Over the course of time, even the humblest beginnings in flock-raising can mushroom into an impressive collection of more birds than you had ever dreamed. Thus the cost of care can grow quite significant, with feed being the greatest expense. In this article we’ll take a look at some ways to economize when feeding your poultry while at the same time improving your management.
Out On The Range
Whether or not your birds can free-range is the most important factor. Ranging fowl get much of their daily ration from what they find out there and you don’t have to purchase supplements and minerals, which nature provides.
The breed(s) you own will determine just how effective this is. Many breeds are not very active foragers but would rather sit by the feeders waiting lazily for them to be filled. Most of the plain, light-weight breeds and bantams are best for free-ranging as far as foraging goes, although, the hawks also think likewise. Only a few of the heavier breeds are very satisfactory, one being the Welsummer.
Chickens seem to prefer woodlands and brushy areas, although this may be for the security from aerial predators. Fields and clearings work great, too, providing tender greens, seeds, and bugs.
Another important consideration is the breed and size of your chickens. As I already been mentioned, bantams and light breeds generally do better at wanting to range, but they also eat much less than heavy-breeds. Light breeds generally consume half of what the heavy breeds need, and some estimates state that small bantams eat up to seven times less than heavy breeds. If raising chickens only for the eggs, stick with the light breeds. And if you aren’t concerned about small eggs or little meat, stick with the bantams.
An additional way of reducing feed costs is by mixing your own feed. This can be a complicated endeavor and it’s sometimes difficult to find the right ingredients. You should also be well acquainted with the nutritional needs of chickens. Despite the hardships, however, if you feel up to the challenge, it can be an excellent way to economize. I recommend Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits where he includes his feed mixes.
You can also stretch your typical pellet ration by mixing them with grains, wild bird seed mix, or other feeds that may be cheaper (I know experienced breeders who use hog pellets, catfish food, calf-manna and all types of other ingredients). You shouldn’t see much, if any, drop in production when good grains are used as 10% of the mix, and depending on the mix’s total nutritional content and whether or not you are free-ranging, you may be able to take it as high as 50%.
This is safest with a free-ranging flock, as this is extra insurance there is not going to be a hidden deficiency that you may not pick up on. If they are ranging, I personally would certainly not worry about the additional grains.
A Note on Feeding Gluttons
I’d be amiss not to mention here that although it’s the popular course, and often very convenient, to free-feed chickens (unlimited access to feed 24/7) it is neither healthful nor economical. Chickens will eat much more than they need and get fat, unnecessarily costing you much more money. Not to mention you’re likely free-feeding vermin as well.
I feed my non-breeding, light-weight roosters about four ounces of feed each per day, breeders just slightly more; and my breeding, light-weight hens get up to eight ounces, which is more than enough. And my non-breeding free-rangers can get by fine on spilled feed. My feed ration is supplemented with greens, garden produce, and kitchen scraps. I encourage you to experiment, just always start on the high side and work your way down. Gail Damerow, in The Chicken Health Handbook, gives the number of approximately .14 pounds of feed for an adult laying hen or breeder in the three-pound weight range.
Just know that chickens are beggars and gluttons if there ever were any; they’ll always want more, even if they are getting enough. One disclaimer: when rationing feed, it’s very important to be sure you are providing them with all they need in a balanced form in the limited amount given. Be especially aware of extra grains here which may lead to deficiencies in penned birds.
Buy in Bulk and Supplement
Another economical option, if you have the facilities, is to buy in bulk from local feed-mills, and, of course, just shop around to find the bargains.
Kelp has been said to reduce feed intake a little while being very good for your chickens, improving health and production. But kelp presents another expense, so you’ll have to decide whether or not it is worth adding to their diet; I feel it is. It’s used as 2% of their ration, though some people give it free-choice. Diatomaceous earth and sea-mineral supplements should be similarly considered.
