I’ve kept backyard hens for twenty years. I’ve had this website for ten, and it sees over a hundred thousand visitors monthly. Between my blog and private emails, I hear about chicken health issues. Often, it takes much back and forth to figure out what is going wrong with someone’s hen. But, within the breadth of situations that I’ve consulted on in the last decade, some patterns have emerged. One situation that I’ve seen, too many times, is that of a very well-cared for flock in which a hen seemingly suddenly takes ill and dies. I now know the questions to ask. Was she laying thin-shelled eggs? Did she exhibit discomfort when laying? Did she look weak but still hungry? Finally, are you feeding crumbles or mixed grains and not pellets? Is it organic?
Laying hens need a specific level of protein and minerals in order to produce those eggs day after day. They don’t have much in the way of reserves. To make a shell, she has to first take in calcium from her feed, deposit it in her skeleton, and then extract it from those bones. The egg white is almost pure protein, and so she needs to steadily eat protein to then expel it in the form of the egg. But too much protein in the diet leads to kidney disease.
Obviously, high quality feed is essential. I understand why many people turn to purchasing non-GMO, no soy, organic feed. It promises the best ingredients. The nutritional information on the label is exactly what your hens require. However, most of these specialty brands do not come in pellets, but rather in the form of crumbles, or a mixture, with each ingredient in distinct view. Chickens are picky eaters. They don’t like the protein source in this feed. They toss it on the ground and eat the other stuff. Over time, the shells they make thin. It becomes difficult for the hens to lay eggs. There might be internal breakage or infection. This can kill your hen. But, catch this in time, and switch to a pelleted feed in which the hens consume everything that they’re supposed to, and you can reverse the decline and mortality. I’ve seen this reversal back to health, time and again. Pellets are not necessarily the highly-processed product that you might worry about. Read this post to see how they are made at a small mill in Vermont.
I recently did a necropsy on a hen that exhibited the symptoms that I describe above. She’d gone broody, hatched chicks, was a wonderful mother, and then went back into lay. She went through a period of discomfort, and died. The necropsy revealed no gross abnormalities, but it did show an non-functioning shell gland, and yolks and whites with no way to be formed into complete eggs. Another hen in the flock was going through something similar. However, with this backyard flock, the feed seemed fine. What was going on? Was the illness of the second hen unrelated to the first? A couple of weeks after my visit, the owner of this flock emailed me to say that yet another hen showed signs of laying thin-shelled eggs. She double-checked the feed. She thought that she was providing laying hen pellets to her flock. That’s what she asked for at the feed store. But, this brand’s bags are identical – it’s just the tags that indicate what’s inside. She’d been given the wrong bags. She had been feeding her mature hens grower feed for months. It didn’t provide calcium, and it had the wrong level of protein. (By the way, she does offer oyster shell free choice, but that’s not enough.) She’s back to feeding pellets. Her flock is back to laying good eggs.
This is why I’m an advocate of commercial pellets for backyard flocks. Hens kept only one laying season before harvest can manage on a non-optimal diet. But our beloved flocks of older hens need the balance and concentration of what is in the pellets. That’s not to say that’s all they can have. I also believe in providing nutritious treats, letting them free-range and forage. But, that’s for dessert. Make sure that they have a nutritious main meal first.
Green mountain organic chicken feed located in Vermont comes is pellet for
Good to know.
Do y know a website that i could order online? I looked up most of the suppliers but no websites. Please help.
What about commercial CRUMBLES? Yes/no?
Crumbles are usually just pellets broken into smaller pieces. If you have all tiny bantams, they tend to like it. Otherwise, it’s wasteful because the hens toss away the dusty, smallest bits.
I don’t know if its a case of “I want what they have so they can’t have it” but my hens will consume chick feed like they are starving if given the opportunity.
I raise chicks in the same coop as the hens. I constructed two fence panels that I set up in one corner for the chicks.
When I go in to tend to the chicks I unlatch the one side and swing it open. My hens darn near knock me over to try to get to the chick feed. If they get past me or I don’t completly shut the panel when I go out to change the water they sneak in and gulp this stuff down like they haven’t had food for a month.
I feed Purina Layena pellets to the hens. They also get all my kitchen scraps and the occasional scratch to lure them back in the run after a forage in the yard.
Terry any clue as to why they may like the chick feed so much?
My hens really like it too – they were always trying to get at the chick feed last summer when I had chicks. Maybe because it tastes better to them, or because they like variety? Or possibly because it’s higher in protein?
There is a difference in flavor between the feeds and brands. I have a friend whose hens refuse all pellets except a certain brand (that smells sweeter to her.) The short answer – I don’t know!
Maybe they are just trying to relive days gone by. ;-)
I have chicks that are not laying yet in the same coop as my laying hens. I’ve been feeding them all grower/finisher with free choice oyster shells. Is this ok until my chicks are 18 weeks and I change them to layer feed?
