4.4. Feed

This post includes the following sections:
Feed composition
* Protein
* Fibre
Managing the feed on the farm
* Diet change
* Feed form
* Number of feedings/day
* Feed rationing
Feed additives
* Roughage
* Grain in litter
* (Lime) stones
Pecking objects
Further reading

Feed composition

Dietary compositions should be discussed with a nutrient specialist and the feed supplier. It is important to understand that there is a link between dietary composition and injurious pecking.
With ever increasing feed prices it is important to avoid the temptation to buy a poorer nutrient composition than the hens require.


Protein is an essential part of a hen’s diet and several studies have shown that diets deficient in crude protein and certain amino acids have resulted in flocks with poorer plumage condition. As a producer or rearer it is important to carefully monitor protein levels in the diet, especially methionine. If you suspect a problem with the diet composition, then you should contact your feed supplier immediately so the problem can be investigated and where necessary resolved.
Research has indicated that severe feather pecking in the laying period can increase when levels of crude protein and amino acids are too low. Per kg dry matter the following thresholds are recommended:
Crude protein: 125 g/kg
Lysine: 8.2 g/kg
Methionine + cysteine: 5.1 g/kg


Several studies have shown lower levels of injurious pecking during rearing and lay when extra fibre was added to the diet. This could be due to a number of reasons. For example, diluting the diet with fibre may increase the time the hens spend eating, reducing the time available for feather pecking. Alternatively fibres may have a positive effect on gut motility and satiety. Accumulation of coarse fibres in the gizzard may increase the feeling of satiety in the bird and reduce the propensity to peck and eat the feathers of other birds.
Results from five different studies have indicated that provision of extra insoluble fibre, such as whole oats, wheat, corn, alfalfa, maize/barley/pea silage and carrots can reduce all types of injurious pecking, plumage damage and mortality.

Managing the feed on the farm


Diet changes

Several studies suggest that changes in diet composition or negative changes in palatability, may increase the risk of injurious pecking. This includes changes in both the rearing and the laying period.
Therefore, avoid three or more changes in diet. If a change in diet is required try to take the following into account:

  • avoid large drops in protein and amino acid levels.
  • avoid repetitive feed changes over a short period.
  • mask any changes by mixing diets to help prevent disruption to the birds arising from abrupt dietary changeovers.
  • When dietary changes occur place extra enrichments, e.g. straw bales or suspended rope in the house around the time of the change to help distract the birds.

Frequent dietary changes may lead to dietary neophobia (birds searching for the preferred feed elsewhere), resulting in more pecking behaviour for foraging, exploring and feather pecking.

Feed form

The form in which the food is presented may affect the time hens spend eating. A mash diet is preferred to pellets because it increases the time spent eating and therefore decreases the risk of injurious pecking. There is a strong association between feeding pelleted feed and severe feather pecking. On the other hand, mash feeding increases the risk of segregation of food particles, and consequently feeding an unbalanced diet to (some of) the hens. As this also increases the risk for injurious pecking, crumbs may provide a good alternative. This has the advantage of providing small particles without the risk of nutrient segregation.

Number of feedings per day

When setting the number and timing of the feeder runs, there are a few issues to take into account:

  • Allow for a larger gap once a day between runs to ensure the feeders are emptied by the birds. This ensures that smaller, less ‘tasty’ but nutritionally enriching finer feed particles are eaten.
  • The sound of the running feeder attracts the birds. This can result in birds leaving the nest boxes or it can (intentionally or unintentionally) attract birds inside from the range. Appropriate timing of feeder runs therefore is required. In the morning, when hens lay their eggs, running feeders should be avoided as much as possible, whereas at the end of the day it could be favourable to run feeders to attract birds from the range into the house.
  • – If the feeder runs empty once a day, it is important to make sure that the birds are never short of feed, as hunger can trigger injurious pecking.


Feed rationing

Feed rationing is not common in laying hens and normally unnecessary. If for some reason this measure has to be applied, extra roughage is advisable to provide the hens with foraging material.

Feed additives

It is good practice to provide extra foraging material. This will keep the hens busy and thus prevent them from starting to feather peck. Some additives, such as (lime)stones may improve gut health and enhance utilisation of the feed ingredients, reducing the risk of shortages. A balanced diet will reduce the risk of feather pecking.


Roughage provides the hens with extra foraging material and helps to keep them occupied. The extra fibres will also improve the health of the gastro-intestinal tract. Especially, if the roughage contains edible particles, hens will be stimulated to forage. Alfalfa is a good example.
Hens find alfalfa blocks, straw and hay attractive for foraging. If they are being consumed too quickly, there are several ways to influence the rate at which the birds utilise the roughage. Roughages can be placed in hay nets or in special racks. Bailed straw can be left intact (with strings around it) making it more difficult for the hens to pull straw out.

Bale of alfalfa
Bale of alfalfa


Grain in litter

Scattering grain in the litter is another way of occupying the hens and making them work for food. The best results are obtained when grain is scattered over a wider surface, preferably throughout the house. This can be done by hand, but for larger houses there are automatic grain scattering systems available. The more the hens have to work to find the grain the more effect this measure will have.


In the wild, hens eat small stones to help the gizzard to digest food. In henhouses stones can be scattered onto the litter, but stones can also be provided in small buckets. Limestones or shells can also be provided. They also serve as an extra source of calcium.

Further reading





  • Verenschade afgeremd. Krimpen, M.M. van; Binnendijk, G.P. ; Bruin, W.W. de; Veer, R. de -, 2010. De Pluimveehouderij 40 (2010)16. – ISSN 0166-8250 – p. 26 – 27.



FeatherWel - improving feather cover AssureWel - improving feather cover
FeatherWel management guide [pdf, 5.49mb] AssureWel advice guide [pdf, 661kb]


Treatment of feather pecking (in Dutch) Prevention of feather pecking (in Dutch)
Noodmaatregelen tegen pikkerij [Treatment of FP]. Van Niekerk et al. 2013 (Report, 32 pp). Van kuiken tot kip [Prevention of FP]. Van Niekerk et al.2011 (Report, 32 pp).


Feather pecking key (in Danish)
Fjerpilningsnøgle [Feather pecking key]. Johansen, N.F. 2013 (Report, 48 pp).

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