Chickens in winter enjoy sprouted barley, oat and rye seeds.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Animal Forage told how to use hydroponically sprouted greens to increase egg production from chickens in winter. We tried it here in New Mexico, and it worked . . . dramatically. By experimenting with the method over the past three years, we've developed our own variation on forage sprouting, and I'd like to tell you about it.
We start our sprouts in heavy aluminum foil trays of the sort you find in most discount stores . . . you know, the four-for-a-buck kind (the original MOTHER EARTH NEWS method employed shallow aluminum cake pans). For extra stiffness, we nest two trays together and then punch nail holes in the bottoms to insure good drainage.
We've sprouted mostly barley seeds (partly because we favor their sprouts for our own salads), but the cluckers really go for oat and rye shoots, too. No matter what you choose, just pour enough seed into the tray to line the bottom to a depth of about half an inch. Once you've got the correct measure for your pans, transfer the entire batch into a large jar for the first stage of growth. Run water into the container until the seed is completely covered, then stash the jar in a warm, dark place—sans lid—for a couple of days. (We've had excellent results without adding nutrients to the water.)
After about 48 hours, give the seed a thorough rinsing in its container, then pour the whole amount back into the tray, covering it with a moist cloth. Rinse the seed twice a day so that it doesn't get a chance to dry out (and, consequently, die). Except for this cleansing, leave the little forage factory alone: The sprouts will grow faster if undisturbed.
When the greens have reached a height of about half an inch, remove the cloth and place the tray next to a sunny window during the day. But since sprouts need to be at about room temperature for optimum growth, you'll want to take them away from the window at night to a warm spot . . . maybe near a stove or heater.
When you've got what looks like a miniature forest on your hands (we let the plants get about five inches tall), it's dinnertime! You can feed your flock directly from the sprouting pans, but we stretch our supply—and save our pans from getting torn up—by yanking out a patch of greens each day. If you start a new batch of seed every few days, you'll have a continuous supply of wintertime forage for your feathered egg-factories.
Our hens really go for the "taste of springtime" on those snowy, overcast days in January and February. It's almost as if they're grateful, and they work extra hard to produce as many eggs in winter as they do in June and July. Winter forage sprouting is fun, inexpensive, and darned rewarding in breakfast omelets . . . so give it a go!
No, "Chicken Tips" isn't some fancy recipe for sauteed boilers ... but it is a recipe, of sorts. In going through MOTHER EARTH NEWS to see what words of winter-egg-production wisdom had been offered to and by readers, we realized just how much of a concern low off-season production is for many "egg growers" living in the chillier climes of the country ... and how many good hints had been sent in over the years to combat the problem.
So we gathered a few of the best "oldies" and strung them them together in the form of Chicken Tips. Let us know how they work for you ... or if you have any time-tested methods of your own to share.
Toasted shells: a treat hens love to eat!
Reverend Larry D. Jones, Lyndon, Kansas
Most folks have heard about feeding eggshells to their original owners as an excellent sources of vital nutrients, especially calcium. But for added crispness—which makes it easier to grind the shells into a form the "girls" can eat—I toast the empty omelet housings. My layers just love these browned treats.
To make them, I use a microwave oven set on high, for about 8 minutes ... but a standard gas, electric, or wood oven—or even a skillet over low heat on a range top—works as well. Just experiment until you hit on the right time/temperature combination. I serve the hens their toasted treats first thing in the morning, about 15 minutes before they get their usual feed of grain. With this recycling method, my layers have been giving 100% production year round.
Bleach that water for healthier winter layers.
James DeKorne, El Rito, New Mexico
Homesteaders I know who water their chickens from an open container during the colder months (to help keep the liquid from freezing) say that a capful of bleach per 2 gallons of water will purify it effectively. Chickens are messy critters, and this technique helps keep their drinking water from becoming a medium for disease-causing organisms. Also, more drinking water means more eggs! (Once freezing water is over, it's best to return to using a covered container.)
Carnivorous cacklers just love to lay.
"Carl", Durango, Colorado
To stimulate my hens to lay in cold weather (and it gets plenty cold here!), I've had excellent results by giving them warm drinking water, and feeding them meat and fat scraps. Especially good is the "dust" from a meat saw. Any large supermarket with a meat-cutting department has plenty of these bonemeal-rich leavings. Some stores charge a small amount for the shavings, and some give the stuff away ... but in either case, it's less expensive than high-protein commercial feed, and it nets the same results. This diet raises the body temperature of the hens, which helps put them back into production.
En-lightened hens make better layers.
Kathleen Gordinier, Walworth, New York
One of the best tricks I've found to up the output of my hens in winter is to increase the hours of light they receive each day. When that season rolls around and the days grow short, I use an overhead bulb to extend the "daylight" to 14 hours.
I've got a few other health- and production-promoting tricks in my bag, too ... such as mixing in 1/4 cup of homemade apply cider vinegar with each gallon of water I give my poultry. The added acid, it seems, aids in balancing the layers' body chemicals.
Moreover, I let my chickens wander in and out of the barn (except during blizzards, of course), so they have plenty of opportunity to scratch. And just in case that's not enough exercise for the birds, I tie a few pieces of stale bread together with a string and hang it above their heads ... a trick that's sure to keep them jumping. These silly-sounding things must be working, because in all the time we've had homestead fowl, we've never lost a chicken or had to go without eggs!