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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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Here a chick, there a chick…

The chicks have started hatching here!

We got 11 last week, Black Copper Marans, Olive Eggers, Buff Polish Frizzles and Mille Fleur leghorns!

My son, who’s almost 20, is visiting this week. Getting some farm therapy before heading back to the real world and all the grown up decisions to make.  He mentioned that he loves the fact that I am ALWAYS excited about chicks hatching, like I haven’t seen it a million times.

He reminded me of the first time we (the 2 of us and my 3 girls) hatched eggs together and I had to search my memory to think of how long that’s been… almost 10 years!!

My babies we toddlers, now they’re teens. My Grammar schoolers were kids, now they’re adults…sigh.

Einstein said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

This quote has stuck with me this week as I marvel, over and over again, at the miracle of nature, birth and growth.  I’ll take the latter.

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An analogy, of sorts

I have roosters. A bunch of roosters.

Near the end of winter, I started up a teeny, tiny micro hatchery (me, 2 styrofoam incubators and about 90 eggs at a time; MICRO).  I have some really nice laying hens and a beautiful French Blue Marans rooster.

I was especially interested in turning out some Olive Eggers
by mixing Sir (the rooster) with my Ameraucanas.
Sooo cool! The eggs are beautiful!

On average half of what I hatch will be roosters. I am not a fan of the cruel and wasteful grind and dump method used by commercial hatcheries, but one can only have so many roosters!  And, since I sell my chicks straight run, people who support my small farm will end up with roosters, which I feel kinda bad about.  So I hatched (pardon the pun) the plan that buyers should take 1 or 2 more that they want, then when the roosters begin to show themselves. I will take them back. It’s working out well.  Except for all these roosters!

Part of my homesteading plan is to stop buying commercial meat (and anything else that I can grow myself).  I don’t really eat much meat, mostly chicken and I know how bad it is (thanks, Food Inc. For real) but I keep buying it because the good, local and humanely raised birds are out of my budget. Lame.

But wait…what about all those beautiful roosters I have? My feed bill is INSANE. They move too fast to be counted, but I probably have 20 roos. Some I hatched, some were unusual breeds bought straight run (Dorkings and Black Copper Marans), all are wolfing down the feed and taking up coop space that I need for hens.  So I should eat them. I will eat them. I don’t doubt that I can do the deed and know they will be delish. As Joel Salatin says, “They have had a great life on my farm and just one bad day…”

My bigger problem is that…well…they’re so pretty! And not aggressive (yet). I hate to “waste” them.  So I keep placing ads to see if someone wants them for their beauty and mating potential, but no takers. So, having exhausted that possibility, and since the first batch has started crowing, I think it’s time to make use of them.

In the 4+ years I ran my organizing business, I stressed to clients that if they didn’t use something, no matter how pretty or valuable it was, it was really worthless, filling up precious space and often costing them money (by paying for storage). And now, look at me. Over roosters for crying out loud!

 I realized that it’s like my favorite shoes…
 I LOVE these shoes! I have danced my ass off in them, strutted into a room with them, feeling like Cat Woman. They’re cute and not torturously uncomfortable and….ahhhhhh.  But they have been sitting in a box in my too small closet for the past 2 years. I barely even go out anymore, much less get dressed up like a hooker to do so! So I put them in the get-rid-of box with all the other shoes that don’t fit into my farm life. It’s a big pile.  It leaves me with Converse, Crocs and Sloggers.  Not sexy.  I keep taking them out of the box! I just like to look at them. Try them on once in a while and feel sexy!  I bet Fred would like me in them.

Like the roosters, they are so pretty that I hate to waste them, just sitting in a box, hidden away, when someone should be using them.  I have pulled the shoes out of the Goodwill box one last time. I know I won’t wear them, but They don’t live in the closet anymore. 

The roosters time is near. Like my shoes, they will be much appreciated and admired.

William Morris said it best,

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”

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My new office

After 4 years, I have officially closed the doors on my organizing business.  As of May 31, I will be devoting 100% of my time to homesteading and running an educational farm in Peaceful Valley.  In the weeks since I made this decision, I have had many days where I think, “oh f**k, what did I do?”  My waking (and sleeping) hours are peppered with “what ifs” but today… 

Today was perfect. 
A complete stranger, who read about what I’m doing, told me that I was doing the right thing, following my heart. Farm Camp registrations are rolling in. People are starting to say “I heard about your program…”
My beautiful, heirloom seedlings are growing like…well…weeds (expect a plant sale, soon).  
I found, connected with and hired the most amazing assistant!  I feel like, together, we can do some pretty cool things! 

Today, 
I sat at my new desk (where I interviewed my new assistant!)

in my roomy, new office

and had lunch with my co-worker, Fred (someone should have a talk with him…B.O. big time!)

The chicks dig it here!

And these guys are…real turkeys

but, the vending machine

is close to my desk
And I am surrounded by like minded people

so, today, I feel lucky, confident that I have jumped off and will land, safely.

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A word about eggs

Lately I have had some really interesting questions about chickens and eggs. Some from kids, who might be expected to not know the facts, but even from adults. It just goes to show, again, how far away from our food sources we have become.  so, a few answers for those who may not know…

1. What color is the egg inside this green shell? How about this brown one?
The color of an egg shell has nothing to do with anything, except the breed of chicken that laid it. Eggs come in all colors (look at my variety, here), but no matter what it looks like on the outside, the inside does not vary in looks or quality. Brown eggs are not better for you because they are brown.

2. How are your eggs different from the ones at the store?
If you have only ever had commercially farmed eggs, you don’t know what an egg is really like! USDA certified farmers have 30 days from the day an egg is laid to get it to stores. Then, the stores have another 30 days to sell the eggs.  After 2 weeks, the quality and texture have noticeably declined.  The whites will be thinner and runny, the yolks will get more pale and loose.  The USDA recommends a maximum of 5 weeks in your refrigerator before you discard your eggs. What does this all boil down to? On April 1, you could be eating an egg that was laid on Christmas. (stats from Wikipedia). Now really, do you want to eat an egg that is that old?
Currently, my hens lay 15-20 eggs a day, so we always have the freshest eggs available.
A fresh egg will stand at attention when you crack it into a bowl. If the hen is well fed with lots of greens and bugs, the yolk will be a golden orange. And the texture, when cooked, is rich and creamy.  The taste is nothing like commercial eggs!
 
3. Can hens have babies without a rooster?
Um, no.

4. Why do you keep a rooster?
So that we can have babies!

5. Can I take home one of the eggs and hatch it?
Yes, I do it all the time! Of course, this child was proposing sitting on it, which doesn’t work so well. 🙂  With proper incubation (in a humid space with temps between 99.5 and 102) a fertile egg will hatch in 21 days. If you buy a fertile egg from the refrigerated section at the store, it will not, because the egg is too old and has been chilled. If you want to hatch eggs, contact me, I always have plenty available!