Chickens receive the protein that they need from commercial layer feeds, and it’s supplemented with bugs, worms, snakes, lizards, and any other goodies they find throughout the day. Sometimes, you need to give your flock other protein sources for chickens.
Your flock’s needs will change throughout the year. Protein is a necessary nutrient needed for the development of feathers.
A year ago, I had a rooster that was aggressive and started pulling out the feathers from my hens. After I made a few hen saddles, I increased their protein and waited; soon, they had new feathers.
Your flock doesn’t always need extra protein, so chicken keepers need to know when you increase protein and the best protein sources for chickens.
When Do Chickens Need Extra Protein?
Chickens always need protein, but they don’t need extra protein regularly. There are three times when you need to give your flock extra protein. If you know when your chickens need extra protein, you’ll be prepared.
1. Fall Molting
One of the most common times to give chickens more protein is during fall molting. Chickens lose their feathers and grow a new set to help them prefer for winter, potentially keeping them as warm as possible during the cold weather.
Molting is a strange time during a chicken’s life. Their bodies push out their old feather to make room for new ones. It’s sort of like the weird puberty stage we all go through in our teen years. Your chickens might look scruffy or totally bald.
Protein is needed to grow new feathers on their body. So, when you see your chickens heading into their fall molting period, give them extra protein.
Believe it or not, feathers are made up of 85-90% protein. So, your chickens send a lot of their protein into feather making, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it throughout their bodies. Egg-laying often slows down when they molt, but they still typically lay some eggs.
Winter is hard on chickens because they’re not able to forage as much as they do throughout the rest of the year. Our chickens range all over our property, eating bugs, worms, plants, and other goodies. Those foods are high in protein, so in the winter, they don’t consume as much protein as usual.
I tend to include extra protein sources for chickens in the winter. My flock still ranges, but there is less available for them.
3. High-Stress Situations
Lastly, chickens need extra protein when they face high-stress situations. For example, if your flock is attacked by a predator, they’ll be under more stress. This is a great time to give them more protein to help their bodies relax.
How Much Protein Can You Give Your Chickens
Protein is important for humans and chickens alike. In poultry, protein is needed to form feathers, beaks, and toenails. How much protein your chickens need will vary based on age and activity level.
For example, chicks and pullets require more protein than an older laying hen. Younger birds are doing more growing than a developed hen. A hen is no longer building tissue and organs, so their protein requirement is less.
Here are the general recommendations for how much protein to give your chickens.
- Day-old chicks to 6-week old pullets: 20-23% protein
- Pullets 7-18 weeks of age: 17-18% protein
- 19 weeks – egg-laying age: 16% protein
- Molting: 20%
Is Too Much Protein Bad for Chickens?
A chicken can only digest so much protein, and their bodies don’t store extra protein to use later. Instead, they excrete it in their waste.
That should be okay, right?
If you go into an animal barn and smell ammonia, it’s a result protein. The stronger the smell of ammonia, the more wasted protein. Ammonia in a chicken coop is a serious problem that leads to respiratory distress, along with damage to their eyes and trachea.
Also, if your chicken intakes too much protein, they need an increase in water consumption. They’ll excrete more waste, leading to moisture in the litter that causes burns on their feet and skin.
14 Protein Sources for Chickens
These are some protein sources of chickens that you might want to provide. There are plenty of other options; some of them are gross, but chickens still love them.
Remember that, despite what the egg-producing industry tells you, chickens aren’t herbivores or vegetarians. I laugh when I see egg cartons at the store labeled “vegetarian-fed.”
Chickens are meant to be omnivores; they love meat. They thrive on a meat and bug diet, so when you want to give your chickens more protein, think about what they actually eat not what society thinks they should eat.
Let’s take a look at some options.
1. Cooked Eggs
Did you know that cooked eggs contain around 91% protein?
Some chicken keepers stay away from feeding cooked eggs to their flock because it makes them feel strange, but I think it’s the perfect design. Their bodies make something that contains nutrients that they need throughout life.
One caveat is that you should never feed chickens raw eggs. It might encourage them to start eating their eggs before you have a chance to collect them for the day.
Cooked eggs have more protein, and your flock won’t recognize them as eggs because the smell and texture is now different.
2. Fish or Fish Meal
Let’s tap in chickens’ omnivore nature and start offering the flock some fish. Fish and fish meal contains between 61-72% protein.
Our family loves to go fishing; it’s one of our family’s favorite pastimes. My kids are experts at catching bluegills, and if it’s legal to catch them, you should keep them as we do! Many areas have no limits for small fish, like perch, crappie, and bluegill.
Fish guts are also a chicken favorite. Just because you won’t eat something out of the fish doesn’t mean your chickens can’t or won’t.
Best of all, fish is one of the easiest protein sources for chickens to preserve for the winter time. You can dehydrate fish and then feed it to your chickens later, or try freezing them.
Stop at any farm and fleet store, and you’ll find bags of mealworms on the shelves. It’s possible to raise mealworms at home, but it’s not a project I’ve attempted – yet.
Nothing is ever off-limits on our homestead.
Anyway, mealworms are a high-protein food source for chickens, and they love them. When I bring out a bag, my chickens go wild. They practically attack me to get the mealworms.
Dried mealworms contain 53% protein. I toss mealworms in the run for my flock or mix them with other treats like oatmeal. You really don’t want to give them too many mealworms, and since the bags at the store are expensive, that’s no problem.
4. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are one of my favorite snacks in the fall, and they’re one of the top protein sources for chickens because they contain up to 33% protein.
Buying pumpkin seeds is expensive, so I wait until the fall season and give my flock the insides of the pumpkins that we carve for Halloween.
