Choosing the right feed for chickens and poultry

A balanced diet is essential for healthy, happy chickens. Not to mention plenty of nutritious, fresh eggs! But what is the best diet for laying hens?

At Dine a Chook, we are dedicated to reducing the stress and work of keeping backyard poultry. And one of the easiest ways to make chicken keeping easy is by feeding your chooks a good diet.

Avoid the common mistakes we see chicken keepers make and learn from our years of experience keeping backyard chickens.

Choosing the best feed for laying hens

A premium quality layer pellet is the best feed for laying hens, including free-range chickens.


  • A complete feed
  • 16-18 % protein
  • A pellet, micro-pellet, mash or crumble

Avoid grain mixes, even where they are labelled as a complete feed.

The best diet for laying hens

The best diet for laying hens is unlimited access to a complete feed in pellet form.

All laying hens also need free access to grit in a separate dish.

If you are going to feed your birds treats or scraps, these should make up no more than 10 % of the diet.

FAQ: What type of feed works best with a Dine a Chook Feeder?

The best feed to use with a Dine a Chook Feeder is a commercial layer pellet. Micro-pellets, mash and crumble are also good.

Scratch mix and other grain mixes decrease the effectiveness of the waste-reducing features of the Feeder and cause deficiencies.

Do not use a Dine a Chook Feeder for:

  • Molasses-coated feed
  • Fermented feed
  • Sprouted feed (unless dry)
  • Other sticky or wet feeds
  • Scraps

The best diet for chickens of different ages

Chickens have different nutrient requirements as they progress from fast-growing chicks through to adult laying hens. Choosing an age-specific diet can help ensure that your chickens are getting everything they need to thrive!

Chicken Age and Type Feed Recommendations

Up to 6 weeks
Chick starter 

Medicated or unmedicated available

Medicated starters are recommended for chicks not vaccinated for coccidiosis 

Learn more about feeding chicks here

6 weeks to point of lay (18-22 weeks)

Grower or pullet feed 

Some chick starters can be fed up to point of lay, skipping this stage 

Medicated starters should not be fed past 16-18 weeks

Do not start on layer feed until 18+ weeks

Laying hens 

From point of lay (18 weeks +)
Layer feed
Roosters and non-laying hens If it is possible to feed separately, grower or pullet feed is ideal. If not, layer feed is usually ok.
Breeding birds Breeder feed or layer feed with a vitamin and mineral supplement

Medicated feed: What all chicken keepers should know!

Medicated chicken feed contains a coccidiostat to prevent coccidiosis infection. It is made for chicks, which are more susceptible to coccidiosis, and it helps them develop immunity.

Hens that produce eggs for human consumption should not be fed medicated feed after pullet age. If you accidentally fed a medicated feed to a laying hen, do not use the eggs for 14 days. Laying hens should not be fed medicated feeds, even when they are not in lay. But sometimes this is unavoidable when you have a hen with chicks. In this case, be mindful of the egg withholding period if the hen is laying.

Chick Starter and Grower Feeds can be used as a high-protein treat for laying hens, if they are not medicated. But they shouldn't be used over the long term as they don't contain the right nutrient balance for laying hens.

Why chickens need more than just forage and scraps

Chickens can live on scraps and foraging, but they will not thrive. Egg production will be reduced and may cease altogether.

Modern laying hens are finely tuned egg-laying machines. With optimum nutrition, many breeds will produce close to an egg a day. In comparison, chickens in the past laid a few eggs a week and became Sunday dinner at 2 or 3 years old. And wild jungle fowl laid only 14 eggs per year, on average!

Heritage breeds might do slightly better on a sub-par diet than commercial layers like ISA Browns or Hyline Browns, but for the best health and egg production, modern chickens need a balanced layer feed.

Think of free-ranging as a lifestyle choice

Free-ranging is great for chickens. It makes for happier, healthier hens because they are able to express their natural behaviours. But free-ranging is a lifestyle, not a diet.

