We Don’t Use Chick Starter: Three Reasons Why

We Don’t Use Chick Starter: Three Reasons Why

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In true rebel farm(ish) girl style, I thought I should let you in on a little secret: We don’t use chick starter at our farm and we haven’t for years.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t feed starter. I’m telling you that we don’t feed starter. Take that as you wish.

Here are our reasons…

Reasons we don’t use chick starter: the guy at the feed store told us we didn’t need to.

This journey started several years ago. We went to the feed store to grab a few bags of chick starter, but the feed store was low on supply. A gent who worked at the store pulled me aside and said, “You know, you don’t actually have to use starter.”

My heart rate elevated. Here this dude was telling me something different than what I’d read in all the blogs and books I’d used for solid research. How dare he? I filed his advice in my brain…and kept buying starter.

But then I started talking to more people.

Reasons we don’t use chick starter: 50 years ago, chick starter wasn’t a “thing”.

Research online doesn’t give any easy answers about when the practice of feeding chick “starter” began, but I can tell you that the more long time farmers/homesteaders I talk to, the more I get the impression that a good majority of them regard chick starter as more of a “thing” than a nutritional requirement.

It seems to me that as time goes on and research is done, the proper care and feeding of chickens becomes more complicated instead of less so. While working on this piece, I came across several articles that stated chicks should not eat layer food, layers should not eat chick food, and rooster companions to egg-laying hens should be eating a completely different feed of their own.

In a real-life, multi-age, free range flock—the kind we think of when we picture Normal Rockwell-esque farms—I’m not sure how this segregated feeding is even possible.

All I'm saying is that I'm pretty sure Ma Ingalls wasn't sending Pa to the store for different kinds of feed. Click To Tweet

Reasons we don’t use chick starter: when chicks follow Mama Hen around, they eat what she eats.

When our chickens were free range, we would often have a lot of surprise hatches. I did not (and still don’t) separate mama and her babies from the rest of the flock – 99% of the time we’ve seen mama prove she can hold her own. Those little fluffballs follow mama wherever she goes, doing what she does, and eating what she eats.

I have never had a chick die from eating layer feed. Ever. I’ve never had a chick starve from not being able to process layer feed. Ever.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one…

A survey of fellow homesteaders revealed there are many farmish folk who don’t use starter.

One homesteader commented their local feed store doesn’t carry non-medicated starter, so they just opt not to use starter at all.

Another homesteader said she simply doesn’t have the room to store several different kinds of feed, and so her whole flock gets the same kind.

Yet another homesteader commented that the protein difference in the starter and layer crumbles available in her area is a “whopping” 1%, so she figured it was easier to buy the layer feed for everyone and be done.

If you don’t use chick starter…

Some people don’t use chick starter, and worry about the size of the crumbles in adult chicken feed. There is a solution for that! You can grind the adult feed for the chicks using a coffee grinder. (Just make sure you use that grinder only for feed!)

For instance, the game bird grower we buy for our pheasants is pretty large, so we will grind it for the babies for a couple weeks.

Some people argue that you don’t even have to do this, and that the chicks will be just fine pecking at the large crumbles.

Why We Don't Use Chick Starter

If you don’t use chick starter and you’re worried about lower protein by not feeding a chick starter, realize there are many ways you can supplement protein. Try scrambled eggs, meal worms, and other things as a protein boost for all the birds in your flock.

Some folks say that the issue with chicks eating layer feed isn’t the lower protein, it’s actually that the calcium content is too high for chicks to process.

Layer feed can have as much as 3% more calcium than its starter equivalent. A laying hen uses that extra calcium to create strong egg shells. If higher levels of calcium are given to chickens who aren’t laying, some sources suggest it could cause stress as their kidneys work to filter the calcium out. Do with this information what you will.

To suggest that chicks are prone to kidney failure because they get too much calcium suggests I would see chicks keeling over from kidney failure, or growing up to mope around my farm with debilitating health issues.