Turns out Chickens are Suckers for a Good Brew
Now let’s turn our attention to two awesome methods of getting more return from your feed investment while supercharging your flock’s health. First up is…
Fermentation is an ancient art that many people are reviving. The fermentation we will be doing occurs naturally with Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) pulled from the air. Fermenting your feed can be accomplished successfully with only water, but, because of the leg up it gives the healthy bacteria on taking over before the bad ones may get a chance to, and other lauded health benefits, I like to use Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) (just a tablespoon per couple gallons of water used is fine).
We can reap the benefits of this fermentation with no need to get scientific, but it does have plenty of scientific research behind it providing support for the benefits it offers. Studies show that health, disease resistance, and production are amped up when birds are fed fermented feeds (FF). They also show that birds fed FF eat less, up to 50% less, but make much better use of what they do eat. The fermenting process actually reduces certain anti-nutrients like phytic acids, enzyme inhibitors, tannins, and certain proteins found in many seeds and grains, all while making other beneficial compounds such as enzymes and probiotic substances. The feed is more digestible and all the nutrition is more efficiently utilized. It’s great.
The how-to of fermenting is very simple and easy. Just submerge your feed portion in the water and ACV mixture and leave it for 2-5 days. The time-range before the LAB become noticeably present varies by the volume you’re dealing with and, more importantly, temperature—generally speaking, the higher the temperatures the better, but room temperature works great. You can feed out of it from day one, just keep adding feed and keep feeding out of it, not emptying the contents (at least not the liquids) completely. As long as there is no rotting smell or mold, you’re good. The bubbling is normal, as is the slightly tangy smell.
Sound messy? It is extremely messy to feed, and that’s one of two downsides. The other being you can’t leave any extra feed out as the wet feed spoils readily.
Sprouting is another wonderful way to enhance the quality of your whole-grain ration. Protein availability may increase up to 50% on certain sprouts. Vitamins, enzymes, and other elements also increase and become more available at astonishing percentages meaning your birds easily digest their feed, using less energy on this task (reserving it for growth and production), and are getting maximum utilization of all its’ nutrition.
I soak the whole grains overnight, and then put them shallowly in a bucket with holes drilled all over (for drainage and air circulation), or nursery trays that provide drainage, and rinse them out well at least three times a day. Keep them out of the sun until they sprout, but, if you grow them long enough to have leaves (you don’t have to), give them sunlight to turn them green (which is healthier because of the chlorophyll).
Sprouting times vary depending on the seed/grain being used, usually less than a week and they’ll be ready, and the temperature, which usually needs to be warm, 75 degrees Fahrenheit is generally good.
Sprouting can be a little bit more work than many care to deal with, but you should know that just soaking the seeds/grains until they turn soft is greatly beneficial, as the seeds/grains come alive right once they’ve absorbed the water, and you are getting many of the benefits this way.
Calling All Gardeners
So how about growing your own chicken feed? Unfortunately this isn’t a practical option for most people. I find it ironic that it’s actually easier to grow your feed for a horse or cow than a chicken, but it’s true!
Even those of us lacking the assets needed to accomplish such a task can still grow a few vegetables and seeds/grains to add to the birds’ diet, which will indeed reduce your costs and also provide your birds with healthful and enjoyable variety. Some products that are great to grow, easily hand harvested, and easily store “as is,” include pumpkins, winter squash, fodder beets and turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, millet, amaranth, milo, and sunflowers (the large seed heads may be harvested, dried, stored and fed just “as is,” letting the birds do the threshing work, very convenient). Seasonal produce that isn’t intended to be stored, such as tomatoes, summer squash, and greens, are also great.
Another option that I recommend you try your hand at is “growing” bugs such as worms, cockroaches, or mealworms for your birds and then preserving (drying or freezing) some of them for future use, such as through the winter. These are all excellent food sources that may be economically produced.
I feel is the very best of them all is the black soldier fly larvae. The black soldier fly is a non-pest, non-stinging, wasp look-a-like that you have most likely seen flying around your yard. They self-propagate, self-harvest (in the right raising container, which may be bought or built), live off of food scraps and manure, and they are just sure to please!
