tissues, which mainly consist of protein, are muscles, nerves, cartilage, skin, feathers and beak. The albumen (white) of the egg is also high in protein. The main sources of protein in poultry rations are animal proteins such as fishmeal, meat and bone meal, and plant proteins, such as soybean meal, cottonseed meal, and ground alfalfa and corn gluten meal. There is no one source of protein that will provide all the amino acids in one feed ration. But when the proteins from different feedstuffs are used, the ration can be formulated to contain all the necessary amino acids. Excellent sources of proteins for poultry are ground alfalfa meal, meat and bone meal and fishmeal. A balanced diet of proteins should be formulated for each stage of a fowl’s life and needs according to growth desired and productivity. Too low of protein count and you can see poor development in young and the health and overall vitality of the old effected with excessive weight loss. To high of a protein count from gathered resources and optimum growth can result in a short period of time with excessive weight gain for the skeletal structure to support, to cases of gout.

A vitamin A deficiency can affect the ability of a fowl to utilize protein. Meat proteins also provide the enzymes that aid in digestion and metabolism of proteins. Fishmeal is an excellent source of protein for poultry since it contains adequate quantities of all the essential amino acids required by chickens, and is an especially good source of lysine and methionine. Good quality fishmeal is a brown powder, which will average between 60% and 70% protein. It cannot be used as a sole source of protein. Thus when added to feed rations should be done so as to not exceed the protein requirement of the fowl but only to insure a proper and balanced level, or provide what may not be readily available in the ration due to a poor protein source.

The protein content of wheat is higher than corn. Protein content varies from 11 to 19%, depending on type of wheat. Wheat can be added at higher rates in summer months with a decrease in corn, for the reduction of heat and still supply the energy a fowl needs. Wheat does not contain caratenoids and will create a slightly lighter yolk color. Many Game Bird feeds gather several sources of protein, with animal proteins in a higher percentage compared to other feeds, for a well-balanced supply of all the essential amino acids. All feed should be formulated in such a way to provide balanced nutrition for appropriate age levels. With a higher count for the young and a decreased protein count as a fowl matures and has developed. Added supplements of animal protein sources to a balanced ration should be done at 2 to 4% levels due to the source and structure of the proteins. Grain proteins can be added at higher level. Yet should not exceed that of other sources of animal protein diluting the count to such an extent proper nutrition is affected. It is a combination of these proteins that fulfills the required diet.

In reading the tag on a bag of poultry feed you will see listed the percent of crude protein. This tells you only the percentage guaranteed for optimum performance for a particular need or stage of development according to age. It is beneficial to check the sources of protein that the feed is comprised of. Your main sources of proteins for each particular brand will be listed as the first of several ingredients.


The mineral portion of the feed is inorganic matter. Minerals are absorbed through the small intestine. Minerals, especially calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, help build bones and make them strong and rigid. Laying hens also require minerals for eggshell formation. Other minerals are needed in trace amounts. Trace minerals are those minerals required at very low amounts for good growth and production. Potassium is essential in egg production and when depleted a drop may arise. Most feeds, in crumble, pellet or mash forms are formulate with a certain amount of trace minerals. Grains are low in minerals, so it is necessary to provide supplements. Calcium, phosphorus and salt are needed in the greatest amounts. Ground limestone and oyster shell are good calcium sources. Trace levels of iodine, iron, manganese and zinc are also included in mineral supplements. Bone meal, and ground limestone supply additional calcium and phosphorus. Phosphorus in meat and bone meal is almost completely absorbed by the bird.

During stress related times and heavy production minerals such as calcium will be absorbed at a faster rate leaving the system depleted drawing its source form other areas such as bones resulting in brittleness, poor egg quality and lack of production. Calcium given freely in oyster shell form can be scattered or made available freely for a hen to consume, as her body desires to replace the loss during heavy production. Fishmeal is an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus for poultry. Fishmeal contains three major nutrients; protein, fat and minerals (ash). The ash (mineral) content of fishmeal is relatively high and is usually an indication of a higher calcium and phosphorus level. Another valuable source for minerals, protein and vitamins is Alfalfa. Many times it is offered in a feed ration as a ground meal form. Alfalfa meal contains Chlorine, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, and Sodium. Many Game Bird Feed rations will offer alfalfa meal as a protein source, but it also provides trace mineral elements. Those fowl; that do not have access to free ranging or forging and are limited to soil for dusting and consuming minerals may need periodic mineral supplements or mineral grit.


