reading time: 5 Session minutes
Written by Rebecca Krebs Feeding organic, non-GMO chicken feed has become a popular choice for the home flock as people increasingly return to a normal lifestyle. Chickens’ diets affect the nutritional value of the eggs or meat they produce, so owners of flocks find it important to feed organically to avoid GMOs, pesticides, and herbicides found in most conventional feeds. Organic purchasing options have increased at the pace of demand. Unfortunately, organic feed rations are not created equal. This is a serious problem because balanced nutrition is essential for chicken growth, correct maturation rate, egg-laying potential, and psychological well-being. Therefore, it is necessary for the flock owner to have a basic understanding of chicken nutrition to choose high-quality organic feed. In this discussion, we will address the nutritional factors of protein and digestible enzymes, two areas that are often deficient in organic nutrition.
When evaluating the protein content of food rations, we’ll start with peas. Since non-GMO peas are more available in some areas than non-GMO crops such as corn or soybeans, peas are a common ingredient in organic non-GMO chicken feed. They are an acceptable ingredient in moderation; However, some manufacturers rely too heavily on peas for protein, and fail to properly balance it with other items so that chickens have enough digestible protein in their diet. The protein in peas can’t be fully utilized by the chicken – the ingredient label may claim “18% protein,” but the actual protein the chicken can use is less. Alyssa Walsh, BA, MA, animal nutritionist with organic animal supplement manufacturer, The Fertrell Company, discusses this pitfall: “Peas have tannins, which reduce the digestibility of the protein. Tannins bind to the protein, making the protein less digestible. Peas are also low in protein.” “Sulfur-containing amino acids such as methionine and cysteine. Methionine is an essential amino acid, which means it must be supplied in the diet in sufficient levels to help birds grow and lay eggs. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and a protein source is only as good as the amino acid profile.”
One way to provide a good amino acid profile is to find an organic, non-GMO chicken feed that uses soybeans for protein. “Roasted soybeans or soybean meal is a great source of protein because it has an excellent amino acid profile and can be used in unlimited levels once it has been heat treated,” says Alyssa Walsh. Soy and corn work well together in a serving, as the amino acid profiles complement each other. It can be difficult to find non-GMO soybeans, however, and even if they are available, some herd owners prefer not to feed soybeans. In these cases, Alyssa points out, there are limits to how much of each substitute can be added to the feed, so replacing soy requires four to five different protein sources. (Other grains and legumes, and flaxseed, among others, may help meet this demand.)
To solve this dilemma, there is an additional advantage of organic feed: it is possible to find organic, non-GMO chicken feed that contains animal protein, such as fishmeal, while this option is scarce in conventional feed. Chickens are naturally carnivores, not vegetarians, so offering animal protein improves their overall health and is especially beneficial in organic chick feed for young birds that need higher protein. Alyssa is excited about this option. The amino acids found in animal protein help meet the chicken’s amino acid requirements for growth and development! Fishmeal is rich in methionine, lysine and threonine. All are essential amino acids. I really like fishmeal in growing birds’ rations, especially at first.” Fishmeal should be kept at 5% or less of the diet for laying hens or adult broilers because too much can give eggs or meat a “fishy” flavour.
Alyssa encourages chicken owners to “know where they come from to avoid negative outcomes from feeding animal products. I prefer wild caught fish because that is what I have had the most experience and success with. The fishmeal I use for my rations is either sardine meal or Asian fish meal. Both are It’s caught in the wild. Meat and bone meal doesn’t perform as well as fishmeal. If meat and bone meal is all you have access to, make sure it’s not made from poultry.” Meat and bone meal, especially poultry, can transmit diseases to chickens that consume them. This risk is virtually eliminated with wild caught fish.
Besides fishmeal, some non-GMO organic chicken feed manufacturers use soldier fly larvae or other insects to provide animal protein. This is an excellent choice, with the added nutritional benefits of the insects’ mineral-rich exoskeletons. Dried insects are also available separately. They make a nutritious treat when chickens don’t have access to insects through free-range or organic feed that already contains animal protein. Milk, whey, yogurt, or hard-cooked chopped eggs are also good for adding animal protein to chicken meals.
Once we find a feed that has a complete protein, we need to look at what enzymes it contains. In some areas, manufacturers of organic, non-GMO chicken feed incorporate high levels of wheat, barley, and other small grains into their rations, all of which require special enzymes for the chicken to properly digest. It is common for these enzymes to be missing in organic feed. While it may seem daunting to determine if a feed contains the right enzymes, Alyssa explains it simply: “Read the label. Look for ingredients like lactobacillus acidophilusAnd Lactobacillus caseiAnd lactobacilli plantsAnd Enterococcus faecalisAnd Bacillus licheniformisAnd subtilis subtilis. These bacteria produce the necessary enzymes inside the chicken’s digestive tract. If the ingredients label only lists “dried bacilli,” you can ask the manufacturer which species they include.
Note that fresh greens and free-choice pellets are also essential to chicken development and productivity. Organic feed often comes unground or coarsely ground, so pellets (coarse sand for chicks or fine gravel for adults) helps chickens grind up grains during digestion. Pre-milled feed such as organic layer pellets or chick mash does not require as much grinding during digestion, but pellet feed still improves feed utilization. Once the chickens reach egg-laying age, in addition to organic chicken layer feed, offer them a free choice of oyster shells to meet their calcium needs to make strong eggshells.
Owning chickens is a fulfilling pursuit, providing great local food and constant fun. And I have to say, it’s even better when I know my chickens are eating a nutritionally balanced, organic diet that will keep them happy and healthy.
Originally published in the 2021 Special Issue of Backyard Poultry – A Natural and Sustainable Flock – Regularly checked for accuracy.