The nutritional needs of an egg-laying chicken change with the stages of life. From one stage to another, the chicken's dietary protein requirements change. Baby chicks require the highest levels of protein, while adolescents, called pullets, need the least. Once a chicken reaches maturity and is ready to begin laying eggs, her protein need increase, though not quite to where they were during infancy.
Chick Starter Feed
Baby chicks should eat feed that is at least 20 percent protein. Chicks grow really fast during their first six to eight weeks and require higher protein levels for building strong muscles and bones. Standard commercial starter feed might not contain enough protein for chicks, so be sure of the nutritional makeup of what you're feeding. If the protein content is less than 20 percent, you can either shop around for a more specialized commercial feed or simply supplement with extra protein sources. Older chicks might be able to eat insects and worms from your garden. Soybeans are also standard sources of protein for chickens, but they must be ground into tiny small pieces for baby chicks. At this stage it’s better to err on the side of too much protein rather than too little.
Pullet Grower Feed
At about 6 weeks of age, a chick starts to turn into a pullet, which is the adolescent stage. Pullets need much less protein in their diets, and so can be switched to a specialized “developer” or “grower” feed containing protein levels of only 14 to 16 percent. Pullets should remain on this diet until they're about 20 weeks of age, which is when they reach maturity and are ready to start laying.
Adult layer hens should have their protein intake increased to around 16 percent of their diet. Commercial layer feed generally contains adequate amounts of protein, as well as a proper balance of other nutrients. If your chickens are allowed to roam your yard or garden and eat insects, the extra protein won’t harm them. Higher protein levels, around 18 percent, are recommended for chickens in areas with hot summers to help them keep up production. Extra protein in the winter will help them stay warm. Adult chicken feed can be supplemented with the same protein sources that can be given to baby chicks.
There’s really no special process involved in switching from one protein level to another. However, when you're switching chickens from grower feed to layer feed, consider a few things. Although they generally reach maturity at 20 weeks, a good rule of thumb is not to switch chickens to adult layer feed until they have laid their first eggs. When they reach 18 weeks, it’s a good idea to start adding calcium to their diets, which will be needed for egg production. As their bodies prepare for this, they’ll begin craving calcium, and you can provide it by setting out a tub of crushed oyster shells.
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