Chickens that free-range will eat some forage and insects. But backyard chickenswill not even come close to meeting their dietary needs through foraging. Free-range chickens need the same diet as a normal laying hen, perhaps with a little extra protein. 

A note on homemade chicken feed

We do not recommend making your own chicken feed unless you carefully balance the nutrient profiles of the different feed ingredients. Just throwing some ingredients together will not only impact egg production, it can cause health issues and even death in your flock.

Unfortunately, many of the “recipes” for homemade chicken feed available on the internet are not properly balanced and using them can also make your chickens sick.

You should only make homemade chicken feed if you are willing and able to properly balance feed ingredients to meet your chickens' needs. There’s a reason why feed companies employ people with degrees in poultry nutrition!

How do chickens eat? Understanding feeding behaviour

Chickens evolved from wild jungle fowl. Wild jungle fowl are omnivores that live on a foraged diet of insects, seeds, fruit, leaves and the occasional small animal. 

Laying hens have a lot in common with their wild ancestors, but in other ways they are very different. Understanding these similarities and differences can help you understand how to feed your chickens!

Small meals, often

Chickens have evolved to eat regular small meals with breaks in-between.

Unlike humans, chickens have no teeth. Instead, the digestive process starts in the crop, where food is stored before it is ground down in the gizzard. This process allows chickens to digest hard grains and grasses. But it also means that chickens can only eat a little at a time, and that they need time to digest.

Giving your chickens unlimited access to their feed in the daytime is the best way to feed them. This will allow them to manage their own digestive process in a healthy way. It also ensures that all birds, even lower ranked ones, have access to Feeders.

Feeding chickens once or twice a day causes them to overeat when the food is available. This isn’t as good for their digestion and can cause crop damage and other health issues.

FAQ: When should I feed my chickens?

Ideally, chickens should have access to their feed from when they get up in the morning to when they roost at night.

Chickens naturally want to eat first thing in the morning, because their crop is empty. They also fill up before roosting, so they have something to digest overnight. This helps them stay warm and contributes to egg production, as the reproductive cycle is often more intense at night and requires more nutrients.

Having unlimited access to feed all day doesn’t cause chickens to eat more, and it is particularly beneficial for lower-ranking birds that might otherwise miss out!

FAQ: Will chickens over eat?

Chickens rarely overeat when provided with free access to a complete layer pellet.

However, they do tend to overeat with scraps, treats and grain mix feeds where they can pick out their favourite bits.

Chickens are also more likely to gorge when they have limited access to feed because they have to eat more at one time to meet their needs.

FAQ: How much do chickens eat?

On average, a hen will eat 100-120 grams of feed per day. However, this varies depending on breed, size, age, diet and even weather!

Avoiding selective feeding

If you have ever given your chickens a grain mix, you will know that chickens eat selectively. They pick out some ingredients and leave others. But how do chickens choose what to eat?

Much like people, chickens evolved as foragers in an environment where high energy foods were rare. Chickens are programmed to gorge on high energy foods when they come across them, because energy is important for a foraging bird.

Think about the foods your chickens prefer: simple carbohydrates like pasta, bread and corn; sugary fruit; and fatty sunflower seeds. In moderation, these foods are ok for chickens. But they lack protein and other nutrients. When eaten regularly or in large amounts, they can cause obesity and other health issues, not to mention decreased egg production!

After over 10 years of experience, we can confidently say that chickens do not usually select a diet that is good for their health! You need to select that diet for them, by providing only a quality layer pellet!

Why you should avoid grain mixes

Scratch mix and other grain mixes naturally encourage selective feeding behaviour. Not only does this cause waste, which attracts rodents and pests, it causes health issues in your chickens.

Even a “complete” grain mix is not a healthy feed for chickens. The more nutritious vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as any added protein, are usually neglected in favour of comparatively empty calories such as corn and sunflower seeds. This decreases egg production and causes other health issues.