I haven’t seen it yet, folks.

So, as a rebel farm(ish) girl, I’m just going to point this out: I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t feed starter. I’m telling you that we don’t feed starter.

Take that as you wish.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: we don't use chick starter at our farm. In this article, I tell you three reasons why.

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56 thoughts on “We Don’t Use Chick Starter: Three Reasons Why”

  • A great post, thank you! I was just thinking along the same lines. We also choose to mix our own layer feed and not do the pellets. They seem to be doing fine so far except for the hens who can’t keep up with the bigger ones when it comes to getting eggs shells from the compost and have a few chest feathers missing. They free range on about a 1/2 acre and seem to get most of what they need. We use organic hard wheat, organic field peas, Organic rye and organic unhealed oats from Azure. When we bought our premixed organic feed they would leave all the crumbly vitamins and extras and kick them all over their coop so we figured they were not eating it any how and yet we were still paying for it! I have a ‘how to feed chicken book’ from the 40’s on my to do list, should be interesting!

    • Thank you for your information. I wanted to grind up layer pellets but was not sure it would work for the little ones.

      • Me too 100% an Amish gentleman told me this a few years ago & I have been feeding layer crumbles ever since. Great article.

  • Love this, and giving some more thought to what my chicks are eating now. I pay extra at the feed store just to buy Non-medicated chick starter, but the layer feed typically doesn’t contain meds so I think I have found a new “thing” Thank you!

  • This is interesting to read Amy, thanks for the info! We have fed our meat bird chicks scrambled eggs along with starter, but we should skip the starter next time.

    I need to get a worm farm going for this coming summer, since we will be doing meat birds again!

  • I also keep baby with mom and they all free range. I just put layer feed in a plastic baggie and use a rolling pin to crush it up. Never had a problem.

  • I have no choice but letting my mama hen dictate what her babies eat. Mama hen does not accept starter neither any pellets mixed in layer. she forages whole day and when it comes to other stuff they only accept eggs and macadamia nuts. I tried sesame seeds, sunflower kernel, brewers yeast, organic wheat, oats etc.
    I read all kind of magic recipes but all wasted.
    Here in Queensland I have to keep them in enclosed yard due to predators. I do take them for a tour outside but watch them closely.

  • Friends of ours only use “grower” feed for their flock as they also have read that excess calcium may be harmful to roosters. Is this the same thing as starter?

    • That depends who you ask and what you’re buying. Our local place has starter AND grower, but I know there are some places that sell starter/grower (as in that’s what is written on the package, which would make one assume they are the same thing). I tried to do a bit of research online for you, but even that came up a little confusing. Our birds in the big red barn have always eaten a layer or “egg maker” mix and we’ve not had issues with it bothering the roosters. 🙂

      • I have 12 large hens, one Bantam rooster and 6 babies (9 weeks old, no mama). Everyone free ranges and lives in one coop. Everyone is being fed “all flock”, with grit and oyster shells in separate containers. Am I doing wrong? I tried different foods in different feeders but it is impossible. Who am I hurting by doing this? I worry mostly about my rooster not getting what he needs.

        • I’ve never fed separate feed to my chickens according to age or gender, etc. And when my chickens were free range they were dipping into every other animals’ feeds on the farm anyway.

  • Thanks for this! I mix our own feed and have been wondering what I would do for the babies this year. I didn’t really want to spend $28+ per 50lb sack of starter food. Our whole flock gets a “grower” mix and we have egg shells and calcium out for them free choice. Seems to work so far.

  • Cool, I like your blog. I normally don’t use chick starter either. I just feed everyone layers crumbles and scratch. They’re free range and like to help the pigs out with their food as well. I’ve never had any problems with the health of my chickens. My chicks haven’t gotten sick or died. I have had a few chicks eat a big size pig food pellet and have to wiggle their necks around to get it to move into their stomach. However, with my Serama chicks, I use chick starter. It’s easier for me to not have to grind up the food. But I just feed the chick starter to everyone for the short time I’m using it.

