Chickens require a well-balanced diet to ensure optimal health and productivity. While commercial chicken feed generally provides the necessary nutrients, there are certain situations when chickens may benefit from different protein sources.
This article explores the topic of protein for chickens and discusses the timing, quantity, benefits, and sources.
When Do Chickens Need Extra Protein?
Baby chicks experience rapid growth and require higher protein levels (18-20%) until they reach 8 weeks old. Look for “starter” blends of chick feed, as they have higher protein content.
If you’re unable to find chick feed with the desired protein level, we’ll discuss alternative protein sources shortly. Keep in mind that baby chicks require very small particles, so not all options listed are suitable for them.
Once chicks reach 8 weeks old, it’s recommended to decrease the protein level to 14-16% to support healthy development without excessive weight gain.
Most “grower” blends provide this protein level. If you only have chick starter feed available, you can mix in some oats to lower the protein percentage.
Once pullets reach laying age (typically 18-24 weeks, depending on the breed), it’s time to increase the protein intake.
Laying hens require 16-18% protein to meet the extra demands of egg production. If your layer rations do not provide sufficient protein, you should consider additional protein sources.
Additionally, it’s important to consider the protein needs of your rooster (or roosters!) who do not lay eggs. Roosters actually have lower protein requirements, only needing 9% protein in their feed.
It’s best to provide supplemental protein specifically to the birds that require it, rather than increasing the protein content of the entire flock’s feed blend.
Molting is a natural process in which chickens shed old feathers and grow new ones to prepare for winter. Decreasing daylight hours in late summer signals the start of molting. While most of my chickens molt in September, some begin as early as August.
During molting, feathers are gradually shed and regrown, starting with the head and neck, then progressing to the body and tail. The molt typically lasts 14-16 weeks, although the duration can vary.
Good layers undergo a late and rapid molt, lasting 2-3 months, resulting in a ragged and bare appearance. Poor layers experience an early and slow molt, lasting up to 6 months, with minimal feather loss as they shed a few feathers at a time.
Since feathers are primarily composed of 85% protein, chickens require increased protein intake during the intense feather growth phase of molting.
There’s no need to switch to a different feed, but it is important to provide additional protein sources, which will be discussed in the next section.
Hens consume less feed during summer months compared to winter due to their reduced need for calories to stay warm. In extremely hot weather (90+ degrees), their appetite decreases significantly.
Consequently, their protein intake from feed naturally decreases during summer. To ensure their adequate nutrition and optimal egg production in the summer, it is essential to supplement their layer rations with nutrient-rich protein sources. We will discuss these sources in the next section.
Winter is a crucial time for providing chickens with additional protein. During the cold and short winter months, chickens require more nutrients to maintain their metabolism and adequate fat layers, which help keep them warm when temperatures drop below freezing.
Another challenge during winter is the shorter daylight hours, resulting in less time for chickens to eat and obtain essential nutrients.
Installing a light in the coop can extend the daylight hours, but it also stimulates egg laying (hens need 14 hours of daylight to continue laying).
If your hens are laying eggs in winter, they will require extra protein to support egg production in addition to their need for warmth.
However, if your hens are losing weight during winter, it is advisable to turn off the coop light and give them a break.
If you have been water-glassing your eggs during summer, there is no need to focus on winter egg production.
Stress can significantly increase the protein requirements of chickens. Stressors may include illness, predator threats, introduction of new flock members, or moving to a new coop.
When there has been a disturbance in your flock, it is important to provide additional protein to ensure they have the necessary resources for recovery.
How Much Protein Should You Give Your Chickens?
According to the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Arizona, the optimal protein content for egg production and output was determined to be 14.6% during each of the three phases.
The daily protein requirements calculated for laying hens in this study were as follows: 17.05 grams per day to support an egg production level of 83.6%, 17.84 grams per day for an egg production level of 78.1%, and 14.94 grams per day for an egg production level of 69.3%.
Over the course of the entire 36-week experiment, a dietary protein content of 14.6% was sufficient to sustain an average egg production rate of 77% with an intake of 16.54 grams of protein per hen per day.
Is Too Much Protein Bad for Chickens?
According to the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Arizona, feeding diets with protein ranging from 10% to 15.5% resulted in a linear increase in hen-day production during the first 12 weeks of the study.
The egg-laying rate did not improve further with higher protein diets. However, the two lower protein diets (10% and 11.5%) led to significantly lower egg weights and poorer feed conversions.
