16%, 18%, 20%, 22%, Pellets, Crumble, Mash, Layer, Starter, Grower, Scratch .... apparently, chicken feed is more complicated than tossing out some corn.
My chicks both last year and this year began on Starter/Grower Crumble with an 18% protein level. Crumble is absolutely necessary for new chicks. Their little beaks just can't handle the larger pellet and it takes a chick about three times longer to eat the same amount of crumble. That cuts down on the dreaded chicken boredom and unfriendly pecking. Disadvantages of crumble for me is that I feel like the chicks waste so much feed. Crumble (below) also draws more flies that my pellets do.
I prefer pellets. My laying hens have been eating "Lay Pellets" with a 16% protein level and added calcium since they were 18 weeks old. Pellets that drop out of the chicken feeder are scooped back up by a nearby beak which means less waste and no cake of wasted crumble below the feeder.
So what if I want pellets for my pullets? My farm store carries a 20% Protein "Grower Pellet". But can I give that to my layers? "Well sure!" the guys at the farm store say. But they are an agreeable bunch. The same bunch that when asked if I could keep my chickens in my garden said, "Well sure!" Stripped tomatoes and unearthed pepper plants meant I should probably use the old grain of salt method with the guys at the farm store.
The more protein the better, right? According to University of California and Utah State University protein levels matter and more isn't always better. Suggested levels are:
Chicks (up to 6-8 weeks) ------------------ 20% - 22%
Broiler Pullets (over 8 weeks) -------------- 18% - 22%
Laying Pullets (up to 18-22 weeks) -------- 16% - 20%
Laying Hens (over 28 weeks) -------------- 14% - 18%
All Purpose -------------------------------- 16%
It made perfect sense that too little protein meant slowed growth and poor health. What I was surprised to find out was that too much protein could be just as bad. Apparently a chicken can grow too fast. If you are raising a layer, accelerated growth could lead to weak bones and poor laying later on. That means shorter life expectancy and lower production which are both major issues for a backyard flocks.
My solution is a compromise. It looks like crumble is still in my world for a bit but I've started mixing in lay pellets as the chicks have gotten older. The little bit of crumble that the older hens are getting shouldn't be enough to effect their egg production and the chicks seem to still prefer the crumble. As everyone ages out to over 18 weeks, the crumble will disappear. At least until next Spring.