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Real Food Is for Chickens, Too.

December 11, 2011

A Barred Plymouth Rock pullet

I didn’t know how much I was going to love keeping chickens until I got my own flock almost two years ago. Now I can’t imagine life without them.

The first seven hens and rooster were freebies from a neighbor of a friend. They were Ameraucanas (or more properly, probably Easter Egger mutts) of undetermined age. Of the original seven ladies, only three are still with us. Three were the victim of a couple of  raccoon attacks over two days in July, prompting an overhaul of coop security (thanks to an overhaul of the coop, which was not cheap). One died of mysterious natural causes.

Stewart and his ladies

Aside from keeping chickens physically secure, nothing is more important for their health and well-being than what you feed them. As with people, so with dogs, cats, goats, horses, and of course chickens. It’s remarkable how un-obvious it is to people nowadays, perhaps because they were raised on processed edible food-like substances themselves, that eating high-quality Real Food is a priority for the health of chickens and all other creatures.

From the start, I opted to buy organic layer feed (Modesto Milling brand) from the nice folks at Highway 20 Feed. Eventually I persuaded them to order the soy-free organic feed for me and me alone. (What’s wrong with feeding soy to chickens, you ask? Because we eat their eggs and flesh, that’s why, and soy’s not good for us.) They wanted me to buy several bags at once, but that means they’re not fresh. But if I don’t order a bunch at once, they’ll run out before the next order. They claim there isn’t room to add a new product. Hmmm, how do I politely suggest they market soy-free feed to other customers? They seemed puzzled that anyone would go to the trouble of avoiding soy. I suppose I could try to educate them, but they don’t seem inclined.

The next step in my evolving chicken feeding plan started small. In addition to layer pellets, I also fed some “scratch,” which is cracked grains, usually corn and wheat, fed to chickens as a treat. It’s high in carbohydrate and can be a nice way to help chickens stay warm at night, if you feed them some scratch just before they turn in for the night.

We can see tiny, tiny seeds in the straw mulch.

As always, I wasn’t content to leave well enough alone, and I experimented with various wild seed mixtures and scratch combinations to raise the protein level. Laying eggs, of course, places huge nutritional demands on a hen’s body, as does the annual molt. Losing all your feathers and having to grow new ones places another hefty demand for protein on a chicken. They also look scraggly while molting, but once the new feathers are in and they’re read to lay again, well, they look like they’ve all put in their Sunday best.

In examining the various bird seed mixtures at the feed store, I found that the pigeon mix was quite high in protein—17%! That’s comparable to layer feed, which is typically 17-19%. It seemed like a good way to get some extra protein into the hens, and cheaper than the occasional treats of yogurt or cottage cheese.

Hens eating yogurt

(Oh my, the chooks do love their dairy. It’s hilarious to watch them eat yogurt, then shake the excess off their beaks, spraying it all over each other. Then they wipe their beaks on the ground—swipe swipe—or my shoe, whatever is handy.)

The only problem with the pigeon mix was some of the beans or peas seemed rather large and hard for a chicken to digest. (Chickens use grit or sand to grind up food in their gizzards, but before it makes it to the gizzard, food is stored temporarily in the crop, a pouch in the lower neck, before traveling to the proventriculus, or “true stomach,” which secretes digestive enzymes.) An impacted crop can be very nasty, even fatal, so I wanted to avoid that.

Then it dawned on me. Why not first sprout the big seeds? I had noticed that some of the little seeds like milo (sorghum) and millet that I was scattering for the chickens in their heavily mulched yard were sprouting, giving the birds something green to eat in their enclosed yard, even when they weren’t out and about the larger farm (they get let out every day at some point, but I try to keep them closer in until they’ve laid their eggs in the nesting boxes so we don’t lose the eggs).

Soaking overnight in warm water alone would soften seeds, peas and grains, and sprouting them would make them even more digestible and in fact multiply the nutrient levels considerably. Bingo.

We love our fresh sprouts! Thanks, Mom!

And the chickies love, love, love their sprouts. Soaking fresh seeds and rinsing the sprouts has now become a twice-daily chore—and my sprout operation threatens to take over the kitchen—but the results are worth it. The chickens are very healthy, and their consumption of packaged commercial feed—which may be months old before they eat it—has declined in step with their rising sprout consumption. The feed store folks may be annoyed that I’m not buying as many bags of layer pellets, but at least I’m buying lots of pigeon mix, black oil sunflower seeds, and wild bird seed mix (milo/sorghum, wheat, millet and cracked corn).

Sprouts take 3-4 days, so I always have several batches going.

And to think I used to be intimidated by poultry nutrition, falling for the lie that you have to leave this sort of thing up to the experts. Birds in nature manage to feed themselves, and chickens aren’t so very far from wild birds. I provide them pasture—which provides insects and grass, seeds, etc.—soy-free layer feed, sprouts and occasional kitchen scraps, and they are happy, healthy birds. I was pleased to find my ideas validated by experienced poultryman Harvey Ussery in his marvelous book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. Fresh, vital foods provided from the farm are the idea I aspire to. Someday we’ll grow more of our own feed, but sprouting is a great start. Next up: reviving my worm bin.

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