Wednesday, May 18, 2011


   Talking about poultry and eggs last week we mentioned some things in passing about how we feed our chickens, and it occurred to us that we might have given a false impression about the simplicity of keeping chickens the way we do, so we thought we'd tell you more this week about what's involved. Straight heirloom corn, for example, is certainly a simple chicken feed, but feeding simply corn (or barley or wheat, depending largely on the season) presents a whole array of other challenges, which is why most small farmers and even most people with backyard chickens opt for the store-bought, “scientifically formulated” chicken feed mixture with the long list of mysterious ingredients (whether conventional or USDA organic) like we discussed last week. So the question we want to address here is why feeding a homegrown kind of feed to chickens is so uncommon. In other words, what's not simple about feeding simple, homegrown feed?
   The first challenge is that locally grown, non-GMO (not genetically modified) grain -- which is the only grain we feed -- isn't typically for sale anywhere, so generally our only options are to grow grain ourselves (and hand-hoe and hand-harvest it, etc.) and to find local grain farmers willing to deal with us in relatively, by today's standards, very small quantities. However, a small quantity for the grain farmer is typically a large quantity for us. The heirloom corn we bought from a nearby “retired” hobby farmer last year -- it took years just to locate a farmer growing a surplus of heirloom corn like this -- wasn't for sale by the bag as needed; really the only way we were able to buy it was to buy the entire crop at harvest time. And the corn came on the cob, so we had to have built a corn crib to store it (about 70 bushels on the cob) and finish drying it. Then in order to feed it we had to remove the cobs by hand and pass them one at a time through our corn sheller. That's one series of logistical hurdles, but since we don't use insecticides we can't simply store large enough quantities of corn to feed our flock of chickens through the summer and early fall without the corn getting destroyed by little grain-eating insects. So to make it through those months we've been buying wheat from some brothers that keep an old combine running and grow a few acres of grain, as best we can tell, just as a hobby. (That the only farmers growing the kind of grain that we'd want to buy can only justify their farming as a hobby shows how badly we need to increase our awareness and the value we place on local grain farming and grain-fed products like pork and poultry, etc.) Together with another friend that raises livestock and poultry, we've been buying these brothers' entire wheat crop as feed for our animals. What that means for us is that we wind up with a row of 55-gallon drums full of wheat lined up in front of our barn, where the brothers are able to unload the wheat. Then we had to get those drums under shelter. This past year we borrowed a hand truck for moving appliances, which was a big improvement over brute wrestling, but with uneven ground and barn bedding, etc. still took two plus hours of strenuous work. As nice as it would be to avoid that kind of work, it was the most efficient way to get the job done, given the scale necessitated by breaking with mainstream ways of farming, which is the broader point we're trying to make: breaking with mainstream ways of farming isn't easy and it often dictates a scale incompatible with modern, labor-saving machinery.
   But the challenges to simply feeding locally grown grain don't end with the grain, because grain isn't a complete feed. Corn or wheat only work as feed for our chickens because all day long, until we top them off in the evening, they're eating grubs and worms and grass and weed seeds, etc., etc. In order to make that kind of foraging possible, we have to manage predator threats, we have to keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from all the crops they would eat or scratch up, and we also have to deal with infringements on people spaces. We keep predators shy mainly by keeping a couple outdoor dogs (which have their own set of requirements) and by being here, working outside and walking back and forth, all day long almost every day. We keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from our crops at the expense of fencing, and by chasing down the occasional fence jumpers with a fishing net (i.e. at the expense of our dignity) and then finding someone else to whom we can give or sell those hens. Furthermore, allowing chickens to free forage means allowing chickens to poop in all sorts of places we would rather not have chicken poop, like on the walkway from our driveway to the house. Fortunately for the sake of our chickens' forage we don't have neighbors within 1/8 mile or too much traffic on our road -- that comes with the cost of being further from town and market and customers -- but for most other small farmers providing comparable forage would probably mean daily setting up new rotations with poultry netting. All this to say there are plenty of hurdles and costs to keeping things simple. We hope understanding some of these things will help you appreciate the end product.


ATHiker95 said...

I'm curious as to why chickens can not survive on foraging alone vs needing to be "topped off" with grain. Do they really need to eat at night? I could understand how foraging would be difficult during winter seasons, but it seems that the need would be much less during the "growing seasons". With that line of thinking, are you getting a better egg when buying during the "growing seasons" vs buying eggs during the winter? My wife and I try to follow a Paleo Diet that doesn't allow grains and thus look for chickens that would not be fed any grain (which seems to be a search in vain). I notice that Tropical Traditons on the Internet use coconut pulp to feed their chickens when they're not foraging and thus avoid the need for grain, which is an interesting option, but then that means shipping,etc and not supporting local farmers.I'd be curious what your thinking would be on this subject. By the way, your blog is extraordinary as you pull no punches and provide honest information, something that I don't always feel I'm getting from the local farmer at the farmers market. Will be tuning in more!

Eric & Melissa Brown said...

In the warmer months I suspect that with enough acreage, few enough chickens, and low enough production expectations (low enough to really rule out any possibility even at the extreme margins of selling eggs) then chickens could be kept without feeding any "grain" at all. (I put "grain" in quotes because free range chickens will certainly eat seeds and grass seeds, in particular, which to me is the most precise definition of grains. If we limit our definition of grains to human-harvested-type grains, then those might be avoided, but if you're considering these questions from a nutritional perspective, foraged vs. human-harvested wouldn't seem directly significant.) In the winter months (in zone 8/9 and colder), I can't see keeping chickens without supplemental feed like grains, but I'm sure grains could be substituted (also potentially in the summer) with things like coconut pulp (the feed value of which I know nothing about) or other non-grain crops like starchy root crops. I can't see any reason to want to do that myself. To try to answer your other question, I don't think you're going to find eggs for sale that are going to be substantially less grain-dependent based on the seasons. The overwhelming majority of even small-scale "pastured"/organic egg producers feed complete grain rations continuously (or at least multiple times per day) every day of the year, and even only feeding grain at the end of the day, we feed approximately the same amount of grain per bird in the summer as we do in the winter. One thing that may interest you, as an additional thought, is that we will frequently be feeding a grain ration of just our whole kernel corn to our flock while hens are raising biddies, and those biddies manage to stay healthy and mature long before they can begin to eat or digest something as large as our heirloom corn kernels, so for that period the young chickens in our flock are indeed fully forage fed.