5 Protein Sources for Chickens (Especially While Molting!)

Hens outside waiting for their high protein treats!
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Providing enough protein for your chickens is essential for their proper growth, development and egg laying ability. However, it can be tricky to know exactly how much they need, when they need it and how to give it to them!

In this article, we’re going to break it all down into simple steps. We’ll tackle each phase of life that requires a boost of protein so that you know exactly what to look for. Lastly, we’ll discuss 5 excellent protein sources that you can utilize to give your chickens what they need, when they need it.

Let’s jump in!

The Role of Protein in Chickens

Protein is an essential macronutrient for all animals, including chickens! Adequate protein ensures proper growth, development and good egg production.

A protein-deficient diet can result in:

  • Feather abnormalities
  • Overeating (resulting in obesity)
  • Stunted growth
  • Feather picking
  • Decline in egg production
  • Reduced hatchability of eggs.

When Do Chickens Need More Protein?

Protein requirements fluctuate throughout a chicken’s life cycle and different parts of the year. It’s important to be in tune with your flock to ensure that you are providing what they need at the right time.

A hen and 3 chicks in a row on a white background

Growth

Baby chicks are rapidly growing and require higher amounts of protein (18-20%) until they reach 8 weeks old. Look for “starter” blends of chick feed as they tend to have higher levels of protein. 

Plus, we’ll be chatting about some other sources of protein in a few minutes! This can be especially helpful if you can’t source a chick feed that provides 18-20% protein. However, keep in mind that baby chicks need very small particles, so not all of the options listed are appropriate for baby chicks.

Once they are 8 weeks old, it’s best to drop the protein a bit to 14-16% so that they can continue to fill out, without gaining too much excess weight. Most “grower” blends provide this level of protein. If you can only find chick starter, you can mix in some oats to drop the protein percentage.

Laying

Once your pullets reach laying age (usually 18-24 weeks, depending on the breed), it’s time to up the protein again! Laying hens will need 16-18% protein to support the extra demand of producing eggs. If your layer rations don’t provide enough, you’ll definitely want to consider extra sources of protein.

Another thing to consider is your rooster (or roosters!) who isn’t laying eggs. Roosters actually have pretty low protein needs at only 9% in their feed. So, if you have roosters, it’s definitely best to provide supplemental protein to just the birds who really need it vs increasing protein in your feed blend for the entire flock.

Molting

Molting is a normal process where chickens shed and regrow a new set of shiny, warm feathers to prepare for the upcoming winter. Decreasing daylight hours in late summer is what signals the molt to begin. Most of my chickens start to molt in September, but some start as early as August!

A brown hen that is molting hard with few feathers

Molting is a gradual process that starts with the head and neck, followed by their body and ending at their tail. The molt typically lasts 14-16 weeks, however, it can vary considerably. 

  • Good layers will molt late and fast (2-3 months), looking quite ragged and bare.
  • Poor layers will molt early and slow (up to 6 months) and you might not notice any feather loss since they only lose a few feathers at a time.

Because feathers are made up of 85% protein, your chickens are going to need a boost in protein during this phase of intense feather growth. There’s no need to switch to a different type of feed, but it is important to provide additional protein sources, which we’ll discuss in the next section!

Summer

Hens eat less feed in the summer than they do in the winter because they need less calories to stay warm. When it’s really warm out (90+ degrees), their appetite also plummets. Because of this, their total protein intake from feed is naturally going to be lower in the summer months.

Therefore, supplementing their layer rations with some nutrient-rich protein sources is essential to keep them well-nourished and laying well during the summer. We’ll discuss these sources in the next section!

Winter

The cold, short months of winter is another essential time for more protein. Overall, chickens need more nutrients to keep their metabolism up and fat layer adequate so that they stay warm when the temps drop below freezing. 

A rooster standing out in the snow

The other challenge that winter brings is that the daylight hours are shorter, which means less hours in the day to eat and get those nutrients in. Using a light in your coop helps expand the daylight hours, but light also promotes laying (hens need 14 hours of daylight to keep laying). 

