This article was first published in the August-September 2012 issue of Backyard Poultry under the title “Reflections on Feeding Our Flock.” It is the latest statement of my thoughts on maximizing natural poultry feeds, foraged or produced right on the home place, as the key to both flock health and contentment and to making the homestead or farm more self-sufficient and ecologically sound.
Added to the site January 25, 2013.
What Is “Normal” Feed for Poultry?
We have come to assume that raising chickens by feeding them mostly grains is normal. As Joel Salatin observes in his latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, it is anything but: Feeding any class of livestock primarily grains is a historical anomaly. From the dawn of agriculture until its industrialization, grain was extremely expensive, measured by the effort required to produce it. Imagine the amount of time and labor involved in: clearing a piece of ground of other plant cover, tilling it (stirring the soil surface), planting it to grains, pulling out weeds, harvesting the ripened seed heads, threshing and winnowing them—all by hand. And the challenge of grain production didn’t end there: From the very beginning of grain agriculture, rats and mice were freeloaders on that prodigious human effort, much of which was lost without the most stringent measures to exclude them from granaries.
With the increasing use of animals for draft power and, much later, the development of complex animal-drawn implements, grain production became more efficient. But grain remained a precious commodity reserved largely for human consumption—only the wealthy could afford grain-fattened table chicken.
The production of massive quantities of grain to feed poultry and other livestock became possible only with the industrialization of agriculture, with its substitution of heavy mechanization and chemicals for human and animal work—all based on a flood of cheap, readily available fossil fuels. In our great-grandparents’ time, for example, a farmer with a horse- or mule-drawn plow might till an acre of ground a day—today, a farmer can till a hundred acres in one day with a giant tractor.
It was only the availability of a lot of cheap grain that made possible the modern poultry industry, with a capacity for producing eggs and broilers by the hundreds of millions in high-confinement houses using grain-based feeds hauled in by the boxcar load. At the same time the feeding paradigm for the backyard flockster became supremely simple: Just buy it by the 50-lb bag from the co-op and scoop it into the feeding trough.
Are There Problems with Heavy Reliance on Grains?
Since food security in our time has become synonymous with sustaining unprecedented levels of grain production, we might reflect on problems created by this approach to agriculture, both for society as a whole and for the backyard flockster. Here are thoughts on just a few of them.
The End of Cheap Oil
Ultimately both “cheap chicken” in the supermarket and convenient prepared feeds scooped out of a bag are the products of cheap oil. With the coming shrinkage of fossil fuel supplies (some observers believe we have already passed the peak of global oil extraction), grain prices will continue their current steep climb, global grain reserves will continue at historic lows—and chicken will revert to its historically normal status as a pretty expensive way to eat. And we backyard flocksters will have to figure out other ways to feed our flocks.
I don’t know about you, but I was deeply unsettled during the financial crisis of 2008 to realize how much my own well-being could be threatened by financial ills far away, over which I have no control. Even as I write, Greece again has a flu which everyone is terrified is contagious, while Spain and Italy (whose economies dwarf that of Greece) stand in line as the next patients to enter the critical ward. I for one am taking seriously the possibility of fiscal calamity in Europe, with unpredictably disruptive effects on the American economy—and on my own household economy. In such an eventuality I plan to rely on my flock as an even more essential part of my family food supply. If I can figure out a way to feed them without a lot of no-longer-affordable grain-based feeds.
Even if I can afford to buy grain-based feeds, I wonder about supporting agricultural practices with such serious negative environmental effects. Massive grain production—based on heavy tillage of soils and routine use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers—injures soil life, breaks down its structure, and increases erosion. It also leads to oxidation of organic matter in soil and its release as atmospheric carbon dioxide. Are there ways of feeding poultry flocks based more on natural processes that sequester carbon in the soil? increase the health and diversity of the soil food web? decrease runoff pollution?
