This article appeared in the August/September, 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
Table of Contents
In future issues, I would like to see some space dedicated to feeding poultry without using commercial feeds, that include the various mixtures and proportions that people use. I read often that people do it, but no one seems to be willing to share their formulas. Even in your April/May issue, you have an article called, “Feeding the Homestead Flock: It ain’t Rocket Science!”, that furthers the view that we need not depend on manufactured feed, but it doesn’t give us guidelines for developing our own feed—except to “experiment and observe.” I would love to get away from manufactured feed—I grind my own flour to make my own bread, I roll my own oats, I never buy processed foods for our consumption—feeding my chickens manufactured feed goes against everything I believe in, but neither am I going to “experiment” with my birds. Guidelines to follow from someone who has been successful would certainly be a great help. ~Nan in Wisconsin (in a letter to the editor of Backyard Poultry)
I find it odd that Nan in Wisconsin is so willing to “experiment” with her own diet, but is unwilling to do so with that of her chickens. Against the assurances of most of the “expert” opinion in our country that our national diet of processed convenience foods is the safest, most nutritious, and wholesome in the world, she has learned to distrust that advice enough to go to the considerable trouble of grinding her own flour, making her own bread, and avoiding industrial foods. There is no more worthy “experiment” she could be doing, in my opinion, to further her health and that of her family. I wonder why she is reluctant to take the same approach with the feeding of her flock.
If Nan is appealing for a source of “expert” opinion from homesteaders making their own feeds, I must bow out. I have been making all my own feeds going on ten years, with results more than satisfactory to me, but cannot pretend to be an expert in the field of poultry nutrition, and indeed consider every one of my formulations a snapshot of a moving target—that is, an ongoing experiment. As a matter of fact, I have to interrupt my writing shortly to run out and make a 100-lb batch of feed, and I’ve been thinking, maybe with a dry summer coming on, I should change the ratio of. . .
The truth is, if you are feeding commercial feeds, you are taking part in the most radical feeding experiment of all, one designed to answer the question: Just how unnatural a feed can we get away with?
Reflections on my grandmother’s flock
The most revolutionary change in my own perspective on feeding my flocks came when I started thinking about my old grandmother’s management of her flock of chickens. Contrary to all advice from the ag college crowd, the lab-coated poultry nutritionists, and all other recognized experts in the field, she simply threw a little scratch grains to her birds once a day (more to keep them fixated on the coop as the place to return home than for nutrition, I suspect)—and allowed them to free-range over a 100-acre farm. This apparently haphazard approach allowed the chickens to mostly feed themselves—the way Chicken would have fed herself before Homo sapiens and Gallus gallus first cosied up to each other, striving for a more perfect union.
So what were Granny’s chickens eating?
- Green plants
- We do not think of chickens as grazers, but actually, if they have access to them, a significant portion of their diet will be grasses, clovers, and broadleaved weeds.
- Wild seeds of all sorts.
- Animal foods
- Earthworms, insects, slugs, etc.
And what are the defining characteristics of these self-gathered feeds? They are alive. And they are raw. In other words, they are the polar opposite of the scientifically formulated feeds the experts tell us we should be feeding our birds—made from excessively heat-treated ingredients, some of which are already stale (rancid) at the time of processing, to say nothing of when they are sold, perhaps months later, to the hapless homesteader.
While my grandmother’s chickens didn’t produce as many eggs as a modern egg-factory hen, the eggs had viscous whites and deep yellow-orange yolks that would stand up and salute. While her birds were not ready for slaughter after a 44-day grow-out, her chicken ’n dumplings was not to be believed. Her birds maintained the best of health without benefit of a daily dollop of antibiotics. And they reproduced their kind easily and naturally.
The modern homesteader’s dilemma
Do I feed my flocks the way my grandmother fed hers? I do not. I homestead two-and-a-half acres, with close neighbors all around. Letting my flocks totally free-range the way hers did is not an option for me. So I try to get as close as I can to the feeding paradigm in Granny’s flock. That is, as much as possible I try to make sure that most of what my birds eat is alive, and that it is raw. I pasture the birds the entire green season, using electronet fencing. I constantly seek ways to give my birds more feeds produced here on the homestead, both to achieve more feed independence, and to afford them an ever-greater proportion of live foods in their diets. For more on these efforts, see “Feeding the Flock from the Homestead’s Own Resources”. In this article, I will present my approach to making prepared feeds designed to substitute for the conventional feeds of commerce.
Note that my prepared feeds are based primarily on whole seeds, untreated in any way. Hence they are indeed alive. (As someone whimsically observed: “A seed is a tiny plant, in a box, with its lunch.”) Any one of my feed grains can be planted to grow into vigorous plants—indeed, when I need a cover crop, I most often draw the desired seeds from the feed bin and sow.
Also note that I make feed in small batches. As soon as the seed coat is crushed, oxidation of enzymes, fat-soluble vitamins, and other perishable nutrients begins. I therefore grind in small batches—typically only a few days’ worth of feed at a time.