Monday, December 17, 2012

Natural from the Start – Medicated Chick Feed?

Medicated chick feed is sold under the premise that it will keep young chicks healthier and free of coccidiosis. When I was raising my first batch of chicks, everything I read seemed to detail warnings of all the horrible nastiness chicks are susceptible to and might die from. Like many other chicken newbies, I wanted to do what was best for my chicks. I didn’t want them all to die of disease. 

I shouldn’t have worried so much! Chickens have been around for thousands and thousands of years. If they were that susceptible to disease, the species would have gone the way of the dodo eons ago.

To make an informed decision as to whether or not to use medicated chick starter feed, one not only needs to understand how the medicated feed works, but also how chicks work, so to speak.

Chickens & Coccidiosis:
Coccidian protozoa are present in the intestines of all chickens. Chickens do not become symptomatic of coccidiosis unless there is an overgrowth of the protozoa. If a person is utilizing natural preventative health measures (unpasteurized apple cider vinegar – U-ACV - in the water, fermented feed, an occasional dollop of plain, organic Greek yogurt in feed, a healthy deep-litter method and at least 3 weeks+ of quarantine of any new birds introduced to the property) it is unlikely that they will ever see an outbreak of coccidiosis in their chickens.

That said, it is possible that stress, changes in weather or changes of feed can set the illness off. Also birds with poor genetics or compromised immune systems may develop an overgrowth of cocci for no apparent reason. A bird like that should be immediately removed from the flock and isolated. (*ANY bird appearing sick or sluggish should be immediately removed from the flock and isolated! Don’t wait for specific symptoms.) Cocci oocysts are shed in the feces, so any feces from that bird should be removed from areas where other flock members sleep or roam… though healthy older birds often have a good, natural resistance to cocci already developed. The rest of the flock should be watched carefully in the following days.

Don’t mistake natural shedding of the intestinal lining that is sometimes present in chicken feces as blood. This is a common newbie mistake (and one that I, myself, once made). An infected chicken will look puffed up, have bad diarrhea and usually the bloody feces will be more blood than poop. If you are using good preventative measures and not introducing new birds to your flock, you may never see a true case of coccidiosis.

How Medicated Chick Starter Works… and Why You Shouldn’t Use It:
The popularity of medicated chick starter feeds grew as a result of the meat and egg industries. When companies are raising literally thousands of birds in cages housed in large warehouse-style buildings, there is not a lot of “Natural” anything going into the raising of the chickens. The environment alone can cause issues and illnesses in the chickens, and these big companies must “protect their investment.” Thus, they make a preemptive strike, dosing the chicks with antibiotics and amprollium – a drug that blocks thiamine uptake, thereby preventing the carbohydrate synthesis necessary for cocci to grow.

Medicated chick starter feeds almost always contain amprollium, and sometimes contain other antibiotics. If a person is trying to raise organic chickens – or at least utilize natural chicken keeping methods, these drugs and antibiotics are fully contrary to that goal.

Just like using chemical wormers can create chemical-resistant “super worms,” using unnecessary antibiotics can play a role in the creation of antibiotic-resistant infections. (Not something most of us desire in a flock of chickens.)
And there is another large factor to consider with amprollium. This drug’s main purpose is to block thiamine uptake. All living things need thiamine – which is also known as vitamin B1 - in order to grow and be healthy.

According to the Merk Veterinary Manual:

"Polyneuritis in birds represents the later stages of a thiamine deficiency, probably caused by buildup of the intermediates of carbohydrate metabolism. In the initial stages of deficiency, lethargy and head tremors may be noted. A marked decrease in appetite is also seen in birds fed a thiamine-deficient diet. Poultry are also susceptible to neuromuscular problems, resulting in impaired digestion, general weakness, star-gazing, and frequent convulsions.

"Polyneuritis may be seen in mature birds ~3 wk after they are fed a thiamine-deficient diet. As the deficiency progresses to the legs, wings, and neck, birds may sit on flexed legs and draw back their heads in a star-gazing position. Retraction of the head is due to paralysis of the anterior neck muscles. Soon after this stage, chickens lose the ability to stand or sit upright and topple to the floor, where they may lie with heads still retracted. Thiamine deficiency may also lead to a decrease in body temperature and respiratory rate. Testicular degeneration may be noted, and the heart may show slight atrophy. Birds consuming a thiamine-deficient diet soon show severe anorexia. They lose all interest in feed and will not resume eating unless given thiamine. If a severe deficiency has developed, thiamine must be force-fed or injected to induce eating."
Gee… doesn’t that sound lovely? (Not!) In young chicks, the “splay leg” condition can sometimes be attributed to a thiamine deficiency if the chick has not been kept on a slippery surface. Now, that is not to say that feeding medicated chick feed will cause a thiamine deficiency, but unfortunately it did in one of my own chicks (that quickly recovered after being taken off medicated feed and having vitamin B1 supplements in the water).

