Getting your new baby chicks is a thrilling experience, especially if they are your first baby chicks to look after. To ensure that your chicks are as healthy as they can be and are happy when you transition them into your flock, they need to have complete nutrition and care from the word go. A baby chick does not really recover from a bad start to life, so you need to give the utmost attention to their care. That includes feeding them correctly. So, can you overfeed baby chicks?
Do not be concerned about overfeeding your chicks for the first three weeks of their lives. They are growing rapidly and need as much nutrition as possible to help sustain this growth. Depending on the breed of chick you have, they may need to be put on a feeding schedule after three weeks.
The three most important things that a baby chick needs in the first few weeks of its life are warmth, water, and food. Chicks go through rapid development during this time and need to have the right nutrition to develop normally. This is why you need to have a great understanding of what and how to feed them correctly.
Can Chicks Be Overfed?
As a first-time chick care provider, you may be concerned about how much to feed your chicks and how much may be too much food for them.
First, when seeing how much your chicks eat, you need to remember that these little babies have vastly different biology to us humans. For us, when we eat, our food goes to our stomachs directly. Your chicks, however, have an organ that is called a crop. This organ behaves as a holding station for food before it is transported further down the digestive tract to where the food will actually be digested.
Once that crop is full, it’s really hard for a chick(or chicken) to eat anything else.
This is why when you see your chicks eating what looks like an enormous amount of food for their tiny bodies, you do not need to worry. You should not be concerned about overfeeding your chicks. Your baby chicks will eat as their instinct dictates, and their bodies will process everything that they take in when needed.
Just ensure that your chicks have a good supply of water at all times, and make sure that their feeders are full, so they can eat when they feel it’s necessary.
Do Baby Chicks Know When to Stop Eating?
Most chicks’ instincts regarding food is right on; they’ll eat their fill and then they’ll take a nap. In fact, the only thing chicks seem to do more of than eating is sleeping.
There are a few breeds (we’ll talk about the Cornish broiler in the next section of this article) that will overeat to the point of it being a problem. However, most generic breeds of chickens that you can get at your local feed store (or from a chick supplier) don’t have that problem. Your chick supplier can point you in the direction of breeds who don’t have that problem if you’re at all concerned.
Part of the reason I love IFA (my local feed and livestock store) is that during the spring when they do sell chicks, they make sure to provide a lot of breed information with each chick purchased. In fact, all the pertinent information is labeled on the chick containers so that you can read it to make sure you’re buying the right breed for your situation.
How Often Should You Feed Chicks?
There are many different breeds of chickens out there. However, for every breed of chicken, you need to ensure that the chicks have a constant food supply for the first three weeks of their lives. After these three weeks, and depending on the breed of chicken you are raising, you may need to start rationing their food intake.
If you are raising broiler chickens, then after three weeks, you should put them on a feeding schedule. You should speak to your chick supplier about the schedule they use or to see if they have one that they can recommend for your chicks.
Cornish broilers, in particular, usually need a feeding schedule after three weeks. My research shows that these chickens grow very quickly and will eat themselves to death if they have a constant food supply, or they could suffer a heart attack or even break their legs as they get too fat too quickly for their legs to support their weight. They are usually put on a twelve-hour feeding schedule with access to food and then twelve hours without access to food to prevent them from overeating.
The use of a feeding schedule is only essential for broiler chicks, so if you are raising any other breed of chicks, you should give them a constant food supply to ensure they get the right nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults.
Other breeds of chicks will tend to not overeat as much, and if they find that they have overeaten, they will stop and take a nap. This will help their bodies recover and digest the food correctly without any other complications.
If you do have some concerns about your chicks, remember that you can contact your chick supplier for any information you may need for the raising and care of your chicks.
Personally, we’ve just always left food out 24/7 for our chicks. That way, they’ve got food on-demand to support their growth. They definitely eat less during nighttime hours, but we want to make sure they’ve got the nutrition available any time they need it.
Once they’re fully feathered and look like a small adult chicken, then we’ll switch them to only having access to feed during daylight hours. We do that by moving their feed and water to their run, rather than keeping it in their outdoor coop. However, by then they’re already only eating during daylight hours anyway.
Remember that you should give your chicks a constant supply of water with their food as the water aids in their digestion.
What Can You Feed Chicks
To make sure that you get the most from your chickens, you need to give them the best start possible to their lives. This includes giving them the best nutrition that you can to make sure they grow up to be healthy, producing chickens.
