The Challenge of High Feed Costs: A Paradigm Shift
The following article was published in the August/September 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
It was posted to the site on November 21, 2008. (Note: When I posted it to the site, gasoline prices had come down a lot. I expect that change to be only temporary, however; and thus my basic points about energy, agriculture, and food costs should continue to be valid.)
“Sticker shock” has become a part of life, whether we’re filling the gas tank or tiptoeing fearfully among the supermarket shelves. Don’t think your backyard flock is immune from the threats of rapidly rising prices, have you looked at your feed invoices lately?
I have made my own feeds for years, but am seeing stunning cost increases as well. In the past year alone, the price I pay for whole shell corn has risen 20 percent; for feed peas, 39 percent; and for whole oats, 63 percent. The price I pay for feed wheat jumped 40 percent in eight months, then ceased being available through my supplier at any price “until the next harvest”. Fortunately, I was able to substitute triticale, at a price 26 percent above the highest I ever paid for the more desirable wheat. Feeding the amounts I have been feeding is simply not sustainable.
Those who depend on prepared feeds have seen the same shocking increases. Julia Cronin, who produces broilers and eggs for local markets in southwestern Connecticut, reports a one-year rise in the cost of layer feed of 38 percent. I haven’t seen any persuasive argument that feed prices will continue going anywhere but up.
Our backyard flocks are not isolated from momentous changes in the larger economy. Global grain reserves are at a historic low. The misguided decision to subsidize the production of ethanol from corn has led to market competition between eaters (and feeders of poultry) and drivers of SUVs. Gasoline prices have quadrupled since 1999, with enormous implications for how we practice agriculture, and process and distribute our food. Perhaps it’s time to take a new look at our backyard flocks, at how we feed and manage them, and what we expect from them.
A Paradigm Shift
It is not the purpose of this article to offer silver-bullet solutions to increasing feed costs, but to suggest that a whole paradigm shift in the way we think about feeding is in order. We have become so inured to the thought that chicken feed is something we buy, it is difficult to imagine raising our chickens largely, or even completely, without purchased feeds.
Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company (located in Montpelier, the state capitol) has made just such a paradigm shift, and his experience is instructive. As part of his composting operation, Karl raises 1200 layers, production far beyond that of most readers of this magazine. If you think his feed bills are astronomical indeed, you’re wrong. Karl doesn’t feed his layers any grain or purchased feed. Whatsoever.
Vermont Compost Company makes high-grade finished composts for farmers, landscapers, and gardeners. A major component for making their composts is food wastes from restaurants, schools, and other institutions that serve a lot of food. It is actually cheaper for these institutions to pay VCC a fee to take their “food residuals”, in lieu of having them hauled to the landfill. At the composting site, the food wastes are mixed with cow manure from a local dairy, and hay (by preference a late-cut hay containing plenty of grass and weed seeds), and made up into huge windrows. The laying flock is entirely free range, but where they most want to range is: on those mountains of compost. They of course eat some of the “food residuals” directly, but of more importance are the live, nutrient-dense foods available as the compost heaps become more biologically active, earthworms, pill bugs, crickets, slugs, etc. As in any compost heap, of course, the microbes driving their decomposition produce Vitamin B12, and other vitamins and immune-enhancing substances, which the chickens ingest along with the other goodies. In the process of gleaning all this free food, the busy chickens help turn and aerate the heaps, speeding decomposition. They also charge them with their droppings, rich in nutrients that assist the breakdown process. In other words, the chickens are an integral part of the work of this composting business, increasing its productivity. This work alone would justify their inclusion in the operation, but of course, they also produce an abundance of eggs, which VCC sells via a co-op, a couple of school systems, farmers’ markets, and a couple of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, subscription produce marketing ventures).
When I talked to Karl Hammer recently, he told me that he raises about 600 chicks as replacement stock each year, largely using the same feeding resource base. Indeed, in some years he has raised the young birds from day one with no purchased feeds. At present, he is feeding the young ones some purchased grains (oats, cracked corn, and scratch grain mix) “for logistical reasons”: 250 pounds over the course of several months, of which some still remained when I spoke with him. He likes to include adult hens with the little ones in their separate housing (a greenhouse), over a deep litter of food residuals and late-cut hay, and later on the composting heaps. They act as “mentors” who teach the little ones how to scratch and find the good stuff.
