What do you put in those chickens?

There is NO WAY he's all natural!
There is NO WAY he’s all natural!

If I had a quarter for every time I was asked what we put into laying hens to make them lay so many eggs….I would NOT be setting my alarm early so I could shovel my driveway out for the 4th time this week.  I can’t keep track of the number of times or ways I have been told about the constant flow of antibiotics, hormones and additives that go into laying hens.  It has stopped being a surprise, but it used to be….I always wondered what I was doing wrong as a vet!  If everyone else was using all these good drugs on their hens, what was I missing?  Then I figured it out….what I was missing was immersion in the internet.   The amount of misinformation out there is staggering.  I’m sure it’s true when I do a quick search on nuclear energy, or free trade coffee, or Beyoncé’s plastic surgery history (not that I would….honest).

The difference is, in this case, I KNOW how much is misinformation….on other subjects, I can be convinced by a smooth argument and repetition.

I can only swear to the truth about the birds I look after, here in Ontario.  As the vet on record for over half of the laying hens in Ontario, I can state that it is much more common for flocks to NEVER see antibiotics than to be treated.  I use antibiotics if a flock needs them to fight off a disease, but that is rare….I used antibiotics less than 20 times last year in the more than 300 flocks I am in charge of.

Professional laying hen farmers spend a lot of time, effort and money in PREVENTION of disease.  This includes extensive vaccine programs, strict biosecurity programs, excellent control of the environment the hens are in, clean barns, high quality feed and water, and protection from wild animals (this is especially important right now, when waterfowl are shedding Avian Influenza in many areas of North America).

If only they'd keep the darn things ON!

If only they’d keep the darn things ON!

That and the fact that laying hens are mostly in cages, separated from their manure, means that it is uncommon for laying hens to get diseases that require treatment with antibiotics.

I think it is crucial for animal welfare to allow for the treatment of sick flocks when medically necessary.  I also think it is crucial for farmers to take disease prevention and prudent use of antibiotics very seriously…..and, in my experience, they do.  We manage flocks so we don’t have to treat, but will treat if it becomes necessary.

I still wondered if I was running a different practice than my colleagues though.  I know the vast majority of the laying hen vets in North America, but they don’t tell me what they are doing on a day-to-day basis.  I was in an international poultry expo in Atlanta last month….a who’s-who of the poultry world, and about 30 of us laying hen vets got together for a meeting (we are not a big group….there are more pro sports TEAMS in the US than laying hen vets).  The subject of antibiotic resistance came up, as it does in every vet meeting I’ve attended in the past 5 years.  One of the most distinguished vets in our group said he thought our industry was doing well in antibiotic usage….his quote: “I belong to a group called AA….Antibiotic Anonymous…..whenever I feel the urge to try to solve a problem with antibiotics, I phone another vet, and they talk me out of it”.   That made me feel that we were all pushing in the same direction.

As for hormones, the last time I saw commercial laying hens administered hormones, they were given by a unicorn, and brought onto the farm by one of the giant alligators from the sewers.  It’s an urban myth and, in reality:

It. Doesn’t. Happen.  ………     Ever.   If I could say it more clearly, I would.  There is no hormone product for sale for poultry, there is not a farmer who would want it, there is no way it would make economic sense, and there is absolutely no reason to use such a product.  Our hens have been genetically selected so well that they almost lay an egg every day….that is all they can produce!  There would be no way to feed a hen enough nutrients to allow her to produce more than that!  Besides…many of you readers have backyard hens, who also lay close to an egg a day…..where are you getting your hormone supplements from?


Additives: Not nearly as ominous as “investigative reporters” would have you believe

As for all the additives we use in laying hen feed, there is some truth to that.  We add vitamins, lutein, Omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrient enrichments that are passed on to the people who eat the eggs.  We also add things to improve the health of the birds….electrolytes (think Gatorade, without the sugar), calcium for bone strength, probiotics (similar to yogurt, but not as gross), and organic acids (similar to vinegar), to help with digestion and keep the gut healthy (actually this is one of the more recent focuses of disease prevention…..gut health).

I hope this makes some sense to readers who are unfamiliar with professional egg production….at first glance, it might make sense for us to use a lot of drugs or even hormones.  But once you look a little deeper, disease prevention and good management do more good than either of those strategies.

Mike the Chicken Vet

22 responses to “What do you put in those chickens?

  1. What do you use instead of apple cider vinegar for gut health

    Thank you, Dana

    • Hi Dana,

      We use probiotics, similar to those in yogurt, but more tailored to chickens, organic acids to get gut pH in an ideal range for health (similar to vinegar, but able to affect the gut more extensively…like butyric and proprionic acids), and essential oils are starting to be used as well.


  2. Thank you, what are your thoughts on fermenting ? I recently started this and my chickens really seem to enjoy it.

    • Fermentation is interesting…it produces several things that are beneficial, but it’s very imprecise. I compare it to drinking willow bark tea for a headache, vs extracting Tylenol from the bark and taking that. I’m nervous about all the unidentified ” other things ” that the hens might be exposed to.


  3. Great article Mike, I love getting new e-mails from you! Can I get your expanded opinion on the use of apple cider vinegar as a preventative measure for coccidiosis? Lots of the organic people swear it works by acidifying the crop, but what’s your thoughts?

