Unlike young mammals, baby chicks eat a diet similar to what they come across as an adult. This comes from a variety of sources in the wild, but domestic chicks benefit most from a specially-formulated starter feed.
Baby chicks eat a diet high in protein and full of essential vitamins and minerals. Quality grains and fats facilitate proper digestion and absorption of these nutrients, while pre- and probiotics support digestive health and prevent illness in the chicks.
Chicks are not limited to crumbles, and you have plenty of options for improving their diet. Keep reading as we explore the basics of what chicks eat, what you can and should not offer, and how to offer the food to your chicks.
The Basics of a Chick’s Diet
Regardless of what you choose to feed your baby chick, its diet should include:
- Pre- and probiotics
When foraging, chicks can easily obtain these nutrients as long as they have access to an array of sources. In most situations, it’s easiest to offer chick starter feed that is perfectly formulated to offer the complete nutrition they need.
One of the most drastic differences in a chick diet (when compared to that of adult chickens) is their higher protein need. Most commercial feeds offer at least 18 to 20 percent protein in chick starter, although some go as high as 22 percent.
Protein allows the chicks to absorb essential amino acids that their body does not create (or creates in low quantities) on its own. These amino acids are important for growth functions such as building skin, muscle, or ligaments, replicating DNA, transporting molecules and enzymes, and forming keratin structures like feathers, nails, and beaks.
Without sufficient protein, your chicks will not develop properly. This is the primary feature that separates chick starter from layers or growers feed.
Just like humans, chickens require vitamins to facilitate different cell functions and growth. Their bodies make use of all known vitamins except for vitamin C, including both fat- and water-soluble varieties.
Some examples of vitamins and their function include:
- Vitamin A for the development and well-being of mucus-producing glands
- Vitamin E for the development and function of the immune, muscular, nervous, and circulatory systems
- Folic Acid (synthetic B9) for proper brain function, mental health, and the production of genetic material
- Biotin for normal function of adrenal and thyroid glands as well as the nervous system
Vitamins ensure that every part of your chick’s body develops right on track and in perfect condition, but only if their needs are consistently met.
Minerals are similar to vitamins in that they facilitate the proper development of a chick, but they differ by being inorganic materials derived from soil and water.
Some essential vitamins include:
Chicken feed is specially formulated to offer the optimal level of these vitamins, ensuring your chick receives exactly what it needs in the quantities required.
Grains (like corn, wheat, soy beans, and oats) play a major role in providing your chicks with the nutrients they need. We may see grains like oatmeal as a way to fill their bellies, but they actually carry a high nutritional value and offer:
Grains are much more than filler, and they keep your chicks happy, healthy, and full of energy.
Chicks also need fats in their diet to provide their body with essential fatty acids that they cannot produce otherwise. These are important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, D, and e.
Most of the fat in a chick’s diet comes from oils that contain linoleic acid, such as sunflower oil.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Probiotics are small, living organisms inside of the body that aids digestion, and prebiotics is what keep those tiny organisms thriving.
They prevent issues such as constipation and diarrhea, as well as help your chicks maintain a healthy weight and can reduce the effects of issues such as coccidiosis (especially when paired with proper vaccination).
What to Feed Baby Chicks
While home-made feeds have been gaining traction in recent years, feeding chicks a starter crumble and supplementing with certain treats and scraps is the most efficient way to ensure proper nutrition.
Baby chickens are at a point in their life where the slightest deficiency can have a major impact on the rest of their life. Improper nutrition in their youth can carry over into adulthood, potentially impacting egg production as a laying hen.
For this reason, make sure at least 90 percent of their diet is perfectly formulated to meet their needs, and then offer additional nutrient-rich food as a side. Make sure you offer a suitable grit once you allow your chicks to consume anything other than the easily-digested crumbles.
1. Life-Stage Specific Commercial Feed
When purchasing commercial feed for your chicks, make sure it’s specific for their life stage. Chick starter usually comes in crumble form, making it easier to digest on top of offering the perfect nutrient levels for your baby chickens.
At this stage in life, your chicks need something that can handle their rapid skeletal and muscular growth while supporting their growing immune system.
