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From Scratch-Home Made chicken food- an easy, healthy alternative to commercial feed

Since moving to the farm three years ago, I’ve completely changed the way my family eats.  Gone are packaged, processed foods, chips, and anything junk like.  We eat a lot more fruits and vegetables, whole foods, only local and in season, raise our own eggs, chickens, turkeys and pig for meat.   So why is it that it was only a few months ago that I noticed the long list of ingredients on the bag of processed chicken food that I’ve been using?? Lots of recognizable ingredients, and many not, all crunched up and magically glued together into pellet form. I started wondering if that was really the best I could do for my poultry, and decided it probably wasn’t.  I set about researching poultry dietary needs, looking for recipes and trying to find information on home made vs. commercial feed. I only found bits and pieces, not solid pros or cons, and many recipes, each one different from the next, and none of them very clear or easy to follow.  Feeling overwhelmed and unsure, I spent months reading everything I could find.  When I was down to my last bag of commercial feed, I set my self doubt aside and just jumped right into choosing ingredients, measuring and mixing, watching what the chickens liked and how they reacted (quality of poop, egg production, general appearance, signs of hunger or health issues).  We’ve been using this new whole feed for 5 weeks now and I am finally confident enough to share the results and the recipe with you!

The first thing I considered is that back in the day, there weren’t feed stores all over town for people to buy their “complete” feed.  These were people who depended on their chickens for food, not just as backyard pets, so clearly there are alternatives to feed pellets, that have been around forever.  I was really disappointed in the scholarly literature that I read. Almost always, they cautioned against experimenting with feed and just sticking to the “complete and tested” commercial feeds.

My best, first break came in Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia Of Country Living.  She encouraged readers to grow their own animal feed and poo pooed the idea that commercial feed is the only way to go!  She didn’t provide a recipe, so much as a blue print of what chickens need. For proper growth and egg production, a chicken’s diet needs to be 17-20% protein. Traditional feed contains corn and soy, which have their own issues (GMO) and corn is high fat and low protein. So why feed it to the chickens at all? I decided to eliminate both corn and soy from the mix. This way, I can buy conventionally grown ingredients and not have to worry about Franken foods. (I choose not to go organic because it’s cost prohibitive for my operation. I don’t want to sell $8 a dozen eggs, I want to offer affordable, fresh and healthy eggs.)

Protein comes in SO many forms and ideally you can offer the chickens a variety of sources. Wheat, Oats, Barley, rye, sunflower seeds, milk products (expired milk or yogurt), eggs, meat, worms and bugs all offer good protein.  Another source is fish meal. Hard to come by and very expensive, I decided against this. I really wanted the fish meal used for gardening to be the same thing, and from what I learned, it is, except that the way they process it isn’t fit for chickens AND they risk exposure to heavy metals. If you know a fisherman, getting their cuttings would be a score!  I’ve read that chickens need animal protein and that they don’t. I know how mine love to go after little mice and frogs, which leads me to believe that they’re into it, but I think they can be healthy without adding animal protein to their feed. (ps- bugs and worms count as meat) Because my chickens don’t get out into fresh pasture, often, I do think they would benefit from more bugs, so I’ll soon be breeding Black Soldier Fly larvae as a supplement for them. Yup, maggot farming. Mmmm.  We also give the chickens everything left over when we eat crab, as well as the entire chicken carcass after we make stock. THEY EAT THE ENTIRE THING!  Legumes, if you can find them in bulk, are a great source of protein. It’s not cost effective for me with 50 chickens, but if you have just a few in your backyard, it’s totally worthwhile to feed them dried lentils or peas (fresh peas, and their leaves and pods, too). You can cook them first, but it isn’t needed.

Greens need to be a part of the chickens daily diet. This is a hard one to mix into the dry formula, but if they are ranging around, or you give them plenty of weeds or kitchen scraps, they should be ok. I also put a flake of alfalfa into their coops every few days.