If your hens are laying in winter, they’ll need more protein to support egg production, on top of their need to stay warm. Important: if you notice that your hens are losing weight in the winter, turn off the coop light and give them a break. 

If you’ve been water glassing your eggs during summer, there’s no need for winter eggs anyway! I personally like to give my hens a break during the winter and then turn on the coop light in January to get the engines going again for the breeding season. It’s a happy medium that’s been working well for us!

Stress

Lastly, stress also increases the protein requirements of your chickens. Stress can include anything from illness and predators to new flock members or moving to a new coop. When there’s been a disturbance in your flock, provide some extra protein to ensure that they have everything that they need to recover.

How Much Protein Should My Chickens have?

As we discussed above, protein needs vary quite a bit throughout a chicken’s life cycle and during different times of the year. Protein needs can range from as low as 9% for adult roosters to as high as 20% during molting or breeding.

2 girls feeding chickens with a white bucket

Unfortunately, you may only have a couple feed options available to you, making it hard to customize what you’re providing to your flock. That’s where utilizing supplemental protein sources during these times of higher need is very useful! 

I like to keep my adult flock on a general blend of 17% protein, but then supplement with additional protein using the sources below during the yearly molt, cold nights, breeding season, etc.

5 Protein Sources for Chickens (Especially While Molting!)

Alright, we’ve made it to the fun part! Here are 8 excellent protein sources to use in your flock to support them during times of stress, fast growth, poor weather, you name it! While there are a lot of protein sources out there, I like to utilize ones that chickens would naturally seek out in the wild.

Of note, seeds are “technically” a high-protein food, however, they are no higher than your typical layer feed so they won’t actually increase your flock’s protein intake above baseline. Sunflower seeds, for example, only provide 16% protein. 

#1 Black Soldier Fly Larvae

This is my favorite high-protein source for my chickens and Grubbly does a great job! The protein content is 35-42%, so a little bit goes a long way. Store your 1 lb or 5 lb bag in a cold, dry location for up to 12 months! No refrigeration needed.

Move over mealworms! These have 75x more calcium – excellent to support strong eggshells! The other thing I learned while doing my research is that nearly 100% of dried mealworms on the market are sourced from China. Grubbly black soldier fly larvae are raised in the US and Canada and are naturally dried (as long as you buy their Hometown Harvest line). A win in my book!

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Sustainably sourced from the USA & Canada, organic and grain-free! These provide 34% protein and contain 50x more calcium than mealworms! 1 pound of grubs harvested = 10 pounds of food waste saved from landfills and recycled.

How to use: Sprinkle a small handful on the ground for your chickens to scratch for. Don’t mix these into their feed. Not appropriate for baby chicks unless you grind the larvae into small pieces and provide supplemental grit.

#2 Dried Mealworms

Dried mealworms are the best source when it comes to protein supplementation at a whopping 50%! Because the protein content is so high, definitely don’t go too crazy when throwing these out for your flock.

As I mentioned above, nearly 100% of dried mealworms on the market are sourced from China. I searched high and low for one that was sourced from the US and came up empty handed. The product below is sourced from China.

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These are the highest protein treat out there with a whopping 50% protein! Also a good source of lysine and methionine for egg production. Your chickens will LOVE these!

How to use: Sprinkle a small handful on the ground for your chickens to scratch for. Don’t mix these into their feed. Not appropriate for baby chicks unless you grind the mealworms into small pieces and provide supplemental grit.

#3 Earthworms

Do you see a trend here? Chickens are NOT vegetarians. They love to eat and truly thrive on all sorts of insects, plus the occasional frog or mouse! 

Whenever it rains, my chickens rush out to grab earthworms like they are candy. If you’re able to dig up some worms, definitely toss them out to your chickens! Toss any extras in your compost bin!

How to use: Sprinkle a handful on the ground for your chickens to scratch for. Don’t mix these into their feed. Not appropriate for baby chicks.

#4 Scrambled Eggs

Providing eggs to your chickens might seem weird, but they really do love them! Plus, they are a great source of protein at 40% and offer a great solution if you need a quick option. No need to go to the store, just grab a few eggs from the laying box.