  • I have been feeding layer crumbles (they don’t like pellets) and scratch. I had two surprise hatches and because I have too many predators, I separated mamas and broods into a predator proof enclosure. They got the same feed as everyone else, they are all growing like weeds and I will most likely be butchering 2/3 of them as soon as they start crowing! I am going to try to grow redworms for them this winter as well as sprouting some kind of grain. We have a hard time getting barley and oats doesn’t sprout well. I am trying to figure out what to sprout that the horse can eat as well.

  • Thank you for this! I go natural and put fertile eggs under my broody hens. I have been “chick starter” shamed in the past. Now I am going to post this to Facebook and sit back to raise my chicks naturally.

    I am such a mean chicken mom…they don’t even have a swing!

  • I was asking myself why do I have to feed chick starter . Recently had a broody hen and I gave her a baby chick (no rooster)! Thus began the crazy of how to get the chick to her, where do I put her, where will I put them, to separate or not, what to feed, what to not feed! So my brain fired up along with Google to find the answers. I made it through everything mostly by trial and error, except food! I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to integrate mom and baby into the flock and still feed chick started. Not to mention mom didn’t like started at all. So the other day I turned mom loose with baby just to see what would happen. (After mom and baby had been in thier own separate cage within the roost). Thier scawbbles but after about 8 hours everyone seems to have settled down. Mom and baby are doing fine but the question remained how to feed them from here on out! Google led me to your podcast.my question was way back when how did the oldtimers feed grown chickens and babies. Well the momma chicken does it all of coarse. After watching this mom and baby and how mom would break up the food she was trying to get baby to eat I figured I would just nature run it’s course. But I just had to know if I was doing the right thing. Your podcast made me feel better about my decision to not play momma hen and let her do her job. We are on day two of “free ranging” and real mom is way better than me and I guess I will just have to stop worrying about nature and it’s seemingly perfection! Thanks

  • YES!! To no starter.
    My layers and their chicks are pasture raised.
    The hens have a feeder of whole wheat, one of oyster shell and another of grit.
    Found an article from Manitoba Agriculture on free choice and how chickens can moderate their diet.

    And an article from 1945!

    The day olds get scrambled eggs & I grind some of the wheat for the chicks.


  • Thank you for the straight talk. We were in the business 26 years ago and lost it all with a massive storm. A few years ago we started back and noticed the same thing with our yard birds. So this time we went organic and everyone gets the same feed. The only thing we have noticed is we far less stressed birds or sudden flock decline. Food? Medicine? Vitamins? Natural Farming has saved us money and increased profits so far. One caveat perhaps the 3% extra calcium in the layer has a untoward result in cooped only birds.

  • So I just read your very interesting article! I am all for not using starter (thanks) but I do have a question as my baby chicks were not vaccinated. Do I need to worry about that? I got fertile eggs from a farm(ish) gal down the road aways to give to my broody hen. They are now 14 days old and have been eating chick starter/grower but PeasyMom hates it!!! Advice welcome!

  • I love it! Life doesn’t have to be complicated and we don’t have to fear the unknown … even in issues as tiny as a chick 🙂 Thank you! I got some fresh chickpeas today and the local hardware store was out of chick starter so I gave them layer crumble and prayed they would be ok until I could grab starter … now I feel better!

  • I am interesting in learning, and following old methods. As a believer in the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, I believe the best practices were those followed by Adam and Even and a few others. Are you able to shed any light on the practice of feeding chickens a few hundred years ago by indigenous tribes throughout the world?

  • Hi! I recently ran out of chick starter and my babies are already 5 weeks old, so we had recently bought a 50 pound bag of laying hen pellets. Could I crush them up a bit and feed them that instead of chick starter?

  • For every one “saving” a few bucks on not buying starter. Yes you really are damaging your birds innards. No you will not see them dying left and right either. Their lives will be shortened. Think about it this way ; would you feed a newborn human baby your aduld diet? I would hope not. You both have different requirements for growth and energy.

    *Babies need that protein start for growth!
    *Pullets need some protein to finish filling out and a bit more calcium to put away into her bones and body before she starts laying.
    *Hens don’t need that higher protein. They still need their level to make those eggs. She needs higher energy (fat) in her diet to make those eggs. She needs that higher calcium for her bones and body because that’s where she pulls that calcium to make those shells on the eggs.
    *Roosters will be damaged by the higher calcium diets as well. He isn’t making eggs, his kidneys just can’t handle it.

    These special bags of feed weren’t created for fun. Different age birds and sexes and speices have different nutrient requirements. If you decide to ignore that, that’s up to you.

    What you can expect from not feeding an optimal diet is a shortened live span, more diarrhea at certain age levels, stunted growth in body and feather coat and unexpected deaths from “healthy” looking birds.

    Their isn’t a fault in letting a hen raise her chicks either without starter, however you can still expect the same result as not feeding a starter too. Not to mention that broody hen has been nearly starving herself where that starter diet is helpful to her to regain her loss body mass and feathers (she’ll have kicked her body into a molt by sitting on eggs) because of the extra protein in the starter.

  • My hen is 5-6 years old (guessing). I am not a breeder. This beautiful hen just happened onto our property which was attracted to my rooster at the time. I have been given her whatever the farm supply store told me to get. She’s been having diarrhea (which has been controlled some) as she was diagnosed by having coccidia and possible infection. A friend suggested giving my hen layer feed as it contains a lot of proteins and other vitamin/supplements that my hen is not getting. She said she is ill because she’s not getting proper feed and her digestive system is not functioning properly. She’s been eating scratch (which after many years, I didn’t know what it was or what it meant) but I also give her vegetables, some fruits, some carbs (whole wheat bread or pasta). But these I was told are considered treats and should not be given everyday – that layer feed should be 90% of her main meal. I’m going to have the vet run more tests for her sometimes runny poop. Her eggs last week were soft-shelled and now they’re kind of not formed properly. There is concern but I’m lost in knowing what to do. Where I live, we do not have access to good chicken feed as resources are limited. Possible problems from vet is nutrition but we’d have to do a CBC to be able to if there’s anything else happening. My friend thinks it’s some kind of a bacterial infection and bad nutrition. i feel inadequate as a first-time caregiver to a chicken I took in and feel irresponsible. I came upon your website searching for ‘chickens not eating layer feed’ because my hen refuses to eat it.

  • A momma hen with new babies isn’t going to have the calcium requirement of an actively laying hen, so she’s not going to seek out sources of calcium while she’s out eating with her babies, so the “chicks are eating what mom is eating” bit…. holds no water.

  • This is a great article! I am just looking into possibly raising cornish crosses and pekin ducklings with layer mash, so it would just be for a few weeks until they reach butcher age. Right now they are eating meat producer , and a lot of it! Layer mash is much less expensive than the meat producer at my local feedmill. Do you have any experience raising cornish cross or pekins on layer mash or layer pellets/ crumbles? Since they eat so much compared to heritage chickens, would the calcium make a bigger impact on these breeds? Thanks!

    • Layer mash is less expensive, but also has less protein. When we have run out of meat bird food, we have substituted with layer mash, but meat birds will eat even more of it because it doesn’t satisfy their appetite (because of lower percentage of protein). So while I don’t think the calcium is that huge of an issue, I think the lack of protein is. My guess is that feeding layer mash long term to meat birds will have you spending just as much in order for them to feel full. 😉

  • When you use phrases like “Some people say…” or “Do with this information what you will” you are implying that folks who have a differing viewpoint are expressing an opinion that is not borne out by empirical evidence or science. I have actually had a hen die of gout and obtained a professional necropsy. The Avian Pathologist confirmed that feeding non-laying birds (i.e. young pullets, older hens and roosters) can lead to kidney disease including gout. Please research your posts and based them in fact. Just because you’ve done something without issue doesn’t mean it is the recommended best practice. Use your platform to elevate the level of knowledge of small flock keepers to improve the health of our birds.