The chicks should not have access to oyster shell. The laying hens can survive for a couple of weeks on chick feed, but should not be on it longterm. So, it depends on the age of your chicks. Under 14 weeks? Separate and feed each group appropriately.
Because no one in our region makes pellets, we feed the mash (which I dislike very much) and about once a week I spoon out the ‘dusty’ bits add soy yogurt or some juice etc and mix it up. This way, I know that they are getting everything that they were intended to eat. Thanks for the insight Terry!
That’s so interesting that the farmers in your region (up north in Canada) still feed the mash. When I visited Poulin Grain, they told me that there’s no reason to feed mash, and it’s something that they make only when asked by the older farmers.
I take the dust from the pellets (all be it not a lot) and simply mix it with water to make it mushy and my hens consume every last morsel.
I have not a clue why.
And your hens probably prefer muddy water over the clean sources. Some do :)
I feed Marriages Layers Pellets, it has NO gm ingredients, artificial pigments or medication. Protein 17%, Calcium 4% and lots of other good stuff, girls love it. They have access to a large part of garden for foraging and get treats in moderation, works for me. Horrible to say but to many keepers kill their girls with what they think is kindness by giving their chickens far to many scraps, treats and scratch because they like it so much !!
Sorry missed post yesterday too many grandkids around, hope you had a nice day and got plenty done in garden :)
Sounds like your hens have the optimal diet!
My chicks will be 8 weeks old in a few days….should I start them on Grower feed or keep them on the starter regimen until they are ready for the Layena Pellets?
Do you have a post on a feeding schedule for raising chicks to laying hens?
Please read my chick care FAQ and also the What to Feed Chickens FAQ. Those two posts will answer your questions :)
Thank you, Terry! I have learned so much from your site. I look at raising and enjoying my flock in a whole new and amazing way….
I fed crumble but a good layer mix because I had bought a hen with a trimmed beak and she had trouble eatting the pellets.I had Posy for 3 years then she got sick, had diahrerra, and you recommended the epsom salts remedy. She got well, acted her old self but 2 weeks later dropped dead in one days time.I now have one hen left (Sally) I quess I will buy pellets after this bag of food is gone.
Those burnt off beaks make me so sad. Good of you to provide her with food she could eat.
Oh that does suck, if the feed store did give her the wrong food. I hope they will be offering compensation for the hens that became sick and had died.
Excellent post!! We found the waste from crumbles or mash to be VERY costly, and after experimenting with them briefly, have stuck with pellets.
Mills don’t always make the pellets exactly the same. (This info comes from a reputable mill owner.) It depends often on how much of what is available, the cost of what’s available. We have periods when the hens aren’t crazy about what’s offered, even though it’s supposed to be the exact thing.
When the drought came through last year? and organic corn was nearly non-existent, they weren’t happy with the pellets. I suspect because more soy had been used to make the protein level, and perhaps other changes.
As Terry has said, making sure they are consuming exactly what they need each day of their ration is necessary for good health, before goodies are offered. This can’t be said often enough!
Good point about variations! The feed mills know the exact nutrition that they want to put in the bag. Depending on what is available and the cost of the ingredients, the formula can change as long as the feed has the same nutritional value.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful and helpful post! I think it is really important to keep talking about feed and ingredients since it seems like people are really concerned about this in their own food and their pet’s food. Have you heard anything about crumbles being better because pellets can cause an impacted crop? I heard it from someone who is a poultry industry person, so maybe it has to do with the way factory hens are fed? I switched my girls from Agway layer to Poulin based on your fantastic post about them, btw.
We have a flock of 16 hens and 1 bantam rooster that just turned one year old (May 28th) and have fed them nothing but crumbles. We mix probiotics and Brewers yeast with garlic in with the crumbles to help keep them healthy. The yeast and probiotics works better with the crumbles, since they wouldn’t stick to the pellets like they do to the crumbles. So far, we have had no health issues with our hens other than a cold they had during the Winter which cleared up quickly once I put some VetRx in their waterer. They have been laying eggs since last October and their eggs have been some of the best eggs we’ve ever had and the shells have been nice and hard. I guess time will tell if they have any health issues but, so far, they’ve been happy with the feed we’ve been giving them. As far as waste is concerned, I always take up the feeders about and hour or two before they go to roost and any feed that might be on the ground is cleaned up.
The first year the hens seem to do great on all sorts of things – it’s the second year when you start to see feed related problems.
I may test my chickens on feeding them pellets to see it they ‘will’ eat them. If what you say is right, will changing their diet from crumbles to pellets prevent the problems you speak of? Again, they turned 1 year old at the end of May.
