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The Challenge of High Feed Costs

Table of Contents

A Paradigm ShiftBiodiversityHomegrown


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 resource. 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 heavens 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 “flocksters” 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 oystershell 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, 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.”

Wild seeds

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 rye grass 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 se.

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 \ldots 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.