All feed rations will provide small amounts, and are absolutely necessary for growth, reproduction and the maintenance of health. They occur in feedstuffs in varying quantities and in different combinations. Regardless of brand or form vitamin supplements may be required periodically for health and vitality. Many things can interfere with the efficiency of vitamins; stress and antibiotics can deplete the body of many vitamins. Microorganisms of the intestinal tract produce some vitamins.

A side effect of medications is the depletion of naturally produced vitamins in the intestines especially after cocci treatments. Vitamin D can be produced by sunlight on the bird’s skin. Caged fowl are more likely to need the aid of a D supplement. Other vitamins must be supplied in the ration. Vitamins are required for normal growth, feathering and leg development in the young and stamina, health, fertility and production in the old. A wide range of problems can arise and will depend on which vitamin or vitamins a fowl is inadequate in and how deficient the diet is. Many poultry diseases and illnesses can be often attributed to a vitamin deficient ration.

There are 2 groups that vitamins fall into, fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s fat and used when needed Water-soluble vitamins are not stored by the body and are lost through fecal droppings or stress. Water-soluble vitamins will need to be kept balanced in a diet.

Fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, K 

Water-soluble vitamins: C, Thiamin (B/1), Riboflavin (B/2), Pantothenic acid, Niacin, Pyridoxine, Choline, Biotin, Folic Acid, B/12 and B complexes. Vitamin A is necessary for the health and proper functioning of the skin and lining of the digestive, reproductive and respiratory tracts. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone formation and the metabolism of calcium and phosphorus. The B vitamins are involved in energy metabolism and in many other metabolic functions.

On going studies are finding a relation between vitamin B and disease resistance. A vitamin premix is included in the commercial ration to provide additional supplements such as vitamin A, B/12, D/3, E, K, riboflavin, niacin, Pantothenic acid, and Choline. It was discovered that B/12 could be obtained by foraging through manure. Thus pecking at litter will maintain B/12 in a fowls system. Alfalfa meal added to feed provides K, A, C, B/3, D, and E. Housed flocks, or caged birds tend to have deficiencies at a higher rate than those that are allowed to run, scratch and forage. Access to soil minerals and fresh greens aid in replenishing vitamins and minerals lost to natural stress and stressful conditions. Some vitamins are not stable and their benefits can be lost in stored feed if not properly kept. If stored properly, to maintain the stability of vitamins, most feeds will remain stable for approximately 3 months.

On the other hand an excessive amounts of vitamins given in an improper balance can have serious health effects. There are specially formulated vitamin packs readily available in proper proportions, in the aid of a vitamin deficiency. Such additives that are aimed at providing vitamins are Cod liver oil, Wheat Germ oil, Brewers yeast or Dried Yeast, AD& E powders. These can be added to the diet during breeding, stress, or after medications, especially coccidiosis treatments or any illness that may have depleted the body of vitamins through stress of the illness or excrement. Many medications interfere with the absorption of vitamins.

Commercial poultry feeds contain numerous similar feed ingredients. There are, however, several different types of rations available. As an example: starter, grower, finisher and layer rations. These are designed to meet the specific needs of different type birds at different ages and developmental stages. All will provide ample nutrition if used in a proper fashion. Only the quality of each formulated ration will vary by the sources of Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats.

Feeding and Formulating the Right Ration 

Commercial poultry feeds contain numerous similar feed ingredients. There are, however, several different types of rations available. As an example: starter, grower, developer, finisher and layer and breeder rations. These are designed to meet the specific needs of different type birds. All are basic in their design with all formulations gathering their sources from either animal or vegetable proteins. With the greater concentration and best source of protein for the young and their developmental rate. Grower and developers are designed to bring a young fowl into the mature stage of egg production. Growers and developers are designed for the “adolescent” stage of fowl. They will be slightly reduced in protein count yet should contain good sources for continuing muscle and structure development.

