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.
There are two main points of confusion:
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.
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.
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
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.