Raising young chicks can be incredibly rewarding. But between free-ranging and medicated feed, what do chicks eat? What do they need to become strong, healthy adult chickens?
Baby chicks can grow so quickly, but without a proper diet, they may be underweight, suffer from scruffy plumage, or even develop chronic health issues.
In this guide, we’ll cover all you need to know about feeding baby chicks, from their first few days in the brood box to their first few weeks of foraging…
How to Choose the Best Feed for Your Chicks
What do chicks eat? Surprisingly, if you were to leave your mother hen to care for her chicks in a natural environment, she would help them find all sorts of grubs, insects, and grit to raise resilient and beautiful chicks.
For those of us who hatch or raise babies of only a few weeks old, we simply might not have the luxury of a hen to provide for their needs.
So, choosing the right feed is our best bet. But with so many options from starter food to grains, how can you know which is the right one?
Feeding my Chicken
When I first got my Buff Orpington chick, she was a beautiful ball of fluff! As recommended by her breeder, I provided a powered growing feed for chicks. However, I did only minimal research into exactly what I was feeding her.
Now, she’s grown into a full-feathered adult hen, but she is smaller than your average Orpington and was on antibiotics for much of the winter season at just a year old.
It was only when I investigated ways to improve her health that I learned about essential ingredients for every unique life stage.
The Significance of Healthy Food for Chicks
Why is this important? Well, the things you feed chicks from a young age can influence their development as they transition into adulthood. The right feeds are packed with essential nutrients for growth and resilience.
Baby chickens need more protein than a fully-grown hen because they are still developing their muscles, feathers, bones, and organs.
DID YOU KNOW
Chicken feathers consist of around 90% keratin protein and amino acids, so feeding a chick a protein-enriched diet encourages gorgeous plumage and healthy growth.
Now, let’s start from the beginning and look at the ways you can feed chicks, from the moment of hatching to their very first week of life…
What Do Newborn Chicks Eat?
When your baby chick breaks free from its shell, you may be tempted to provide food and water once you remove them from the incubator and place them into the brooder.
Amazingly, after the chicks hatch, they don’t need anything to eat or to drink for up to 48 hours.
This is because the egg yolk from their original shell provides sustenance for them until they can start eating on their own.
Once chicks are dry and placed into the brooder under a heat lamp, it’s a good idea to introduce feed about 12 hours later. Fresh water should always be provided immediately after they are moved from the incubator.
What Do Baby Chicks Eat After Hatching?
If you were to watch new chicks in a free-range environment, you’d notice that their diet mainly consists of small worms and a variety of insects.
At this stage, they eat very few leafy greens.
Why does the mother hen provide a bug diet? Because she knows that every chick needs high protein, especially after they hatch.
You can feed baby chicks a chick starter feed that is full of vitamins and minerals. It should be higher in protein and fairly low in calcium to support their development.
A low protein and high calcium diet will increase their risk of kidney problems and slow their growth.
You can introduce grains to a baby chick, but it should be very fine and only offered in small amounts…
How to Choose Chick Starter Feed
Organic and whole-grain feeds developed for young birds contain fiber and are free of chemicals that could affect their health.
Purchase a non-GMO chick starter feed with around 24% protein and very few fillers, like corn and soy.
Where to Find Chick Starter
You can find chick starter at a local feed store, and make sure it’s balanced and organic! The starter feed should contain a whole grain mix.
Also, it should consist of smaller particles or a soft crumble that is easy for chicks to peck at.
Use chicken feeders that the tiniest of chicks can reach and won’t fall into.
If you are raising them with the mother hen, feed baby chickens separately to the adult.
Hens can suffer nutritional deficiencies or runny stools if they eat the same food as their chicks.
You can feed your new hatchlings chick starter until 6 weeks of age, after which you can provide the older babies a grower feed.
How to Feed Chicks Prepared for Shipping
If you are going to ship newly hatched chicks, you should add a starter feed to the box. Chicks will naturally peck at the small pieces of food they find in their environment and certainly won’t go hungry!
This is particularly important if it will take longer than 2 days to reach their destination.
Non-Medicated Versus Medicated Food
The reason you might want a medicated feed is for protecting very young and vulnerable chicks (at least ones raised in cramped hatcheries) from the intestinal parasite coccidiosis. Baby chicks have little immunity and won’t necessarily be able to fight an infection should it spread.
You don’t want the first thing you do to be breaking out the chicken wormer.
Coccidiosis spreads in the fecal matter of birds and can have fatal results among hatchlings. Chicks are curious, and frequently peck at their environment; however, they may eat infected food or other matter that can cause infection.
To help you decide whether medicated or non-medicated food is best for your babies, let’s take a look at what medicated foods are and when it’s best to use them.
What is Medicated Starter Feed?
Medicated chick starters contain the anticoccidial drug Amprolium which helps to strengthen chicks’ immunity against coccidiosis infections.
Some of these feeds will also include hormones and are typically fed to chicks that are unvaccinated and are raised in large hatcheries where hygiene is a concern.
Here is an informational video about medicated feeds.
When Should You Provide Medicated Feed?
When introducing new chicks that are not vaccinated, you may want to consider medicated feed just to be on the safe side.
If your chicks are vaccinated, it should be fine to introduce non-medicated feed, especially when you keep your hatchery or brooder clean.
