What Do Chickens Eat?
Posted on: September 29th 2021
As someone who likely reaches for a carton of eggs most weeks at the grocery store, it’s natural for you to wonder what goes into the production of those eggs. A significant factor in the quality of eggs you purchase is the chickens’ diet, as it considerably affects egg production. Good-quality feed makes better eggs. Let’s learn more about what chickens eat and how it contributes to the eggs you put on your family’s table.
A Chicken’s Dietary Needs
Chickens must grow rapidly, and they need the nutrients to support them. To promote that growth, as well as the development of feathers, baby chicks should eat nutrient-dense food full of vitamins, minerals, and proteins throughout their early maturation. Once they have completely feathered and their growth has tapered off, chickens have different energy requirements. Pullets, or young hens under a year old, need 1% less protein in their diet at the time of laying their first egg, while needing about 1% more calcium to help shell formation, for example.
There are six classes of nutrients necessary for chickens to grow up healthy and produce quality eggs.
- Carbohydrates constitute the majority of a chicken’s energy source, and mostly come from cereal grains in the diet.
- Fats provide chickens with energy and essential fatty acids needed for some bodily processes to work.
- Proteins are necessary for growth and creation of muscle and feathers, as well as egg production.
- Vitamins are crucial in small amounts to help facilitate a multitude of functions essential to health and growth.
- Minerals are inorganic chemicals, also vital for healthy growth and development.
The vitamins a chicken needs include vitamin D and vitamin E. The vitamin D required is more or less constant despite variations in diet, but vitamin E intake must increase when chickens are eating a diet high in polyunsaturated fats. Choline is an essential nutrient similar to a vitamin. It’s necessary for the formation of cell membranes as well as in metabolism. Amino acids are another critical part of a chicken’s diet, much like they are in humans. Chickens cannot synthesize nine of the 12 essential amino acids, requiring chicken farmers to introduce them into their diet intentionally.
The diet must also contain enough nitrogen to allow the chickens to synthesize the amino acids they’re able to produce themselves. Chicks need a total of 38 different nutrients, and there are some additional nutrients to consider when raising chickens under certain conditions. Several heavy metals and vitamin C are examples. In some cases, feed contains enzymes that make it easier for chickens to absorb dietary phosphorous and protein.
Water is also an essential nutrient. Exact requirements vary hugely depending on factors like temperature, humidity, and the ability of individual birds to reabsorb water in the kidneys. When chickens don’t have access to water for 12 hours or more, they can’t grow properly, and dehydration affects egg production. Water deprivation that lasts 36 or more hours greatly increases the chance of death in chickens of all ages, so they must have access to cool and clean water at all times.
How Other Farms Feed Chickens
Before the development of the chicken industry in the 20th century, chicken and other poultry usually lived on general farms with other animals. They would have fairly free rein in moving around and foraging for insects, plants, and grain spilled by other livestock like cattle or horses. If they were lucky, chickens might get some grain and household scraps, and calcium supplements in the form of oyster shells. Nowadays, chickens on commercial farms eat a uniform diet, often formulated to provide the minimum nutrition necessary. There are four types of feed.
- Scratch grain consists of whole, rolled, or cracked grains in one or more varieties. It generally gets spread out on the ground for the chickens to peck and scratch at. This type of feed is not nutritionally complete, and is best as a supplemental feed.
- Mash is one of the oldest nutritionally complete types of chicken feed, presented in ground form. It is cost-effective, and chickens tend to like it better than some other types.
- Pellets are mash compressed and shaped into small nuggets. This process keeps the ingredients from separating as mash sometimes does, but the pellets are too large to feed to chicks.
- Crumbles are pellets that have gotten crushed and broken up into smaller granules, usually so chicks can eat it.
The Consequences of Poor Conditions
A farm may use any combination of food format to feed their chickens. While nearly every farm feeds a nutritionally complete diet, birds’ living conditions can have a staggeringly harmful impact on their quality of life and therefore the eggs they produce.
On most commercial farms, chickens stay in battery cages. The cages are in rows and columns connected in a single unit, much like the arrangement of an artillery battery. Each cage is an average of 67 square inches, which is less than a standard sheet of paper. It barely gives a single hen enough room to spread her wings, and in many cases, farmers cram multiple chickens into one cage.
The chickens may never leave the cage in their entire lives, and often receive feed through plastic or metal pipes that dispense food and water. The animals regularly compete for the food they get, leading to uneven consumption and potentially malnutrition for smaller, weaker birds.
