Different types of poultry need different nutrients. A variety of diets should be fed based on the age, sex, and intended use of your birds.  These diets have varied amounts of water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.  Each specific diet will help support basic body functions first and foremost, but can then be tailored to providing rapid growth for meat birds, consistent egg production in layers, and a full glossy plumage in show birds.

If your poultry is not getting the nutrients that they need for meeting their full performance potential, your birds will grow slowly, lay fewer eggs than possible, and produce flawed, dull feathers.  If nutrients provided are insufficient to meet the bird’s maintenance needs, which are those basic body functions we mentioned, the animal’s normal immune defenses will be compromised and the bird will likely become ill.


Types of Poultry

LayerThese birds are primarily used to lay eggs. Many people will have laying hens for both pleasure as a low maintenance pet and also to have table fresh eggs.

BroilerThese are birds that will be raised for their meat.  Broilers are generally not raised longer than 3 months of age for faster growing breeds. However some breeds of meat birds can take a bit longer to mature

Mixed UseSome owners choose to raise a mixed flock of layers and meat birds.  If this is the case make sure both types are getting appropriate feed for their growth stage. To ensure good biosecurity and to optimize growth rate you should raise your meat birds separately from your laying or breeding stock. 

Show/GamebirdMany people enjoy showing specific breeds of poultry at regional and national shows/fair/exhibitions.  Generally these animals are fed a nutritionally dense and balanced diet.  They are very well cared for in small manageable groups.

Turkeys/Ducks/Geese – Turkey will do well on a high protein game bird or turkey specific feed.  Young growing turkeys typically require more protein than chicks. Ducks and Geese usually have their own feed formulas for this reason. Growing turkeys, chickens, and ducks should not be raised on chicken feed.  Some owners raise mixed flocks; however, mixed species flocks have been responsible for new and emerging disease outbreaks such as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  General recommendations are to keep different species in separate enclosures.


Someone holding chicken food


Required Components for a Balanced Diet

Water – A healthy bird will drink about twice the daily feed consumption by weight.  Water is important for temperature regulation, blood flow, digestion and many other processes.  Make sure the water is clean (replaced daily), cool and always available to your birds, especially in summer weather.

Protein – Proteins are found in every body tissue of animals. Birds require over 20 different amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.  There isn’t any one feed ingredient that contains all of the amino acids your bird needs.  This is why most feed is mixed at a mill.  If you mix your own feed, ensure you are getting a complete balance of amino acids from both plant and animal proteins.  Animal proteins can include meat and bone meal, as well as insects and worms.

Carbohydrates – These are the major energy source for the bird.  Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the body’s basic energy unit.  A variety of grains are a good source of carbohydrates.

Fats – Fats are also important for energy and energy storage. They help  transmit nerve impulses from the brain to the body and help transport vitamins into the body.  One fat source that some birds can’t produce is linoleic acid.  Most processed plant sources such as vegetable oil contain sufficient amounts of this essential fat.

Minerals – Micro minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, and manganese are needed in very small quantities, Macro minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and salt are needed in larger quantities. Most feed mixes have a balanced mineral profile.

Vitamins – Many birds require over a dozen vitamins.  Commercial feed usually has an added vitamin premix to it.

Grit – Birds have a pre-stomach or a crop that mechanically grinds or “chews” the food before chemical digestion occurs in the true stomach.  The crop requires small rocks and minerals to aid the crop in the chewing process.  Free range birds can usually find grit on their own from the soil.  Confined animals may need to be supplemented with grit especially if you are feeding whole grains.

WARNING!! Don’t feed layer diets to growing birds or growing bird diets to laying hens.

The high calcium content in layer feed can cause growth defects, kidney damage, and death in growing birds.   The low calcium in grower diets will cause your layers to lay less eggs and possibly create soft, malformed eggs.

Bird Type Age Diet Crude Protein (%) Calcium (%)
Broiler (Meat) 0-4 weeks

4 weeks – slaughter







Dual Purpose –

chicks and growing birds

0-18 weeks Starter/Grower 18-19 0.8-1.0
Laying Hens >18 weeks Layer 14-16 3.0-3.4
Breeder Adult Layer/Breeder 14-16 2.7-3.5
Show 0-16 weeks


Gamebird/Showbird Starter

Gamebird/ Showbird






Molting – Chickens have between 7,500 and 9,000 feathers that need to be replaced on a yearly basis.  Molting is the orderly process of shedding old feathers and replacing them with new ones.  This typically happens in the fall, though stress and sudden weather changes can trigger a bird to molt.  This process typically takes anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months depending on the bird.  It is not necessary to change a bird’s diet during this time.  Feathers are made of a protein called keratin.  Even though the bird probably will not lay eggs through the molting process the bird still has energy and protein demands.  Feather loss could be a sign of nutritional deficiency, skin problems, or destructive feather picking behavior.


Four chickens eating food


Types of feed mixes

Whole Grains – Whole grains require more mechanical digestion and may not provide as much nutrient density as other feed mixes.  Birds fed whole grain diets can grow just as well if not better than those fed on other processed feed mixes.  Adequate quantities should be provided to the flock as those higher in the pecking order may sort through the mix and take the higher quality, and tastier grains first.

Mash – Commonly fed to confined layers and chicks.  Grit isn’t as necessary for this feed type as it’s already been “chewed” in the feed mill.  Sorting can still occur with mash leaving minerals behind.

Pellets – This feed is put through a pellet mill which uses steam to create the pellets.   The product is thus cooked and free of disease causing organisms such as Salmonella that may be found in raw grains.   Birds cant sort out pellets as each pellet is nutritionally balanced.  Some owner worry small breed birds can’t swallow pellets well.

Crumbles – typically mashed pellets.  Starter diets tend to be crumbles.  Adults tend to waste crumbles due to smaller particle size.

Medicated feeds are used for specific purposes. They are commonly used to control coccidiosis, a parasite of the digestive system.  If you are unsure of whether or not to use a medicated feed, don’t do it.  If you have concerns of a feed-related problem or disease, contact your veterinarian or nutritionist.  It is best to acquire your feed from a reputable feed store or mill.  Packaged feed is generally considered safer from a biosecurity perspective.  There are feed stores that will sell loose feed that you can the customers fill in reusable containers, but this practice is discouraged as you are putting your flock at risk for diseases from outside flocks.

Most importantly keep your feed stored in a cool, clean, dry area away from insects and rodents.  This is key to part of a good biosecurity program.  To prevent the spread of disease, do not take feed that has been on another flocks’ property.

Hopefully, you now feel better prepared to ensure your backyard flock is offered a healthy diet, from chick to hen or rooster! If your birds have decreased production, illness, and/or rough looking body condition or plumage, but you are already feeding the best diet for your birds, you may need to look at other possible causes. We recommend that you raise any concerns about your flock’s health with your veterinarian and always follow their treatment program. Also, check out our articles on early detection of illness, common parasite, and common contagious diseases elsewhere on this site!



Gauthier, Julie, and Rob Ludlow. Chicken Health for Dummies. Wiley, 2013