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We have had a big mulberry tree in the orchard for years, and the chickens have always loved the abundant dropped fruit. I have just planted two additional mulberry trees out on the pasture. The trees will provide shade for the flock, as well as large amounts of dropped fruits. (In earlier times, it was common for farmers to fatten both pigs and fowl from the windfall crops of mulberries.)
I have ordered three chestnut tree seedlings, which I will also be planting out on the pasture. Again, the trees will shade the birds, who should help control the chestnut weevil, both in the emergent phase in the spring, and when going to ground in the winter. (Multi-tasking again.) Any year that brings good crops should provide far more chestnuts than we can eat. I plan to crack the hulls of the surplus in my feed grinder, then feed the nutritious chestnuts to the birds.
Persimmons also make excellent feed for chickens—and for turkeys. At the moment I have three Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki), and am not inclined to share their succulent fruit with the flocks. However, wild persimmons (D. virginiana) grow prolifically in my area, and I may encourage their growth in our bit of woods, and make the dropped fruit available to the chickens using electronet fencing.
Many homesteaders know that in earlier times pigs were routinely fattened on crops of acorns wherever there were oak trees. J. Russell Smith points out in his classic Tree Crops that acorns can be used as feed for chickens and turkeys as well. He quotes a report from England during World War II of acorns being used to replace up to half of the feed ration for chickens. There are a number of large white oaks on our property. I plan to experiment with acorns as feed for the flocks this fall, crushing the acorns in my feed grinder just enough for the birds to pick out the contents.
Of course, any nuts are highly nutritious and can be used as food for fowl, to the extent they are not desired as human food. I am planting a number of grafted cultivars of nuts for our own use. However, there are several wild hickories and black walnuts on our property. I pick out a few nut meats for us, but the kernels are small and time-consuming to pick. I have found it easy, however, to gather them, place on a rock, smash with a hammer, and let the birds have at them.
And don’t forget the orchard as a source of food for the birds. Getting rid of dropped fruits is an essential part of orchard sanitation. Either pick them up and throw them to the flock, or simply give the birds access to the orchard and let them do clean-up. I couldn’t believe the amount of dropped and cull apples the geese polished off last year.
Alternative sources of protein
There are several sources of proteins and fats which many homesteaders can develop for their birds. Earthworms top the list as a dual-purpose way to convert “wastes” such as manures to both feed and fertility. I experimented with a 3 x 4 ft worm bin for several years, then last fall installed 160 sq ft of worm bins in my greenhouse (a total of almost 300 sq ft when there are no chickens “in residence” in two pens in one end of the greenhouse). For both feed and bedding for the worms, I use horse manure from a neighbor who breeds and boards horses. I am still working to get my populations up to optimum levels, but my intention is to perfect the operation to the point I can make regular harvests of worms to feed the flock. A huge bonus, of course, is the use of the castings as a major part of our garden fertility program.
I recently researched use of the Black Soldier Fly (Hermetica illucens—42 percent protein, 35 percent fat), which has been successfully used in manure management systems. The larvae of the flies feed on manure, reducing the residue to high quality compost, and are harvested for feeding to chickens and pigs. I decided not to pursue use of BSF myself. However, I have noticed BSF larvae in my earthworm bins, so expect they will be an added bonus when I harvest worms for feeding.
Suppose you had the chance to “harvest” a source of feed for your flock that is up to 50 percent protein, 20 percent fat, absolutely free—right out of thin air? How could you pass that up? I was inspired to experiment with fly maggots for poultry feed by a “recipe” on the Journey to Forever site, based on kichen rejects—cooking water, scraps, soured milk, etc. The batches did indeed generate maggots, but were not productive enough for my needs. Then I noticed references elsewhere on the Journey to Forever site to the practice in Europe in earlier times of fattening poultry with maggots grown on fish heads and chunks of scrap meat. Instantly I thought of my buddy Sam, and the carcasses generated by his “nuisance trapping” service, and a new source of free protein on our homestead was born. (See “Protein from Thin Air: Breeding fly maggots for poultry feed” for more on my system.)
If you are in an area of the country “blessed” with an abundance of Japanese beetles, you can collect them for poultry feed. I no longer use the beetle traps with sex lures, since my friend Mike, who studies water pollution, observed that the pheremones used in the lures are possible sources of hormone pollution in the environment. I do accept trapped beetles by the gallon from a neighbor. I also collect by hand. The secret is to collect early morning or early evening, when it is cooler and the beetles are less likely to fly. I put a gallon or so of water in the bottom of a bucket, hold the bucket under a cluster of beetles on vine or branch, and shake. Once the beetles get wet, they do not fly. When I throw them to the flock, the chickens gobble them up before they have a chance to get back on the wing. Ducks also gorge on Japanese beetles, looking like animated vacuum cleaners as they siphon them up.
If you keep a goat or cow, any surplus whole or skimmed milk can be used as excellent feed for poultry in almost any amounts. If you culture the milk first (a kefir or mjølk culture is ideal, since you do not need to heat the milk, as you would making yogurt), it should be even better for the birds, boosting the micro-flora in the gut.
Most people with a laying flock at some time have either an excess of eggs, or have eggs that are cracked or “just too gross” (chicken-with-diarrhea syndrome) to use. Such eggs can be fed to the flock for a protein boost. I hard-boil the eggs, then crush coarsely by hand as I throw them to the birds. Even when I do not have excess eggs to feed routinely to the flock, I set some aside for just-hatched chicks to give them a good start. Feeding a little egg is especially beneficial for hatchlings that have come through the mail, always a stressful experience.
Last winter I did a successful experiment in live-food winter feeding which I plan to repeat. I don’t allow the winter flock out much onto the pasture, since they would quickly degrade the dormant sod. However, I kept a couple dozen chickens in one end of the greenhouse, and released them every day onto a heavily mulched area I was developing into garden. The mulch, six to eight inches deep, kept the ground from freezing, resulting in active populations of animal life—earthworms, slugs, etc.—in addition to germinating seeds in the mulch hay—to which the chickens had access right through the winter.
The above ideas do not exhaust the possibilities we will discover if we learn to look at our homestead the way our chickens do—as an expanding, constantly renewed smorgasbord, a gift we receive simply by cooperating with what Nature is so eager to do in this little bit of Eden.