How much protein do chickens need?
You’re chickens aren’t bulking, but you should still be supplementing their protein intake. Why is extra protein for laying hens essential?
Consider these facts about protein for chickens:
- Feathers comprise 7 % of the live weight of a chicken
- Feathers are 75 % protein
- The average egg contains 6 grams of protein
- Laying hens can produce up to 300 eggs a year. Their distant ancestors used to produce about 14!
- For most animals, ruminants excluded, the proteins found in animal sources like meat and insects are easier to absorb than plant proteins
So if your chickens are producing eggs and feathers, which I’m sure they are, then they need an awful lot of protein to supply their metabolic needs as well as your breakfast!
So how much protein do chickens need?
Science is an interesting thing. If you do a literature review of studies about the protein requirements of laying hens, you get a range of conflicting results. Anywhere between 12 % and 20 % protein in the diet has been recommended, plus extra protein for moulting chickens. Some studies fed hens up to 33 % protein diets! But when you think about it, the variation makes sense because external factors like breed, rate of egg production, stage of growth, moulting and even climate can influence how much protein a chicken needs.
However, studies have been conclusive about one thing: a diet containing insufficient protein reduces egg production and egg weight. Not to mention that it can compromise the health of the bird!
So how much protein should your chickens be getting? The most common answer for laying hens is 16-18 %. And most studies suggest that a little extra probably wouldn’t harm either.
Why a complete feed doesn’t cut it
Most complete chicken layer feeds contain 15-16 % protein. Protein is generally one of the most expensive ingredients, so feed manufacturers will include as little as possible while still providing for all the needs of a laying hen.
A 16 % protein, complete feed (or a premium feed with 16-18 % protein) is what your hens should be eating because it contains everything they need. By comparison, chicken scratch and other grains are usually 12-14 % protein or less.
But there’s a catch. The protein percentage in a complete feed is deceptive because the feed probably isn’t everything your chickens are eating.
What do your chickens eat in a day? Perhaps you give them scraps or treats, as well as their feed. Or maybe your chickens free-range, and spend their day gobbling up tasty insects and healthy greens.
What’s the problem with protein?
On the one hand, supplementing your chickens’ diet provides your birds with an interesting treat and a broad range of extra vitamins and minerals. There’s nothing wrong with it in moderation.
The problem is, if your chickens are free-ranging or eating scraps, they aren’t eating just their feed. And that means that unless they are mainly eating worms and insects, they are watering down the protein content in their diet. So they aren’t getting a full 15-16 % protein at all!
And on top of that, depending on the composition of your feed, your chickens may be eating primarily vegetable protein, which is less easily absorbed. They could also be missing out on certain essential amino acids most commonly found in insect and animal proteins.
The conclusion? Extra protein for chickens is necessary in most situations. Even if your chickens are consuming a high-protein food, chickens that free range or also consume scraps usually need more protein for optimum health and laying.
The solution? Providing a protein supplement every couple of days is the perfect way to ensure your birds are getting everything they need to be thrive and to provide you with a healthy, protein-rich breakfast.
Top 10 high-protein treats for chickens
Here are some of our favourite treats to help you boost the protein in your chickens' diet:
1. Dried Mealworms
At 53 % protein, Dried Mealworms are by far our chooks' favourite protein-rich treat. A handful every day or so provides the perfect complement to a complete feed.
2. Soldier Fly Larvae
Black Soldier Fly Larvae are another natural, insect-based protein source that chickens just love! Raised on food waste, they are an environmentally-friendly choice too! Dried Black Soldier Fly Larvae are often sold by pet stores, or you can raise your own live larvae at home!
Chickens love insects. And they normally get their own, if they are allowed to free range. But a bucket of grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles or grubs is always appreciated. It's a win-win: garden pest control and a high-protein snack for your chickens!
If you've ever given your chickens sunflower seeds, you'll know they love them. Other favourites are pumpkin seeds and flaxseed. Seeds are naturally high in protein, but they also have a high fat content so they should be used in moderation as a protein supplement.
5. Non-medicated chick starter
Never feed adult birds medicated chick starter. But non-medicated starter and grower feeds have extra protein to help young birds grow and develop. These feeds can be a great boost for laying hens as a treat. Don't use chick starter or grower feed as your layers' main feed, however,as it doesn't contain the right balance of vitamins, minerals and nutrients for adult birds.
Bean sprouts are high in protein and easy to raise on the kitchen bench. Why not try sprouting some mung beans, lentils or soybeans? Always ensure you are using untreated seed and only feed your birds proper sprouts - unsprouted dried beans can be poisonous!
Free range chickens usually find their own worms. But it is easy to raise worms in a worm farm, recycling kitchen scraps into protein for your flock and fertiliser for the garden!
Chickens actually love eggs, and they are a great source of protein and calcium (if you leave the shells on). Just make sure the eggs are unrecognisable, as you don't want to encourage egg-eating in the nesting boxes. If we want to feed the chickens eggs, we either crack them into a bowl and mix them up, or we boil them and crush them, shell and all.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but parsley is actually 21 % protein. And it is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals!
Our chickens love the ice cold treat of frozen peas on a summer day. They are the next best thing to cold watermelon and far healthier for chickens, not to mention rich in protein!
Other protein options
Some chicken keepers also feed their chickens fish, seafood and meat. The wild ancestors of chickens were omnivores, and I have seen my free-ranger layers kill and eat small animals such as lizards, rodents and even snakes.
Meat, fish and seafood are all great sources of protein for chickens, but not all chicken keepers are comfortable with them. If you do want to feed your birds meat or fish, always ensure it is fresh and remove any uneaten scraps after an hour or so. Cooking the meat, fish or seafood first decreases the risk of disease or parasites.
Many chicken keepers recommend cat food as a protein boost for chickens. While cat food can be used in the same way as meat etc. it is not really that healthy for chickens. Cats have very different nutritional needs to chickens, and cat food is a worse choice than just meat because it will have been supplemented with certain vitamins and minerals to meet those needs.
If you are looking for a protein boost, more natural foods like insects, seeds or even plain meat are healthier for chickens than cat food, which should be avoided.
Everything in moderation
Like everything, protein-rich treats and supplements should only be fed in moderation. Insufficient protein decreases egg production and impacts health, but too much protein is dangerous too.
Your chickens' main source of nutrition, and protein, should always be their complete feed! Limit treats, even protein boosters, to every few days and feed in moderation - no more than 10 % of the diet.
Give your chickens more protein-rich snacks if they are eating less feed, for example if they free-range or have a lot of scraps or forage. Be careful to limit protein sources that are also high in fat, and preference more natural foods like insects.
It is easy to tell if your birds are having too much protein - look for wetter-than-normal poop that smells strongly of ammonia. If your coop is dirty as soon as you've cleaned it, it might be time to cut down on protein-rich treats.
Do you want to know more about chicken nutrition? Other related topics:
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook