What Do Chickens Eat?

We are often asked what meat chickens are fed in Australia. Chickens are fed diets that are formulated from a broad range of potential feed ingredients (predominantly grains) that are mixed together to meet the precise nutrient profile required by the bird at its different stages of growth.

As a result, chicken diets are primarily made up of macro ingredients such as cereal grains (eg wheat, barley and sorghum) and oilseed meals (such as soya bean or canola meal) or animal by-product meals.

Cereal grains make up between 60-70% of the diet and are the major source of energy in the diet. Other energy sources, such as plant or animal fats and oils, may be added to achieve the desired energy content of the diet.

As chickens are naturally omnivorous (that is, they eat both plant and animal materials), they have a higher requirement for protein than can easily be achieved by just eating cereal grains alone. To get sufficient protein into their diets (in excess of 20%), oilseed meals (like canola meal or soya bean meal) and sometimes an animal protein meal, will be added to their diets.

Chickens are very sensitive to the correct balance of vitamins, particular minerals and amino acids in their diets, so where the correct balance of these is not provided by the above macro-ingredients, these micro-ingredients will be added to make up any shortfall and / or correct any imbalances.

What Do Chickens Eat

A rough guide to the specifications for the key nutrients needed by a growing meat chicken can be found on the ACMF website. Click here for an example of the mix of raw ingredients in a ‘typical’ meat chicken diet that might meet this nutrient specification  On that page, you can also find additional information on how the nutrient requirements of chickens change at different ages, and the way that chicken feed is formulated and manufactured.

Doesn’t ‘look’ like grain? Virtually all meat chicken feed used in Australia is ‘pelleted’. That means that is has gone through a process of being compacted into a solid ‘pellet’, using steam and pressure to heat the ingredients to temperatures of about 85oC, which causes gelatinisation of the constituents in the mixture so that the pellet ‘sticks’ firmly together (see photo of pellets below). Prior to pelleting, the ingredients, including grains, are ground up and mixed together according to a defined formulation (or recipe) to achieve the desired combination of nutrients.

Chicken Feed

The reasons for chicken feed being pelleted are several. One reason is that it ensures that chickens actually eat the optimum profile of nutrients (so they can’t just pick out the bits they like best and leave the rest). It also ensures optimum bird performance and feed conversion efficiency, prevents dusty / crusty build up around the bird’s beaks which can lead to uncomfortable sores, and, importantly, the heating process kills a range of key pathogens, such as Salmonella, that we do not want passed on to birds in their feed, with the potential to be passed on through the food production chain.

In actual fact…it’s not quite that simple. In Australia, most diets fed to chickens will contain some whole grain (between 10-30% of the total diet), added back into the diet after pelleting, so that the finished feed is a mixture of both pellets and whole grain. This is done because research we have conducted here in Australia (and since reproduced elsewhere) has shown that providing some whole grain in the diet stimulates the chicken’s gizzard (a muscular part of the stomach that grinds grains and fibre into smaller particles; and is therefore a chicken’s equivalent of teeth) to function. Stimulating the chicken’s gizzard has been found to have long-term benefits in terms of bird health.

If chicken meat is advertised as ‘grain fed’, what does it mean? Generally it means that there are grains incorporated in the feed….in which case, all meat chickens produced in Australia can rightly claim to be ‘grain fed’, as the major ingredient in all feed fed to meat chickens in Australia is grains, such as wheat, sorghum or barley. In fact, grains such as these will constitute anywhere between 60 – 70% of the chicken’s diet.

What does ‘corn fed’ mean? It means that corn is included as an ingredient in the chicken’s diet. While corn (or maize) is a common grain used in chicken diets in many other parts of the world, in Australia, there are relatively few areas where the conditions are highly suited to growing corn. As a result, we tend to produce more grains like wheat, barley and sorghum than corn. As a result, these are the grains that most commonly end up in Australian chicken diets. However, some consumers like the yellow colouration that feeding corn in the diet gives to the skin of chickens, so to meet this demand, some chickens are fed diets in which a proportion of the normal grains in the diet is replaced by corn. Generally, feeding 20% of the diet as corn is sufficient to produce the yellow skin colouration. Because corn is always more expensive than other grains in Australia, chicken produced on such diets will be slightly more expensive. For those who’ve never tried it, the yellow colouration disappears on cooking, and in my opinion, it makes little if any difference to the flavour of the meat.

And what’s not in chicken feed?  HORMONES! Hormones haven’t been fed or in any other way administered to chickens here in Australia for over 60 years!

And I’m not talking chicken feed here! In excess of 3 million tonnes of chicken feed needs to be produced every year to meet the demands of Australia’s chickens. In fact, the meat chicken industry purchases over 5% of all grains produced in Australia.

Chicken Feed
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