How much protein do Chickens need?
You’re chooks aren’t bulking, but you should still be supplementing their protein intake. Why is extra protein for chickens essential? Consider this:
5 facts about protein for chooks
- Feathers comprise 7 % of the live weight of a chicken
- Feathers are 75 % protein
- The average egg contains 6 grams of protein
- Laying hens can produce up to 300 eggs a year. Their distant ancestors used to produce about 14!
- For most animals, ruminants excluded, the proteins found in animal sources like meat and insects are easier to absorb than plant proteins
So if your chickens are producing eggs and feathers, which I’m sure they are, then they need an awful lot of protein to supply their metabolic needs as well as your breakfast!
So how much do they need?
Science is an interesting thing. If you do a literature review of studies about the protein requirements of laying hens, you get a range of conflicting results. Anywhere between 12 % and 20 % protein in the diet has been recommended, plus extra protein for moulting chickens; and some studies looking at the effect of protein on productivity have fed birds up to 33 % protein. But when you think about it, the variation makes sense because external factors like breed, rate of egg production, stage of growth, moulting and even climate can influence how much protein a chicken needs.
However, studies have been conclusive about one thing: a diet containing insufficient protein reduces egg production and egg weight. Not to mention that it can compromise the health of the bird!
So how much protein should your chooks be getting? The most common answer for laying hens in Australia is 16-18 %. And given the studies mentioned above, a little extra probably wouldn’t harm either.
Why a complete feed doesn’t quite cut it when you’re bulking
Most complete Chicken layer feeds contain about 15% protein. Protein is generally one of the most expensive ingredients of a feed, with feed manufacturers aiming to spend as little as possible while aiming to provide for all the needs of a laying hen. A 15 % protein complete feed (or a premium feed with 16-18 % protein) is what your hens should be eating because it contains everything they need. By comparison, scratch mix and other grain blends are usually only 12-14 % protein.
But there’s a catch. Your chooks aren’t bulking. The protein percentage in a complete feed is deceptive because that isn’t everything your chooks are eating.
So what else are they eating? If they are free-range, while they are scratching up the chicken run (or your garden!) they are gobbling up tasty insects and healthy greens. And let's admit it - we all give our birds table scraps, weeds and garden waste from time to time.
On the one hand, supplementing your chickens’ diet by free-ranging or with scraps provides your birds with an interesting treat and a broad range of extra vitamins and minerals. There’s nothing wrong with it in moderation and it also means you are recycling waste into healthy eggs.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is, if your chooks are free-ranging or eating scraps, they aren’t eating just their feed. And that means that unless they are mainly eating protein-rich scraps, or foraging in the worm farm, they are watering down the percentage in their diet, not bulking it up. So they aren’t getting a full 15 % protein at all.
And on top of that, the 15 % they are getting is almost exclusively from vegetable sources anyway, and therefore not only is it less easily absorbed, it also lacks essential amino acids that are only available from animal proteins.
The conclusion? Extra protein for chickens is necessary. Even if they are consuming a high protein food they may need more. The solution? Providing a protein supplement with every couple of days is the perfect way to ensure your birds are getting everything they need to be healthy and to provide you with a healthy, protein-rich breakfast.
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