Homegrown Chicken Nutrition: What to Feed Your Poultry

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Growing your own chicken feed is a great way to ensure your birds stay happy and healthy.

Reprinted with permission from the Organic Broadcaster newspaper, published by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). 

As a poultry nutrition specialist, Jeff Mattocks talks to a lot of farmers about how to best meet the nutritional needs of their birds. “When I talk to people, I first have to determine if they are raising birds for personal use, or if they are trying to make money; if they are raising Cornish Cross, or some other species.” Their answers, Jeff said, dictates the advice he gives. 

Poultry will eat many different things, and live. But, to grow efficiently and be cost-effective for egg or meat production, very specific nutritional needs must be met. Cornish Cross industry birds have been bred to thrive on very specific diets, and will not fare well with non-standard feeds. “Heirloom birds have stronger immune systems, and carry different bacteria in their digestive tracts,” Jeff claimed. “They are more tolerant of diversity in their diets.” 

A good place to start in understanding the nutritional needs of poultry is Feeding Poultry on Pasture, a book Jeff produced in 2013. Available from MOSES, this 100-page reference contains a wealth of information on feed ingredients and rations, including comprehensive charts on the nutritional needs of various types of poultry. It also has charts with the nutritional analysis of numerous grains and feed ingredients. 

There are several things poultry producers can do to enhance or supplement a traditional poultry ration, Jeff said. He shared the following tips in a workshop, “Grind and Grow Your Own Poultry Feed,” at the 2014 MOSES Conference. 

Grow Your Own

Even very small-scale producers without a lot of equipment can grow up to 30 or 40 percent of their bird’s diet, Jeff claimed. “The first thing I’d recommend people look at is growing field peas,” Jeff advised. They are easy to grow, will dry on the vine and can be fed whole to older and mature poultry. Peas for younger poultry will need to be cracked. 

“Wheat is a great grain to add to almost any poultry diet, and easy to grow without a lot of equipment,” he added. Whole wheat can be added up to 30% of a ration without having to make any other changes. Jeff explained that you can grow wheat using a rototiller to scuff up the soil, and plant the seed either by hand-broadcast or using a seeder and then raking it in. “The harvesting will be the hardest part,” Jeff advised, “ask around your neighborhood, someone may have a pull- behind combine.” But even a scythe can be used, with old-fashioned hand-thrashing. Chickens will eat the wheat whole, so no processing is needed.

Naked oats are much the same, but can only be fed up to 20 percent of the ration. Production is similar as for wheat. Jeff advised that other small grains, such as barley have more fiber, and so must be used as a smaller portion of the ration and will need more processing before use. 

Of course, anyone with the right equipment can grow their own corn and soybeans for poultry feed. Soy must be roasted, however, before it can be digested by chickens, and can be very harmful if not roasted properly. So be careful to do research before taking this on. 

Pasture Recommendations

“Everyone always asks about how to grow the best pasture for poultry, but I see pasture as mainly a vehicle for bugs in a chicken’s world,” Jeff noted. “You want to build a polyculture — a house for protein,” he said. “Don’t work on what is green. Focus on the insects and what is below the green.” He has observed that chickens scratch and peck for a wide diversity of insects, worms, small amphibians, spiders, crickets and grubs. A pasture high in thatch will harbor more of this population. This is why chickens do especially well following in pastures after ruminants, where the larger animals can trample the thatch, and lay down manure, improving conditions for insects. 

Jeff even goes so far as to recommend rolling out an old round of mulch hay. “Let it rest a month, turn the birds loose and watch the party,” he laughs. The decomposing mulch creates a perfect insect habitat, especially for crickets, a favorite chicken food. “This is a great way to rejuvenate unproductive, worn-out land or bare ground.” 

While Jeff admits the pasture itself is good for the chickens, bringing vitamins, chlorophyll and other qualities, it’s not nearly the feed replacement that people think it is. Pasture will not replace a significant percentage of the nutritional needs provided by a grain-based ration in the production bird. 

That said, chickens love good clover. A clover and rye grass mix is an especially good pasture mix for chickens. “Use a short clover, such as Alsike,” Jeff recommended, mixed with Italian rye grass. “The two crops feed each other.” He cautioned against any kind of bunching grasses, such as fescue, as they will get tough and quickly beyond the 6-8 inch height chickens like. “The chickens are going for the sugars in growing things, and prefer young and tender,” he noted. 

Other Considerations

The development of commercial grain sprouting systems, now adopted by dairies, has expanded interest in sprout growing for poultry feed. “If you have the time, the chickens will love sprouts,” Jeff advised. But, they will do little to fill nutrient needs and will not save money. 

Some small-scale farmers have claimed success with growing worms or grubs for poultry food. Although a good protein source and popular with chickens new research shows that chickens can become populated with bacteria and other pathogens that the worms ingest. “You’ll want to be careful what you feed to the worms,” he cautioned.

Some producers have successfully been grinding grains to create home-raised rations. Since ground grains quickly lose quality, on-farm grinders can ensure freshness in poultry feed. Again, Jeff said that this is a great way to go, but might not save time or money. He only knows of one company in the U.S. that sells farm-scale mills (C.S. Bell Company, Tiffin, Ohio).

When looking for ways to diversify or expand your poultry flock’s diet, Jeff recommends simplicity in management as a key consideration. “If you get enjoyment out of growing feed for your poultry, then certainly go ahead. The birds will enjoy it, too.”

Photo by Fotolia/Roman Gorielov.

Reprinted with permission from the Organic Broadcaster newspaper, published by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).

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