  • Well.i feed my chicks starter but when they get to about 4 to five weeks I put them in the adults pen and the eat the adult layer free range scratch mix. I’ve only had one die.but not sure from.

  • first time i actually hatched 5 chicks out of 35 eggs i never thought i could do it being from the city of lost Angeles lol
    i have mini pellets chicks are 16 days old in brooder should i still grind the mini pellets? and i bought grit should i put it in separate container or mix it?also temperature is in one section of brooder 100 Fahrenheit and shade in other part is all ok with my set up also can u let me know if i could grow my own feed in garden for them im not trying to be cheap just in case no more stores scenario

    • Well, back in the day, to my understanding, that’s pretty much what they would have had. Free range, what they can find. Goodies from the garden, maybe some corn/scratch. Modern day chicken raising has definitely made a science out of the birds…different than what Ma Ingalls would have done. 😉

  • Jeez girl, you dun knock the darn nail right on the head with this one !!!!! I do believe all this baloney is nothing but marketing gobeldegook thanks Olly

  • Good morning! Great info- so glad to hear chick starter is not required.
    I’m maintaining a self sustainable flock… we’re going to try and use the spiral breeding method, keep 10 hens per 1 rooster in our large orchard, etc…

    I estimate for meat and eggs, we want to maintain about 33 chickens (30 hens, 3 roosters). I estimate that we’ll want to hatch about 85 eggs per year. That would require about 10 broody mamas once a year OR an incubator setup.

    Option 1:
    IF I let broody mamas take care of their chicks, I think I’d need to get about 10 separate enclosures (a small coop/run, one for each broody mama and her batch of fertilized eggs) for their first few weeks of life, right?. That sounds like a lot.
    How many birds do you raise per year and do you separate them?
    We have a Chickshaw 2.0 for the birds in the orchard (not suitable for a bunch more chicks) and a separate chicken coop/run.

    Option 2:
    IF I collect, incubate and hatch the fertilized eggs, I wouldn’t need additional structures, but I thought I’d need chick feed. If chicks aren’t with their mamas in the first days/weeks of life, would chick starter be necessary? Do you have experience introducing 5-week old chicks to the flock?

    Thank you for your thoughts!

    • Hi there! To answer your questions (off the top of my head):

      1) We’ve had everything from 12 chickens to 60ish. I’ve never separated out broody mamas with their chicks, and we’ve not had issues. Generally speaking the mamas will keep their own and keep others away from their own. A mama hen is a force to be reckoned with. However, having said that — our flock was just a mixed up bunch of birds, so if you were wanting to keep certain breeds separate or pure, obviously you’d have to separate things out.

      2) We don’t feed starter regardless of whether the chicks are with a mama or not. As far as introducing 5 week old chicks to a flock, it’s been a long time. That’s the benefit of having the mama raise them — they’re already integrated into the flock with her. When they are hatched from an incubator, you’ve got to be careful with adding smaller chicks to established flocks, but that all depends on the flock you’re trying to integrate them into, how much space you have, etc. Adding adult chickens to adult chickens is easy – pop them into the coop when the lights are off and generally when all the birds wake up in the morning they don’t even notice there are new birds. With smaller birds, it can be a longer process of having them in the coop/yard so the other birds can get used to them, but can’t get to them in case there are issues.

      Sounds like you have an exciting adventure planned! I would caution you to be too exact with your math, though. 10 broody hens won’t necessarily net you 85 chicks a year. Hens don’t always go broody when you want, and they don’t necessarily hatch out everything you set. And sometimes you will end up with way more! How many of the 33/85 will be for meat? Are you just planning to butcher any (extra) roosters and keep all the hens? Or just cycle through to keep a base flock of 33?