I’ve described VCCs approach to feeding not primarily to encourage you to seek out similar “food residuals” as a feeding resource. I’m most interested in VCCs operation as an example of the kind of paradigm shift we need to be open to if we are to hold the line on feed costs. Let’s consider some of the implications of VCCs approach for our own backyard flocks.
The Question of “Productivity”
I recently queried several online discussion groups as to what members were doing to deal with rising feed costs. In the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association group, Robert Plamondon, a major voice in the pastured poultry movement and someone for whom I have great respect, recommended increasing yield by adopting the more productive modern hybrids: “You can easily get twice as many eggs from a modern hybrid [like Red Sex-Links] than a standard breed, allowing you to cut your flock and feed bill in half.” But most of the super-productive hybrids are more productive only in the context of high input of purchased feeds. As the costs of those feeds continue to spiral, it will matter more whether a hen has the capability and inclination to get out and hustle a good deal of her own feed. Take as an extreme example the Old English Game, a breed with a thousand-year history as a treasured utilitarian fowl. OEGs are small, and shy on egg production, hopelessly unproductive by contemporary standards. But if given enough biologically diverse ground on which to forage, they can virtually feed themselves. Which is to say, at some point on the curve of rising costs, as purchased feeds become unaffordable or unavailable, the OEG is more productive in the changed circumstances. I think that one effect of rising costs will be a new appreciation of the sturdier, more self-reliant traditional breeds. Not only are such breeds likely to do a better job of foraging some of their own food, but they thrive on an overall lower level of protein (both in the growth and the laying phases), usually the most expensive ingredient in purchased feeds.
I was interested to note that the breeds Vermont Compost uses as “work chickens” are not Red Sex-Links or Superlayer Whites, but Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, traditional farm breeds that were valued for their ability to hustle their own living on the farm, rather than hanging around the feeder waiting for handouts. Which is to say, when measured against purchased inputs and their role in a total production enterprise, they are more productive than high-input super-layers.
Note as well that many of the older breeds are dual purpose (used for both meat and eggs), and may offer feed savings unavailable as long as we are feeding separate “specialist” layers and meat hybrids.
What most impresses me about Vermont Compost’s independence from purchased poultry feeds is that it is based on what, sadly, are usually treated as “wastes” in our wasteful culture: uneaten food from area eateries, and manure from local dairies. If we are basing our flock management on natural systems, in which “waste” has no meaning, and one creature’s unused residue is another’s dinner, then we should be constantly on the lookout for resources that otherwise might be merely cast aside, but which offer feeding value. Like VCC, some of us might find regular sources of food wastes from local eateries, or discarded produce from supermarkets, for significant feed savings. (Do be aware that, if you are producing broilers and/or eggs for market, there may be regulatory restrictions on such usage. Check local ordinances.)
But we may find other “wastes” in our own backyards and neighborhoods we can turn into feeding resources. For example, I direct a steady stream of horse manure through a set of large vermicomposting bins, and feed my flock some of the earthworms growing in them.
Julia Cronin feeds her ducks all the weeds she pulls from her garden. Since they don’t like to eat them wilted, she throws them into a “kiddie pool” filled with water, where they stay fresh and succulent until the ducks can clean them up. She has found that feeding the weeds enables a significant reduction in feed consumption: “Ducks are voracious eaters, and I have seen a difference in my grain input when I practice this technique without sacrificing weight gain or growth rate of my birds. It doesn’t take acres and acres of land to implement, there are no additional labor requirements, and I am in fact, improving the quality of the product I provide to my customers.”
If you doubt that feeding weeds can make a difference in your flock’s nutrition, answer me this: What do the following plants have in common: dandelion, lamb’s quarters, nettle, burdock, curly dock? (No points for a dismissive, “They’re all just weeds, for heaven’s sake!”) Each of them is at least 4 percent (and up to 12 percent) higher in protein than that quintessential high-protein fodder crop, alfalfa. Poultry will eat all of them. Weeds vary in mineral content, so the wider the range of weedy plants available to the birds, the more likely their mineral intake will be in balance.