In short, your chicks will be far better off if you diligently practice good, natural chicken keeping methods. Use that U-ACV, feed fermented feed with good, live cultures and quarantine any new birds brought onto your property for a minimum of 10 days. If you’re doing all of that, chances are you won’t ever have to worry about most of those scary-sounding diseases you read about on the internet!

Happy Natural Chicken Keeping!




  1. great info! thanks!

  2. Great post once again!


  3. You are going such a great job!


  4. Keep up the great work!

  5. I respectfully disagree.. If you free range your chicks, expect significant mortality from cocci when not using medicated starter. In one horrible incident I lost 29 birds in 2 days from cocci. I highly recommend your feed medicated feed for the first 8 weeks. 2 bucks extra per bag will save you a lot of chicks and heartache.

    1. Sorry for your losses. Many long-time chicken keepers who free range have not had such losses to cocci - perhaps because they keep the gut flora well balanced with unpasteurized apple cider vinegar in the water. Feeding fermented feed can also keep that gut flora healthy. Yogurt with natural cultures, too.

      That said, cocci can happen to any flock. We have had Canadian Snow Geese, wild turkeys and all kinds of other wild birds all over our property and goodness knows what they might carry in. Do what you can to use natural means of prevention and go from there.

  6. My oldest pullets are 13 weeks old , all the feed stores in my area only sell medicated chick feed. I have called all of them and that is what they carry. So question is what should I start to feed them now , If I want to take them off medicated feed ?

    1. See if they carry a "Grower-Finisher" feed. Usually this has higher protein than Layer feed, yet lower calcium. Too much calcium at their age is not good for them.

  7. "...If you free range your chicks, expect significant mortality from cocci when not using medicated starter. In one horrible incident I lost 29 birds in 2 days from cocci. I highly recommend your feed medicated feed for the first 8 weeks. 2 bucks extra per bag will save you a lot of chicks and heartache."

    I've always freeranged them, and never lost one to coccidiosis. I never used medicated starter. I used raw garlic. You still lose chicks to cocci on medicated feed. You don't lose chicks on garlic. Try it! Nothing to lose, chicks to gain.

  8. It seems that many of the folks that I have communicated with that have cocci issues are bringing birds into situations in which there is over-crowding and other poor husbandry issues.

    Also, feeds that have soy and other anti-nutrients often cause deficiencies in the B vitamins and minerals. Sickness and death from many issues are often blamed on cocci when something else is the issue.

    Most of these can be overcome by learning good husbandry practices and the addition of raw meat to the diet.

  9. I've never heard of using apple cider vinegar? How much do you use per litre? Same thing with using Garlic. How do you feed them Garlic? I feed my chooks medicated starter for about 6-8 weeks. They stop eating the crumbles around that age. I then put them onto non medicated chook grower. Our older birds like this too but are still fed layer mash. All of our chicks are kept in doors under a lamp until 3 weeks old then transferred to a pen with a shelter one end. We leave this on the grass. They grow at a great rate and are very healthy. At about 6 weeks we open the pen. They forage all day and return to the pen at dusk. This cuts down the food bill a lot. There is always a bowl of grit and crushed egg shell for them.
    Our chooks move from their baby pens into the hen house proper by themselves when they reach a similar size to the other adult birds. I was surprised as I was thinking of building another house until they moved in. The hen house is 7 foot wide by 15 foot long and 7 foot tall.

    1. Usually folks recommend about 1 Tablespoon per Gallon (which is roughly 4 litres). I'm not sure what the conversion is for a tablespoon to metric. Many just drop a little in "by eye".

      Now this is UNPASTEURIZED apple cider vinegar that still has the live mother culture.

      People feed garlic in various ways. Some put it in waterers. I don't feed it that way. I just crush a few cloves and add it to their feed maybe 1X/week.

      I personally don't like loading waterers with garlic, and whenever I add ACV to the waterer, I always be sure there is a secondary source of water that is just plain so they can choose it free-choice.

      Be sure to come on over to the Natural Chicken Keeping Forum where you can join and start a topic to discuss any of your chicken-related questions. There are a good number of readers that have experience and are willing to answer any questions you might have!

      There's also a link above in the tabs at the top of this page.

  10. Our chicks have been on the medicated start and grow but I am ready to ween them off - my question is that if they have starting laying while on the medicated food, if we eat the eggs, could the medication be passed onto us? Yikes!

    1. Medicated starter feed is only meant for the first 6 weeks of a chick's life, After that, they should be fed an all-flock or a grower-finisher feed. Anything with medication, antibiotics or chemicals is not a good idea for a laying hen unless the hen is ill and must have the unnatural substances to save her life. (There are natural methods to handle most health issues in chickens - take a peek at our index page for more information.) Don't eat the eggs from a hen that has been given chemical de-wormers, antibiotics or other medications as these substances can be passed on to you and your family through the eggs.
      Hope this helps -

    2. thanks thanks for the reply Leigh. I will change my chicks food right away and we won't eat any of the eggs. Thanks again. Have a blessed Thursday!! :)


Let us know what you think. We LOVE getting feedback!

Oh - and SPAM will be deleted, so please - just don't!