Chicken feed supplements and your flock July 15, 2016

Recently we’ve been asked about a pretty sensational story: whether the deaths of some chickens purportedly caused by necrotic enteritis (NE) were due to using feed or chicken feed supplements mixed at home. We think there must be some confusion somewhere in the chain of information, a misunderstanding that should be cleared up.

Let’s get this out of the way first: No, the simple fact that your feed or chicken feed supplements were mixed at your home has no effect on whether your chickens get NE. NE has ZERO to do with where your feed is made.

You can certainly mix a healthy, nutritious homemade feed at home–or blend chicken feed supplements that help your flock–if you take the extra time and trouble. Keep in mind that we’re saying this as purveyors of commercial feed and supplements. While we generally recommend a commercial feed—it’s just far more convenient for most people—if you want educate yourself about poultry nutrition and go to the extra time and trouble to mix a custom feed or a custom chicken feed supplement at home for your flock, we think it’s great!
Black Copper Marans rooster and hen foraging for their own chicken feed supplements

They deserve the best, right?

Let me share some more facts with you.  NE has nothing to do with where the feed is made (commercial or homemade). It’s not a nutritional issue either, meaning NE is not brought on by an imbalance in your feed’s vitamin/mineral content. It can be related to diet, sure, but it’s related to a sudden CHANGE in diet. A sudden, drastic change in your feed can bring on NE when there are other underlying stressors or illnesses in your flock, because that change can cause a shock to gut flora.

The bacteria that cause NE are “nearly ubiquitous bacteria readily found in soil, dust, feces, feed, and used poultry litter. It is also a normal inhabitant of the intestines of healthy chickens and turkeys. The enterotoxemia that results in clinical disease most often occurs either after a change in the intestinal microflora or from a condition that results in damage to the intestinal mucosa (eg, coccidiosis, mycotoxicosis, salmonellosis, ascarid larvae)…”

There are two main points of confusion:

1. Switching your chicken feed does not cause NE
It’s true that sudden, drastic changes in feed composition can (rarely) cause problems due to a shock to gut flora… if the birds are under other stressors or have an underlying illness such as coccidiosis. However, that rare shock can happen when switching from one commercial brand to another, or from a homemade feed to a commercial one. NE from gut flora changes has ZERO to do with where the feed is made. It has to do with drastic, sudden changes in diet, often paired with other illnesses. 

So, should you never switch from one feed to another? Don’t be silly. When you make a change in feed, just do it gradually. Mix the two feeds together for a while so there is time for your flock to adjust to changes.

2. NE is not a vitamin toxicity or deficiency.
Your base feed should provide a healthy nutritional balance–of course! Commercial feed is usually nicely balanced, and you can also do that at home if you want to take the trouble. If you don’t get that nutritional balance right, you may eventually see some deficiencies or toxicities in your flock, and it’s true that those issues can make it harder for a flock to fight off illnesses, including NE. It works the same way for humans: if you are eating a diet consisting solely of white bread and french fries, your system is not getting the complete nutrition you need, and you will get run down.

But NE is not a deficiency or toxicity in itself, so gradually switching from one healthy feed to another–or adding supplements–is not going to be the cause of NE in your chickens. In fact, one treatment for chickens suffering from NE–when they can be treated–is a probiotic supplement. Your vet may also suggest antibiotics, anti-coccidials, or other supplements to help boost their immune systems.

Interestingly, NE is most common in commercial broiler flocks (they’re on commercial feed!). It’s so common, that about 40% of broiler flocks are believed to suffer from NE. There is evidence to show that feed that is very finely milled or ground (many commercial feeds)–as opposed to feeds with whole or more coarsely ground grains–increases the chances of NE. Composition matters, too: too much barley, rye, or wheat in the base feed can make NE more likely, although the reason is not well understood.
Scare stories get lots of attention, but we’d caution you to use common sense when evaluating claims like this.  The devil is in the details, as they say, so don’t take the wrong message away with you. Looking after your flock’s nutrition is a good thing, one of the best things you can do for their long term health. Backyard pet chickens that have a healthy diet and aren’t subject to unusual stressors (like commercial flocks are) often live 10 years or more; we know of some birds that have reached nearly 20. We attribute that longevity to providing range–where the birds can choose their own supplements–and to providing natural, healthy supplements in times of stress, or in winter when they have little or no access to range.
Black Copper Marans pair foraging on a summer day--talk about chicken feed supplement!s

