As fall descends upon us here in the North — bringing with it frosty nights and then snowy days — most of the green that covers the earth turns to brown. Now we must begin to give our animals a little extra help if they're to make it through the long, dead winter.
Chickens, for example, can get by quite nicely during the summer on the bugs and green matter they find by themselves (plus a little grain as a scratch feed). In cold weather, though, the hens can no longer choose from the gourmet spread of nature's table . . . and must rely on us, their keepers, for the protein and other nutrients they need to remain healthy, happy, and productive.
Accordingly, fall is the time to lay in a supply of high-protein feed with a proper balance of vitamins and minerals. Good-quality commercial poultry rations do fill the bill, but are expensive and almost always adulterated with antibiotics, hormones, and who knows what. A lower-cost, chemical-free alternative is a custom feed mixture . . . which you can formulate quite easily, given a little knowledge of your chickens' nutritional needs and the food values of grains and protein supplements.
What To Feed Chickens
One encouragement to such a project is the following fact: Most grain elevators and other feed dealers will mix and grind a ration to whatever formula you specify . . . and will either sell you the makings or process ingredients you furnish (for example, grain you've grown yourself or purchased from a farmer).
If your local feed supplier doesn't offer a grinding and mixing service, you can buy what you need, take the ingredients home, and measure and combine them. This method has just one drawback: Part of the ration will consist of finely powdered protein supplements, which tend to separate from coarser particles (such as kernels of grain) and lie uneaten at the bottom of the feeder. It's therefore preferable to grind all mixed feed for chickens of any age . . . and this step is a must if the birds are very young. Perhaps a friendly neighbor who owns a hammermill will process the mix for you. Otherwise, small amounts of chick feed can be prepared in a blender or hand grain mill.
Now for some nutritional background. An average hen of a heavy breed requires about seven pounds of feed to produce a dozen eggs, and 15% of her diet should consist of protein. This need can be met in either of two ways:
 You can have a 15% ration made up, and keep a supply before your flock at all times.
 You can serve half the feed in the form of whole grains, in which case the other half of the chickens' nourishment must consist of a 20% mix to compensate for the lower protein content of the straight cereals.
The second feeding system is more economical because you need have only half the grain ground. It's also a little more laborious, though, since the correct amount of cereals — about 1/4 pound per bird — must be calculated and served out daily. Sorry, but you can't let the hens eat free choice if you use this method. They prefer whole grains over ground feed . . . and, if permitted, will gobble up bushels of tasty kernels and ignore the protein supplement which they need for good health.
The quality of that supplement, please note, is as important as the amount. All protein is composed of amino acids, which must be present in their full range to form a complete, fully usable bodybuilding material. Most sources are deficient in one or more of these acids . . . and the best way to be sure of a good balance is to offer a varied diet (as nature intended). (More detailed information on the composition of proteins can be found in Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet. — MOTHER.) The same holds true for vitamins and minerals: What's lacking in one food may be abundant in another, and no one source can provide all the essentials.
You should therefore aim for as much variety as is economically feasible in the cereals which are the main components of mixed chicken feed. Corn, oats, wheat, and barley — combined in any proportion — will provide an excellent base.
Formulating Your Own Chicken Feed
The protein content of a grain varies according to where and how the plant was grown. The average for most cereals, however, is about 10%. A supplement accordingly must be added to boost the feed's percentage . . . and again, it's best to use a variety of sources. Soybean meal and meat scrap are two excellent choices which offer a good balance of amino acids. Another possibility — alfalfa leaf meal — is also high in protein and, in addition, contains large amounts of vitamin A. If your feed dealer carries powdered milk, you may want to use some as a supplement to rations intended for baby chicks.
Some other nutrients — particularly calcium and phosphorus — must also be added in the form of supplements. The bodies of animals can assimilate other minerals properly only if these two are present in the correct proportion . . . in the case of chickens, about 2-1/2 times as much calcium as phosphorus. This need can be met by ground limestone and either steamed bone meal or dicalcium phosphate added to the feed in appropriate amounts. One more necessary poultry feed ingredient is iodized salt (since birds, of course, can't lick a salt block).
Now all we have to do is figure out how to put the various nutrients together in a combination which will contain a predetermined percentage of protein. This isn't as hard as it sounds, since there are formulas for the purpose. Unless you're a mathematical genius, however, you can't expect to apply such a rule to a wide variety of ingredients and end up with both accurate proportions and usable round numbers. Don't worry about it. The protein values of the suggested mixes are quite generous, and you needn't be afraid of shortchanging your flock if you have to alter their contents a little.
The first step in formulating a feed mixture is to call your local grain elevator or dealer and find out what protein supplements are used in your area. (Some excellent sources-fish meal or peanut oil meal, for instance — are available only in certain sections of the country.) Note down the percentage of protein in each supplement, and the price per 100 pounds (smaller lots may be more costly). At the same time, ask the fee for grinding and mixing. Some operators have a set minimum rate for this service, while others charge so much per bag. And — speaking of bags — check the price of burlap sacks if you don't have your own.