Dean Shuck (who raises La Fleche, Crevecoeurs, Nankins, and other breeds for preservation and exhibition, in Perry, Missouri) reports that culls from the vegetables going into storage at his place, “knobby roots, wormy cabbage”, get cooked and fed to the flock. I have found all my poultry, especially my geese, love to dispose of damaged orchard fruit not suitable for table use or storage.
The Vermont Compost model is above all about the virtues of multi-functionality in the uses to which we put our flock. Consider the Cornish Cross, which has become the definitive “meat chicken”, even for many backyard â€œflockstersâ€ who love the way they fill the freezer in a single strenuous day at the slaughter table. But the Cornish Cross is the quintessential “couch potato”, lolling around the feed trough and saying “Gimme.” Its phenomenal rate of growth is matched by its equally astounding consumption of purchased feed. By reverting to the more thrifty traditional breeds, we can engage our flocks as cooperative partners in the total homestead enterprise. We will dine on skinnier (but tastier) chickens who have provided much of their own feed in the process.
Companion gardening: Remember that chickens make great companions in the work of gardening. I use chickens to till in cover crops or heavily weed-grown plots. Wylie Harris in Texas gardens a long strip 30 feet wide. He rotates his flock of chickens through 30-foot sections of the strip, protecting the adjacent sections using cattle panels with poultry fence wire attached. The birds clean up the residues from the previous crops, knock back the slug and snail population, and provide fertility and bed preparation for the following crops. Wylie plants a crop of buckwheat in the plot that has just been vacated by the rotating flock; and feeds the ripened buckwheat, either directly or after sprouting. (Others achieve Wylie’s results on a smaller scale with “chicken tractors” parked on single garden beds.)
Help in the orchard: My friend Larisa Sparrowhawk recently moved from Virginia to Oregon, and was thrilled to find some mature fruit trees on her new place. Thrilled, that is, before a plague of insect competitors descended on the developing fruit last year. The damaged fruit, however, was a banquet for her flock (chickens and Muscovy ducks). To prevent a rerun of last year’s disaster, she has enlisted the services of the flock: “This year at flowering time I purposely put oyster shell and food scraps under the trees to encourage the birds to scratch there when the moth larvae start coming out of the soil. I plan on keeping feed and water there all year long because the beetles and wasps will show up later.”
“Stacking” species: Keeping poultry with other species can provide mutual support, and feeding opportunities. Julia Cronin finds that any feed spilled by her pigs is quickly cleaned up by her layer flock. She has noticed as well that corn she feeds the pigs is not completely digested, and that the chickens, and even the ducks, are quite efficient at picking out the undigested pieces from their manure, in the process scattering its fertility over the pasture and exposing it to nature’s sanitizers: sunlight and fresh air.
Mulches: Carrie Shepard raises all her family’s dressed poultry and eggs in northeast Oklahoma. As part of her permaculture approach to gardening, she heavily mulches her perennials, vegetables, and herbs. From time to time she gives her chickens access to those mulches, allowing them to feast on the increased worm and insect life they harbor. “I do sometimes have to re-mulch, but I don’t mind, knowing my birds got a good meal from under there and that I’ll have a good meal, too.”
Isn’t it neat how these expanded uses of our flocks on the homestead, so useful in their own right, all have the bonus payoff: free feed!
Taking Advantage of Biological Diversity
Making our local ecology more diverse, more complex, a closer approximation of natural systems, almost always enhances our food-producing efforts. Vermont Compost’s success is based on taking simple components, food residuals from the human waste stream, cow manure, hay, and chickens, and managing them to create enhanced biological complexity, teeming communities of worms, insects, fungi, and microbes, that pays off in superior composts, great eggs, and zero feed bills. We should be seeking ways to increase the biological diversity in our own ecologies, many of which yield feeding dividends.
