Answers to your questions about gardening, energy, homesteading and other sustainable living topics.
Whole corn is much cheaper than the commercial feed I buy for my chickens. Could I feed them corn instead?
I give my free-range hens as much corn as they like, year-round. I keep some range feeders (outdoor feeders) full of balanced 20-percent protein pellets and other range feeders full of whole corn. With a 20 percent ration, you can expect the hens to eat about half corn, half pellets. Because my pellets cost twice as much as corn, I save a little money this way. Also, because whole corn stays fresh a lot longer than pellets, you can buy more at one time, and maybe even get a bulk discount.
In Feeding Poultry, Gustave Heuser says this about corn: “It can be fed in a number of ways. To some extent it is fed on the cob, though this is not desirable. Quite a large amount of it is fed as whole corn. In fact, this practice is increasing with the idea of saving the germ, and because the quality of the corn can be more readily determined. Professor G.M. Gowell indicated that there was nothing to show it was necessary or desirable to crack corn for hens, and the danger of heating or souring was less with whole corn.”
Everybody thinks that unless chickens have a good supply of grit in their gizzards, they won’t be able to grind up whole corn, but I don’t think it’s true. The effect of grit is surprisingly small, and it’s most effective in dealing with the fibrous things chickens sometimes eat, such as feathers and straw. When feeding grain, grit is optional. Crushed oyster shells seem to work adequately as a combination calcium supplement and grit source. The shells don’t last long in the chickens’ gizzards, but that’s OK because the hens eat more shells every day. However, most commercial operations don’t use grit, even if they feed whole grains.
As usual with feeding trials, the results are inconclusive, with the hens eating only the balanced ration sometimes being more profitable than the ones with free-choice grain, and sometimes not. But that’s only if the grain costs the same whether you feed it separately or use it in the layer ration. If you have a source of cheap whole corn that costs a lot less than your layer ration, feeding separate corn is a hands-down win. And if you replace corn with wheat, I’d say the same.
The only tricky part is that confined pullets will sometimes turn cannibalistic just as they begin to lay, because their protein appetite spikes faster than their willingness to change their habits from eating mostly grain to eating a mostly higher-protein layer ration. But this sort of thing doesn’t happen with free-range chickens, for which cannibalism is pretty much unheard of. On free range, there’s no downside to free-choice grain. If you have a source of cheap grain, your eggs (and meat) will cost less if you feed grain on the side.
— Robert Plamondon, poultry expert
Photo by IStockPhoto/Amanda Klein