You should be aware, at this stage in your project, that it's good economics to have feed mixed in the largest practicable quantities. If possible, plan to buy all your ingredients in 50 or 100-pound lots and take home any extras to be used the next time you whip up a batch. In northern regions, where the cold tends to retard deterioration, the storage of ground grains presents no problems in winter and you'll do well to have an entire season's chicken rations prepared all at once.
OK, at this point you know — on the basis of your own resources and your conversation with the feed dealer — what ingredients you want to include in the ration you're formulating and you also have an idea of how big a batch you want made up. It's now time to sit down and figure out how many pounds of each component you'll need for a given weight of balanced mix. This is done by the "square" method.
First write down the percentages of protein contained in all the supplements you plan to use, add the figures, and take the average (I'm assuming you intend to use the ingredients in equal amounts). A protein value of 10% is always assigned to grains of whatever type, since that's the overall average for common cereals.
Next, decide what protein content you want for the mix as a whole. You'll need a 20% ration if you're going to feed laying hens half whole grain and half mix, 15% if mix is fed exclusively, 20% for baby chicks up to 8 weeks of age, and 16% for young birds from 8 weeks to laying or slaughter size.
Draw a rectangle on a sheet of paper and write in the center the percentage of protein desired for the ration. In the upper left-hand corner, jot the word "grain" and the assumed value of 10. Enter the word "supplement" in the lower left-hand corner, with the average figure for these ingredients. Then subtract diagonally — always taking the smaller number from the larger — and note the answers on the right. The figure in the lower right-hand corner (see the image gallery for illustration) is the amount of supplement, in pounds, you'll need to combine with the quantity of grain (also in pounds) shown directly above.
Let's suppose, for example, that you intend to make up a I5% ration from two types of grain and the following protein supplements: soybean meal (44%), meat scrap (50%), and alfalfa leaf meal (17%). The total of these percentages is 111, and their average is 37. This number is entered in the lower left-hand corner of the rectangle (see Figure 1 in the image gallery). The value for grain — 10 — is noted above, and the desired protein content of the ration — 15 — in the center of the diagram. Diagonal subtraction shows that for every 22 pounds of grain you'll add 5 pounds of supplement . . . or, for roughly 100 pounds of ration, 88 of grain and 20 of protein booster.
Calcium compounds and salt are added in proportion to the total weight of feed. For every 100-pound lot of ration, you should include 1/2 pound of salt, 1-1/2 pounds of ground limestone, and 2-1/2 pounds of dicalcium phosphate or steamed bone meal.
If you're purchasing 100-plus pounds of mixed ration, here's what the formula will look like when you take it to the elevator or dealer:
44 pounds corn or oats
44 pounds wheat or barley
7 pounds soybean meal
7 pounds alfalfa leaf meal
6 pounds meat scrap
1/2 pound iodized salt
1-1/2 pounds ground limestone
2-1/2 pounds dicalcium phosphate or steamed bone meal
Grind all together.
As you can see, the amounts don't come out exactly accurate and you have to juggle the figures a bit. As long as you don't stray too far from the original calculations, though, the mixture will be excellent nutritionally.
The recipe used in the example above will supply laying hens with all the nutrients they need . . . and any number of protein supplements can be interchanged or supplemented in the formula. The image gallery illustration gives other sample mixes for chickens at various stages of development.
If you're mixing feed for baby chicks, you'll have to consider their increased need for protein, most vitamins (particularly choline and the rest of the B complex), and minerals other than calcium . . . especially manganese. Wheat and wheat by-products contain ample amounts of choline and manganese and should certainly be included in your mixture.
Also, since newly hatched chicks aren't usually exposed to sunlight, a vitamin D supplement must he added to their ration. One pint of cod liver oil — from the drugstore — per 100 pounds of feed will supply the requirement . . . or the feed supplier can add vitamin D in powder form. Don't underestimate the importance of this precaution! If you omit it, your growing flock may well develop rickets.
A good additive to winter feed for older birds is sprouted grain. To prepare a supply, half fill a bucket with any good cereal, cover the kernels with water, and let them soak overnight. In the morning, drain off the liquid and cover the pail to shut out the fight. Keep the contents moist, warm, and dark, and stir them up once or twice a day. When the sprouts are 1/2 to 3 inches long, they're ready to give your flock a taste of spring in mid-winter.
We're indebted for the nutritional information in this article to F.B. Morrison's Feeds and Feeding (Morrison Publishing Co., Clinton, Iowa). (Unfortunately, this work is no longer in print. It's a standard reference in its field, however, and should be available from your local library. — MOTHER.) The practical applications we suggest have been worked out over four years of raising chickens organically, and we're passing them on with the hope that they'll work as well for you as they have for us. It's a pretty good bet that they will. Winter your birds on a well-balanced ration — plus all your table scraps, produce parings, and eggshells, with maybe a bucket of sprouts now and then — and don't be surprised if you end up with the healthiest flock in your neighborhood!