      Have fun on your adventure, and keep me updated on how it goes!

  • Appreciate the info on the “ chick starter”. I was trying to figure out how to integrate the chicks with the 3 adult hens and keep the feed separate when I ran across this article.

  • Thank you for this article and the pleasant, non-judgy manner in which you shared your experience. I loved the references to Ma Ingalls, too. I’m an old farm girl/post-homeschool mom. I’ve raised cows all my life but we brought chickens back to the farm a dozen or so years ago, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it (except for the brief period when we were overrun by roosters 🙂 ). Anyway thank you for your perspective. Definitely food for thought when I bring home new chicks this spring – no pun intended. Blessings to you.

  • We live on almost 18 acres and I’m hoping to raise my own food. I just started my flock of chickens in March with 4 orpington hens. Then in June I bought 7 more chickens and 14 guinea fowl. I used chicken starter for all them and meal worms for my guineas with a bit of grain. I was worried about feeding only one food to all. But after listening to your podcast, it makes sense that you don’t need to feed separate feeds. I should have realized this, as it’s just like feeding my dogs, we I started researching dog food and found that there’s really no difference between adult and puppy food. Thank you so much for your newsletters and podcast.

  • It’s so funny to me how worked up folks get over chickens. I think if they free range some, they are most likely fine. I do feed chick starter, just because I’ve had coccidossis take out my birds. One bag of medicated starter is great mitigation. After that, everyone gets the same food. I do treat them with worms, fruit and veggie scraps, the occasional bone with meat left on, and lower sodium leftovers. I spent about $100 on super scratch last year, added peas, lentils, kelp, flax meal, and oats, as well as herbs, and they are fat, sassy, and laying. They do have free choice oyster shell but rarely touch it. I just had to purchase a bag of feed last month, for the first time since last August. My birds do get out for a couple of hours most days, and they will eat anything green or living that they see. As with most things, variety and moderation seem to be key. And plenty of water. As far as longevity, my birds do tend to live at least 5 years if they don’t get taken by predators, at which point they are no longer laying and are destined for the pressure cooker anyway. We hatch or purchase new ones almost every year. For me, they are livestock, not pets.

  • Thank you. You were the first I spotted when I typed chick starter vs layer feed. I have a broody momma and I’m going to be getting her pulelts tomorrow. I figured momma will take over from there my other half was trying to tell me I needed starter… so I had a moment going why do I need something different is it really required and I now feel much more confident in I’ll just provide mom the babies so seriously wants and let her take it from there

  • We kind of do the opposite. We don’t use layer. We use all flock 20%. And free range our ducks and chickens. They don’t eat a lot of feed in the spring – fall. And figured the extra protein they could use for cold winter. They have oyster shells always available. And veggies. But I spent weeks trying to figure out how I was going to feed hens and our surprise rooster. Didn’t want to kill him with calcium. Then we made the problem even worse when our daughter talked us into getting ducks. And those ducklings are hard to say no to at the farm store.

  • I really appreciate this article. Great writing and great information. Loved it. Thanks fellow chicken lady

  • Hi
    I just wanted to thank you for this post as we now have 3 chicks from fertilized eggs which our broody hen (ex battery rescue hen) sat on and now she is the perfect mum. I bought a massive bag of the chick starter food and I was worried when they weren’t eating it so it was very reassuring to read your post, I just wish I’d read it before the purchase ha ha. The chicks are growing fast and appear to be happy and healthy and I’m learning to let nature do its thing 🙂

  • Thank you for the information and the honesty of what you do part. My thoughts go to what would wild birds eat. What would wild humans eat? Seems we have so many sick folks in the world and the FDA is all over the corporate side of things in what humans can eat. I feel it’s not much different for chickens. Thank you for the effort to reply to the snarky folks, who don’t seem to understand opinion/ choice and the freedom to do just that! God Bless.

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