Two Guides for Home-based Feeding
There are two models that convince me we don’t have to rely so exclusively on grain as the foundation of poultry feeding programs. First is the way Gallus gallus—the Red Junglefowl, ancestor of domestic chickens—fed herself. Like other gallinaceous fowl (a group that also includes turkeys and guineas), Gallus was a real go-getter who rustled up her grub in a biologically diverse environment, seeking out three naturally available “food groups”: green growing plants; wild seeds and fruits such as berries; and animal foods on or just above ground level such as insects and slugs, and some aggressively scratched up from below soil surface such as grubs and worms.
The other major class of domestic poultry, waterfowl, are not gallinaceous, but ducks and geese—like their wild ancestors—are capable of foraging their own preferred feeds if given the chance. Ducks eat an omnivorous diet similar to that of galliformes, billing rather than scratching for animal foods under the soil, and utilize even more green forage than chickens. Geese are vegetarians, passing up animal foods but thriving on the other two food groups if available—lush grasses, clovers, and weeds such as dandelion and chicory, plus any seeds and fruits they can find.
The key to more natural, home-based, self-reliant feeding, therefore, is to identify these natural foods in our own backyard ecologies to which we can give our birds access.
The other guide to alternative feeding strategies is the traditional management of the home and farm flock. As said above, with the exception of the flocks of the wealthy, in earlier times the home flock was not fed primarily a diet of precious grains. An excellent example for me was my grandmother’s chicken flock (which included at times some guineas as well), which I had many chances to observe when growing up.
My grandmother did throw a few scratch grains—grown on my grandfather’s farm—to her flock, though primarily just to keep them fixed on the chicken coop as home. They fed themselves largely through their own efforts, ranging a biologically diverse hundred acres of farm fields, garden, and woods—in the process helping prevent the buildup of crop-damaging insects and fertilizing the soil with their droppings. There was no food wasted from my grandmother’s frugal table to be thrown to the chickens, but various kitchen and garden wastes and byproducts helped feed them—skimmed milk from butter making, vegetable peelings, culled fruits, and vegetables.
Just as with ancestor Gallus hens, one of Granny’s hens would from time to time disappear and show up three weeks later with a clutch of chicks in tow. And it was the busy mother hen who fed her chicks, relieving my grandmother not only of having to artificially brood chicks, but of the necessity of purchasing expensive prepared feeds to raise replacement stock.
My grandmother’s flock certainly did not match levels of egg production possible with grain-based feeds. Nor did her family eat fast-growing meat hybrids requiring heavy grain feeding. But by managing her chooks the way home flocks were traditionally managed before the modern era—essentially as scavengers of available resources that otherwise would not have been utilized—her family enjoyed a steady supply of eggs and the occasional chicken dinner (fried chicken from culled excess cockerels, chicken ’n dumplings from old non-productive hens) essentially for free.
Alternatives to Grain-based Feeding
Keeping in mind the sorts of natural feeds my birds want to eat, and the ways the home flock was usually managed in the past, I look around my own setting to see what natural feeds are available for greater independence of purchased feeds. I must also consider the limitations on a home feeding program inherent in my circumstances.
Limitations: Time and Space
I’m always distressed when less experienced flocksters get a bit too enthusiastic about my recommendations for more home feeding and stop feeding their flocks any purchased feeds, assuming that their birds can meet their nutritional needs entirely if ranging on pasture. But remember the three food groups our birds need, and consider whether they have access to all three, in sufficient quantities to fully meet their dietary needs, in any given ranging situation. Reflect as well on the limitations of your own situation: Boosting home feeds certainly requires more of the flockster’s time than scooping prepared feeds out of a bag. And most of us have a lot less space for ranging our flock than my grandmother’s 100-acre farm.
Where expenditure of time is concerned, we should try to get “more bang for the buck” wherever we can. Using chickens or other fowl as working partners in gardening and orcharding may actually save us time toward tillage, making compost, or limiting insect damage—while the busy birds are at the same time taking in a lot of nutrient-dense (free!) foods.