Scratch mix is bad for chickens if used as a feed. But it can be a healthy treat in small amounts.

Limiting scraps and treats

Limiting scraps and treats, in favour of good quality feed, is much better for your chickens' health and productivity.

In fact, poor egg production and many other chicken health problems are often caused by poor diet. Too many scraps and treats contribute to this because chickens fill up on these instead of getting the nutrients they need from their feed.

Chickens’ main diet should always be their feed. But scraps can be ok if you follow a few simple rules:

  • Only feed your chickens scraps once per day
  • Feed scraps in the late morning or early afternoon, so your chickens will have already filled up on feed
  • Feed no more scraps than your chickens will eat in 20 minutes
  • Avoid unhealthy scraps like salty, sugary, fatty foods and highly-processed carbohydrates, e.g. white bread
  • Clean up any uneaten scraps

While feeding your chickens plenty of scraps can reduce your feed bill, it is a bad idea. Chickens that eat too many scraps lay fewer eggs and are more likely to suffer from deficiencies and diseases. Unhealthy hens cost you money in the long run, no matter how you look at it.

How does the pecking order affect chickens eating?

Everything chickens do is influenced by the pecking order. When it comes to feed, dominant birds eat first and lower-ranked birds have to wait. If you provide all-day access to feed, this isn’t usually a problem. But in rare cases, dominant birds may prevent lower ranked birds from accessing the Feeder.

Limiting access to feed in any way will result in dominant birds getting the same amount of feed, and lower-ranked birds eating less. This means dominant birds will be healthier and more productive than lower ranked ones.

On the other hand, if you give your chickens lots of unhealthy scraps or treats, dominant birds are more likely to be obese and have other health issues.

FAQ: One of my chickens is hogging the Feeder and won’t let other birds eat. What do I do?

If you have a large flock and just one Feeder, then dominant birds might be using the Feeder a lot and other birds aren’t getting enough time to eat. Adding a second Feeder will fix this issue.

Or sometimes a bully will guard the Feeder from other birds. This is relatively common when new birds are introduced to the flock, but usually settles down in a day or so.

If bullying is the problem, the best solution is to add another Feeder in a spot that cannot be seen from the first Feeder. This stops the bully from guarding both Feeders and allows all of your birds to eat their fill.

Don't feed your chickens on the ground!

If you have chickens, you will need a Chicken Feeder.

Feeding chickens directly on the ground is not good for chickens because:

  • It is messy
  • More feed is wasted
  • Spilled feed attracts rodents and pest birds
  • Feed quickly becomes contaminated with faeces and dirt
  • Contaminated feed spreads diseases and parasites between birds
  • Parasites like worms and coccidia live in the soil and can contaminate food

How to stop chickens from wasting feed

One of the best ways to save money on chicken feed is to stop wasting it. There are lots of causes of wasted feed, including poor storage, vermin and damp. Spilled feed is also wasted feed, because it quickly becomes contaminated with faeces. Chickens are usually responsible for spilling feed, but fortunately it is easy to stop!

There are two steps to stop chickens from wasting feed:

1. Choose a uniform feed

Any feed that looks all the same, such as a pellet, stops chickens from selective eating. If chickens don’t have a reason to pick through feed, they make less mess. And if the feed looks all the same, chickens can’t waste ingredients they don’t like.

2. Get a No Waste Chicken Feeder

Chickens spill feed by scratching with their feet, thrashing their heads from side-to-side and raking feed towards them with their beaks. A Feeder that stops chickens from standing in the feed or throwing feed out with their beaks is the trick to keeping feed in the Feeder and stopping waste. It is all about good Feeder design. 

Browse waste-reducing feeders here.


Every flock is unique and “best practice” looks slightly different in every chicken coop. If you would like information specifically tailored to your flock, or have a question we haven’t answered, please get in touch.