Layers or breeders need a proper nutrient balance to be able to produce eggs whether for the table or those to be incubated. A breeder ration will have a slightly higher protein count than a layer ration with added vitamins and minerals for viability of the embryo. Whether layer or breeder they may require less protein but added energy foods for production. Both are formulated with trace amounts of calcium but during heavy production may require a supplement of oyster shell.

Chicks should never be feed solid grain feeds due to the developmental stages of the gizzard in digesting solid grains. Mashes are formulated for easier digestion and consumption. Their proteins sources should be gathered from high quality animal proteins and not total reliance on vegetable proteins. When introducing grains to a proper formulated ration it should be done at as a gradual process. Whether it is to supplement due to stress, weather, production or viability of the egg.

When feeds sources such as grains are added to concentrated rations they dilute the protein count. Choice of grains is essential in maintaining protein yet providing the energy a flock may need for health and production. A good rule of thumb in formulating a ration for your flock is to gather all your protein sources and add the count, then divide the number of sources to get an approximation of the average. Foremost one should know the quality of the source and what it provides in establishing a healthy and productive flock.

In formulating feeds all things should be considered form growth and development to egg production and breeding. Establishing a proper diet and feeding program will aid in the knowledge of areas that may require attention or supplements. Though fowl on a well-balanced and proper diet are less likely to have health related issues and require less supplementation. Remembering that each source of a nutrient you provide is energy for a fowl to perform and maintain its health.

Feeding Chickens For Best Health and Performance

Feeding Chickens For Best Health and Performance
By Anne Fanatico, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

An important part of raising chickens is feeding – feeding makes up the major cost of production and good nutrition is reflected in the bird’s performance and its products. This publication discusses feeding traditional rations as well as mixing your own rations, organic diets, and special concerns for feeding chickens in some of the pasture-based models discussed in the companion ATTRA publication. Feeding Options. The most convenient way of feeding chickens is with a balanced pelleted ration, whether the birds are confined indoors or allowed to range outdoors. Most diets contain corn for energy, soybean meal for protein, and vitamin and mineral supplements.

Commercial rations often contain antibiotics and arsenicals to promote health and improve growth, coccidiostats for combating coccidiosis, and sometimes mold inhibitors. However, it is possible to obtain unmedicated feed-check feed labels to see if they contain feed additives.
In the industry, the feed is pelleted so the bird can eat more at one time. Chickens are nibblers and make frequent trips to the feed trough for small meals, which requires energy. Pelleting reduces the amount of energy required for a bird to feed. However, many producers of pasture-based, “natural” poultry believe that the meat is better when the bird receives more exercise. If the bird is eating a fibrous diet, grit such as oyster shells is supplied to aid in grinding up coarse feed in the gizzard.

Industry birds usually don’t use grit because the diet is low in fiber. Outdoor birds also pick up small stones. Different rations are often used, depending on the production stage of the bird. Starter rations are high in protein-an expensive feed ingredient. However, grower and finisher rations can be lower in protein since older birds require less. A starter diet is about 24% protein, grower diet 20% protein, and finisher diet 18% protein (1). Layer diets generally have about 16% protein. Special diets are available for broilers, pullets, layers, and breeders. Whole grains can also be provided as scratch grains. Access to clean water is important.

Levels of total dissolved solids above 3000 ppm in the water can interfere with poultry health and production.
Home-mixed Rations

Some producers decide to mix their own rations in order to be assured that only “natural” ingredients are used.

Poultry feed ingredients include energy concentrates such as corn, oats, wheat, barley, sorghum, and milling by-products. Protein concentrates include soybean meal and other oilseed meals (peanut, sesame, safflower, sunflower, etc.), cottonseed meal, animal protein sources (meat and bone meal, dried whey, fish meal, etc.), grain legumes such as dry beans and field peas, and alfalfa. Grains are usually ground to improve digestibility. Soybeans need to be heated-usually by extruding or roasting-before feeding in order to deactivate a protein inhibitor. Soybeans are usually fed in the form of soybean meal, not in “full-fat” form, because the valuable oil is extracted first. Whole, roasted soybeans are high in fat which provides energy to the birds.