Even when caged birds are getting adequate nutrition, their quality of life is negligible at best. In cages, chickens can’t perform natural behaviors like dust bathing, perching, nesting, and scratching. Nutrition is only one part of what a chicken needs to be healthy. They must have at least some time and space to do the things a chicken likes to do if they are to lay the best-quality eggs.
Forced molting is one of the most inhumane practices you’ll find regarding chicken feeding on commercial farms. Molting is the process of a hen losing her feathers, which chickens go through once a year in the fall. During molting, egg production stops temporarily, and when it starts again, the birds produce larger eggs.
Large commercial farms force molting by withholding feed for a minimum of five days and up to 21. Some farmers induce molting by purposely switching the hens to a nutritionally deficient feed to stress them. Sometimes, they also withhold water to expedite the process. Forced molting is an unnecessary way to maximize profits at the expense of the animals’ health. It’s illegal in many places, including the United Kingdom and the European Union.
How Sauder’s Is Different
At Sauder’s, we understand that when you put good in, you get good out. That’s why we spent years developing Sauder’s Gold Feed. This all-natural formulation contains far more nutritional elements than your average commercial feed. We’ve designed it to go above and beyond a chicken’s nutritional needs, inserting nutrients beneficial to humans into the egg production process from the beginning. Let’s take a look at what sets our feed apart.
Commercial feeds use animal-based sources to cram more protein into each pellet. Some of the proteins used are bone meal and fish meal, made from the leftovers of meat processing. It’s certainly cost-effective, and these sources aren’t controversial. However, many commercial feeds end up feeding chickens to other chickens in the form of poultry byproduct meal or feather meal.
Poultry byproduct includes what’s left over from chickens at the slaughterhouse. Not only is it disturbing on an ethical level, but the leftovers used are also unsavory parts like intestines, heads, feet, and necks. Another relatively common, yet shocking, practice is to dry manure and add it directly to the chickens’ diet. Manufacturers of this feed frame it as an economical way to dispose of manure and add protein as well as B12 into the animals’ diet.
Vegetarian feed may be more expensive to source and produce, but it has a variety of benefits for chickens. Good-quality feed made from plants is denser in vitamins and minerals. Plant-based proteins are also more stable, have a wider nutrient profile, and are highly digestible so chickens can take better advantage of those nutrients. Balance is vital in any creature’s diet, and animal byproducts are in no way necessary to achieve this.
It Features Lutein
Lutein is a naturally occurring antioxidant that can both preserve and improve the function of your eyes. It protects the retina from ultraviolet light as well as the effects of aging. There is some evidence that they save the fragile blood vessels in the retinas from oxidation that may eventually cause degeneration.
This nutrient also shows promise in improving brain function. Brains rich in lutein score better marks in many cognitive tests, measuring learning, memory, language, and executive function, among other things. It’s also worth noting that children have twice as much lutein in their brains as adults do, so it may be important for brain development early on in life.
To lower the risk of age-related degeneration of the macula, adults need to get at least six mg of lutein per day. The average adult gets less than two mg. Sauder’s Gold Feed results in eggs with 455 mg more lutein per egg when compared with conventional eggs, making it easy to get more of this valuable nutrient in every meal.
It’s Overflowing With Omega-3
You’ve likely heard about omega-3 in the context of fish oil. Wouldn’t you rather get this essential fatty acid from an egg than a large oily pill? It’s always preferable to get nutrients from real food than from supplements, so choosing eggs from chickens who eat an omega-3-rich diet may be one of the best ways to increase your intake.
Omega-3s have a surprising variety of benefits, with researchers discovering more potential advantages all the time. Here are several of the functions and benefits an omega-3-rich diet delivers:
- Building and maintaining cell membranes throughout the body
- Starting the process for blood-clotting hormones
- Contracting and relaxing artery walls
- Helping the heart beat steadily
- Improving blood vessel function
- Lowering triglycerides
- Lowering blood pressure and heart rate
- Reducing inflammation
If you’re not a fan of fish, you’re likely not getting enough of this nutrient. Eggs rich in omega-3s are a simple way to integrate more of this beneficial fat into your diet in a way your body can process better than supplements.
It’s Rich in Vitamin D
For calcium to do its job strengthening your bones, you need vitamin D. In addition to helping absorb calcium, vitamin D also blocks the excessive release of the parathyroid hormone, which can reabsorb bone tissue and make your bones thin and fragile. Vitamin D can increase neuromuscular function, improve mood, and protect the brain against toxins. Vitamin D deficiencies link to a host of potential problems, including:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Autoimmune diseases
- Heart disease
- Periodontal disease
Vitamin D deficiency is a likely factor in multiple types of cancer as well. This vitamin has such a broad impact in part because it regulates the function of more than 200 genes. Most people get a fair amount of vitamin D from the sun, which prompts the body to produce the nutrient. However, this isn’t enough to fulfill the body’s requirements if you live in a cold, dark place, or if you live somewhere the sun is so intense you have to wear a lot of sunscreen.