There’s some confusion about what crumbles are. In most cases, they’re the same as the pellets – they’ve just been broken into smaller pieces after being formed. In that case, the nutritional value is the same. There’s simply waste. But, some products that are called crumbles are actually just crushed grains, not pelleted. That product does cause problems because the hens don’t eat the complete ration. They pick and choose.
One of my hens is six-years-old. She still lays 5 eggs each week. My chicks get Quaker Oats. As adults, they pout if they don’t get oats thrown in the pen for them. A PhD in Poultry Science said they love what they ate when they were chicks. We have a feed plant in the county. Cigarette butts and anything on the floor goes into the feed. My hens get a variety of fruits and vegetables and are allowed to free range from 3-14 hours each day. They get all the chicken bones to strip. Egg shells are cooked, crushed and fed to the hens. If I do not allow them to free range, I take salad greens to them. The PhD assured me chickens do not need feed, but that most people aren’t as dedicated to NOT feeding commercial food as I.
Before there were commercial pellets, farmers had “green bone cutters” and fed meat scraps to flocks. You’re doing what farmers did back around 1900. It does take commitment.
You had me stumped, so I started Googling. One day, I put a hen in the crockpot and left it much too long because I was ill. As I took the meat off the bones, I noticed the bones fell apart. The chickens loved the soft bones. My friend to whom I gave all the meat but the breast commented that some of the meat had a different texture. He was eating bones. After that, I deliberately took meat off the bones and let the bones cook another day, just for the hens.
I finally found what the phrase meant:
There is an explanation with the picture.
Thanks for enlightening me.
Great article Terry. The old saying “You are what you eat” applies to chickens too. My girls get the best of everything and they give me beautiful eggs in return.
Terry, if one’s hens eat up every bit of their (Layena) crumbles, is there any real reason to change to pellets? I have 12 hens who are all laying consistently (4-5 doz. a week seems good to me.) One Easter Egger does lay thin-shelled eggs, which often have “scabs” of what I assume is calcium on the exterior of the egg. She lays about 3 eggs a week, and most of them survive the laying process and a day in the nest, so I haven’t been worried. I only feed scratch as an occasional treat or bribe, so the rest of their diet is free choice oyster shell, greens, and squash or melons, plus whatever they dig out of the ground in their large pen. Should I change to pellets?
I forgot to say, all my hens are a year old and have been laying for six months.
Crumbles are simply pellets that are ground up. (Unless they’re some organic brands which are chopped up whole grains, not pelleted.) My hens wasted the crumbles more than the pellets, and I found them dusty. But, if you like them, fine :)
I did organic in the beginning but then switched to layena. I do crumbles as my 2 little Belgians seemed to have problems getting to the pellets with the other 8 large birds.i do get some waste on the ground. My maran definetly picks and chooses in the crumbles. I tried grinding the pellets somewhat in my food processor but this was time consuming. So I wish I could do the pellets. Any suggestions appreciated. I know you have had bantams but none As small as the serama or belgian correct?
Ps my girls are 3. I did just lose 1 to internal laying and another one is struggling right now w thin shells. I seriously think I should switch but worried about my 1 little girl getting enough
My bantams were not as small as yours, but yours should be able to eat pellets. I’d have two feeding stations so that the small girls have a chance to get to the food. It is hard to tell if a hen is losing weight. Do you have a good kitchen scale? Weigh your little hen before you switch the feed, then keep track of her weight. You’ll know by day three if she’s okay.
Great suggestion. Thanks
Have to agree wholeheartedly that nitrition is crucial to the health of chickens.
I have spent 4 years trying to determine what my hens ( around 300 birds) needed. i used split testing of foods to see what the hens prefered themselves.
I ended up with a mix of feed that is 30% layers, 30% whole/rolled grains ( wheat/barley/oats) , 30% split maize with 2% each or grit and shell and 3% each of sunflower seeds and rapeseed. the hens eat it all with no wastage so I rekon I have the mix about spot on.
I’m sure that your hens like all of food you are providing – those ingredients are their favorites, and I’m glad your hens are doing well on this, however, I’d be concerned about the ration of protein to carbs and amount of corn (maize.)
Great post Terry.
I’m glad that you recommended pellets- I’ve seen it become somewhat of a trend to not feed your chickens pellets and to feed them homemade remedies instead.
Whilst I’m not again this I sometimes worry that these homemade solutions don’t provide hens with enough vitamins and nutrients like you mentioned…
Have you every tried a homemade feed?
I have not made homemade feed, and I have several reasons. The first is that I can’t get the nutrition as precise as the hens need it. The feed companies have laboratories which do accurate analyses. Secondly, good ingredients, like sunflower seeds, have a limited shelf-life and go rancid quickly. I wouldn’t be able to keep the feed fresh. Thirdly, it would be far more expensive. Fourth, it’s far easier to buy a bag :)