The key is to provide eggs to your flock without them knowing what they are actually eating. Once they discover that those nuggets that they lay for you daily are a delicious treat… then it’s all over. Once your flock begins egg eating, it’s nearly impossible to stop.

To prevent this from happening, I recommend only providing eggs in the form of scrambled eggs. Never straight from the shell or as a whole hard-boiled egg. Don’t salt the eggs either!

How to use: Scramble some eggs, break them into small pieces and provide them to your flock on a paper plate or dish. Make sure not to salt the eggs (salt can be toxic to chickens)! This is one of the few treats that are appropriate for baby chicks, in small amounts.

#5 High-Quality Cat Food

Believe it or not, high-quality, grain-free cat food can work as a high-protein supplement for your chooks! It’s best to choose a blend that does not contain chicken because feeding an animal meat from the same species can cause disease.

Of note, dog food is not recommended as a protein source since it is lower in protein and often supplemented with grain-based protein. 

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An excellent, grain-free option that includes salmon, fish meal, peas, herring and potatoes! Packing in a decent amount of protein at 38%.

How to use: Sprinkle a handful on the ground for your chickens to scratch for. Don’t mix these into their feed. Not appropriate for baby chicks.

FAQ About Protein Sources for Chickens

Can you feed too much protein to chickens?

Absolutely! While a high protein supplement during times of increased need is great, giving them too much can cause problems. Excess protein can cause ammonia build up in the coop, which can irritate their lungs, eyes and mucous membranes. Too much protein can also stress their kidneys.

A good rule of thumb is to only provide enough of these high protein treats that your flock is able to finish within a few minutes. Definitely don’t fill a whole feeder with it or mix it into their standard feed.

Plus, protein is expensive! Don’t give your flock more protein than they really need and your wallet will thank you.

What grain has the most protein for chickens?

While grains have some protein, they don’t have that much either. As you can see below, these grains provide less protein than your standard layer feed. Therefore, feeding these grains as a treat would actually reduce the amount of total protein that your flock is getting in.

  • Corn: 10%
  • Barley: 13%
  • Oats: 14%
  • Wheat 14%

Can I feed chickens protein powder?

I would not feed chickens protein powder. First of all, chickens don’t really like to eat powder and you definitely don’t want to be mixing it into your feed unless you really know what you’re doing. Secondly, protein powder is really expensive! You’re best off buying some dried black soldier fly lavae or scrambling up some eggs – your chickens will like these options better, too!

How much protein do you feed chickens?

As we discussed above, protein needs vary quite a bit throughout a chicken’s life cycle and during different times of the year. Protein needs can range from as low as 9% for adult roosters to as high as 20% during molting or breeding.

Unfortunately, you may only have a couple feed options available to you, making it hard to customize what you’re providing to your flock. That’s where utilizing supplemental protein sources during these times of higher need is very useful! In the summer, I don’t worry about supplementing since my hens are off foraging for their own bugs during the day. Once it freezes, I like to use Grubbly black soldier fly lavae.

I like to keep my adult flock on a general blend of 17% protein, but then supplement with additional protein using the sources listed above during the yearly molt, cold nights, breeding season, etc. 

What foods are bad for chickens?

While chickens enjoy a wide variety of foods from berries and greens to mice and frogs, there are a few foods that should never be provided to them.

  • Raw potato peels
  • Avocado pit and peel
  • Dry/uncooked beans
  • Anything moldy or rotten
  • Fried foods
  • Salty foods 
  • Caffeine or alcohol
  • High fat foods
  • High sugar foods
  • Artificial sugars

Another thing to consider avoiding are strong-flavored foods. That’s because these flavors can easily be passed onto the eggs and result in a pungent breakfast for you. In the spring, I can sometimes pick up a “froggy” smell from a few of my eggs. Pee-yew!

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Fish

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Final Thoughts

It’s important to think about the nutritional needs of your flock throughout their lifecycle to ensure that they stay healthy and keep providing you with fresh eggs, of course! Of note, the protein sources above are meant to be an occasional supplement only, not a sole source of food for your chickens.

*Information in this article was referenced from personal experience and/or from my favorite chicken book Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens unless otherwise noted.

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