Vitamins and supplements. A really important thing to remember is that chickens don’t have teeth. They have a hard gizzard, against which they grind their food to digest it. For this to work, they need to be eating little pebbles, sand, or other grit.  If you’re feeding whole grains, you should assume that they can’t get enough grit in their foraging, and should give them some. Because they also need selenium and minerals, I chose a grit with minerals that’s readily available at the feed store. I started out mixing it into the feed, but it was heavy and didn’t mix in well. Now I just throw handfuls of it into the run every other day or so. Same goes for Oyster Shells, which act as grit and also give them the calcium that they need to produce hard egg shells. I put some in the feed, too. You can mix these 2 together and have a dish always available for them, but my chickens always spill it, so I just avoid the middle man.  I also use Flax seed. It has lots of Omega 3 and makes their feathers gloriously shiny!  Kelp is another one. Super expensive ($84 for a 50# bag) but used sparingly, so it’s ok. Kelp is full of minerals. I use just a little to top dress their food. They go nuts for it! Oh, and don’t forget vitamin D (which is added to feed!). Chickens need a little sun every day.

Here’s the recipe that I came up with. Note that it changes and flexibility is good. If, for example, one grain price suddenly goes sky high, just drop it until it comes down. Variety is the spice of life, anyway, right? All ingredients should be purchased whole, not cracked, crimped  or rolled. Once the shell is broken, they start to go rancid and lose nutritional value.

-3 pounds Rye (this is grass seed to normal folks-but get it at the feed store, for quality assurance)

9 pound Barley

9 pounds Oats

9 pounds Wheat (winter red is best, if available)

4 pounds black oiled sunflower seeds (sold as bird seed)

3 pounds Flax

2 pounds Oyster Shell

mix everything together in a plastic bin or feed sack, until well distributed.

Prices vary from area to area, so I’m not including very detailed costs here. 50 pound grain bags are about $15-20 here, 20 pounds of Flax is $22, 50# rye is $36, 30# sunflower seeds are $25, oyster shell is $10 for 50#, grits about the same.  I believe I’m paying slightly more than I was for the commercial pellets, plus I get to eliminate corn and soy, and all the other ingredients I don’t want. My egg production DOUBLED in these 5 weeks, even during a bitter cold snap that lasted a week. Before some hens were missing feathers and looking ragged. Now they have full, bright and shiny coats! Also, I’m using less feed than I used to. Consider the difference in humans, between eating processed food, and whole food that our bodies have to work on for a while…same goes for chickens. Where I was going through three 50 pound bags a week, I now use about 5o pounds of whole food per week. I’m using this food for the chickens, turkeys and geese, all with great results!

As I mentioned, I’m going to be farming BSF larvae to supplement their diets. I’ve also started making fodder, which is a genius way to increase their nutrition and reduce your feed bill. All you do is sprout some of the grains (takes about a week for them to become a solid mass of roots, seed and grass), then feed them.  The conversion is crazy, something like 2 pounds of grain becomes 13 pounds of fodder. This method is literally saving some cow farms in the midwest!  I’ll have more info and pictures on this soon… For more information on alternative, natural chicken keeping, I highly recommend THIS BOOK.

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Easter Eggs Au Natural-recipes for natural color

Today, we dyed eggs with natural, food based colors and had some really great results. I will admit, that some of them were woefully slow and not too eggciting in the color department, so I added a few drops of food coloring to take them up a notch. This is what we got, using Blackberries, red Cabbage, Spirulina, Paprika, and beets. Fill a 1/2 pint jar (or equivalent size cup) with the food stuffs, chopped up, pour boiling water over it, and let sit about 1/2 hour. Add 2 tbsp of vinegar. For Paprika (which was my fave color) used 2 TBSP Paprika, to 1/2 pint water + vinegar. For the Blackberry colors, smoosh them up.

Au natural takes longer, but the colors (especially on our already multi colored eggs) are beautiful!

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Happy New Year!

I love the new year!  I also love the beginning of Spring and Fall, all for the same reason. Each feels like a time for change. Much more palatable than the change into Summer and Winter that we experience here on California’s Central Coast.  Each of these beginnings gives me sort of “Spring fever”in which I want to make big plans for the upcoming season, clean out closets and files old things that are holding me back or slowing me down, and I want to do more of the things that I feel in my heart, but haven’t quite translated into action yet.  It’s huge, I know. John recently noted that I am “all over the place…” Not as a bad thing, but as a “maybe you don’t need to do more right now…” suggestion.  He’s much more practical that I. When I asked what his New Year’s resolutions were, he asked why you need to make them for the new year. Why not just do it whenever. See how he is? 