I don’t recommend medicated food for vaccinated chicks because it can affect the efficacy of the vaccine.
It is always better to raise a flock naturally, and the fewer chemicals involved the better! Chicks need to build their immunity on their own and remain healthy against infections, something that can be achieved with free-ranging and clean coops.
Introducing Chick Starter to Baby Chickens
You can introduce young chicks to food and water a day after they’ve hatched.
Newly hatched chicks need water once you move them into the brooder, and should be taught how to drink before they start eating.
A nipple waterer might help ease the learning process.
Once they are drinking on their own, they will happily eat the food you provide.
Teaching Chicks to Drink Water
You can teach baby chicks to drink by dipping your finger into the water and placing a droplet onto their beaks. You can also gently tilt them to dip their beaks into the water so they recognize what it is and where to find it.
How to Feed Hatchlings
Hatched chicks will only need to eat after a couple of hours once they’re settled in their new environment.
You can then introduce the starter feed by tossing a few grains or crumbles on a dry paper towel and placing it into the brooder. To get their attention, tap, and then point at the grain so they come over to see what the fuss is all about!
Because baby chicks are so curious, they will naturally peck at the food and should start eating on their own.
What Does a Baby Chick Like to Eat?
Baby chicks left under the care of the hen will excitedly forage with her in the soil and through the grass to find all kinds of bugs.
Mature chickens love worms and grubs, and so do baby chicks! While we cannot forage and dig for grubs quite like a hen, we can have baby chicks eat nutritious treats (in moderation, of course!).
When Should You Feed Treats to Chicks?
When chicks have hatched, you can get them to eat a chick starter feed around 24 hours later.
Starter feed contains the necessary nutrients that a chick needs to grow into a healthy adult. If you start feeding treats too early, they’ll learn to indulge in the “not so good stuff” and you may struggle to get them back onto their regular feed.
I suggest introducing treats by their second week of age. By then, your chicks should have become accustomed to their own feed, and will have noted that treats are not an everyday thing!
What Types of Treats Can Baby Chicks Eat?
Treating your baby chicks to their own version of “dessert” is a great way to build trust and to let them know that you are their provider.
Let’s look at the best and worst treats that baby chicks can safely eat.
Interestingly, the healthiest treats baby chicks can eat are eggs! Eggs are high in protein and offer excellent nutrition for growing chicks.
By weeks 2 and 3, you can give them a soft scrambled egg, but be sure to break it into small pieces for their tiny beaks to pick up.
If they show no interest in their new treat, you can mix the scrambled eggs with their chick starter feed. Chop the egg into very fine pieces and crumble it between your fingers.
Give chicks some time to discover the new treat, and once they do, they’ll be chirping every time they see or smell cooked eggs!
A question that many chick owners ask is whether they can give their babies mealworms. While adult chickens are crazy about mealworms, it should only be given to chicks at 2 to 3 weeks of age, along with grit.
Special chick grit consists of small stones compared to the grit you would feed your hens. It does not contain any calcium, and is an important part of aiding crop digestion.
Without grit, chicks might struggle to digest mealworms, which can lead to sour crop and gut problems. No thanks!
Don’t place grit in their feeders, but rather in a separate bowl, or perhaps sprinkle it on the ground as free choice.
Leftover pasta and rice are very tempting to feed baby chicks, but these types of kitchen scraps are low in protein and not good for their crop health.
You can feed kitchen scraps such as vegetables and brown rice from 3 months old, but again, always use moderation when straying from the regular feed.
What Can I Feed Weak Baby Chicks?
Weaker chicks need a little bit of help, but with some time and extra care, many of them can go on to become strong healthy chickens.
Because weak baby chicks need extra nutrition, it might be beneficial if they’re fed finely chopped scrambled or boiled egg. Encourage them to eat by smearing a tiny amount of food on their beaks.
For very weak and listless chicks, ensure they drink plenty of water to keep them hydrated. You can also add electrolytes or soluble vitamins to give them an energy boost.
When I need to care for very sick chicks, I mix their starter feed with a small amount of warm water until it becomes a soft mash. Proceed to gently pry their beak open and place a drop into their mouths.
Make sure to always clean their beak after trying to feed them, as this will help prevent the mash from hardening or covering their nostrils.
Raising chicks is a wonderful experience provided you give them what they need. While allowing mother hens to rear her young is always best, if you have to be the provider, there are ways to ensure that their nutrition comes first!
To help little chicks grow into healthy adults in your flock, they require a balanced chick starter feed from the first week up until 6 to 8 weeks of age. After that, feel free to give them the occasional helping of chicken scratch.
You can introduce food and water as soon as they’re placed into the brooder. With a little encouragement, they should learn very quickly where and how to eat and drink on their own.
While we’re all tempted to spoil our chickens, try to keep treats to a minimum, because they genuinely need all the nutrients they can get in their starter feed.
You can introduce scrambled or boiled eggs and mealworms around 2 weeks old, but avoid table scraps that contain very few nutrients.
If you are brand new to raising chickens, invest in good quality food to help your chicks grow strong and healthy. You can also read my review of the best chicken starter kit to learn more about raising chicks. Happy raising, and feel free to share our tips on what do chicks eat to successfully rear your own backyard chickens!