The more limited the range we can give our flocks, the more creative we need to be to increase its biological diversity—that is, its potential value as a feeding resource. For example, I currently have both my small duck flock and my chicken layer flock on a plot of ground enclosed in electric net fencing. The plot is about 7,000 square feet or one-sixth acre, part of which is grass pasture, part a mix of alfalfa and clover, and part has been under a wood chip mulch for more than a year. I sowed the major part of the plot last fall to a mix of clovers, crucifers, and small grains—wheat, oats, and rye. I didn’t till to make that planting: I let the chooks take off the established cover and broadcast the seeds before the fall rains—so it contains as well a mix of nutritious weeds, including chicory, dandelion, and yellow dock. By striving for the maximum diversity in the enclosure, I’ve assured access to all three food groups: green plants, cultivated and wild seeds, insects above the ground and grubs and worms just beneath for scratching chickens and aggressively billing ducks.
Each flockster faces a unique mix of opportunities for and limitations on greater reliance on home feeds. It may help to divide potential feeding resources into two classes: those we can produce for the birds, and those we can give them access to forage themselves with appropriate management. If you make a list of each, I predict you’ll be surprised at how long they are. The following are some of the home resources I’ve used.
Feeds we can produce
There are many home feeds we can grow or otherwise produce to help feed our flocks. The more we try to produce as a replacement of purchased feeds, however, the sooner we come up against limitations on the time we can spend on such projects. So finding ways to produce feeds in conjunction with other projects is the best strategy.
Grains (!): Since this article is about finding alternatives to grain-based feeds, it may seem odd to start with growing our own grains as a home-feeding strategy. The truth is that the common feed grains such as corn, wheat, oats, and barley are not difficult crops and we flocksters can grow them as easily as the biggest farmer. The problem is that, unless we are as “tooled up” as that farmer for harvest, threshing, drying, and storage, these steps required for grain feeding are likely to prove insuperable barriers to replacing purchased grains with homegrown. But if you have the space and inclination, you might raise some of these or similar crops to help with feeding. I like to mix in some tall crops in the garden if only to increase diversity, so each season I grow small amounts of feed corn, sorghum, amaranth, and sunflowers. All are beautiful, boost insect diversity and support pollinators, and ripen nutritious seeds.
Cover crops: Actually it’s possible to combine growing grains and other seeds with an essential gardening practice: cover cropping. Many excellent cover crops—unmatched for protecting soil, improving its texture, and boosting its fertility—also set nutritious seeds if grown on long enough. Cover crops I often use this way include all the small grains, buckwheat, and cowpeas. When the seed heads are ready, I might cut the plants and carry to the flock. But a better option is simply to let the birds till in the mature cover crop—which saves work for me (tillage) and provides the birds all three food groups: the still-green plants themselves, the ripened seeds, and the worms and grubs the chooks turn up as they till in the cover.
Acorns: During the Second World War, flocksters in England gathered acorns as a substitute for strictly rationed grain. When my white oaks have a mast year (a year when oak trees drop vastly more than their usual yield of acorns) I pick up bucketfuls of acorns, crush them coarsely in my feed grinder, and feed. Acceptance by both chickens and waterfowl is excellent. Note that “sweeter” acorns such as those of white oaks make better feed than highly tannic acorns.
Chard and mangels: Chard (sometimes called “Swiss chard”) and mangels (fodder beets) are simply variants of garden beets, Beta vulgaris. All classes of poultry love the leaves. I grow extra chard, so there are always plenty of the larger leaves to pull off for the flock as I take the younger, more tender ones for us. Mangels grow large beetroots which are easy to store for winter feeding. I progressively harvest the lower leaves, which stimulates more leaf growth and doesn’t inhibit root production.
Potatoes: Taking a hint from Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener, this past spring I planted a lot of extra potatoes to experiment with as a major component of my feeding program. I will cook and offer them to both my ducks and chickens. (Note cooked: No monogastric, whether pig or poultry—or people—should eat raw potatoes.)
Comfrey: Hybrid comfrey clones that do not reproduce by seeds yield high-mineral, high-nitrogen leaves for compost making and crop-feeding mulches. Flocksters can grow it as well as a nutritious green feed high in protein. My chickens are “picky” about comfrey, but my ducks and geese love it.