Regression analyses of the data during the initial 12 weeks indicated that the protein needs of laying hens were estimated to be 14.6% dietary protein or a daily protein intake of 17.1 grams per bird.
A study from the National Library of Medicine also showed that reducing crude protein levels in the diet of broiler breeders reduces ammonia emissions and total N-losses from litter and manure.
Protein Sources for Chickens
There are various protein sources that you can incorporate into your chickens’ diet. Let’s explore some of the most beneficial options:
Cooked eggs are an excellent protein source for chickens as they contain 91% protein. You can boil or scramble eggs and feed them to your flock. This is a great way to use surplus eggs or those with cracked shells.
Fish or Fish Meal
Fish or fish meal is another high-protein food containing 59% crude protein which can be added to your chickens’ diet.
Fishmeal is rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids and essential amino acids like methionine and lysine, and it provides a good balance of unsaturated fatty acids, certain minerals (such as available phosphorus), and vitamins (including A, D, and B-complex).
Typically, fishmeal is limited to 5% to 10% of poultry diet content.
Mealworms are the larvae of darkling beetles and typically contain 46-53% protein, which is beneficial for egg-laying birds as it supports their condition, egg quality, and the molting process.
The increased protein intake through mealworm supplementation helps birds efficiently produce new feathers during the uncomfortable molting period, as feathers are primarily composed of protein.
Additionally, mealworms’ exoskeleton contains chitin, which has been scientifically proven to enhance gut health by reducing the presence of harmful bacteria, including salmonella, in the intestines.
RANZ 5LBS Bulk Non-GMO Dried Mealworms for Chickens
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Pumpkin seeds provide 30.6% crude protein and provide abundant nutrients to chickens and livestock, including the conversion of beta-carotene into vitamin A.
They also offer fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and certain B complex vitamins. Pumpkin seeds are rich in fat and calories.
During the fall season, you can create a mixture of black walnut and pumpkin seed tincture, utilizing readily available black walnuts and raw pumpkin seeds. Any remaining pumpkin and seeds can be given to your flock as a nutritious treat.
Anthony’s Organic Pumpkin Seeds
- No Shell
Sunflower meal has a protein content ranging from 17% to 21%, but it is low in energy and deficient in lysine, which limits its use.
Sunflower seeds are primarily used for oil production. The leftover meal from extracting the oil can be used as a potential feed ingredient for poultry diets.
Schoen Farms Sunflower Kernels and Chips
- Supports the health and well-being of wild birds.
- Offers a reliable source of nourishment during challenging times.
- Contributes to the preservation of local bird populations.
- Quality seed ensures optimal nutrition for various bird species.
- Enhances backyard biodiversity and fosters a thriving ecosystem.
Earthworms have a protein content of 60-70% on a dry matter basis, along with 6-11% fat, 5-21% carbohydrates, and 2-3% minerals.
They also contain a range of vitamins, including niacin. Compared to meat or fish meal, earthworms are higher in essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine. Additionally, earthworm meal is rich in essential long-chain fatty acids.
Meat and Bone Meal
Meat and bone meal is a protein-rich source that can be beneficial for poultry diets. However, its usage is typically limited to less than 5% of the diet content due to the meal’s high calcium, phosphorus, and lysine content.
Seaweed meal can be added to poultry diets in a ratio of 5 to 15 percent, depending on the species of seaweed and the species and age of the animal.
Including up to 3 percent seaweed in the diet improves the hardness of the pellet and serves as a pellet binder.
FRESH EGGS DAILY Organic Coop Seaweed/Kelp Feed Supplement
- Vitamins for Chicken and Ducks
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Field peas (Pisum sativum) contain 20-29% crude protein and can serve as a protein-energy source for poultry diets.
However, replacing a significant portion of soybean meal with field peas may lead to reduced performance in growing chickens and laying hens, as indicated by research findings.
Research suggests that broiler chickens can tolerate up to 20% inclusion of field peas in their diets.
If the diets are supplemented with the enzyme pectinase and formulated 15% higher than NRC recommendations, the inclusion level can be increased to 40%.
Source: Field Peas Protein Content
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Benefits of Plant-Based Protein Sources for Chickens
Plant-based protein sources offer several advantages for chickens. They are generally
Can be included in homemade treats or mixed with their regular feed
Additionally, they provide a variety of nutrients, including fiber and essential vitamins.