Consider the contrast between the all too typical static chicken run, and this description of a biological smorgasbord (from Renate in West Chester, Pennsylvania, who produces all her family’s eggs with her layer flock): “We have a one-acre lot with a fence around it; about half wooded and half grass, with part of it a messy wildflower meadow that has plenty of blackberries and other thorns. The hens spend a lot of time in the woods and meadow, scratching up bugs from under the leaf mould; they also eat wild mushrooms and their filaments and sprouted seeds from the wild cherry/choke cherry trees and maple trees. They really like the berries from autumn olive trees, which add nitrogen to the soil so are nice to have around. We cut branches off and give them the whole branch to pick clean but when they are really ripe you can shake them down.”
Pasturing the flock
If at all possible, range your birds on pasture, the growing plants and live animal foods they forage will make a big difference in the feed bill. Larisa Sparrowhawk’s new homestead in Oregon features much more range for her 48 laying chickens and 13 Muscovies (plus chicks and ducklings), and the temperature is more moderate than here in Virginia (with the result that the birds spend more time ranging rather than retreating from weather extremes). The additional time and the greater space for ranging have brought a significant drop in feed consumption.
A number of respondents to my query mentioned ranging their flocks in woods as well as on pasture. One of the most interesting uses of woods as a food resource base came from Julia Cronin: “Our pigs are kept on an actively managed woodland lot. There are a plethora of beech and acorn trees. In the fall, they have a field day out there foraging all the nuts. Much like the corn, the nuts aren’t completely digested and pass through in the manure. They are masticated so that now, the chickens can enjoy the nuts too. This is one of my favorite times of the year, I get to feed two varieties of animals with absolutely no input financially or in labor! I like the concept of feeding nuts to my chickens, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of collecting them and breaking them up. We’re too busy as it is.”
A good deal of the feed we purchase for our flocks is grain: cultivated seeds. Many wild seeds make an equal contribution to nutrition, but are free for the gleaning if the birds have access to them. As an experiment, I recently offered my laying flock, side by side: cracked corn, cracked peas, triticale, and oats (the four main ingredients of the feed mix I make for them); purchased wild bird seeds (seeds of black sunflower and niger, a type of thistle); buckwheat, clover, and annual ryegrass seeds; and grass seeds stripped off mature pasture grasses. The birds preferred some over others, but within the day ate almost every last seed.
I was interested in Renate’s observation above that her birds eat “wild mushrooms and their filaments”, since I have heard from a number of folks who have noticed their birds avidly eating fungal mycelia that grow in organic debris piles. Karl Hammer’s hens expose and follow long fungal strands through the compost heaps, eating them with great focus and determination. This is not so surprising if we remember that mushrooms contain a lot of protein (up to 35 percent), complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. But fungi are also potent synthesizers of natural antibiotics and immune-enhancing enzymes. Perhaps the chickens’ intense interest in mycelia has as much to do with these components as with their nutrients per see.
If you must confine the flock
Of course, many flocksters short on space or crowded by neighbors do not have the option of ranging their birds. Are there ways for them to increase the biodiversity of their flocks’ fare?
First of all, consider your lawn as a “close-in pasture” backup. I have a good deal of pasture on our two-and-a-half acres, but still utilize four lawn areas around the house as high-quality grazing for our ducks and geese. Saving on both feed costs and mowing, does that qualify as using your head?
Surely every owner of a backyard flock, however dependent on the static coop and run, and on bagged feed, can at least cut fresh green fodder and bring it to the birds. Dean Shuck keeps his flocks in confinement in the winter, and releases them into a static run come spring. At the same time, he starts feeding the best of the tender spring lawn grass, gathered in the bagger on his mower. He reports a dramatic drop in feed consumption when he offers the fresh greens: “I would say that I save no less than 50 percent on the costs of feed while I am feeding grass. That figure may sound a bit high but all of my stock is fatter than moles when they come out of their winter quarters into the outside pens. They are craving green food and ignore their feed as long as they have good grass to eat– Those pens that have had a problem with feather plucking and egg eating usually quit that nonsense in about two days after they have roughage to eat.”