Castoffs from garden and kitchen: Any scraps discarded from the table make good poultry feed—if it’s good people food, you need not be concerned about feeding it to your birds. Culled fruits and vegetables, spent but still-green broccoli plants, and the wrapper leaves of lettuce and cabbage are all good feeds. Poultry can help with orchard sanitation by cleaning up dropped fruit (especially geese). Ducks and geese will eat corn, sorghum, and sunflower leaves—if they are still green—right down to the stalks.
Dairy byproducts: If you milk a cow or goat and make butter or cheese, skimmed or soured milk and whey are good poultry feeds.
Decomposers as live protein feeds: Rather than bioconverting certain organic “wastes” on the farm or homestead—manures, culled fruits and vegetables, spent crop plants—in compost heaps, it is possible to use the good services of decomposer organisms not only to break these materials down into high-fertility soil amendments, but to serve themselves as live, high-protein feeds for all domestic fowl (other than the vegetarian geese). The three species I’ve cultivated for this purpose are earthworms, black soldier flies, and carrion flies. I have mastered the basics of working with these allies, but am pushing to make the cultivation projects more productive, since they have such tremendous potential for the home (and farm) feeding program. (See sidebar for more information.)
Feeds the flock can forage
Our poultry can glean a lot of high-value feed if allowed to range. Even if “range” is nothing more than a fenced chicken run, it can help feed our birds if we turn it into a “biological circus.”
Pasture: If at all possible, pasture your birds. Good pasture is the best place for providing the flock with all three food groups. Micro-flocks can be pastured in small mobile shelters, perhaps with attached pens of light frame-and-wire panels easy to bolt together or to disassemble for moving. If electric fencing is appropriate in your situation and if you can afford the initial investment, I recommend electronet for keeping flocks on pasture while protecting them from predators on the ground. And remember, many a flockster “pastures” the flock on the lawn. Though I have about half an acre of pasture, I often rotate my waterfowl flock over four sections of our lawn.
Compost heap: Chickens can help shred and turn compost heaps, saving the gardener a lot of work. In the process, they boost the quality of the final compost with their droppings—and glean a lot of great feed in the form of pill bugs, crickets, slugs, worms, and grubs. If you already have a dedicated place where you make compost, why not surround it with predator-proof fence wire and send in the chooks?
Woodlot: I mentioned acorns above as a feeding resource free for the gathering. But it may be possible for flocks—especially flocks of turkeys—to gather their own. Other foods a flock might glean from a woodlot are beech nuts, persimmons, American hazel, and mulberries. I have three young chestnut trees on my pasture that provide nuts for us and shade for the birds. I expect that, if the chooks forage beneath them, especially in spring and fall, they will break the life cycle of the chestnut weevil while boosting dietary protein. I have experimented with feeding crushed fresh chestnuts, and acceptance has been good by both waterfowl and chickens. Since mature chestnut trees are quite productive, I plan to feed excess chestnuts as the trees mature and yields increase.
Mixed organic debris fields: I am appreciating more all the time the feeding potential of areas covered with mulchy/composty materials in the process of decomposition. Any organic materials produced on the home place or free for the hauling can be dumped in out-of-sight corners. As decomposition advances, they become more rife with all sorts of decomposer organisms. Depending on size and make-up, they can provide a lot of high-quality foraged feeds indeed. For example, a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to get one of the contractors who clear electric power lines of encroaching tree branches to bring me a dozen dump-truck loads of wood chips. I spread most of the chips over much of a one-third-acre plot in which I’m trying to establish a forest canopy. It now provides excellent range for my chickens—and ducks—to forage live animal feeds.
There are a couple of variants of this strategy worth emphasizing. I no longer confine my flocks in winter, but instead give them free access during the day onto a heavily mulched winter yard (protected with electronet). If the weather gets nasty, the birds retreat inside the henhouse. But they’re quite cold-hardy, and prefer being outside enjoying the sun and the exercise—and the live protein feeds at the soil line (protected from freezing by the mulch).
To any flockster whose flock has no access to pasture and must necessarily be confined to a static chicken run, I strongly recommend avoiding the usual bare dirt run dotted with chicken poops—thoroughly unwholesome for the flock and a source of runoff pollution. A permanent cover of organic debris—fall leaves, spent stalks and vines from the garden, grass clippings, weeds, flower bed prunings—absorbs droppings (which become part of the eventual compost generated), keeps the flock entertained, and provides natural feeds.