When they have range, they sort of formulate their own supplements in addition to their base feed

For instance, you can provide protein supplementation (or increase the protein in your feed mix) to help your flock during the annual molt. You can increase fat content in the winter to give them extra calories to help maintain their body temperatures during short days when it’s cold and there is less time to eat before it gets dark. You can feed extra Omega-3s to help increase the Omegas in your eggs (foraging also helps this). You can provide probiotics. The list goes on and on.Remember, commercial chicken feed hasn’t been around very long in the scheme of things. It ALL used to be homemade feed, or scraps from the kitchen. NE has ZERO to do with whether feed or chicken feed supplements are mixed at home or commercially, and it can happen when switching from one healthy feed to another healthy feed. It is not going to be caused by sprinkling herbs or other natural chicken feed supplements to a base feed (that diet change would not be drastic enough). And in fact, if you are supplementing with probiotics, you may very well be providing that ounce of prevention, by helping to provide for balanced gut flora.

Feel free to call a big feed company of your choice like Purina, for example, and ask if your birds are likely to die if you switch to their feed. Their answer is going to be “Of course not.” They will recommend you make a change gradually,  if they’re on the ball, though. On the other hand, if you ask whether switching away from their feed will cause problems, it’s possible their answer may be more open to interpretation and must be viewed in the correct context.

Chicken Feed Supplements, Changes in Diet, and NE

Generally speaking, a change to a good diet does NOT cause illness. Otherwise, your doctor would be telling you, “It would be great if you ate better, but if you stop chowing down on all those Big Macs, you’ll die!”
Hahaha, don’t expect to hear that advice from your doctor.
However, making a sudden switch to a healthy diet can cause side effects, even in humans.  And that can happen even when the change itself is a good thing overall.  So if you’re switching brands of commercial feed or switching to a homemade feed, either way, you want to make the change gradually, slowly mixing in the new feed with the old. (You do the same thing for dogs and cats, too!). But even if you don’t make a gradual change, it is very rare for this problem to occur in healthy backyard flocks, because they tend to have a more varied diet in general so gut flora will be less subject to shocks. They are also less exposed to the stress of extreme overcrowding, and more likely to be housed in clean conditions.
If you are adding chicken feed supplements, be sure to follow dosage advice, the same way you do for your own vitamins. You don’t take 30 multivitamins at once, or drink a gallon of fish oil.

The bottom line is that when a backyard flock is well cared for with no underlying illnesses or stressors, offering treats or chicken feed supplements in moderation–or making a gradual change to a different feed–cannot cause NE, regardless of whether the feed is commercial or mixed at home.

Carmen Jones August 31st, 2016

I would like worm my hens and am thinking Rooster Booster is what I want to use, I have read the advantages of using it, my question is would I put it in the feed and use it indefinitely? They are still on starter/grower feed they are 5months old. They also had a bout with airsac but are over it now. Thank you for any advise

Lissa September 2nd, 2016

No, you don’t use it indefinitely. You mix it into the feed per package directions, and then offer the feed for five days. If you have a big flock, you mix the whole big package into 50 pounds, but of course you only want to do that if they’ll eat it up in five days. If you have a smaller flock, you can mix it up a few pounds at a time, one scoop per pound of feed. Full directions are on the package.

Bethany October 31st, 2016

I add a few things to our commercial feed…I add old fashioned oats & flax seed. would that cause NE?

Lissa November 1st, 2016

If you add a few oats and some flaxseed to your feed as a supplement, it is unlikely to cause a problem. If make a major change to their diet… it’s still unlikely to cause a problem unless they’re already sick or stressed, too.

Pravin November 11th, 2020

Among the poultry feed additives, probiotics have gained more attention from poultry nutritionists as these are capable of improving the physiological conditions, intestinal morphology and structure, immune system and thus performance and well-being of heat-stressed birds.

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