How Do Chickens Digest Whole Grains?

two baby chicks next to each other with green background

Chick season is in full swing and my new group of babies is starting strong on our brand new Chickhouse Reserve™. Chickhouse Reserve™ is a very unique chick starter/grower feed because it is loaded with wholesome ingredients. It is nutrition that you can see. Such a unique chick feed definitely begs the question, “How do my chicks eat and digest these larger pieces of whole grains?”

What Are Whole Grains?

Whole grains are defined as a grain containing the principal components (endosperm, germ, and bran) in the same relative proportion that exists in the intact grain. Most poultry keepers consider whole grains to be large pieces. Whole grains can also be finely ground, cracked, or flaked as long as those processes retain all of the principal components.

How Do Chickens Eat And Digest Large Pieces of Whole Grains?

Chickens are monogastrics meaning they have one single stomach. Humans, dogs, cats, and pigs are also monogastrics. Most monogastrics will use their teeth to grind food into smaller pieces. Grinding (aka chewing) helps our digestive enzymes gain access to our food by increasing the surface area that is available for the enzymes to do their digestive work. Chickens don’t have teeth so they need a different solution. This is where the gizzard becomes the star of the digestive show!

How Does a Gizzard Work?

Instead of teeth, chickens use their gizzard to help grind their food. The gizzard is a muscle, a very strong muscle! Food moves into the gizzard and is ground into smaller pieces; thus, giving the enzymes more surface area to do their digestive work. The gizzard is so strong that it can even grind pieces of rock! The gizzard is also the place where grit – which is often rock! – works to increase the efficiency of digestion. Grit settles in the gizzard. As the muscles in the gizzard grind, the food particles are further disturbed by the grit. This helps break down the larger food particles faster and more efficiently. On an interesting side note, this is also why you don’t need grit when feeding a crumble or pellet. We do the grinding work for your birds when we grind the ingredients before making the crumble or pellet.

Can Young Chicks Eat Whole Grains?

Yes, if the pieces are small enough! Very young chicks are limited by physical prehension. This is the physical ability to pick up and eat a piece of feed. If the pieces are too big for a baby chick’s beak, then they will not be able to eat it. However, very young chicks can and will pick up pieces of feed, including pieces of whole grain, if the particle size is tailored to young chicks. This is similar to how a baby chick learns to eat when reared by a broody hen. You will often see one- or two-day-old chicks pecking at potential food sources to see if they can physically pick it up and eat it.

A chick’s digestive tract is immature but it starts to develop very quickly. The gizzard is very similar to any other muscle in the body - the more you use it, the bigger it will become. As you can imagine, chicks that are fed whole grains will have larger gizzards than chicks fed ground grains.

A Chick Cannot Live On Whole Grains Alone.

However, whole grains alone are not enough for your chicks to grow healthy and strong. Whole grains are wonderful energy sources but they lack the protein, vitamins, and minerals that are needed by growing chicks. A well-rounded starter/grower feed is essential to the health and longevity of your chicks.

What is Chickhouse Reserve™?

If you are looking for a high-quality chick feed AND you love being able to see the individual components of the feed, consider Chickhouse Reserve™. Not only is Chickhouse Reserve™ loaded with whole grains, it also contains a nutrient-rich crumble to make sure your chicks are getting complete and balanced nutrition as they grow. This feed is designed to be fed to chicks from hatch until they are ready to switch to a complete layer feed. Chickhouse Reserve™ is the only feed they will need through their entire growing period. And, just in case you are curious, Chickhouse Reserve™ is already fortified with grit to help your chicks digest the pieces of whole grains!


Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Dr. Nancy Jefferson has been a member of the Nutrition and Technical Services team at Kalmbach Feeds since 2013. She received her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2008 and has worked in the feed industry for over 15 years. She lives on a farm in Crown City, OH with her husband, John, and their children. Dr. Jefferson is a passionate poultry enthusiast and loves her chickens! Together, she and her family raise beef cattle and she keeps an ever-growing flock of backyard chickens.