Poultry production: Feeding the modern broiler

Small- to medium-sized poultry producers should keep a close eye on production costs – particularly on how much feed, and what type, they’re using – without compromising optimal nutrition.

Feed is one of a poultry producer’s biggest expenses, contributing 60% to 70% of total broiler production costs.

Although feed prices depend largely on the cost of raw materials (if maize prices change, so will feed costs), farmers can still be cost-conscious, and as efficient as possible. Saving on feed can maximise return on profits.


Poultry producers have to make sure they keep up with modern feeding trends. Broiler farming has changed over the past 10 to 20 years, mainly as a result of improved genetics. Modern broilers can achieve a weight of 2,2kg in six weeks; in the 1960s it took 12 weeks to achieve the same weight.

Improved nutrition and management are necessary to get the best production from broilers. You can have top-of-the-range feed, but if management is poor, the performance of birds will be too.


Phase feeding uses specific feeds to meet the changing nutritional requirements of chickens. Poultry farmers who haven’t already introduced phase feeding should consider doing so.

In small- to medium-sized flocks, a 3-phase feeding scheme is recommended.  The nutritional requirements of growing chickens change with age.

For young chicks, 80% of feed is used for growth and only 20% for maintenance (the opposite is true for older chickens).

Feeding specific starter, grower or finisher rations will reduce feeding costs. A starter is more expensive to a grower and finisher.

A starter ration is beneficial for broilers from day one to about 14 days old, but fed beyond this age, feed will cost more than it should because birds don’t need as much protein as is provided by the starter ration.

If phase feeding is implemented, amino acid levels will decrease to meet broiler requirements more closely. If there are too many amino acids in the diet, they will be used inefficiently for energy. Under-supply of amino acids can affect performance negatively.

Phase feeding uses specific feeds to meet the changing nutritional requirements of chickens.


The form of the feed also has a major impact on broiler performance. To optimise production, growth and health, chickens should have a diet that supplies nutrients and additives at a desired concentration.

Farmers should consider using pelleted feed because:

  • Improves the growth rate and feed conversion ratio (FCR);
  • Reduces selective feeding;
  • Reduces ingredient segregation;
  • Lowers feed wastage and reduces time and energy used for consumption.

It is also suggested that farmers should invest in equipment such as scales, as weighing chickens is the best way to find out if they’re gaining the right amount of weight. It isn’t possible to judge weight gain accurately just by looking at the birds.

The Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for poultry production suggest that farmers should raise food bowls, or hang them from the roof. If you do, make sure that they’re low enough for all chickens to reach, but not so low that they can walk in the food.

Keep the feed dry and protect it from the rain. Store it in a darker place as certain vitamins can be damaged by light. Feed containers should be cleaned regularly and old or soiled food should be removed and thrown away.


It is recommended that farmers use pelleted food for broiler production.


  • Always ensure that chickens have enough drinking water. It’s crucial, and is the cheapest nutrient in broiler production.
  • Test water quality regularly, particularly after rain. If the birds drink water containing bacteria, the chicken litter will be wet.

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries chicken production guidelines say that: 

  • One chicken needs at least 100 ml water every day.
  • To prevent chickens scratching sand and dirt into the water, place the container on a few bricks or flat rocks.
  • The side of the water container must be low enough for small chicks to reach the water.
  • Clean and refill the water container every day.
  • If you’re on a tight budget, make your own water container. Cut off the top of a cool drink bottle, fill it with water, put an inverted bowl on top and turn it over.

Two basic indicators of feed conversion

What do FCR and PIF mean?

FCR stands for Feed Conversion Rate. It is the quantity of feed the broiler consumes to gain body weight. PIF stands for Performance Index Factor and indicates the efficiency of broiler growth and management.

The FCR is calculated as follows:

Feed consumed ÷ body mass gained = FCR.

As feed is the most expensive part of broiler production, the lower the FCR the more efficient the growth rate and management.

On efficient commercial farms a FCR of 1.6 is readily achieved.

On smaller farms, especially where feed is distributed by hand and the houses are not well-ventilated, the FCR could be 2.2.

The PIF is calculated as follows:

(Body mass x % broilers alive [livability] x 100) ÷ (FCR x age in days at slaughter) = PIF.

A PIF of 300 can be attained on efficient modern farms. On smaller farms the farmer should strive for a PIF of 250.

  • This article was first published in the book: Guide to poultry production, published by Landbouweekblad.

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