What Chickens Eat

What chickens are fed greatly affects their health, as well as the flavour and nutrition of the meat. Farmers are extremely aware of this and realize the importance of feeding their birds properly.

The make-up and amount of feed given to chicken is very important throughout the different stages of their growth cycle. In fact, it’s a science. Feed can be too high, or too low, in nutrients, affecting the birds’ growth. And the makeup of the feed varies, from province to province, and even from region to region, depending on what is most available. The feed mills follow strict guidelines, administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), that govern what ingredients can be used.

What’s in Chicken Feed?

Chicken feeds are mostly prepared in specialized feed mills and come under the jurisdiction of the Canada Feeds Act, making them subject to government inspections. About 90% of all animal feed in Canada is manufactured by feed mills that produce about 20 million tonnes per year for Canada’s farmers. On-farm production represents a further 10 million tonnes as farmers sometimes mill their own.

Feed represents the largest single cost to farmers, with feed being about ½ of the cost of raising a chick until it becomes a market weight broiler chicken.

The main ingredient of all chicken feed (over 85%) is grains and grain by-products, protein-producing seeds, and meal made from them such as canola or soybean meal. So, in essence, all chicken is “grain-fed.”

In much smaller quantities (around 10%), various other protein sources such as meat and bone meal/vegetable fats are added to improve the nutritional content, taste and texture of the feed. Some birds are raised without any animal by-products, but since chickens are omnivores, these need to be replaced with vegetable sources so that bird health is maintained.

In much, much smaller quantities (1.5%), mineral and vitamin supplements are commonly added to prevent any nutrient deficiencies.

Hormones and Antibiotics

Hormones are never used here in Canada (nor are they used in most poultry-producing nations) – they were banned over 50 years ago. There continues to be a widespread myth (thank you Internet!) about their use in chicken farming. It just isn’t the case here in Canada or anywhere that Canada imports chicken from – which is not very much and not from many countries, needless to say, as our farmers are doing a great job of reliably supplying the Canadian demand for chicken.

Chicken feed may also contain minute levels (less than 1 per cent) of additives such as enzymes and antibiotics to prevent disease and digestive problems. All of these additives are subject to strict regulations and are used in conjunction with good management, vaccination and hygiene practices.

While not every bird or every flock is given antibiotics – it’s not an all-in approach by any means – antibiotics can play an important role in providing a safe product for consumers, as well as in poultry health and welfare. Antibiotics help to maintain healthy birds, thereby ensuring a safe food supply for consumers and to prevent any potential food safety problems.

There continues to be widespread debate within the scientific community as to the effect and impact of antibiotic use within agriculture because it is a complex interaction between food safety, animal health and animal welfare, and there remain many unanswered questions to find answers to. Chicken Farmers of Canada supports the responsible use of antibiotics that have been approved by the Veterinary Drugs Directorate of Health Canada, in order to ensure food safety, animal health and animal welfare. The Canadian chicken industry is committed to controlling, monitoring and reducing antibiotic use in order to preserve effective treatment options. This situation is one that we are constantly monitoring and improving.

As part of our antimicrobial use strategy, we eliminated the preventative use of Category I antibiotics in May of 2014 and the preventive use of Category II antibiotics in 2018. There are four classes of antibiotics and Category I are those most important in human health.

For More Information

Updates on our antimicrobial use (AMU) strategy and changes we have (and are making) to chicken farming in Canada can be found here.