For this reason, you should not skimp on the quality of the food that you give your chicks. You should NOT rely on table scraps to help your chicks grow. Table scraps alone are good for mere flock survival, but they aren’t a means to a thriving, happy, and healthy flock of chickens.
Chicks eat a lot – and they waste a lot of feed by learning to scratch, too. This can get expensive if you’re throwing out a lot of feed with the bedding that you change. Even so, you need to ensure your chicks’ wellbeing and health are at the top of your list. This will ensure that they will produce the number of eggs or quality of meat that you require. Make sure you read my notes at the bottom of this section – I’ll tell you exactly how much chick starter feed you need for 6 chicks.
You should feed your chicks a good quality starter feed for the first few weeks of their lives. This will help promote good development in your chicks as they will have the right balance of nutrition in their diets. This will allow them to grow into healthy adults. Once they are over seven weeks old, then you can start to feed them what the rest of your flock eats.
Remember to buy a starter feed that contains a fair amount of protein in it, too, as chicks are fast-growing and rely on protein to develop good muscle structure, amongst other things.
It is recommended for your chicks to have treats and snacks very sparingly, if at all. Do not give your chicks treats and snacks until they are used to their normal starter feed, as this could cause digestion issues for your chicks.
If you do want to give your chicks a treat, here are a few things you can consider giving them:
- Fruits, such as watermelon and bananas
- Vegetables like pumpkin, broccoli, and leafy greens
- Black oil sunflower seeds
For these treats, only give your chicks very small amounts. For example, only give them one vegetable leaf or a tiny sliver of watermelon. Do not overdo it. If you give your chicks a treat, make sure you follow it with some grit in a separate feeder to aid in the treat’s digestion. Do not add the grit to their starter feed, as they can digest that just fine.
For us, we used quality, locally-sourced chick starter that we buy at IFA. A 50-pound bag of chick starter feed lasted a group of six chicks until they were 8-9 weeks old, at which time we graduated them to pullet feed. They didn’t need anything else – no treats, grit, or anything else. This stuff is top quality. And the whole bag cost less than $20. So really, it’s not that expensive as long as it’s not being wasted.
Now, if you’d rather put your flock on a feed-free diet, I totally get it. You can do it. I’d recommend you start with a chick starter until you’re set up to go feed-free. And the first step of going feed-free is to read my article on how to feed your chickens a more natural diet.
What You Should Not Feed Chicks
There are lots of foods that chicks can eat. However, there are plenty out there that they should not eat either. There are foods that are poisonous to chicks and should be avoided at all costs.
The following are just a few examples of what food you should avoid giving your chicks:
- Nightshade family plants. They’re poisonous for some animals, but not others.
- Potato Plants. They’re fine for humans but not for chickens or chicks.
- Eggplant Leaves. They’re part of the potato (nightshade) family.
- Tomato plants. Tomatoes are an excellent treat for chicks; however, their leaves and stems can be poisonous to the chicks.
- Rhubarb leaves. This contains a high amount of oxalic acid, which can cause kidney failure in chicks.
- Avocadoes. They contain a toxin that is deadly to chicks, cats, dogs, and cattle.
- Uncooked beans. These contain hemagglutinin, which is toxic, and no bueno for chicks. You can give your chicks cooked beans, though.
- Holly. If your chicks eat this, it can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
- Lupines. These can cause nervous system problems in your chicks.
- Foxglove. This contains a cardiac drug called digitalis, which can make the heart slow down. Foxglove affects people, too (fun side fact: digitalis helped revolutionize heart medicine!).
- Periwinkle. This can cause nervous system problems and even death.
These are only a few things to keep away from your chicks. There are many more problem foods, so be sure to do your research before giving your chicks anything new to eat. Before you let your chicks run free when they are older, ensure nothing grows in your garden that can be harmful to them.
Final Thoughts on Feeding Chicks
Do not be nervous about raising your chicks; it is an enriching experience that everyone enjoys. While it can seem daunting and stressful in the beginning, it does get more manageable, and the worry does fade as you go.
Unless you are caring for a specific breed of chickens, you do not need to worry about overfeeding your little chicks. They are able to control themselves and will stop eating before they cause themselves harm.
It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to also learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- All my chickens. They’re the best.
- “7 Surprising Rules for Feeding Chickens.” The Happy Chicken Coop, 14 Dec. 2020, www.thehappychickencoop.com/7-surprising-rules-for-feeding-chickens/.
- Why You’re Feeding Your Chickens to Death and How to Stop It. 2 Dec. 2020, www.thehappychickencoop.com/feeding-your-chickens-to-death/.