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Feeding the Homestead Flock: It Ain’t Rocket Science!

I wrote this piece as a rebuttal to a couple of articles that appeared in the first issue of Backyard Poultry. It was published in the second (April/May) issue, 2006.

“Specialized training or a computer program are required to confidently formulate a poultry ration.” (A. Lee Cartwright, Assoc Prof, Texas A & M University, Feb-Mar issue of Backyard Poultry)

Assumptions

The above statement by Professor Cartwright was made in an article entitled “Nutrition and Feeding of Show Poultry.” However, a careful reading reveals almost nothing specific about feeding show birds per se—the article is rather the standard “poultry specialist” advice on feeding poultry in general. Its implicit point of view—characteristic of agricultural colleges and extension service agents for several generations now—is based on two unspoken assumptions: First, that the home flock is a miniaturized analog of commercial operations. The work of ag colleges such as Texas A & M is bent toward the support of the poultry industry, and simply assumes its models of confinement and mass-produced feeds. When they turn their attention to the home flock, they apparently have not a clue that other, more natural paradigms are possible. Second, as in the quotation above, proper formulation of feeds is an extremely exacting science that must be carried out with laboratory precision—the balancing of vitamins, mineral cations, and the major nutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrate must be fine-tuned to the last degree, otherwise growth and health of the birds are compromised. Thus the formulation of feeds is “rocket science,” best left to the lab-coated experts, since we befuddled homesteaders are certain to get the ratios and balances wrong, and our birds will suffer for it.

If we start with this point of view, then of course we are best advised to “Feed only recommended, good quality, ‘all-in-one’ manufactured feeds.” (Fred D. Thornberry, also of Texas A&M, “The Small Laying Flock,” Feb-Mar issue. Emphasis added.) Further, we are likely to take on faith (as Prof. Thornberry obviously does) that the feeds on offer in the market are “good quality;” and that as Prof. Cartwright assures us they are “fresh,” so long as we do not permit them to become “stale” or “rancid,” for example through “exposure to heat.”

The counter to such claims and assumptions from the “poultry intelligentsia” is a study of the actual ingredients and processing of industrial, mass-produced feeds. They are anything but “fresh.” The naturally stable nutrients in a whole seed such as wheat, corn, or bean begin to oxydize—go “stale” or ”rancid”—as soon as the seed coat is crushed. That is why I make my feeds in small batches (only enough for two to four days)—commercial feeds bought at the local co-op may have been milled months previously. But the story is worse than that, since so many of the base ingredients do not even start as whole grains or beans at all. At the beginning of feed formulation, they are already quite stale (oxydized) byproducts of the production of other commodities—the milling of grains for refined flour, feather meal from huge broiler processing plants, soybean meal from the extraction of oil, etc.—which have been extensively (and intensively) processed with heat, drying, and high pressure (to say nothing of possible industrial residues, such as hexane in the soybean meal, a chemical solvent used in the extraction of the oil). Especially troubling are the fats used in feeds. Fats are indeed an essential major nutrient, but Prof. Cartwright apparently assumes that all fats are equal. The truth is that much of the fat in feeds is likely to be the vegetable oils from fast-food fryers. Such fats are in the industrial “recycle bin” precisely because they have reached the point of rancidity, and the further processing of feed makes them more so. If there is anything nutritionists agree on, it is that consuming rancid fats is “bad news.”

Prof. Cartwright warns against giving our birds any feed supplemental to the magic formula in the feed bag: “If you have a good ration that fulfils all of the dietary needs of broiler and roaster chickens or turkeys, do not alter it.” Specifically, he warns against giving fresh foods, e.g. “Adding green chops, lettuce or other low nutrient ingredients to the diet.” If providing a little green chop for the birds creates imbalance, how much worse to put the flock out on pasture, where they can eat grasses and clovers (more “low nutrient ingredients”) and earthworms and insects (certain to change the ratios of proteins and fats in that perfect balanced feed we should be offering them)!

How would “the natural chicken” feed herself?

