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Are you looking for high protein food for chickens?

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 fun facts about protein for chickens

  1. Feathers comprise 7 % of the live weight of a chicken
  2. Feathers are 75 % protein
  3. The average egg contains 6 grams of protein
  4. Laying hens can produce up to 300 eggs a year. Their distant ancestors used to produce about 14!
  5. 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!


How much protein do chickens 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

Think about it – most complete layer feeds contain about 15 % protein. That’s because protein is generally one of the more expensive components of a feed and feed manufacturers want to spend as little as possible while still providing for all the needs of a laying hen. Scratch mix and other grain blends are usually 12-14 % protein. If you buy a premium feed, protein content might be 16 % or even 18 %.
 
But there’s a catch. Your chooks aren’t bulking, but 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 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 largely eating protein-rich scraps, or foraging in the worm farm, they are watering down the percentage of protein 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 key 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. The solution? Providing a protein supplement 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. 


Our top 10 high-protein foods for chickens

Give your chickens a protein boost with one of these healthy treats every couple of days! 

 

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Dried Mealworms – 53 % protein (on average)

Dried Mealworms are one of our flock’s favourite treats! Our birds will do almost anything for mealworms, and given a chook is as smart as a human toddler that means you can teach them to do almost anything! 
 
Not only are these dried insects rich in protein, essential amino acids and other nutrients, they are an “animal” form of protein, meaning that their nutrients are more easily absorbed by your birds. And Dried Mealworms are completely inoffensive (think insect puffed rice) for the more faint-hearted chicken keepers among us. 

Seeds

If you’ve ever seen your birds go nuts for a handful of sunflower seeds, you’ll know that these are a great treat for chooks! And as well as being tasty, many seeds are a great source of protein – dried pumpkin seeds are the top pick, weighing in at 30 % protein, while most other seeds contain 17-20 %. This includes sunflower seed, flaxseed (linseed), chia and sesame. However, as well as containing plenty of protein, seeds also contain natural oils meaning that they are often high in fat and should be fed in moderation. 

Non-medicated chick starter

If you’ve raised chicks recently, you probably have half a bag of chick starter lying around your shed somewhere. Chick starter contains about 5 % more protein than average chicken food. It’s a great protein-boost for layers, and using it as a treat gets it out of your shed before it gets stale too!
 
Just ensure that your chick starter is non-medicated. Many people use a medicated starter, which contains a coccidiostat to help young chicks develop their immunity to the common chicken disease coccidiosis. Grown chickens don’t need this medication, and it is not intended for human consumption. So if you have laying hens, never feed them a medicated chick starter!

Fish and seafood

Chickens are determined omnivores and quite like a bit of fish or seafood. And of course, fish and seafood are great sources of protein and another way to reuse kitchen scraps. Birds will happily peck at leftovers, bones, or a whole fish. Use scraps from the kitchen or from your last fishing trip!
 
Some people say that eating fish can give a chicken's eggs an off-flavour, but this is primarily an issue where birds are fed fishmeal as the main protein source in their diet. The amount of fish backyard chickens are likely to eat is tiny in comparison, so most backyard keepers do not experience this problem.

Sprouts

If you make alfalfa sprouts or similar, you can also grow spouts for your chooks. Sprouts are an excellent treat and protein-boost because they are full of vitamins and minerals, high in protein and practically fat-free. The most high-protein sprouts come from beans and pulses, so try sprouting mung beans, lentils, soybeans, chickpeas etc. 

Worms

Insects of all sorts are part of a natural diet for chickens, and in the wild insects are omnivorous birds’ main source of protein. By far the easiest live insects to feed chickens at home are worms. Now we don’t like to dig up earthworms because they do too much good for the soil, but you can get compost worms (the type used in worm farms) by the box at hardware and garden shops. You can feed these worms direct to your chooks, but the most economical choice is to make or buy a worm farm. That way you can turn kitchen scraps into worms (and garden fertiliser) with very little effort, and create a protein-rich chicken treat and your own bait for fishing into the bargain.

Other insects

Other insects our birds like in particular are those fat white grubs that you get in the garden, which I collect in a bucket for the chooks when I am gardening. I also snip grasshoppers in half with my secateurs and throw the halves into the bucket as well - brutal, I know. In summer, some mornings the verandas are covered in beetles lying on their backs. These beetles usually die unless someone has the patience to turn them all over, so why not sweep them into a bucket for the chooks too?

Eggs 

It is a little counter-intuitive, but chickens love egg. Of course, egg-eating chickens in the coop are a huge problem and to be avoided at all costs. But feeding your chickens eggs as a treat is a great protein-boost. 
 
When feeding your chooks eggs, never feed them in shell and preferably cook them first. This helps discourage birds from “discovering” the eggs in the nesting boxes and becoming egg-eaters. But a chopped up boiled egg, scrambled eggs, etc are a fantastic source of protein for your birds. 

Peas 

Peas and beans are part of the same family, the legumes, and like beans your standard garden pea contains a fair amount of protein. Now in our house, fresh peas from the garden are too special to share with the chooks because we only get them for a few short months. But frozen peas do just as well and contain just as much protein. And as an ice-cold treat on a summer’s day, you can’t do much better.

Meat

It is definitely weird, but chickens will very happily eat meat, even chicken itself! Some people don’t like feeding their birds chicken, but I remember seeing my mum throw old chicken bones into the coop as a child and the birds would pick them clean. So any type of meat, including meat on the bone like you’d give a dog, is appropriate for chickens. Everything in moderation, right? But meat can be a source of food poisoning like botulism, so if you are giving your birds meat, ensure it is fresh and get rid of any leftovers within an hour to prevent disease. 

It’s all about moderation

Chickens can overdose on protein, but they’d have to be throwing back protein-shakes like a body builder for this to happen under normal circumstances. As the doctors say, everything is healthy in moderation. So when you are giving your birds a protein boost, don’t give them too much of any one thing. Vary their diet and only give them extra protein a few days a week, in fairly small amounts (depending on the protein content of the boost you’ve chosen, i.e. they can have far more sunflower seeds at 20 % protein than mealworms at 53 % protein). And remember to be aware of fat content and the other qualities of the food so your birds aren’t getting too much of something else.

See if boosting your chickens' protein leads to better egg production or healthier birds. We’d love to hear about your results! 

 

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