This article was published in the October/November, 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. Check out BYP and consider subscribing—it’s a great resource.
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If you have read “Making Your Own Poultry Feeds”, a discussion of making my own feed mixes to replace commercial feeds for my flocks, you will remember my two criteria for superior poultry food: that it be live and raw . For the following discussion, let’s add a third: and produced from the homestead’s own resources.
There are several reasons we might produce more of our birds’ food ourselves, from saving money to the simple desire to be more independent (and dependence on purchased feed ingredients is a serious dependency indeed). Some of us suspect that the era of easy prosperity we grew up assuming almost as a natural right may soon come to an end. One way to prepare for a time of economic constriciton, a time when the way we now do agriculture in this country will no longer be a possibility, is to learn to raise poultry with less dependence on purchased inputs. For me, however, producing more of my birds’ feeds is foremost a quest for higher quality foods, an attempt to get closer to the way the completely natural chicken would feed herself.
Pasturing the flock
The best first step we can take toward utilizing the homestead’s own resources for flock nutrition is pasturing the flock. Whether free-ranging entirely, or confined where we want them with electric net fencing, birds on pasture have constant access to foods the natural chicken would choose for herself: living green forages, wild weed seeds, and live animal foods such as worms and insects.
Don’t assume that you have to have the perfect sward of mixed pasture grasses and clovers. Those plants make wonderful forage for the flock, but some broadleaf “weeds” are also quite nutritious. For example, I recently noticed how thoroughly my geese had “harvested” the chicory on my pasture, an excellent forage plant I had not sowed or cultivated in any way.
I’m going to include sprouting in this discussion even if the grains and legumes we sprout are purchased, since sprouting is a kind of “value added” feeding we can achieve by our own efforts. Sprouting grains boosts the protein, vitamin, and enzyme content (while decreasing carbohydrate). On balance it enhances the starting ingredients and boosts more thorough utilization of everything we are feeding.
There are several possible approaches to sprouting. I experimented with sprouting in trays, and allowing the sprouts to green up by exposure to sunlight. (I have also seen pictures of a setup used by dairy farmers in earlier times, a rack holding numerous trays of greening sprouts which were fed to the cows when the sprouts reached 2-3 inches high.) I found working with trays too time consuming, so devised a bucket system instead. I cannot produce green sprouts in the buckets, but that is not a problem for me, since I have other sources of green forages. If you do not, you might experiment with sprouting to the green stage in trays. That method should work even in cold winters if the trays are brought inside at night.
We do not think of chickens as grazers, but they actually make good use of fresh green forages as a small but important part of their total intake. In my winter greenhouse, I grow grain grasses (wheat, barley, oats, rye) and mixed crucifers (turnips, mustards, rape, etc. ) as cut-and-come-again greens for the birds. If you do not have a greenhouse, you can still grow these cold-hardy species deep into the chill season. Indeed, cover crops planted to protect and build garden soil over the winter can do double duty as a source of cut greens for the birds.
A couple of excellent green feeds for the flock are dandelion and yellow dock (Rumex crispus). Though much maligned as “weeds,” both are palatable and highly nutritious to poultry, and they stay green deeper into the frost season than any other wild forages in my area. As long as I can get a spading fork into the ground, I dig these plants by the roots and throw them to the flock by the bucketful. The birds eat the tops down to the roots, then (in the case of dandelion, though not yellow dock) eat part of the root as well, after which the roots generally get buried in the deep litter by the scratching of the chickens. There the roots put out new growth (like Belgian endive, forced in a cellar)—when the chickens turn them up again, they have “second helpings.”
Two extremely useful plants I recommend to all homesteaders are comfrey and stinging nettle . In addition to myriad food (for both humans and plants), medicinal, and soil-building uses, both plants are excellent feed for poultry. Comfrey is amazingly productive, especially if fertilized heavily (and it will take any form of fertility you throw at it, including raw chicken manure). Protein content is high (higher than alfalfa, and can if well grown be as high as soybean, dry weight basis). I cut and feed as needed, more at times in the season when the pasture is less generous. Chickens eat comfrey well. Geese love it.
I am in the process of greatly expanding my comfrey plantings. (It is an extraordinarily easy plant to propagate.) The next big “wave” of propagation will feature planting comfrey patches out on the pasture, where the birds will “graze” the comfrey themselves. I plan to keep the plantings tight, dense, and relatively small. They are incredibly tough plants, but if they seem to be suffering from over-grazing by the birds, I can protect the patches with temporary fencing.
Both comfrey and stinging nettle can be dried and fed as “hay.” My experiments with both have been challenging thus far—they are much more fragile than a grass hay. My next attempts with both will feature thorough drying, then stuffing into large burlap bags, in which the shattering into leaf meal will not be a problem. I will experiment with feeding straight, and with adding to ground feeds.
It should be added that in recent years there has been some “scare talk” from official quarters about pyrrolizidine alkoloids found in comfrey. The alkoloids are indeed present, and are indeed toxic to the liver in massive, pure doses. However, my conclusion from research I have done is that there is no toxicity problem, acute or chronic, associated with consumption of whole comfrey, by either humans or livestock. (See Comfrey Report , by Lawrence D. Hills.) Whenever I slaughter fowl, I practice a form of divination I call “reading the livers.” As long as the livers of birds who have been eating comfrey remain healthy and free of abcesses, I will have no concerns about feeding comfrey.