Back to basics on poultry nutrition

Chickens, one of the most popular choices of animals for up-and-coming farmers, seemingly are an easy animal to farm with, however, there are a lot of different aspects to keep in mind when aiming to grow a highly productive flock. Diving into the basics of poultry nutrition, you can lay down the foundation to a successful poultry operation on your farm.

Water

A vital but sometimes disregarded ingredient in the diet of chickens is water. Every part of an animal’s metabolism involves water. It is crucial for controlling body temperature, facilitating food digestion, and removing waste products. For chickens to be healthy and productive, they must have adequate access to clean and fresh water. Ensuring that proper management systems are in place in your birds’ housing conditions can help to optimize water intake.

Factors that affect water intake.

Feed intake (FI)Increased FI increases water intake.
EnvironmentHumid and warm weather increases water intake, as the birds drink more to regulate their body temperature.
Water qualityChickens will drink less water if the water is contaminated or contains high concentrations of certain minerals, including chlorine and ammonia.
Water accessibilityPoultry birds will be unable to drink enough water if access to water is restricted.
Production stageTo suit their physiological demands, poultry may drink more water during specific stages of production, i.e. layers in laying phase.

Energy

The most expensive component of a poultry diet is energy. Energy in itself is not a nutrient, but rather a value that is derived from multiple nutrients such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Birds will naturally consume their feed in order to meet their energy needs required for meat and egg production. The energy that becomes available to the bird depends on several factors such as type of feed (pellet vs mash), type of feed ingredients, age of the bird (different production phases) and housing conditions etc.

Since the energy level available in the diet determines the bird’s feed intake, it is crucial to formulate a diet that still avails nutrients in its entirety to the birds. Fats are a great source of energy; they contain almost twice as many calories per gram in comparison to protein or carbs. Although protein is not a common source of energy, it can still be used effectively in times of low fat and low carbohydrate availability. However, both of these nutrients still have other important roles to play and cannot be solely repurposed for their energy contribution.

Protein

When focusing on protein in a poultry diet, the level of protein is not the most important aspect, but rather the balance of the amino acids of the included protein source. These protein requirements change as the birds age; therefore, the diets need to be adjusted according to the bird’s requirements for growth, muscular development, and general health. As a fundamental constituent, protein aids in the development of vital organs, tissues, and feathers while promoting strong structural integrity. Additionally, in the layer industry, protein is also essential for laying hens to produce large quantities of high-quality eggs. Furthermore, it has a significant impact on immune system performance, reproductive health, and enzyme activity, which supports healthy metabolism and digestion. To create well-balanced diets that maximize the productivity and well-being of poultry, it is essential to understand the varying protein requirements of various poultry species throughout their various production stages.

Fats

Due to its numerous roles, fat is essential in poultry diets. Its primary function in poultry is to provide a concentrated source of energy for growth, maintenance, and metabolic processes. Fat contains fatty acids that support the immunological response, nervous system development, and general health. Some fatty acids are seen as essential, since a minimum quantity is required for normal development. Furthermore, the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) is improved due to the fat transporting it more efficiently through the body. Its inclusion in the formulation enhances the texture and palatability of feed, ensuring your chickens don’t hesitate to dig into their feed. Proper fat level management is crucial to avoid negative impacts on feed intake and general health, as fat contributes to insulation, heat production and reproductive health. Incorporating appropriate levels of fat, along with other essential nutrients, is key to optimizing poultry health and productivity.

Minerals & Vitamins

Minerals and vitamins are essential components of a poultry diet that influences several physiological functions in the chicken. Minerals such as calcium and phosphorus are of utmost importance for the development of bones and the chicken’s skeletal integrity. Zinc, copper and selenium are examples of minerals act as cofactors for enzymes involved in metabolic processes. Zinc and selenium amongst other minerals also play a role in the immune system’s function, decreasing the risk for disease and infections. Sodium, potassium and chloride assist in maintaining the electrolyte balance, which is necessary for muscle contractions, nerve transmissions and the acid-base balance in the chicken.

Vitamins, especially the B-complex vitamins, are needed for growth, development and reproduction in chickens, and similar to minerals, act as coenzymes in various metabolic pathways. Vitamins A, C and E act as antioxidants, and is important for overall health and immune function. Vitamin D is needed for calcium metabolism and forms part of proper bone development and eggshell formation in laying hens.

To have the right balance of mineral and vitamin levels is critical for preventing health issues that could prevent the bird from achieving its optimal production potential. Even though the vitamins and minerals tend to make up about 5% of the total diet in weight, it is vital to include them at the required levels as they are involved in 100% of the bird’s physiological systems. They ensure that the bird’s immune system functions optimally and can fully support the bird through high growth and egg production cycles.

In conclusion

Farming poultry is simple yet tedious. Ensuring your diets include all the crucial and fundamental nutrients for optimal poultry health and reproduction is the hard and tedious part. Investing your efforts into laying down the proper foundation to your production system and meeting your flock’s basic nutritional needs, you can achieve the half-way point to becoming a successful poultry farmer.

Theo van Rooyen
Technical advisor