Avoid grower feeds until your chicks reach about 6 weeks old. They will not provide the high protein level needed to kick-start development. Furthermore, layer feeds should not be introduced until your chickens reach point-of-lay to prevent the high calcium level from damaging their developing kidneys.
If your chicks are outside, they will probably enjoy coming across the various insects in your yard, and you should let them. Beyond adding more protein to their diet, chasing after live insects is a source of enrichment for the chicks.
You can emulate this even if they’re inside a brooder by providing live red worms, mealworms, crickets, or other small insects. If the thought of live bugs makes your skin crawl, even freeze-dried bugs can be a good source of carbs, proteins, and fats.
3. Grass and Grains
Grass clippings from your yard may not provide much nutritional value, but older chicks will love pecking through them and eating some of the smaller pieces. They may even find some bugs to chase around, engaging their foraging instincts.
Furthermore, a modest supply of grains (such as oatmeal) can enhance protein, vitamin, and mineral levels. Feed them alongside yogurt for benefits to gut health.
4. Fruits and Vegetables
Chicks can eat almost anything you can, but you should make sure anything offered is cut up for easy digestion.
Popular fruits and vegetables to offer include:
- Apple: cut up small and without seeds (which contain trace amounts of cyanide); great source of carbs
- Banana: fed ripe; high in vitamin B6 pyridoxine as well as magnesium, copper, and carbohydrates
- Dark lettuce: such as turnip greens, chard, romaine, and kale (not iceberg, which may cause diarrhea due to high moisture content); high in potassium, vitamin K, phosphorus, and folate
- Strawberries: full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties; rich in minerals and vitamins such as potassium, copper, iron, magnesium, and vitamin B
- Watermelon: (no seeds or rinds); great for providing moisture and staying cool on hot days
If you find yourself with scraps from your meal, consider a quick online search to see if it’s safe for your chicks.
5. What Not to Feed Baby Chicks
Avoid feeding your chicks processed food, as well as foods known to be toxic. This includes:
- Any green parts of the tomato, as well as unripe green tomatoes
Chicks may instinctively avoid these foods, but it’s best not to have them available in the first place. If they happen to snack on something they aren’t supposed to, make sure you monitor them closely and provide plenty of electrolytes afterwards.
How to Feed a Baby Chick
For your chicks’ first feeding, scatter their starter on the floor to make it as accessible as possible. This provides plenty of opportunity for the babies to recognize the food before you limit it to a specific area.
After about a day or so (spot cleaning as necessary) you should be able to move it to a no-mess feeder near their heat source without depriving them of the food. These feeders should be large enough that most of your chicks can eat at the same time.
Keep water available at all times. Newly-hatched chicks often need you to dip their beak in the water before they realize how it works.
You can also provide vitamin, mineral, and medicinal supplements more easily in the water, especially in the first week.
How to Handle a Baby Chick Not Eating or Drinking
Chicks don’t need food for their first 24 to 48 hours of life, but they should eat daily after this. If you notice your chicks are not eating or drinking, make sure their basic needs are covered.
First, ensure the chicks are warm enough. If they get too cold, they won’t have the energy to seek out their food. Adjust the temperature and location of your heat source if needed.
In most cases, cleaning the poop off with a warm, wet rag is enough to help them feel better. Make sure to follow up with a high-quality feed and keep stress as low as possible.
Adding a few drops of apple cider vinegar or sugar water can boost chick energy, and some chicken keepers do this regularly as a preventative measure. If your chicks aren’t drinking, dip their beaks into the water until they figure it out.
Feeding baby chicks is not difficult, especially if you take advantage of a commercial feed. This is the best way to ensure your chick gets the high protein it needs while covering all other nutrients at their optimal levels.
Remember to double-check the safety of any supplements you offer, and make sure they do not account for more than 10 percent of your chicks’ diets. Make sure they have constant access to food and water to prevent malnutrition and dehydration.
Soon enough, your chicks will be big, healthy, and ready to take up whatever role you have for them. Until then, feel free to ask about any questionable food in the comments!