A final, and excellent, alternative to the typical chicken run is offered by Carrie Shepard. She suggests taking the concept of “deep litter” outside, into the chicken run. That is, adopt the same approach to manure management recommended for the poultry house (see “When Life Gives You Lemons” in the Dec ’06/Jan ’07 issue), but apply the concept as a better alternative to the denuded, manure-caked, polluting static run. Carrie laid down a 12-inch layer of organic “wastes” in her chicken run. In addition to providing responsible manure management, the litter in the pen did what such complex heaps of organic debris always do, became increasingly biologically active as the chickens worked it and added their droppings. A major end product was a fine fertility amendment: “After the third year, I was able to harvest the soil from there and move it to the gardens as needed, always replacing it with more hay/straw/weeds and kitchen scraps.” In the meantime, of course, it was a constant food resource base for the busy chickens, the Vermont Compost model on a smaller scale.
On most homesteads, of whatever scale, there should be opportunities to grow something ourselves to feed our flocks. At Vermont Compost, Karl Hammer gives his chickens access to thickets of Jerusalem artichokes as well as to the compost heaps. On hot days, the birds enjoy the shade in the thickets while feeding on the foliage and the abundant earthworms in the mulch of the plants’ fallen leaves. Since Jerusalem artichoke is voracious for nutrients, it utilizes all the droppings laid down, producing even bigger tubers, edible for livestock or people.
Wheat, rye, barley, oats, and other small grains are easy to grow. The problem for the homesteader without access to expensive equipment is that they are labor intensive to cut, thresh, winnow, and store. Fortunately, our birds themselves can be introduced at any point in the sequence to do most of that work for us. Indeed, it is possible to grow any of the small grains as a cover crop, allow them to mature their seeds, then simply turn in the birds and let them do the rest. Another option is to add small grains to the seed mix when overseeding our pastures. (Seeds of rape, kale, and mustard, all good fodder crops for poultry, can be included as well.) I have found they establish readily, even without drilling or otherwise working them into the soil. Once the grains have matured, the flock can be rotated onto that portion of the pasture.
Potatoes and mangels (fodder beets) are among the most productive of all crops. Dean Shuck grows and cooks these for his flock, in order to squeeze the feed dollar.
Around the edges:
There are potential feed crops like corn, amaranth, sunflowers, and sorghum that we could assign their own places in the garden. But we might grow them instead in the edges, nooks, and crannies of the homestead, places less compatible for garden crops, for their beauty, or for their contribution to insect and wildlife diversity. Elizabeth Tritt, who raises a flock of Plymouth Barred Rocks for eggs and meat in south Texas, grows amaranth and corn as living privacy fences. Seed heads of all these crops can be cut and thrown to the flock, or strung up and saved for winter.
Milk and milk products:
If you milk any lactating animal, cow, goat, or other, remember that she can be “foster mother” to the whole homestead. Virtually every keeper of poultry I know who also milks a cow or a goat, uses the excess or skimmed milk, whey, buttermilk, etc. as high-quality feed for the flock. Julia Cronin has seen “a big difference in quality of eggs” when she feeds her layers raw, hormone-free milk she buys cheaply (excess from a small local dairy farm).
Several correspondents mentioned squash (either monster zucchini in summer, or winter squash or pumpkins which store well) as an easy-to-grow crop that can help feed the flock. Even if we use the squash or pumpkins ourselves as “people food”, the seeds make high-protein feed for the birds.
In addition to numerous other benefits of comfrey (dynamic accumulator for soil fertility, support of pollinators and other insects, even medicinal uses), it is a valuable high-protein poultry feed. I grow and use more of it every year.
Other Feeding Considerations
Even those of us who routinely pasture our flocks are a bit nervous, I expect, as to whether our birds will get sufficient nutrition on their own, and we tend to feed them more than they really need from the feed bag. My “chicken buddy” next door, Mike Focazio, has concluded that it is better to challenge the birds into hustling more of their own grub by being more stingy with the grain feed he offers. Rather than the pasture being a supplemental source of nutrition, he pushes the birds to make it their primary source, with a greatly reduced amount of grains fed as a secondary backup. Mary Hartnett of McKinney, Texas, agrees that a major way to save on feed costs is to push the birds to do more for themselves: “I have noticed that many people offer way too much food for their chickens or leave some out all the time. The chickens will eat the free, easy meal first. We throw out their feed in the morning when we let them out of their roost to get them started foraging, and that’s all they get.” Or as Karl Hammer observes: “The less we do for them, the more they do for themselves.”