In terms of getting vitamin D from food, fatty fish like tuna and salmon are again the most substantial sources. But if you have picky eaters in the house or don’t like eating fish more than once a week, there’s no better source of vitamin D than eggs from chickens fed a diet rich in the nutrient.
It Contains Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient that functions as an antioxidant, protecting your cells from the damage of free radicals. Vitamin E is also essential for maintaining the immune system, and keeping blood from clotting by widening blood vessels. Among its other functions, this vitamin is necessary for healthy functioning of the reproductive system and muscular function.
Vitamin E may have protective benefits for your eyesight, making it a perfect partner to lutein. It’s also essential to the production of prostaglandins, a hormone-like compound that helps regulate critical functions like blood pressure and muscle contraction.
While it’s not as crucial for humans as the other nutrients on this list, proper intake of vitamin E is vital for chickens of any age. Without enough vitamin E, several disorders can occur, including the following.
- Encephalomalacia: This disorder, which causes permanent tissue damage in the brain, happens when chicks eat a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and not enough vitamin E.
- Exudative diathesis (ED): ED is a result of a deficiency in selenium, a compound that works in tandem with vitamin E. ED discolors the skin and results in a bow-legged posture.
- Nutritional muscular dystrophy: This condition, also known as “white muscle disease,” and affects the muscles chickens need to stand and walk.
Vitamin E is an afterthought for most producers of commercial feed, but at Sauder’s, we understand it’s one more of the critical building blocks in raising healthy chickens.
No Added Hormones
The U.S. and many other countries strictly prohibit the use of hormones in poultry feeds. There are several reasons why.
- It’s ineffective: Giving chickens growth hormone doesn’t necessarily lead to increased growth, despite what you might think. Nutritionally robust diets are the best influencers of growth.
- Administration is difficult: Growth hormone is a protein, so consuming it orally results in it getting digested. Effectively administering hormones to chickens would have to be in the form of regular injections to maintain levels.
- It’s expensive: From a business standpoint, the cost of the hormones would be more than the value of the chicken itself.
- It’s unnecessary: The only real use for hormones would be for broiler chickens meant for meat. The size of an egg-laying hen has only minimal impact on the size and quality of its eggs, and making it bigger will not improve the eggs laid.
What about anabolic steroids, like the ones athletes occasionally get caught using to gain muscle mass? Even if you injected chickens with anabolics to try and bulk them up, this only works when paired with intentional and vigorous exercise of the muscles — which isn’t exactly something you can get a chicken to do. Hormones have no place in chicken feed, and Sauder’s is happy to keep it that way.
Unlike hormones, there are accepted uses of antibiotics in the raising of animals. Farmers use 80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. for use in their animals’ water or feed supply. In the past, farmers used specific antibiotics in place of added hormones to speed up animal growth. One prevailing theory has it that the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed has contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant illnesses.
The use of antibiotics by no means guarantees that chickens will not get sick. It is an extra tool large commercial farms use because their chickens are more prone to illness. As you can imagine, birds are more likely to get sick when jammed into cages where they are subject to filthy conditions and can’t clean themselves. This environment also makes illness more likely to spread when it does occur.
Chickens on Sauder’s farms always have access to clean water and fresh air, making them naturally hardier than their caged counterparts and eliminating the need for antibiotics in our poultry feed.
Higher Standards for Higher Quality
Sauder’s holds all our farms to the same high standards of quality. Everyone who works with the chickens on our farms receives comprehensive training in animal husbandry and signs a code of conduct stating they will handle the animals safely and humanely.
Every bird has sufficient free range for healthy development based on scientific recommendations, we don’t force molting, and we go the extra mile to implement biosecurity measures that protect the safety of chickens and their eggs.
Regardless of whether the farm maintains 5,000 or 1 million hens, our farmers follow these standards to the tee, and we back up our claims with a certified seal from the United Egg Producers. To make certain we’re producing the best of the best, we have our farms certified each year by independent auditors.
Try Sauder’s for Yourself
We know our stuff when it comes to chickens and eggs, but you don’t have to take our word for it. With eggs, eating is believing, and we know you’ll taste the difference in delicious, nutritious eggs from chickens fed with Sauder’s Gold Feed. Head on over to our handy store locator to find the product of your choice at a grocery near you. Taste the result of quality chicken feed and compassionate care for yourself.