Cautions with Plant-Based Protein Sources for Chickens
While plant-based protein sources can be beneficial for chickens, it’s important to consider a few cautions. Some plant sources may contain anti-nutritional factors or enzyme inhibitors that can affect digestion and nutrient absorption.
It’s best to offer a balanced diet and not rely solely on plant-based proteins.
How Do You Increase Protein in Chickens?
If you’re looking to increase the protein intake of your chickens, here are some practical tips:
Let Your Chickens Free Range
Allowing your chickens to free range in a secure area will allow them to find insects, worms, and other natural protein sources.
Have Your Chickens Help in the Garden
If you have a garden, let your chickens help with the weeding and insect control. They will find plenty of protein-rich treats while doing their job.
Give Chick Feed
Ensure your chickens have access to a balanced chicken feed that contains the recommended protein levels for their age and purpose.
Give Them Extra Protein Sources
Offer some of the protein sources mentioned earlier as treats or supplements to their regular feed. This will provide a protein boost without disrupting their balanced diet.
Cut Carbs and Scratch
Reducing the number of carbohydrates and scratch grains can indirectly increase the relative protein intake for your chickens. However, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet and not eliminate necessary nutrients.
Giving Your Chickens More Protein
By considering the various protein sources available and implementing the tips mentioned, you can provide your chickens with the necessary protein to support their overall health, egg production, and growth.
What is your flock’s favorite protein snack?
Every flock is unique, and chickens may have their preferences when it comes to protein snacks. Some may go crazy for mealworms, while others may love the taste of cooked eggs.
Observe your chickens’ behavior and preferences to discover their favorite protein snacks.
What about commercially produced high-protein food?
Commercially produced high-protein chicken feed is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of chickens. It can be a convenient option to ensure they receive adequate protein.
However, it’s always a good idea to supplement their diet with natural protein sources mentioned earlier to provide variety and enrichment.
Good High-Protein Treats!
Here are some high-protein treats you can consider giving your chickens:
Mealworms: These wriggly treats are a favorite among chickens and provide a good amount of protein.
Cooked Fish: Fish scraps, cooked without any seasoning, can be a protein-rich treat for your flock.
Sprouted Lentils: Sprouted lentils are easy to grow at home and offer a healthy dose of plant-based protein.
Scrambled Eggs: Scrambled eggs are a simple and nutritious treat that can be cooked and shared with your chickens.
Earthworms: Let your chickens free range and dig for earthworms, which are a natural protein source.
5 Facts About Protein for Chicks
Protein is crucial for feather growth, muscle development, and egg production in chickens.
Laying hens require around 16-18% protein in their diet while growing chicks need a higher percentage.
Protein sources for chickens can include animal-based options like cooked eggs, fish, mealworms, and meat scraps, as well as plant-based options like peas, oats, and lentils.
Providing extra protein during fall molting, winter, and high-stress situations can support chickens’ health and well-being.
It’s important to strike a balance and not provide excessive protein, as it can lead to health issues for chickens.
Incorporating protein sources into your chickens’ diet can greatly benefit their overall health, egg production, and growth.
Whether it’s through animal-based options like cooked eggs and fish or plant-based options like peas and oats, ensuring an adequate protein intake is essential.
Remember to provide a balanced diet, offer treats in moderation, and observe your flock’s preferences to keep them happy and healthy.
How often should I provide protein sources to my chickens?
Protein sources can be provided as treats or supplements to your chickens’ regular feed. It’s recommended to offer protein treats a few times per week, ensuring they do not exceed 10% of the chickens’ overall diet.
Can I give my chickens raw eggs?
It’s best to feed chickens cooked eggs rather than raw ones. Cooking the eggs helps to eliminate any potential pathogens and makes them safer for consumption.
Can chickens eat meat?
Chickens are omnivores and can eat meat. Cooked meat scraps or animal trimmings can be given to chickens as a source of protein. However, it’s important to avoid feeding them seasoned or processed meats.
Is it safe to feed my chickens cat food?
In moderation, high-quality cat food can be given as an occasional treat to chickens. However, it should not replace their regular feed. Look for cat food with high protein content and avoid those that contain ingredients that may be harmful to chickens.
Can I feed my chickens plant-based protein sources exclusively?
While plant-based protein sources can be included in a chicken’s diet, it’s important to provide a balanced and varied diet.
Chickens also require other nutrients that may not be found in plant sources alone. It’s recommended to offer a combination of animal-based and plant-based protein sources for optimal nutrition.