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The Challenge of High Feed Costs

Table of Contents

A Paradigm ShiftBiodiversityHomegrown

Homegrown

On most homesteads, of whatever scale, there should be opportunities to grow something ourselves to feed our flocks. At Vermont Compost, Karl Hammer gives his chickens access to thickets of Jerusalem artichokes as well as to the compost heaps. On hot days, the birds enjoy the shade in the thickets while feeding on the foliage and the abundant earthworms in the mulch of the plants’ fallen leaves. Since Jerusalem artichoke is voracious for nutrients, it utilizes all the droppings laid down, producing even bigger tubers, edible for livestock or people.

Small grains: Wheat, rye, barley, oats, and other small grains are easy to grow. The problem for the homesteader without access to expensive equipment is that they are labor intensive to cut, thresh, winnow, and store. Fortunately, our birds themselves can be introduced at any point in the sequence to do most of that work for us. Indeed, it is possible to grow any of the small grains as a cover crop, allow them to mature their seeds, then simply turn in the birds and let them do the rest. Another option is to add small grains to the seed mix when overseeding our pastures. (Seeds of rape, kale, and mustard—all good fodder crops for poultry—can be included as well.) I have found they establish readily, even without drilling or otherwise working them into the soil. Once the grains have matured, the flock can be rotated onto that portion of the pasture.

Root crops: Potatoes and mangels (fodder beets) are among the most productive of all crops. Dean Shuck grows and cooks these for his flock, in order to squeeze the feed dollar.

Around the edges: There are potential feed crops like corn, amaranth, sunflowers, and sorghum that we could assign their own places in the garden. But we might grow them instead in the edges, nooks, and crannies of the homestead, places less compatible for garden crops—for their beauty, or for their contribution to insect and wildlife diversity. Elizabeth Tritt, who raises a flock of Plymouth Barred Rocks for eggs and meat in south Texas, grows amaranth and corn as living privacy fences. Seed heads of all these crops can be cut and thrown to the flock, or strung up and saved for winter.

Milk and milk products: If you milk any lactating animal—cow, goat, or other—remember that she can be “foster mother” to the whole homestead. Virtually every keeper of poultry I know who also milks a cow or a goat, uses the excess or skimmed milk, whey, buttermilk, etc. as high-quality feed for the flock. Julia Cronin has seen “a big difference in quality of eggs” when she feeds her layers raw, hormone free milk she buys cheaply (excess from a small local dairy farm).

Squash: Several correspondents mentioned squash (either monster zucchini in summer, or winter squash or pumpkins which store well) as an easy to grow crop that can help feed the flock. Even if we use the squash or pumkins ourselves as “people food,” the seeds make high-protein feed for the birds.

Comfrey In addition to numerous other benefits of comfrey (dynamic accumulator for soil fertility, support of pollinators and other insects, even medicinal uses), it is a valuable high-protein poultry feed. I grow and use more of it every year.

Other Feeding Considerations

Challenge Feeding

Even those of us who routinely pasture our flocks are a bit nervous, I expect, as to whether our birds will get sufficient nutrition on their own; and we tend to feed them more than they really need from the feed bag. My “chicken buddy” next door, Mike Focazio, has concluded that it is better to challenge the birds into hustling more of their own grub by being more stingy with the grain feed he offers. Rather than the pasture being a supplemental source of nutrition, he pushes the birds to make it their primary source, with a greatly reduced amount of grains fed as a secondary backup. Mary Hartnett of McKinney, Texas, agrees that a major way to save on feed costs is to push the birds to do more for themselves: “I have noticed that many people offer way too much food for their chickens or leave some out all the time. The chickens will eat the `free’ easy meal first. We throw out their feed in the morning when we let them out of their roost to get them started foraging, and that’s all they get.” Or as Karl Hammer observes: “The less we do for them, the more they do for themselves.”

In case you feel it is cruel to force your birds to be more self-reliant, try this: Feed first thing in the morning, and reduce the amount you feed each day. After the birds have gone to roost at night, go into the coop and feel their crops. As long as you are encountering full crops on the roost, the birds are getting plenty of forage on their own, and you need not worry that you are starving them by reducing the feed you provide. Another measure of the success of “challenge feeding”: Record the flock’s egg production before implementing the strategy, and continue tracking it as you reduce feed offered to encourage foraging. The point at which egg production drops is the point at which the birds are maximizing use of forage, and really do need additional input from the feed bag.

Rodents

It’s important to remember how much feed our free-loading friends, the rodents, can consume. I avoid free-choice feeding, in order to deny open access to full feeders at night. I also feed in the morning, so the birds clean up all spilled feed in the litter, or around the house or shelter, by nightfall.

Cut feed costs with the hatchet

In his response to my APPPA query, Robert Plamondon gave some advice we would all do well to heed: “Cull the flock heavily. Get rid of the non-productive hens, the old hens, and the spare roosters. In many cases, a smaller flock will [produce] as much as the larger one did, because they produce better with more elbow room and less competition.” It’s hard to argue with that one, though I’m as guilty of “flock creep” as anyone. During the current growing season, I will be severely culling unproductive hens and unneeded breeders, getting the numbers down to a “leaner and meaner” flock to take through the winter.

Broody hens

If you are still raising your chicks in an artificial brooder, feeding them purchased feeds exclusively, try letting some broody hens work for you instead. You’ll be impressed at how diligently a mama hen works to feed her babies—and every cricket, earthworm, or weed seed she finds for them will save on your feed dollars.

Turn problems into assets

If you are “blessed” with Japanese beetles, take Renate’s advice: Shake them off your rose bushes or grape vines into a bucket with some water in the bottom, and pour them out to the flock. Says Renate: “My birds will stuff themselves with as many as I can feed them; I’ve heard stories of turkeys eating them until their crops were so full they crawled back out of their mouths.”

Beware of cheap feed

Several of my correspondents observed that commercial feeds are declining in quality. As we seek ways to keep high quality nutrition before our flocks, bear in mind that the one way not to reduce costs is to buy cheap, mediocre feeds. As Robert Plamondon puts it: “The higher the prices rise, the more careful you should be about getting quality feed rather than junk.” If you are stuck with commercial feed of questionable nutritional value, it is all the more important to supplement with vital, fresh, natural (and free) feeds such as discussed above. Dean Shuck observed that his early hatches—out of hens eating commercial feeds exclusively—tend to be low in fertility. After he releases his breeders from the winter house and starts feeding plenty of grass, however, fertility jumps to 90 percent or better.

The Silver Lining

Rising feed costs are not a temporary annoyance, but are part and parcel of our evolving energy crisis. Is there the proverbial silver lining in this looming storm cloud? Here are a few thoughts.

As costs spiral for feed raised through high-input, centralized agribusiness farms far away, there will be more opportunity for small, local, low-input, sustainable farms to compete successfully for our feed dollars. The result could be better as well as cheaper feeds—and a revitalization of rural communities ravaged by corporate agriculture.

More and more of us are concerned about the declining quality of market foods. Isn’t it wonderful that the more natural feeding practices sketched above not only save feed dollars, but produce eggs and dressed poultry that are tastier and more wholesome?

Escalating food and fuel prices are bringing an uneasy reexamination of our assumptions about food security. As the average citizen takes this question more seriously, the importance of a backyard flock in a family’s domestic economy can only grow. Readers of this magazine who have climbed the learning curves of sound management and greater independence of purchased inputs, will have the opportunity to be of service to newbie neighbors who don’t have a clue.