Chicken feed usually contains soybean meal which is a by-product of the oilseed industry. In the industry, soybeans are dehulled and cut into thin pieces (flaked) to improve the action of the solvent (usually hexane) which is passed through the soybean to extract the valuable oil. Vegetable oils such as soybean oil are used for edible and industrial purposes. The soybean is then toasted as a method of heat treatment to deactivate an inhibitor which would otherwise interfere with protein digestion in the animal.

However, chickens can also be fed unextracted (full-fat) soybeans. An advantage of feeding unextracted soybeans is that they still contain the oil which provides high energy fat to the bird. Unextracted soybeans need to be heat-treated-roasted with dry heat and then ground, rolled, or flaked before mixing into a diet. Another method of heat treatment is extruding. Extrusion involves forcing the beans through die holes in an expander-extruder which creates friction which heats the beans sufficiently (sometimes steam is also applied). The result is a powdery material which does not require further grinding. Roasted and extruded soybeans should not be stored for long periods of time, especially in hot weather, because the oil turns rancid. Since protein is generally one of the most expensive feed ingredients, the industry uses targeted rations and reduce the amount of protein in the diet as the birds grow (chickens require less and less protein as they age); however, it may not be cost-effective for small-scale producers to have different diets for starters, growers, and finishers.

Vitamin pre-mix is usually added but may be reduced by using vitamin-rich plant sources such as alfalfa. Other plants also provide vitamins in their leaves, hulls, and brans. Fish oil can provide vitamins A and D. Yeast provides some of the B vitamins. Sunlight is a good source of vitamin D for ranging chickens (converting a precursor to vitamin D). Poultry in cattle pastures may obtain vitamin B12 when picking through dung pats for insect larva. Sprouting grains, although a labor-intensive process, is used by some producers for vitamins when access to range is not possible. Sprouting can increase the amounts of carotene (vitamin A precursor) in the grain and as a source of year-round forage, could be an advantage for certified organic poultry production to reduce the amount of synthetic vitamins required in the diet.

Eating plants may provide a yellow color to the skin of slaughtered chickens and a deeper yellow color to egg yolks. Trace mineralized salt is usually added to poultry diets, but other sources can provide minerals. Minerals, although not present in high levels in plants, are provided in fish meal and kelp (seaweed). Meat and bone meal is an excellent source of minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus, as well as being a good protein source.

However, if a producer does not want to use meat and bone meal, then dicalcium phosphate can be substituted. Access to pasture can reduce the vitamins and minerals needed in the diet since the birds get vitamins from plants and both vitamins and minerals from insects. An example of an all-grain diet is enclosed.

Probiotics are sometimes provided to chicks during placement and before shipping. However, preparing a balanced diet can be a complex, possibly costly process, especially for producers with little background in nutrition. Specialized knowledge is required about the nutrient requirements of chickens and the nutrients contained in feedstuffs. Feed ingredients need to be sourced, milled, mixed together according to a formulation, and the mix is usually pelleted. Ration-balancing of home-made diets is important, especially on a commercial scale, to achieve the right amounts of nutrients. If diets are not properly balanced, then birds will suffer from nutritional diseases.

The National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Poultry (2) specifies the amounts of protein, energy (carbohydrates and fats), minerals, and vitamins. The quality of the protein is important since it is made up of individual amino acids, some amino acids being essential to bird health. The proper amount of these nutrients needed in diets depend on breed, age, and type of production.

The reference issue of Feedstuffs magazine (3) has a charts of feed composition which lists the amount of nutrients provided by various feedstuffs. Feeding textbooks such as Applied Animal Nutrition: Feeds and Feeding (1) also have such charts. Feedstuffs can also be analyzed in a laboratory for nutrient make-up.

Poultry nutritionists or Extension agents can provide help in ration-balancing. In preparing your own diet, formulation is important. Sample diets are enclosed. Some diets do not include meat and bone meal–call ATTRA for more information. If you are mixing a large volume, you may be able to get a local feedmill to mill, mix, and possibly pelleted (requires different machinery) for you. Feedmills also have access to feed ingredients and staff with nutritional expertise who can formulate diets. Ellie MacDougal, a Maine farmer who keeps 50 layers primarily for composted litter for an herb operation, is an example of a producer who mills and mixes her own ingredients on-farm.

