Current Feeding Practice
I hope that information offered on this site is useful for flock owners wanting to take feeding their birds more into their own hands. Please remember, though, that feeding the flock is a moving target for me. It has continued to evolve, and is now somewhat different from what has been described in some of the material earlier in the site. I guess it would be a good idea to update this page each time there's a significant change in my practice. I'll try.
Note that information presented on this page assumes a basic knowledge of feeding principles and strategies presented on the other feeding pages. ~January 2007
Turning off the grinder
As of about a month now, I have not been grinding feeds in the way described in “Making Your Own Poultry Feeds”. Despite using a dust mask when grinding, I was having some reactions to the dust. I'm always talking about feeding chickens “naturally”—well, the natural chicken eats whole seeds exclusively. There are some—among them my long-time “poultry guru” Joel Salatin—who argue that it costs the chicken energy to grind large seeds like corn, and that you thus pay a price in output (meat or eggs) if you feed them whole seeds rather than making part of that energy expenditure for them by grinding. Maybe, but I'm generally more concerned about other issues than squeezing out that last ounce of production from my birds. Since poultry are certainly equipped (crop for pre-processing, gizzard for grinding) to handle whole seeds, I turned off the grinder to see what would happen.
I'm taking the same basic feedstocks (at present corn, wheat, peas, oats, barley, and flax seed), in the same proportions as in my previous ground feeds, mixing them thoroughly, then throwing them to the birds like a conventional scratch feed. Since, unlike in previous winters, I now have the birds outside full-time (more about that below), I scatter the feed grains outside. Thus I am less likely to encourage rodent populations inside the poultry house.
I mix up anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds of the whole-seed feed at a time. But the amount per batch is really no longer relevant, since I am no longer crushing the seed coats by grinding.
All the birds—a pair of adult African geese, a trio of adult Buff ducks, some growing young guineas and Silver Spangled Hamburgs, and the usual mixed tribe of Marans, Old English Games, and Boxwood Broodies—seem to be doing just fine with the new regimen.
Dropping the supplements
I am not presently doing any supplementation at all. Don't know what I'll do with the remaining bag of Fertrell NutriBalancer, or the bag of fish meal, but I'm not offering them to the birds in any form. I do plan to bang together some hoppers (wooden—the metal hoppers I have would be no good for this) to offer salt and kelp meal free choice. Again, there doesn't seem to be a pressing need for even this level of supplementation, given the increased access to real food. (More below)
Maximizing access to natural foods
The major investment of time, funds, and effort on the re-do of the greenhouse, Fall of 2005, is now paying off: The earthworm populations in the 160 sq ft of worm bins down the middle of the greenhouse are finally adequate both to convert pickup loads of pony poop from my neighbor Joan's horse operation, and to “harvest” worms in quantity to feed the chooks. Whenever I get to it—every couple of days or so—I scoop out one or two 5-gallon buckets of finished worm bedding with worms, and simply dump onto the deep litter in the poultry house. The chooks pick out the worms and work the castings into the litter (which should be “prime,” come spring). If I seem lackadaisical about how often I offer the worms, I'm not too concerned, given the increased access to superior foods. (Below)
I dug a “clamp” to store the season’ harvest of mangels (fodder beets). They're keeping perfectly. I pull out one or two from time to time and throw them to the flock, for a boost in fresh food, and carbohydrates.
The winter feeding project
Okay, this is “below”, time for me to tell you about a change in winter feeding strategies I'm really excited about. As you know, I pasture the birds fulltime during the green season. But in the past I've kept the flock largely confined to the poultry house over winter, in order to prevent excessive wear of the dormant pasture sod. Last year I put a flock of a couple dozen chickens in the far end of the greenhouse, releasing them onto a “yard”—one of two garden spaces—surrounded by electronet and heavily mulched with spoiled hay. The thick cover kept the ground from freezing, thus kept alive a reservoir of earthworms and slugs at soil surface which the chooks could get at.
Now I hear some of you objecting: “Hay?! You crazy, boy?—that stuff is loaded with seeds!” Ah, yes, isn’t it just! And when late winter/early spring came in, they all started sprouting. The chooks were delighted.
The end of the winter featured large quantities of extremely finely shredded mulch for use in the garden, mellow soil still loose and workable after being protected from winter's extremes, few remaining weed seeds—and no slugs.
This year I'm building on that experience. I separated the flock into two groups: between two and three dozen chickens in the poultry house, and the rest of the flock in the greenhouse (the five waterfowl, eight young guineas, and 43 chickens).
This year, the house group is not confined to the chicken house—they are released to a heavily mulched “yard” as described above, confined and protected by electronet. This area is not garden space. It is a pasture area that got overly worn last fall, so I decided to let the birds work a heavy mulch on it over winter. In the spring, I will sow a mixed pasture cover in that space—pasture grasses, clovers, alfalfa, crucifers— and keep the birds off it until it establishes.
In late summer through fall, I planted cover crops—mostly grain grasses and peas— in both garden areas, which I netted with a long, wandering perimeter of electronet. Then in early December, I put the greenhouse flock into the greenhouse pens, releasing them fulltime into the two garden areas. The one closest to the greenhouse is now clear of green, and I'm ready to roll out another several round bales of mulch hay in that area. There is still plenty of green growth in the farther garden, so I'll let the flock work that. Whether that area will get an application of hay will depend on how long it takes the birds to take off the green cover.
So that's how I'm providing maximum access to live foods—plenty of weed seeds, earthworms, slugs— for the flocks over winter. Everybody seems happy, doing what they love to do best. And when I stroke a bird or two as I shut up at night, I feel full crops.
Incidentally, I'm not sprouting at present. I should be, I guess, but I've been incredibly busy, and the birds have so much access to fresh foods outside—it hasn't seemed to matter that the feed grains I'm giving them are not sprouted.
I wrote in “Feeding the Flock from the Homestead's Own Resources” that I planned to make “hay” from comfrey and stinging nettle. Well, I did so, right at the end of the season. I cured it out of the sun (up in the loft, on the racks where I cure my alliums), and got some very pretty green “hay” from both. However, I haven't yet begun experimenting with feeding it. More about that when I do.