I also believe in putting things out there. I don’t think that our hopes and wishes can always come true, just because we think them.  Actual work is obviously needed, but I think that saying or writing it to get it flowing is also important. The more I do this, the more things have been coming to me, so here goes….

My list of goals and resolves for the year 2012

 1. get more organized and get rid of excess crap. I don’t have a lot to do here, but being disorganized is one of my least favorite things! (look for a blog about this, SOON!)  Being disorganized leads to a lot of wasted time AND money. Both of which could be better spent.

2.  eat more of what we grow. Here’s a confession. I grow a lot of stuff. Likely enough to feed my family of 4. But we don’t always eat it. I end up feeding a lot of it to the animals. Good for them, not for me.Sadly, though, I can’t grow beer, bread or cheese, which are big expenses at our place. I resolve to plan meals around what we CAN grow (or make from what we grow), grow more of it, and greatly reduce the foods that we have to buy at the store. In this same line, I will only be buying what we do need from truly LOCAL store and farmers markets.  (if you see me in Safeway or Nob Hill, give me a swift kick!!)
I look forward to blogging about the foods that are easily grown right here, seasonal menus as well as cost comparison and sources.

3.  by following resolve #2, I resolve to lose the extra 30 pounds I tote around and have more energy to spend on other ventures!  look better, feel better, do better!  I wish I was one of the bad ass bloggers I admire, and could have a perfectly frank blog, detailing every step of weight loss as I do it…but I don’t think so.

4.  Enjoy more.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard myself say, “I can’t, I have too much to do…” I’d have a down payment for the house we want to buy!  I resolve to spend more time enjoying life, relaxing with friends and family, and wandering around, planning life with John.

5.  Put my business out there more! New classes, selling plants, animals and food, more instructional/inspirational blogs, etc…

6, 7, 8.  Get married. Buy a farm of our own. Become parents together.  All very complicated stuff, squeezed into the simplest of words.  I think all 3 can happen within the year. I know one of them will. 🙂

What kind of person makes a list of 8 things??? I don’t know, but that’s what I got, for now.

Happy 2012 to all. May your year be bright and full of all good things. 

Erica at Northwest Edible Life said it best…”May you always have more than you need and want all that you have, may your vegetables ever outgrow your weeds, may your chickens lay daily and rarely molt, may your Felcos always stay sharp and never get lost in the rain, may cabbage worms never find your garden and earthworms never miss it, and may your peppers and tomatoes always ripen. Even in Seattle.”

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So many ways to garden, so little time!

There are a million excuses for not gardening.  Lack of space, time, energy, knowledge. Living in an apartment or having a tiny yard. Lack of money to buy seeds, planters, etc…
Gardening has become very popular, even trendy, so lots of crafty people are finding ways to make it new, cheap, easy. Which means you are out of excuses!  Here are a few of my favorites, some I’ve tried, some I’ve only seen or heard about. I think they are all worth a shot!

Straw bale gardening– I have done this and really liked it. Especially because I was enormously preggers so bending and stooping for long periods were not my friend. I like this for shorter crops, lettuce, squash, vines that can fall out and climb up behind. It’s super easy and cheap. A bale of hay costs around 10 bucks and the soil, about $5.  This is great for elderly (or pregnant) gardeners, or those with physical limitations. The site above has great pictures and directions.

Planters from recycled materials.  As you know, I love recycling (or, upcycling as it is now called) as much as I love free stuff. These ideas cover all the bases!  Look in the FREE section on Craigslist in your area. It’s crazy the things people will give away!

                                                         

 suitcases

dressers
wagons

drawers

anything that can hold a little soil will work.  Check out these photos for more ideas.  All you have to do is make drainage holes, fill with soil and plants and BAM!

 This guy is making magic with $6. storage containers and he offers his plans for free!

Life on the Balcony has lots of really simple and attractive ideas, like this  pallet planter!

 The Cheap Vegetable Gardener built himself this upside down planter using a 2 liter bottle! He’s got lots of great, cheap ideas to share.

It can even be as simple as buying a bag of soil, cutting it open and planting right into it!
I have heard of these lasting for a few seasons. Cha-ching!

See, gardening doesn’t have to be expensive or ugly!  Now, no more excuses, get out there and DIG!