    • Hi Jeremy,

      U honestly don’t know how effective vinegar us in the control of cocci, even though I use it in organic flocks. I’ve never seen a case-controlled study on it…..sometimes it seems to help, but I never know how the flock would have responded without treatment. It makes sense that acidification would help, and adding acid to the litter definitely helps limit the number of oocyte, but the action of vinegar is actually not really in the right part of the gut.

      Sorry I couldn’t give a clearer answer.


  4. Do you feel it is worth the added expense for the backyard chicken keeper to purchase organic, non-GMO feed? I’m hoping you know more good about the regular layer feed than we may know.
    Thank you!

    • Hi lweise,

      Wow, what a complicated question! My opinion on organic and GMO will likely alienate me from some readers, so let me preface my answer with this : my opinion is based on the things I’ve seen, and the research I’ve read. My mind is open, and I encourage everyone to stay open to change. Having said that, I find very little value to organic feed, and have no nutritional worries about GMO crops. I am concerned about the environmental impacts of both strategies, with the inefficient use of resources resulting from organic products, and the abrupt change in evolutionary pressure on microcosms caused by GMO. I don’t feel well enough versed in ecology to decide which is more detrimental, however. Short answer : avoiding parts per trillion levels of pesticide residues is not worth it, and chickens do very well when they eat GM grains. That’s my opinion….today.


  5. My answer to that question would be – light.

  6. Hi Dr. Mike, Thanks for this information, it came at an opportune time. I love my chickens and would never eat them, well they have names!
    But we are going to raise about 100 meat birds (Cornish cross) to save us from the stuff that is given to the poultry we buy at the grocery store.
    I agree with everything, a clean coop, fresh water, etc. and I rarely use antibiotics. I feel “if it isn’t broken. . . don’t fix it!)
    Thanks, Penny Smith

  7. Hello again Mike. It just so happens that by coincidence I’m putting a book together about these “investigators” and distributing it freely as an ebook.

    I wonder if I could use this entry, with full credit, as is in the book? It would lend extra weight to the argument against this particular one – and one of the worst of them all.

    Completely understand if not but you’d save me some time and your qualifications speak for themselves.


    • Hi Marc….feel free to use it. Are you talking about this article, or the one I wrote in response to the activist video last fall?


      • This one Mike – we’re doing a book on Food Babe (Vani Hari) who routinely misrepresents “traditional” farmers and the chemicals in our food. I’ll credit you as Mike the Chicken Vet unless you can drop me an email with some other accreditation and a link to the blog – which is still one of my favourites. I only wish you had more time to write more!

  8. Mike — great post! Makes so much sense. Thanks for your insight.

  9. I think there is a lot of cross-contamination thinking from the beef industry. It’s like labeling eggs “gluten free.” Jump on the bandwagon! 🙄

  10. Thank you for your article, Mike. There is certainly a ton of misinformation out there. Could you please address the recent announcement from McDonald’s about phasing out purchasing chicken raised with antibiotics? Also, the March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine (has a 2-page spread with “The Poultry Case Study.” It states “Since most U.S. chickens are raised in large, crowded facilities, farmers feed them antibiotics to prevent disease as well as speed their growth” (pg. 12). I’m confused. Is it just laying hens that aren’t given antibiotics?

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Great question! It is true that broiler chickens use more antibiotics. Strategies are being used for reduce the levels, but they are still used. Laying hens use far less antibiotics because the majority of laying hens are in cages. Small groups, and separation from their manure makes laying hens very healthy. It is one of the overlooked risks of public pressure to move laying hens out of cages is the potential for more disease.


  11. Thanks for your article, what is your recommendation for Bumble Foot?
    I have a female goose with Bumble Foot.
    Penny Smith

  12. Sorry for being off topic, Mike, but Animal Liberation Victoria has posted a pretty gruesome picture of two allegedly rescued caged hens in pretty shocking condition. All the animals I’ve seen, including rescues are in far better condition and it seems someone is pulling a fast one. They may, for instance, be in a forced moult. Of course, people don’t see that.

    Any thoughts? Sorry I don’t have the link right now but it’s doubtless easy to see.

    • Hi marc;

      I haven’t seen the birds, but I can imagine that they can look pretty shocking. It is possible that the birds were staged, but it is also possible that they were legitimately in the barn. I know farmers who will try to save very sick birds, using a hospital pen. There are also birds that escape the cages and can find places to hide and not get caught and get into bad shape. There are also poor producers. To evaluate which of these happened is impossible….2 birds from a barn of many thousands is a meaningless sample. I could find some malnourished or very sick people in any city in Canada….compare that to showing malnourished people in the slums in some very poor part of the world….one is representative, one is not. Holding up a couple of ill birds and crying fowl is primarily for shock value, and doesn’t NECESSARILY represent anything

      • That’s what I’d figured. The really hurtful part of it was these people were so “bothered” about the health of these bird, they had managed sufficient time to pose the pair of them with a bunch of eggs!

        I just can’t…

  13. Dr. Mike, I have a question for you about wormers. I generally use Safeguard in the spring and fall because my 6 girls eat a lot of worms and bugs and they are vectors for many kinds of worms. Recently I’ve noticed Hygromycin B on the shelves, and it is an antibiotic as well as a wormer, and I am wondering about the risks/benefits of it. And your thoughts on worming in general.

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