Ah, ’tis the season…to chow down on every carb that’s not nailed down! Humans store energy during cold weather, but chickens actually crave more protein in their diet to get them through winter.
While you’re shopping to stock up on pasta, grains and delicious baked goods, what kinds of feed and supplement are on your poultry’s menu plan?
When the days grow short in early Fall, your flock’s biological clock triggers the signal for your birds to shut down egg production and redirect nutrients and energy to the development of shiny new feathers. At the same time, our birds are spending less time outside, where they have access to the protein-rich bugs and critters that help support healthy feather growth, and the benefits of nutrients activated by and absorbed from sunlight.
What can you do to boost your flock’s nutrition when they need it most?
Read the labels on your feed sacks
You should always feed age-appropriate concentrated feeds, such as mash, crumbles or pellets, to your chickens. Layer feeds are generally comprised of 15-20% protein as a maintenance diet, while starter and grower feeds tend to be higher in the proteins needed to develop muscles, feathers, and organs.
Some flock owners will mix a high-protein game bird or broiler concentrate with their layer feed to give protein intake a boost during the winter months, but as long as your purchased layer feed contains 18-22% protein, and you’re careful about the treats you offer your flock, you should be fine.
Feed high-protein treats and scratch
Scratch grains help keep chickens active, and as a bonus encourages chickens to turn bedding materials in their henhouses. Oats and barley are higher in protein than corn, so if you’re mixing your own scratch, consider adjusting your ratio.
Pumpkin seeds are high in protein, and some people swear that they help manage intestinal parasites in chickens and other livestock.
While expensive, shelled safflower and sunflower are always a welcome treat, high in protein and energy, but they’re also high in fat, so don’t overdo it. Fat chickens aren’t healthy chickens!
Sprouts made with sunflower seeds or whole barley are a fantastic, high-protein supplement for your chickens. Be sure to use a sprouting method that discourages mold, and don’t sprout more than you can feed in a few days. Poultry needs only newly-emerged sprouts, so don’t worry about “greening up” emerging stems.
Want to boost your flock’s protein intake while spoiling them silly? Treat them to freeze-dried mealworms, or consider raising your own. Mealworms are “superfood” for chickens, packed with protein and energy.
Keep up with calcium supplements and grit
Be sure your oyster shell dispensers stay full. At the height of the molt, you may want to consider supplementing feed with a powdered calcium supplement designed for reptiles and birds. Look for products that contain vitamin D3 to allow for optimal calcium absorption during dark winter days.
Encourage full-spectrum exposure and outdoor exercise
Nothing beats full-spectrum sunlight for calcium absorption and general flock health. Make sure your birds have daytime access to their outdoor run in winter but be sure to maintain perimeter security against predators. Encourage your birds to go outside for sunlight and exercise with a handful of treats or scratch.
When your chickens move around and get plenty of fresh air and exercise, they’ll have fewer problems laying eggs when their ovulation cycle starts up again with increased natural daylight.
Don’t skip the molt
Some flock owners keep an artificial light on their birds year round, mimicking equatorial lighting conditions to encourage non-stop egg production. This stresses the bird’s reproductive system and diminishes their ability to produce healthy plumage. These flock owners usually replace birds after a year or two, so they’re not interested in their flock’s long-term health.
Other chicken owners will optimize efficiency without risking flock health by using artificial light until early fall and increased protein percentages throughout feather development to encourage all their birds to enter the molt at once. This allows for more predictable and reliable egg production in early spring and more consistent feeding practices with each group of birds.
Most backyard flock keepers simply let nature take its course, foregoing artificial lighting while maintaining a diet appropriate for their birds’ seasonal needs.
How you feed in winter affects your birds’ health year around
The decisions you make now will determine how healthy your flock is going into spring and summer, and will help you make sure your birds receive the nutrition they need to remain resilient against common winter ailments. Help your birds direct their energy needs to where they need it most this season with proper feeding practices.