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The Challenge of High Feed Costs


“Composter Chickens”
(Photo courtesy of Vermont Compost Company)

The following article was published in the August/September 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.

It was posted to the site 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.)

Table of Contents

A Paradigm ShiftBiodiversityHomegrown

“Sticker shock” has become a part of life, whether we’re filling the gas tank or tiptoing 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 Connecticutt, 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 SUV’s. 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 is 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 CSA’s (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 VCC’s approach to feeding not primarily to encourage you to seek out similar “food residuals” as a feeding resource. I’m most interested in VCC’s 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 VCC’s 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. OEG’s 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.