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Understanding Amino Acids for Chickens

Understanding Amino Acids for Chickens

Which is more important for chickens, amino acids or protein?

Not enough protein is one of the most common problems in backyard flocks, and can cause poor laying and health issues. 

Laying hens need a diet containing 16-18% protein, but how do amino acids fit into this? Well, it's complicated. Chickens need a certain amount of protein, but it is the amino acids in protein that determine their health and productivity.

What is the difference between amino acids and protein?

Amino acids, also called peptides, are the chemical building blocks of protein. A protein is just chains of amino acids, linked together.

In the digestive process, proteins are broken down into amino acids. These amino acids have important roles in the body and can also be recombined to form new proteins. For example, chickens convert amino acids into keratin for feathers and ovalbumin for egg whites.

The cycle of breaking down and rebuilding proteins is constant. The amino acids in a protein can be reused many times, but there is also waste. This is why chickens need a constant supply of protein - to support bodily processes and replace waste.

Which is more important for chickens, amino acids or protein?

For chicken health, individual amino acids are more important than overall protein. That said, we still look at chicken feed in terms of overall protein because the amino acid or peptide content is rarely listed on the bag!

Chickens need 22 different amino acids to be healthy. Some amino acids must be consumed – these are called essential amino acids. Others, called non-essential amino acids, can be manufactured in the body.

For good health and productivity, chickens must consume enough of the essential amino acids to meet their needs. However, new research suggests that perhaps some of the non-essential amino acids are essential too!

How do I know if my chickens are getting enough amino acids?

Because of the way that amino acids work together in the body, chicken health and productivity are determined by whichever amino acid they have the least of.

In practical terms, this means that if your chickens are low in one essential amino acid, it doesn’t matter how much protein they are consuming overall. Their health and productivity depends on that one amino acid.

Amino acid deficiency in chickens is difficult to identify. Deficiencies are often mild and the most common indicators, such as poor laying, can be caused by any number of deficiencies and diseases.

Amino acid deficiency, and protein deficiency more generally, are most often seen in underperforming flocks. There is nothing actually wrong with the chickens, but they look bedraggled and do not lay well, and you cannot put your finger on the cause.

Symptoms of amino acid deficiency and protein deficiency can include:

  • Poor growth
  • Poor laying
  • Reduced egg size
  • Poor feathering, particularly after moult
  • General ill-health
  • Feather-pecking and eating
  • Poor appetite

What to do for amino acid deficiency in your flock

The most common approach to what may be an amino acid deficiency in chickens is usually to increase protein intake.

However, this approach is problematic for two reasons:

  1. Because a single amino acid is always the limiting factor, any extra protein is excreted. So unless it is carefully chosen, more protein will often lead to little improvement and a much smellier chicken coop.
  2. Not all proteins are created equal. While animal proteins tend to contain fairly balanced amounts of essential amino acids, vegetable proteins are more unbalanced and cannot always be absorbed efficiently.

While individual amino acid supplements can be used to address a particular deficiency, it is often hard to pinpoint the culprit and these types of supplements are difficult for backyard chicken keepers to source.

Here are a few tips for if you suspect an amino acid deficiency in your flock:

  • Choose animal proteins – Chickens are naturally omnivores. A NSW study demonstrated that chickens prefer animal protein to vegetable protein when given the choice.
  • Provide supplements that are high in amino acids – Dried Mealworms and other insects are some of the best choices
  • Cut out other scraps and treats
  • Ensure you have chosen a high quality feed (see below)

Protein and amino acids: Choosing the best chicken feed

Protein content is essential when choosing a layer feed. But it is not the only factor. Just because a chicken feed has high levels of protein doesn’t mean it has all of the amino acids that your chickens need to thrive.

To make sure your chickens are getting all of the amino acids they need:

Too much of a good thing

Avoid going over-board. Too much protein can be as harmful to chickens as too little.

Keep things simple by sticking with a quality layer feed with around 17 % protein.

Avoid feeding your chickens things like cat food and tinned tuna. Although backyard chicken keepers often recommend it, these treats are usually too high in protein for chickens. Plus, unlike chicken feed, they don't contain the right amino acids in the right ratios, so they probably won't help improve productivity very much.

When chickens consume excess protein, it is excreted from the body as nitrogen-rich poop. This poop is wetter than normal chicken poo, and it often smells strongly of ammonia. So if your coop is getting smelly as soon as you have cleaned it, diet might be the problem!

Do you want to learn more about chicken nutrition and health? Check out these other blog posts:

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia