If you are like me, you have questions that arise when you keep chickens. When I started meeting the faces behind Purina Poultry, I quickly learned that there are wonderful people behind the brand, like Dr. Patrick Biggs. He’s down to earth and friendly, and I had a moment to sit down and ask Dr. Biggs some of your biggest chicken nutrition questions. Take a peek at what Dr. Biggs, a chicken nutritionist, had to say and learn something new. I did, especially when it comes to feeding roosters.
Interview with a Chicken Nutritionist
Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background, education and how did you come to love birds and work at Purina?
My name is Patrick Biggs and I am one of the flock nutritionists at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center in Gray Summit, Missouri. I work alongside Purina Flock Nutritionists Dr. Gordon Ballam and Dr. Mikelle Roeder to help develop poultry feeds and serve as a resource to help flock owners raise happy, healthy birds.
I love my job because I get to work with backyard chickens every day. My office is at the same location as Purina’s 12 backyard coops. Because our team is close to our flock of Barred Rocks, we can closely monitor the birds to ensure our feeds are keeping the flocks happy and healthy. We know at Purina that our feeds need to work in our backyard before they work in yours.
I enjoy talking to people about their animals and looking for new ways to help them become better caregivers. With a deep history in animal care and partnerships, Purina stands for both of these passions. My life experiences have allowed me to gather considerable poultry knowledge with industry experience in: feed formulation, technical support, facility management and flock nutrition.
Before joining Purina, I received my Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My Ph.D. work focused on evaluating alternatives to antibiotics in poultry rations – with a goal of helping flock raisers provide fresh, wholesome nutrition to their flocks. Most recently, I worked as a poultry nutritionist for BioResource International, Inc., where I specialized in development of high-performance enzyme feed additives for poultry. Prior to this, I was dedicated to poultry management and nutrition at Ridley, Inc., and Alltech.
Let’s talk about feeding our girls. What ingredients should an organic layer feed include and what benefits do they provide?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “You are what you eat”? The same is true for laying hens. Quality eggs are produced from quality feed. In fact, laying hens require 38 different nutrients to stay healthy and produce quality eggs. Our goal is to formulate complete feeds that meet each bird’s requirements – without having a need to supplement. An organic complete feed should provide all the nutrients a hen requires, at the correct level.
Think of a chicken feed as a casserole—it’s a mixture of ingredients where each part adds up to a perfectly balanced whole. The main ingredients you should look for in your layer feed include:
• 16% protein and 3.25% calcium
• DL-methionine – an essential amino acid
• Marigold extract
• Calcium, manganese, and trace minerals
• Vitamins A, D & E
One example is Purina® Organic Layer Crumbles or Pellets. We formulated this feed to support your hen’s day-to-day performance and allow her to produce exceptional eggs, while maintaining the status of an organic flock.
We start at the top with calcium and protein because they are two main features of complete feed that determine the effectiveness, depending on the life stage of a bird.
Calcium is a powerhouse ingredient in layer feed. It promotes strong bones and egg shells. Therefore, the amount of calcium in a layer feed will need to be higher than that of non-layers. More importantly, hens need a slow-release calcium source. If the calcium isn’t provided in the layer feed, hens may pull the nutrient from their bones to create eggshells.
Protein is also important. Protein contains building blocks, or amino acids, that keep muscles and internal plumbing running smoothly, as well as maintaining beautiful feathers. DL-methionine is one of those building blocks that is essential for the hen to stay healthy and continue to lay eggs.
Vitamins are important for two reasons: bird health and egg production. Vitamins A, D, & E should be contained within any complete feed. These nutrients help maintain feathering, as they help transfer nutrients around the body and make proteins that maintain the overall health of the bird.
Although it may not be as obvious, egg production is related to these vitamins and as well. For example, vitamin D3 is essential to aid in the uptake of calcium into bones and bringing it to be incorporated into the egg shell. On a related egg note, marigold extract gives you those rich, yellow yolks. All together, these components optimize the overall nutrition of the egg.
Each nutrient plays an important role in hen health and egg production and must be provided at the correct level. Complete layer feeds are formulated to provide the correct mix to keep hens happy and healthy.
Should my rooster’s diet be different than my hen’s diet?
Ideally, roosters should not be fed a layer feed because they do not need the added calcium. We recommend feeding Purina® Flock Raiser® poultry feed or Organic Starter-Grower to roosters to give them the extra protein they need. A couple of ways to do this: You could have separate pen/feeder for the rooster and separate him at meal time. We know this isn’t always a practical option, though. Another alternative is to have a feeder for the rooster that’s placed a bit higher than the hens’ feeder, since roosters are often taller.
If he tends to eat “his” feed most of the time, then it is not likely to be an issue if he occasionally helps himself to “her” feed. This is a common problem when you house roosters and hens together. They have different nutrient requirements but it is difficult to reason with them and to convince them to only eat their feed. As long as he spends the majority of his time eating his own feed, it shouldn’t be a problem if he is eating some layer feed.
Should I do anything nutritionally for my flock during molting?
Molt is a natural process for birds that is driven by season. In most cases, molt is an annual break from egg laying, often marked by feather loss. The process typically begins in the early fall and lasts usually between 12-16 weeks.
Most of them molt as the days begin to get shorter. When they molt, they will replace old feathers and stop laying eggs for a period of time. The shortening day length signals to the bird that winter is coming. It is time to stop laying eggs because raising chicks in the winter is not ideal, and it is time to replace some of these feathers that are showing signs of wear. She needs her feathers in good condition to be able to stay warm in the winter. Unfortunately, they don’t all molt at the same time. As the birds get older, the amount of time between a molt shortens and the amount of eggs that they lay begins to decrease.
To help birds through molt, switch from your layer feed to a high-protein feed, such as Purina® Flock Raiser®. For organic flocks, try switching hens to Purina® Organic Starter-Grower feed when molting begins in order to maintain organic status and provide a higher level of nutrition.
Protein is essential for feather regrowth; therefore, the added protein in the diet can help give birds the extra oomph they need to get back to their normal selves. Once hens begin laying again, transition back to a complete layer feed.
How can I stop my hen from laying thin egg shells?
Everyone hates when you gather a carton of eggs and excitedly carry them back to the house for breakfast only to find a few have broken along the journey. Strong eggshells are important!
Eggshells are only 0.3 millimeters thick, but they provide a lot of security to the egg. This is by design. Similar to the supplies needed to construct a building, hens require specific nutrients to produce eggs with strong shells.
Calcium and vitamin D3 are two of the more important nutrients needed to build strong eggshells. Calcium is the most important nutrient for eggshell development, and vitamin D3 is vital to getting the calcium where it needs to go. Each eggshell typically contains about 2 grams of calcium, which makes up 40 percent of the shell. Hens need to consume 4 grams of calcium in order to put the amount required for building a strong shell into an egg (not all of that calcium goes to shell production!). (For source, see 1 below)
The key to becoming an effective general contractor for helping your hens build strong shells is using a feed that includes slow-release calcium. If you have an organic flock, look for a layer feed that contains 3.25% calcium. If you have a traditional flock, you can bring calcium to the next level with feeds like Purina® Layena®, which includes the Oyster Strong™ System.
Available exclusively in traditional Purina® Premium poultry feeds, the Oyster Strong™ System helps your hens build strong shells. This feed is specially formulated to provide a slow-release calcium source that breaks down at night, when eggshells are being formed.
The oyster shell included in the Oyster Strong™ System is a good way to provide calcium because of its large particle size. Smaller calcium particles break down quickly, but the oyster shell particles contained within the feed have a slower transit time. This means the calcium source stays in the hen longer and plays an important role in eggshell formation at night when hens need calcium most.
Are there any foods that I should avoid with my flock?
For the most part, you can leave the decisions on good vs. bad up to your birds. Chickens tend to naturally avoid poisonous plants and insects. In fact, if they are out and about, a few bugs or various plants could be considered as their treats.
