As chickens age and grow, it is necessary to match their feeding requirements to the stage of growth they are in at any given time. This can mean making several dietary changes as your chickens grow, some of which may seem to occur quite rapidly. Staying on top of the appropriate type of feed needed at various stages of development will aid in keeping your chickens healthy. While some people prefer to concoct their own feeds, others utilize commercial feeds. This is not a bad thing as commercial feeds are designed by nutritionists who know what your chickens need and when and this can be beneficial to those who are just starting out with chickens and need to learn the ropes for a while before hatching their own feed plans.
From birth to eight weeks of age, Starter Feed should be fed. It contains the necessary amount of protein (20%) to sustain growing chicks. Starter Feed is dissolved by saliva and thus does not require grit. Giving treats to young chicks, on the other hand, does require access to grit for proper digestion. Avoiding treats for young chicks may be a better choice at this stage of development, however, because the more treats they consume, the less nutrient-rich feed they consume, and that is what they truly need. However, if you do wish to give treats, that should be done at your own discretion and accompanied by access to sand, pebbles, etc. that can be used by your chicks as grit. This is especially important when you take into consideration chicks that spend the early portions of their lives enclosed in a coop where they may not find grit on their own.
From the age of 8 weeks forward to 18 weeks, your chickens should feast on Grower Feed. At this age, your chicken is reaching adolescence and needs about 16-18% protein. Continuing to feed Starter Feed after your chicks reach the appropriate age for Grower Feed can bring on premature egg-laying. Although we are always excited to see eggs in the coop, this should not come at the risk of an immature hen beginning to lay too soon, before her body is truly ready.
Once your chickens have reached 18 weeks of age, they can graduate to Layer Feed. The main difference between Layer Feed and Grower Feed is the addition of calcium for egg shell development; the level of protein does not really change. Feeding Layer Feed prior to this age can be detrimental due to this very same calcium; too much calcium too soon can damage kidneys and cause the formation of kidney stones, so be sure to wait to move to this feed until the 18 week mark has passed. At this stage of your chickens life, adding even more calcium (such as crushed egg shells) can actually be helpful. If laying hens do not have access to enough calcium to produce eggs, their body can actually turn on itself, robbing the hen of the very calcium she needs to have strong bones and using that calcium instead in her eggs. It is for reasons such as this that calcium is so important to birds of this age and older.
Grit is something that is necessary at all stages of a chickens life when something other than Starter Feed is being fed. Since Starter Feed dissolves in the mouth of a chick, grit is not needed unless supplemental food items are added to the diet of said chicks. However, as a chicken ages, the food it consumes will require grit for digestion, so be sure your chickens have access to substances that can serve as grit at all times. Grit can be found in a naturally occuring location on your property or it can be purchased.
Treats, especially healthy ones, are welcome surprises from time to time. While chickens love a variety of foods, moderation is key. Too much treating will result in less feed eating and the potential for reduced protein, nutrients, and calcium to be consumed. Treat in moderation with healthy foods and limit scratch, which is in large part comprised of carbohydrates and is somewhat low in benefits other than a quick energy boost. Times when scratch is useful are during winter weather when excess calories are needed to stay warm and in the case of broody hens, but be careful not to provide too much of a good thing or obesity may plague your flock.
As with all things, there are going to be different opinions as to what is the best feed for chickens at varying ages. With that said, this is a suggestion as to what you might want to consider when feeding your chickens; it is not a rule to which you absolutely must adhere. If organics are what you have in mind, all of the feeds listed above are available in organic varieties. They are also available in medicated form, such as in the case of Starter Feed, which can be purchased containing amprolium to aid in the fight against coccidiosis should that become a problem amongst your chicks.
Only you can decide what is best for the animals in your flock. It is you that knows with what you are comfortable and what you wish to spend on feeds and other necessities. As long as your chickens are happy and healthy, may their meals be enjoyed by all!