Many people, myself included, have experimented with raising minnows, fathead minnows and guppies, with minimal inputs, through the warm months and preserving them once their pond (often just an adapted kiddie pool) is brimming full and cold weather threatens. It does work.
For those with patience and a bit of land, Permaculture Food Forests and edible landscaping are increasingly popular facets of agriculture that are seriously viable options for allowing us to raise poultry without any additional feed inputs whatsoever.
Some Genius Ideas
Here are a few historical methods of feeding and raising your flock that I found extremely interesting. They should be of help to those who are tired of high bedding-costs, or chickens living in their filth, and wouldn’t mind a reduction in labor and feed costs, while increasing flock health and happiness.
The Worthington Method
This one was developed by Jim Worthington. The bulk of their diet actually consists of “green foods.” Some people report a chicken’s diet may consist of up to one-third green plant-matter when they have the option.
All this green food could come from growing fodder, free-ranging, or using a chicken tractor.
They should also have access to whole grains, of which, wheat is supposedly preferred. You also need some high-protein feed such as fish meal.
When you let the birds eat as much as they want, of whatever they want, it is said that you should find that they have a well-balanced diet, do not overeat, and lay plenty of eggs. What they eat will average about four and a half ounces of wheat per chicken, per day, and under half an ounce of fish meal. Instead of fish meal, you can also substitute any other high-protein food such as soybean meal (fermented or heat-treated), other legumes, and meat meal or flakes. Any other garden produce, kitchen scraps, and such feed will also be beneficial.
This approach certainly isn’t main stream, and honestly, may not be totally ideal, but I don’t doubt that it works. And when free-ranging, there is hardly an objectionable way of feeding—that is, of course, said with disregard to the “experts.” Also, it is important to note, if you have not fed your birds like this since they were young they might initially reject it.
The Balfour Method
This system is named after its creator, Lady Eve Balfour.
You’ll use any ordinary coop. In front, or around it, you have a scratching pen. This scratching area becomes your “compost pile.” You throw into this area all the vegetable matter you can get, the more the better. Just try to keep the carbon/nitrogen ratio balanced. You may even go around to schools, restaurants, and/or hospitals to get all their scraps; chickens are almost like pigs. Your birds will spend hours scratching around in this material because food-bits and bugs will abound in it. If they ever need any incentive to get to work, just sprinkle some grain over it. This practice also remedies the nasty, stale pens of traditional, stationary coops and runs.
Apart from their scratching pen, you ideally should have two or three grazing pens. These are just fenced pens arranged in such a way that the chickens can be admitted access to one of the pens while being denied access to the others. Plant these with a cover crop or let the weeds grow. You allow the hens to run in one pen for a few days or until the grass is eaten down, then move them to the other. The theory is that, because the chickens are doing most of their scratching in the scratching pen, they should not deplete the grazing pens too severely, allowing them to regenerate quickly.
The Balfour method has so many wonderful advantages. Ms. Balfour combines my two favorite management methods—a stationary pen that is kept thickly mulched, and portable “tractors” that keep the birds on fresh, green ground—into one perfect idea for the common coop.
The “Chicken Tractor” Method
This is where you rotate a manageably-sized (depending on whether you’ll be moving it by hand or pulling it with machinery), open-bottomed pen onto fresh pasture whenever the spot they’re on starts to get worn down (usually just a couple of days). This allows them fresh, clean ground, greens, grit, bugs, and seeds. This is a very popular and effective system even for small commercial-flock raising and is used and advocated by popular farmer and author Joel Salatin of Polyface farm.
With this system you need to move the pen often, usually daily, though it obviously depends on its size and how many birds are being housed. This is to ensure that there is not too heavy a manure-load that the soil can’t assimilate, and also to ensure the green-growth isn’t set back too severely.
By using any combination of these ideas you will be sure to improve the condition of your wallet and your flock, so that anyone can greet the morning crowing with a smile.