As chicken moms (and dads), we strive to give our girls the best. At least I do! We want them to be healthy and happy. And a significant part of that comes from their diets.
But what is the best thing to feed your hens, and what is essential? One of the things that come to mind is oyster shells and grit. What are they, and do chickens need them in their diets?
Oyster shells and grit are two of the most important parts of your hen’s diet, and without them, the flock’s health is at stake.
This article will talk about the importance of oyster shells and grit, what they are, and why they are a critical part of your flock’s diet.
But first and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that oyster shells and grit are not the same things.
What is Oyster Shell?
Oyster Shell is exactly what it sounds like; the ground-up shells of oysters. Oyster shell is used as a calcium supplement for chickens. Oysters are mollusks, and their shells are made of calcium carbonate and protein.
Calcium is essential to a chicken’s diet to ensure hard, well-formed eggshells. One of the most reliable and popular methods of ensuring your girls get the proper amount of calcium is through oyster shells. Most feed companies offer a product with oyster shells in it. You can also purchase oyster shells separately.
The majority of oyster shells produced commercially are not expensive and very effective in providing enough calcium for your hens.
Why Are Oyster Shells So Important?
- Calcium is essential
- Health Risks, such as egg-binding
Your hen works pretty hard to lay that egg, and laying just one egg takes a huge amount of calcium. This puts a lot of pressure on the girl because if she isn’t getting enough calcium in her diet, her body will take it from elsewhere. Elsewhere, being her bones, and if they don’t have enough calcium, she may suffer from a form of osteoporosis, just as humans do.
Aside from brittle bones, a lack of calcium in chickens will often produce soft-shelled eggs, leading to her being egg-bound. This is a painful and often fatal condition in laying hens.
When a hen lays an egg, her body pushes against the shell in order for it to be released from her vent. However, if the eggshell isn’t hard enough, there is nothing solid for her to push against, leading to the eggs getting stuck or the hen becoming egg bound.
Do Chickens of All Ages Need Oyster Shell?
Not all chickens need oyster shells added to their diet. If your hens are not laying yet (and possibly when they have stopped laying due to age), they will usually get enough calcium through their feed.
In fact, giving extra calcium to chickens who are not laying can actually pose a risk to their kidneys.
However, if your chickens are laying eggs, additional calcium is needed. This is because most hens do not start laying until they are about 18 weeks old, and once they are actively laying, they will use four times as much calcium as a non-laying hen!
When Should I Introduce Oyster Shell into My Flock’s Diet?
Most hens will begin to lay between 18 and 20 weeks of age, so adding in a calcium supplement is ideal when they are 18 weeks. As mentioned above, giving it any earlier can damage the kidneys of young chickens.
Roosters and hens that are not laying do not need oyster shells in their diet. But don’t worry if they are eating it anyway. Usually, a mature flock will eat the same feed, so if your older hens and roosters get extra calcium, it will not hurt them.
Most brands of chicken feed will have a particular type of food that has oyster shells already mixed in. You can also buy the shells separately, but those should be given in a different container. Don’t worry. Your chickens will take what they need.
It would be best to always make oyster shells available year-round, even when your hens aren’t laying as much during the winter months.
What is Grit?
Just as important to a chicken’s diet as oyster shells are grit. Free-ranging chickens will automatically get grit as they take in tiny bits of gravel and stone when they search for food on the ground.
However, you still offer grit to the free rangers in the event that they may not be getting enough naturally.
But especially if your chickens don’t have access to the ground containing these small pieces of stone or are confined to a pen, they may not be getting enough grit in their diets.
Because grit is essential for chickens, you will need to add it. Most can be bought from stores or online cost-effectively and are made from granite or flint. The coarseness of grit will depend on the age of your hens.
Why is Grit Important?
- To break down food
- It helps to prevent sour crop
Chickens do not have teeth, so when they eat, their food is not chewed but pushed to the back of their throats with their tongues.
Instead of teeth, it’s the grit that works on breaking down the feed. When chickens eat grit, it goes into their gizzard. The gizzard is the muscular part of the stomach that grinds the hen’s feed into digestible particles.
Once food passes through the gizzard, it makes its way into the stomach.
From there, enzymes from the stomach break it down even more so it can be absorbed into the body. If the food cannot be processed due to a lack of grit, it will start to accumulate, and your hen could develop a sour crop.
A sour crop is essentially a fungus that develops in the crop by food that is not properly digested overnight.
When Should I Start Offering Grit?
If you have chicks and they are eating only a commercially produced starter feed, you do not need to add grit. Most feed for baby chicks is soft enough that they don’t need the grit to help it move into the stomach.
But once those chicks are given anything else (including treats), they will need grit introduced to their diet. For chicks less than a month old, grit can be in the form of wet soil or a clump of grass with soil still attached.
For chicks three weeks and older, you will want to feed them a coarser or “grower” grit. This can be given until they are about two months, and at that point, they can have adult grit.
How Should I Feed Grit?
Like oyster shells, grit should be fed separately from the feed in its own container. Your chickens will take what they need, so don’t worry about overdoing it.
You can also sprinkle grit on the ground where they are foraging a few times a day but be wary that they may not find it all.
Making sure your flock is getting the proper nutrients can be overwhelming. But by simply ensuring that they have enough oyster shell and grit in their diet, you are putting forth a huge effort towards their health and happiness.