Homemade feed is a trend we are seeing today with some backyard flocks. These homemade diets may actually sprout digestive trouble and hurt your flock. With a made-from-scratch formula at home, you can’t be sure of the nutritional value and proper proportion of each ingredient without consulting an expert. Not to mention, mixing or adding extra ingredients is a lot of unnecessary work and expense.
What about treats and snacks? Are they good for my birds?
A balance between complete feed and treats is the key to maintaining healthy nutrition in your flock. My response to flock raisers when they ask about the balance of feed to treats is to follow the 90/10 rule: 90% complete feed and 10% treats.
Think of treats like kitchen scraps and scratch grains like M&M’s for birds; they’re a fun treat and nice to eat, but you wouldn’t want an entire diet of them. Limiting the amount of treats we give our hens ensures that the hens are getting the proper amount of nutrition from their complete feed to keep them healthy and laying eggs.
Hens require 38 different nutrients in feeds formulated specifically for them, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and energy. Let’s take a look at one of these important 38 required nutrients: Calcium. If the hen is eating high amounts of treats, she won’t consume her daily allotment of complete feed. What happens now?
Without enough complete feed, she won’t have the calcium she requires to produce strong, high-quality eggshells. Instead, she will draw from her calcium reserves (her bones) to produce eggs, potentially resulting in a weak skeletal structure. Each time you use unfortified feeds like treats, the complete nutrition of the layer feed is diluted, and the hen may actually receive less than if she had only eaten her complete feed.
What are the nutritional benefits of free-ranging?
Some of us might remember the days when our grandparents had chickens; they’d roam around all day in the garden and backyard, pecking at leaves, scratching the dirt, and gathering what they could find for their diet that day. While chickens can survive on scrounging around the yard, to have them thrive means feeding for proper, balanced nutrition with a complete feed.
Consider free-ranging as a way to give your hens an opportunity to find treats instead of a full meal. Free-ranging provides ample opportunity for the natural scratching and pecking instinct chickens have when locating feed. I’d recommend finding a balance by providing your birds with complete feed in the morning and evening in their coop or a shaded area, and letting them free range for the remainder of the day. This way, you can be rest assured your guys and gals are getting the 38 nutrients they need from a complete feed, while also having the opportunity to free range.
Of course, I have to ask after you have worked for so many years developing and researching feed, why do you think Purina® chicken feed is the feed to buy?
Each bag of Purina® poultry feed is supported by decades of research and formulated to meet the unique needs of the bird – no matter the goal of the flock owner. Research is important to us, because we have flocks to care for as well and proudly feed Purina® feed to our backyard flocks.
If I were at my local feed store buying feed for a flock of my own, I’d look for the feed supported by research and proven by the industry. At Purina, we have studied nutrition at our farm since 1926, meaning each feed recipe is crafted with nearly a century of supporting nutritional benefits.
Just like those family recipes that get passed down through generations while getting better over time, Purina’s feed formulas stay true to our values by blending top quality ingredients with knowledge and experience.
Through the years, we have continued to make the best better by bringing our feeds to the next level. Our new line of organic chicken feed is just another example of innovation. We formulated our organic feeds to provide all the ingredients chickens want and none that they don’t.
I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Dr. Biggs for helping to answer our poultry questions. If you have any poultry nutrition questions, feel free to leave a comment below on this blog post for our chicken nutritionist. Questions will be open for one week following this post.
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Disclosure: This post has been sponsored by Purina Animal Nutrition, as such I received feed for my flock and will also receive feed in the future to share my opinion with my readers. However, my opinions are based on my individual and unique experience; typically, Purina Animal Nutrition suggests changing to or starting a flock on Purina® Organic will result in optimum organic flock performance. Based on my experience in 2016, I believe this line of feed has been amazing for my flock and I encourage you to try it too!
“Calcium Sources for Laying Hens” Poultry Industry Council. http://www.poultryindustrycouncil.ca/pdfs/factsheets/fs_133.pdf. 11 November 2016.