5. Sprouted Lentils
If you’re looking for cheaper protein sources for chickens, sprouted lentils are a great choice. They contain 26-30% protein, and sprouted lentils are low in fat. Plus, since they’re cheap, you can give these often without breaking the bank like you will if you give your flock mealworms all the time.
6. Cat Food
Giving chickens cat food seems to be a controversial topic for some, but we know that chickens are omnivores and love meat, so cat food is a logical choice for your flock. Both dry and canned cat food are options for your chicken flock.
Some chicken owners say that cat food has no place in your coop. Others swear by it, but it should still only be a treat.
One negative that I would think about is that putting cat food out for your flock might invite unwelcome animals like feral cats or raccoons.
7. Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are a great protein source of chickens; they contain 25% protein. You can grow sunflowers at home, making them a cheap protein snack for your flock. They also contain high levels of phytochemical that fight off diseases.
There are a few ways to feed your flock sunflower seeds. You can scatter them in the run as a foraging snack, making a treat block, or give your flock entire heads and let them pick off the seeds.
As soon as my kids find worms in the garden, they rush off to feed it to the nearest chicken they find. The best time to dig up worms is after a good rain or at dawn after a night of rain. Earthworms come right up to the surface; that’s easy gathering.
Personally, I like to keep my kids busy, so sending them out to the garden to dig for earthworms is a great task that makes them feel helpful while keeping them busy.
9. Meat and Animal Trimmings
You can give your chickens almost any type of meat, even cooked chicken and turkey. Try giving your chickens entire carcasses to enjoy, and you don’t have to worry about chickens choking on bones like you do with dogs and cats.
Give your flock beef, lamb, pork, or venison. One year, we gave our flock a deer carcass, and they picked the bones clean. My husband gives their flock the trimmings after he guts a deer and butchers it into the cuts we want.
If you do give your flock meat, it must be fresh and not rotten. Just because they’re chickens doesn’t mean that they can eat spoiled food. Feeding your flock rancid meat could cause the death of your chickens
Another one of the best protein sources for chickens is sea kelp. Chickens love it, and it makes a great snack during molting season. You can give it year round as well because it’s high in protein and other essential vitamins that your flock needs.
Look for dried sea kelp supplement meant for chickens, and add a 1-2% ratio to your chicken’s dry feed. It’s the easiest way to give them this high protein snack.
Chickens love bugs, and it’s one of the reasons we love them. Our yard has few ticks because our flock roams and eats them – score!
One of the best bugs for your chickens to eat is the fly larva aka maggots. Yes, maggots – the nasty insects that give any human the creeps. If chickens have access to maggots, they’ll go crazy.
Maggots are something else that you can raise at home, but this is one project I won’t attempt.
12. Garden Peas
I love growing peas for my kids, but peas have been fed to poultry for centuries. Typically, the peas that were weirdly shaped or too small were added to fodder.
One idea is to grow peas just for your chickens. Not all pea varieties are the same though; you have garden peas, snap peas, and snow sugar peas. Make sure you grow garden peas!
Pea seeds are cheap, and they contain up to 23% protein. Did you know that these veggies contained so much protein?
Stay away from canned, processed peas. Frozen peas are a great treat for chickens too, especially on hot, summer days.
If you’re going to grow herbs for chickens, parsley deserves a spot on that list. Parsley contains up to 21% protein, but it’s most often used as a garnish and flavoring in dishes.
If you grow the Italian kind of parsley, it also contains calcium and anti-carcinogens. Both of those are great for raising chickens. You can grow it anywhere, including on a window sill. It’s easy to mix parsley into your chicken’s food for a small protein boost.
I always give oats to my flock in the winter when the temperatures dip down into the low teens or single digits. Oats only contain 10-17% of protein, but the nice thing about this treat is that you can easily add other ingredients with oatmeal to bind it all together.
My flock loves a bit bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold day. Oats are full of calcium, iron, and fiber. Stick with whole oats not quick ones, and if you plan ahead, soak the oats in winter to make them easier to digest.
How Do You Increase Protein in Chickens?
When winter arrives or when you notice your chickens are molting, you’ll want to increase your flock’s protein, but how are you supposed to increase the protein for your flock?
Here are some easy ideas to make sure your flock receives the increased nutrients that they need.
1. Let Your Chickens Free Range
Free ranging your chickens ensures that your flock receives all of the protein they need while molting. They eat all the bugs and snacks that they find.
2. Have Your Chickens Help in the Garden
Chickens love to tear up the garden unfortunately, but when you need them to work in the garden, they’re helpful. Use your flock to clean out the garden and turn the soil. They’ll find all kinds of yummy bugs and greens to eat.
3. Give Chick Feed
If your chickens need extra protein, you also can give them chicken feed because it has a higher protein content than layer feed. You don’t want to substitute entirely with chick feed; give it for a short time as a special meat or treat.
4. Give Them Extra Protein Sources
High protein sources of chickens are great for treats when needed. It’s important that you never overfeed these to your flock and that you don’t give them high proteins all year-round. You don’t want overweight chickens because they end up with different health problems.
5. Cut Carbs and Scratch
If, for whatever reason, you’re unable to find other protein sources for chickens, stop supplementing with kitchen scraps like bread and cereals. You also need to eliminate chicken scratch.
You should cut carbs and scratch because chickens are volume eaters. If they fill up with carb-based snacks and scratch, they won’t eat their layer feed.
Giving Your Chickens More Protein
Finding other protein sources for chickens is something all chicken owners need to do from time to time. Whether you’re facing extra-cold temperatures in the winter or fall molting, chicken keepers have to provide their flock with the necessary nutrients that match their needs.