Feeding the Flock from the Homestead’s Own Resources
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.
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.
Of course, the homesteader can grow corn and conventional small grains as well as anybody. Growing and storing them on a small scale can be labor-intensive, however. A labor-saving strategy with the small grains is to grow to maturity, then turn the flock in to self-harvest the seed heads.
I grow amaranth and sunflowers, both for their beauty and for their support of beneficial insects, and continue to experiment with using the seed heads as poultry feed. The challenge with the sunflowers, I find, is catching them at the point at which the seeds have ripened, but before wild birds have stripped the heads. Heads can be cut and tied together in bunches, then hung from rafters under shelter for use in the winter. The same can be done with amaranth, an extremely nutritious (and high-protein) seed that was an important food source for the Aztecs. The seeds are extremely tiny, and it’s been hard to determine how well the birds utilize them when I just cut the heads and throw them to the flock. I plan experiments with threshing and feeding them straight to get a measure of how much the birds like them. I also plan to soak whole heads, sprout the seeds, then throw the whole sprouting head to the birds. It may be they will eat the sprouts better (more visible) than the tiny black seeds.
For the first time, I am experimenting with growing sorghum. I grow this extremely tall plant as additional pollen source for beneficials, and to screen other crops needing shade, but I plan to harvest the seed heads, tie in bunches, and experiment with feeding (whole heads) in the winter.
Double duty cover crops
I use buckwheat and cowpeas as cover crops that are easy to start in the summer when many of the cool weather covers will not establish. Buckwheat is the “instant cover crop”—from seed to flower in as little as thirty days. Cowpeas are legumes, and set atmospheric nitrogen in the soil in forms plants can use. If you can leave these crops long enough to mature their seeds, they do double duty as cover crop and feed for the birds. Indeed, it’s possible to net the area with electronet, and allow the flock to self-harvest the seeds while tilling in the cover crop. That’s a homestead version of “multi-tasking.”
Potatoes and sweet pototoes can be tremendously productive crops. In times of war, when people in England and other European countries had to grow more of their own feeds, potatoes have satisfactorily replaced grain feeds, in whole or in part. When I harvest these crops, I save for the flock the smallest tubers and those badly damaged by the spading fork. In an economic crisis, potatoes would be one of the first alternatives to grain I would turn to. Ducks will make good use of potatoes, as well as chickens. (It is generally recommended that potatoes be lightly cooked before feeding to the flock.)
Pumpkins are usually easier to grow than other members of the cucurbit tribe. If you have the space for the big, sprawling vines, you can grow and easily store large numbers of pumpkins. To feed, just “bust ’em open” and let the flock have at them. The seeds are a good source of protein.
Mangels or fodder beets are also easy to grow, producing roots up to ten pounds or even more which store well. (I store them in a “clamp,” a simple 24-inch hole in the ground protected by a sheet of plastic and a couple bales of straw.) I feed one at a time, raw. In the winter house, the entertainment value is probably as high as the feed value—the chickens really get into pecking away at them. When one has been consumed, I throw in another.
Another tremendously productive carbohydrate source is Jerusalem artichoke. This is a crop to be careful with, as it can easily get out of hand, and be difficult to eradicate. I recently read of a Vermont farmer who lets his large layer flock forage in big plantings of Jerusalem artichokes. The birds eat some of the foliage, and feed on the enhanced earthworm populations at the base of the plants. There was no mention of digging the tubers to feed the flock. However, Jersulam artichoke tubers are good food for humans, and I expect they would be a good carbohydrate source for poultry as well. I plan experiments with feeding them, raw and cooked, when they are ready to harvest this fall.
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.