To illustrate the real-world feeding value of such mixed debris fields: My friend John Moody, who serves a local egg market in Louisville, Kentucky, recently compared notes with a neighboring farmer who also produces eggs to sell. His neighbor was feeding 160 layers 60 pounds of feed per day, for an average of 75 eggs per day (or six ounces of feed per hen for approximately one egg per two hens or 50% rate of lay). John was feeding 110 layers 25 pounds of purchased feed per day and getting an average of 95 eggs per day (or 3½ ounces feed per hen and a production rate of 86%). No exact comparison of the two operations is possible: It was made in a winter which, though mild, offered much less access to pasture for both flocks; John used supplemental lighting while his friend did not; John fed large amounts of vegetable and fruit wastes from a supermarket produce section; and he fed certified organic feed while his friend used conventional feeds (though supplemented with Fertrell’s Nutri-Balancer). However, the two friends agreed that a major factor in their contrasting production rates was the access of John’s flock to several large compost piles and a yard under a heavy mulch for about a year, both compounded of an increasingly complex mix of organic materials: wood chips (even wood slabs from a local sawmill), livestock manures, residues of the supermarket produce wastes, and of course the usual organic castoffs of a diverse working farm. (John’s experiments aimed at increasing home feeding parallel my own, and I hope to share more of his results with you in a future article.)
For years my feeding program has centered around attempts to produce ever more home feeds for my birds and find new ways to give them self-feeding opportunities. I recently began an experiment to see if I can feed my layers and my duck flock entirely without any commercial feeds or purchased feed grains. I started the experiment with the flock on the biologically complex plot described above, and will rotate them onto the woodlot area with a lot of chip mulch and onto my half-acre of pasture. As I imagine was the case with my grandmother’s flock, I will probably not get the same level of egg production as I could with heavy grain-based feeding, but that is an acceptable trade-off if my eggs are essentially free and their quality is unmatched by eggs I can buy anywhere; if the birds are helping out with other homestead efforts with their foraging; and if they remain healthy and content. I will let you know in a later article how Project Zero goes. So far, so good.
For More Information
My book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (Chelsea Green, 2011), has five chapters on feeding, with an emphasis on greater reliance on home feeds. Other chapters—on putting the flock to work, pasturing the flock, using poultry in the garden, manure management with deep litter (which actually has feeding value), natural feeding options in winter, cultivating decomposer species as live protein feeds, and working with broody hens (who forage feed for their chicks)—include ideas for greater feed self-sufficiency.
If you prefer ducks to chickens, check out Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener (Chelsea Green, 2010), especially Chapter 9, “The Laying Flock” (which in her case means a flock of layer ducks), in which Carol describes how she comes close to complete feed independence with a combination of potatoes and winter squash, garden and kitchen wastes, and plenty of self-foraged plant and animal feeds. Carol contributed a humorous three-page sidebar to my book in which she describes use of ducks for slug control in her garden—otherwise rife with eight-inch banana slugs!
A thoughtful and highly informative discussion of whether we should base our agriculture primarily on grain production or on perennials such as pasture plants grazed by herbivores is the chapter “Mob Stocking Herbivorous Solar Conversion” in Joel Salatin’s latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal (Center Street, 2011). I highly recommend reading the whole book for its perspective on regenerative and holistic approaches to agriculture and food policies.
For a sustained sketch of the shadow side of a largely grain-based agriculture, read Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning (North Point Press, 2004).
Discussions of poultry feeding tend to center around the choices of confinement models versus ranging on pasture, but let’s not forget feeding opportunities for poultry ranged in woods and other possible uses of tree crops. J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (The Devin-Adair Company, 1953) is still the classic in this field.
If you want to try cultivating decomposers as live protein feeds, check out “Raising Earthworms to Feed the Flock”, “Cultivating Soldier Grubs to Feed the Flock”, and “Protein from Thin Air: Breeding fly maggots for poultry feed”. Chapter 19 of my book, “Cultivating Recomposers for Poultry Feed,” describes cultivation of all three of these species.