She purchases whole grains and mills them as needed to retain nutrients. She says that milled grains should be fed within 30 days or else they begin to lose nutrients. She suggests a hand-mill for small quantities or a motorized mill for larger amounts. Another option is to buy already milled grains and just do your own mixing. Some producers feed whole grains.

An “old-fashioned” way of feeding chickens is the “mash and grain” method which is a two-feed system of providing whole grains along with a high-protein ration in order to reduce costs. The whole grains cost less than the high-protein ration and can even be grown on-farm (4). Contact ATTRA for more information on mash and grain feeding.

Certified Organic Diets

Home-mixed diets are particularly useful to certified organic poultry producers. Although pre-mixed organic poultry rations are available for purchase, they can be expensive and may need to be shipped from long distances. Call ATTRA for a list of organic poultry feed suppliers. Many producers look for local sources of organic feed ingredients. If you have difficulty in finding sources of organic feedstuffs locally, the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) (5) may be able to provide you with the names of organic producers in your area.

Some producers raise their own organic feedstuffs. A useful contact is Craig Kovacik (6), an organic poultry producer in Michigan. He raises an average of 50 broilers per week in a pasture-based model. He mixes and sells organic poultry rations and is familiar with organic standards for processing feed. At present, the USDA does not permit “organic” labels for livestock products, because the federal standards are not yet set for organic livestock production.

However, private and state certifying agencies provide certification is an operation meets their criteria. Most programs’ standards for certified livestock production require that 100% of the feed be certified organic and that no antibiotics, wormers, growth promotants or insecticides which are not on the program’s list of approved natural products be used.

Feeding Concerns for Chickens in Pasture-based Models. When raising birds in a pasture-based model, it is important to keep in mind that the digestive system of the chicken is geared towards the digestion of insects, seeds, and grain rather than the digestion of forage, and they will still need concentrate feed rations to produce well. However, chickens can make some use of high-quality forages, particularly legumes. Ladino clover was a recommended forage in the 30′s and 40′s when grazing poultry was more common. Sudan grass was used for summer grazing, oats and wheat were used in the winter, and alfalfa provided perennial legume pasture. Joel Salatin (7) developed the popular “pastured poultry” model in which broilers are pastured in floorless pens which are moved daily to fresh pasture.

Feed concentrate is provided in the pen, along with water. In this system, allowing the birds to forage on plants, seeds, insects, and worms which reduces concentrate feed costs by 30%. (See the ATTRA publication Sustainable Chicken Production for more information.) Salatin does not believe that forage species is important for poultry range. He believes that a diverse, perennial mix of forages is key to providing nutrients. He says the forage height is important and keeps his pasture sward at about 2 inches. If the grass is tall, chickens in the confined field pens (“pastured poultry”) tend to mat the grass down and it becomes unsanitary.

Fresh, vegetative pasture provides more nutrients to poultry than fibrous, stemmy pasture, and a good sod pasture prevents muddy, unsanitary conditions. Some producers use mangles, kale and even tree forage, such as mulberry or persimmon, as poultry feed. Salatin also developed a free-range model called the “eggmobile.” This is a portable layer house which is moved every few days to a new pasture location. Birds range freely during the day (see the ATTRA publication Sustainable Egg Production for more information).

If chickens (particularly the more aggressive layer breeds) are raised in a “free-range” model such as the eggmobile, it may be possible to feed whole grains cafeteria-style instead of milled, mixed rations. Salatin feeds whole grains to his layers in the “eggmobile”.

Corn, wheat, oystershell, and meat scraps are fed cafeteria-style, so the birds can choose what they need. If, for example, the birds have been eating a lot of grasshoppers on pasture, they may consume less of the expensive meat scraps. This style of feeding may make costly organic feeding more feasible, since whole organic grains could be purchased and fed without the additional processing costs of milling and mixing into rations. However, birds in the confined field pens of the pastured poultry model may not be able to forage sufficient insects.

Although feed requirements can be reduced by allowing access to range and the accompanying insects, benefits of ranging poultry may lie more in marketing and animal welfare rather than in the feeding.

Chicken nutrition and feeding is an important part of production. If you are going to mix your own diet, great effort may be required to produce well-balanced diets, especially certified organic diets. Chickens are able to obtain some of their nutrients from insects, worms, and plants when on pasture, thus reducing costs.