But suppose we start not with laboratory analyses or large-scale feeding studies of confined flocks, but with the assumption that any agricultural enterprise should imitate natural systems. Then our first question is: If left to its own devices in a free-ranging situation, how will a chicken feed itself? Will it seek out feather meal, oil extraction residues, byproducts of flour milling? No, it will eat green growing plants, wild seeds, and animal foods such as earthworms and insects. In other words, it will eat live foods—exclusively. Whatever the touted virtues of mass-produced, ultra-processed feeds, they are anything but alive.

Please understand that this is not a diatribe against Prof. Cartwright, nor an attempt to impugn his good intentions. Indeed, I agree with his fundamental observation, “A balanced approach to nutrition is the key to optimum growth.” I just start with a different assumption: The more our chickens eat like a completely free-ranging chicken would eat, the more naturally balanced its diet will be.

I also agree that feeding our poultry must not be haphazard. Certainly we must learn all we can about the fundamentals of nutrition. Prof. Cartwright’s advice, for example, that young growing birds must not be fed a commercial layer feed is extremely important—their developing reproductive systems can be seriously compromised by the extra minerals in the layer ration. He warns us against succumbing to the mindset, “If a little is good, a lot is even better.” A good example is selenium, one of those essential nutrients which in excess concentrations is toxic. If crab meal is a component of feed, we must restrict it to no more than 2-1/2% of the total mix, because of its high selenium content. Oats and barley are excellent whole grains to feed in moderation, but feeding in excess of 20% of feed total (alone or in combination) will cause poor digestion and runny droppings. Whole flax seed is a valuable addition in small amounts (I limit to no more than 4%)—but when “Omega 3” became a buzzword, some folks started feeding as much as 15% and throwing their birds’ fatty acid profiles all out of whack.

I imagine Prof. Cartwright would object: “Hey, boy, we have science on our side—we have studies A, B, and C which prove x, y, and z!” My intention here is to urge the homesteader not to be intimidated by this claim of the “experts” to being “scientific.” You are the expert when it comes to the health and well-being of your flock! My advice to you is: Learn all you can about the basics of nutrition; be willing to experiment; and observe the results. Then, if necessary, adjust. I gave runny droppings as an example. Learn what the poop from a healthy bird with an efficient digestive system looks like. If you make a change and start getting a lot of smeary, off-color, smelly poops—back off and try again!

“Scientific?”

As for “scientific”—we homesteaders can be as scientific about our feeding as anyone. Isn’t the heart of the scientific method the observation of actual results in the real world? I have indeed fed my flock precisely as Prof. Cartwright advises—with the “best” the local co-op had to offer—for more than a decade. And for as long now, I have pastured them and fed them feeds I make myself from primary ingredients. My assumption, however, is that the feeds I make are of only secondary importance. Far more important than any sought-for “balance” in the formulation itself is maximizing their access to live foods. I do this primarily by putting the birds on pasture during the green season. I am also experimenting with ways—production of fly maggots as a potent source of protein in the summer, and of earthworms as supplemental feed in the winter—to increase the amount of live animal foods they eat.

In the years I have taken the feeding of my flock into my own hands, flock health has improved; I frequently get 100% hatches from the eggs I set; and mortality in the brooder phase is lower. Results like that are “scientific” enough for me.

I also imagine Professors Cartwright and Thornberry pointing out that, after all, the feeding programs they outline get results—impressive weight gain in broilers, lots of eggs from layers. Yes, and it is possible with similar industrial methods to market a strawberry that is intensely red, plump, and huge—and has no discernible flavor. Every reader of these pages is acquainted first hand with the insipidity of supermarket chicken, the paleness, lack of viscosity, and tastelessness of supermarket eggs. You can achieve the same results with your own flock, confining them and feeding industrialized feeds. Those in a position to know tell me all the time that my eggs and poultry are the best they’ve eaten in their lives.

Please remember that ag-college studies on poultry nutrition have been done on flocks raised in the commercial paradigm—almost no studies have been done on a feeding program for birds on pasture. Until such studies are done, we should be skeptical of the astounding claim that a dry, dusty meal in a bag is a more perfect food for a chicken than an earthworm.