In case you feel it is cruel to force your birds to be more self-reliant, try this: Feed first thing in the morning, and reduce the amount you feed each day. After the birds have gone to roost at night, go into the coop and feel their crops. As long as you are encountering full crops on the roost, the birds are getting plenty of forage on their own, and you need not worry that you are starving them by reducing the feed you provide. Another measure of the success of “challenge feeding”: Record the flock’s egg production before implementing the strategy, and continue tracking it as you reduce feed offered to encourage foraging. The point at which egg production drops is the point at which the birds are maximizing use of forage, and really do need additional input from the feed bag.
It’s important to remember how much feed our free-loading friends, the rodents, can consume. I avoid free-choice feeding, in order to deny open access to full feeders at night. I also feed in the morning, so the birds clean up all spilled feed in the litter, or around the house or shelter, by nightfall.
Cut feed costs with the hatchet
In his response to my APPPA query, Robert Plamondon gave some advice we would all do well to heed: “Cull the flock heavily. Get rid of the non-productive hens, the old hens, and the spare roosters. In many cases, a smaller flock will [produce] as much as the larger one did, because they produce better with more elbow room and less competition.” It’s hard to argue with that one, though I’m as guilty of “flock creep” as anyone. During the current growing season, I will be severely culling unproductive hens and unneeded breeders, getting the numbers down to a “leaner and meaner” flock to take through the winter.
If you are still raising your chicks in an artificial brooder, feeding them purchased feeds exclusively, try letting some broody hens work for you instead. You’ll be impressed at how diligently a mama hen works to feed her babies, and every cricket, earthworm, or weed seed she finds for them will save on your feed dollars.
Turn problems into assets
If you are “blessed” with Japanese beetles, take Renate’s advice: Shake them off your rose bushes or grape vines into a bucket with some water in the bottom, and pour them out to the flock. Says Renate: “My birds will stuff themselves with as many as I can feed them; I’ve heard stories of turkeys eating them until their crops were so full they crawled back out of their mouths.”
Beware of cheap feed
Several of my correspondents observed that commercial feeds are declining in quality. As we seek ways to keep high-quality nutrition before our flocks, bear in mind that the one way not to reduce costs is to buy cheap, mediocre feeds. As Robert Plamondon puts it: “The higher the prices rise, the more careful you should be about getting quality feed rather than junk.” If you are stuck with commercial feed of questionable nutritional value, it is all the more important to supplement with vital, fresh, natural (and free) feeds such as discussed above. Dean Shuck observed that his early hatches, out of hens eating commercial feeds exclusively, tend to be low in fertility. After he releases his breeders from the winter house and starts feeding plenty of grass, however, fertility jumps to 90 percent or better.
The Silver Lining
Rising feed costs are not a temporary annoyance, but are part and parcel of our evolving energy crisis. Is there the proverbial silver lining in this looming storm cloud? Here are a few thoughts.
As costs spiral for feed raised through high-input, centralized agribusiness farms far away, there will be more opportunity for small, local, low-input, sustainable farms to compete successfully for our feed dollars. The result could be better as well as cheaper feeds, and a revitalization of rural communities ravaged by corporate agriculture.
More and more of us are concerned about the declining quality of market foods. Isn’t it wonderful that the more natural feeding practices sketched above not only save feed dollars, but produce eggs and dressed poultry that are tastier and more wholesome?
Escalating food and fuel prices are bringing an uneasy reexamination of our assumptions about food security. As the average citizen takes this question more seriously, the importance of a backyard flock in a family’s domestic economy can only grow. Readers of this magazine who have climbed the learning curves of sound management and greater independence of purchased inputs, will have the opportunity to be of service to newbie neighbors who don’t have a clue.