Because they’re omnivores, chickens are perhaps the most salvage-savvy critter on the farmstead. Historically, their cleaner-upper role predated compost piles for getting rid of food and garden waste and for generally ridding a farmscape of ticks and beetles.
The chicken’s compatriot, of course, was the pig, especially on dairies and cheese-making outfits. A pig can scarf down copious amounts of whey and spoiled milk. Chickens like these liquids too, but it takes a lot of chickens to go through 5 gallons of whey. Amazingly, in the days prior to chemical fertilizer and mechanization, skim milk offered a more reliable and cheaper protein feedstock than soybeans did. My, how times change.
Pat Foreman, chicken whisperer and guru of keeping urban flocks, says we have enough food scraps in America to feed every egg layer we need to provide all the eggs we currently use. Can you imagine a country without a single commercial egg outfit, not because the population ate no eggs, but because the food system was so tightly integrated in a closed-loop model that chickens intercepted the waste stream? Now wouldn’t that be a place to live?
Laying hens, like humans, need both protein and carbohydrates. While I’m a huge fan of feeding food scraps to chickens and have done so all my life, it’s often not a totally balanced diet. Because a bird’s metabolism is high, it’s less forgiving of nutritional shortfalls than the metabolism of other animals. Relative to muscle tissue, a bird packs on less fat than herbivores and pigs do.
Probably some of that lower stored-energy physiology is just to keep her from being too heavy to fly. After all, a chicken is a bird. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that. Birds have high metabolisms. They need to eat frequently and they can’t gorge themselves today and sleep it off over the next two days.
If you think you’re going to feed your chickens on kitchen scraps alone, you need to supply a constant, steady plate. Often, that’s not the way kitchen scraps develop. One day you have a bucket full and the next nothing — especially if you eat out for a couple of meals that week.
Perhaps no one has written more creatively and definitively on this subject than Harvey Ussery in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. I won’t go over all his creative ideas here; just read the book. But one of the things he suggests is to compost kitchen scraps with worms. That way, the worms will offer a steady protein source during the ebb and flow of kitchen and garden waste.
Worms also turn carbohydrates into protein. A chicken needs to eat food that’s about 14 to 16 percent protein. Corn averages around 7 percent protein. Some of the heritage varieties are much higher — even more than 10 percent in some cases.
The main thing to remember when turning food and garden waste into poultry feed, however, is that much of the weight is water. So when you look up how much poultry feed a chicken eats in a day, you’ll need to multiply by at least a factor of three to adjust for moist feedstock.
For dry feedstock, a healthy, productive dual-purpose laying hen will eat 5 to 6 ounces a day of a total mixed ration commonly available from a feed supply store. Realize that at a factor of three, the chickens would require more than a pound a day. If the material is really juicy, such as tomatoes or lettuce, the factor should increase to four or five. At that point, the volume would be so great that the bird wouldn’t be able to ingest enough to satiate because her digestive tract simply couldn’t hold that much material. Can you imagine a human trying to stay satisfied on nothing but cabbage and lettuce?
She needs more than just minerals and fiber. And to complicate the food-scrap regimen, a nice variety won’t always occur in any given meal preparation. For example, peelings from cucumbers may pile up without a commensurate amount of meat scraps for protein.
Fortunately, chickens’ protein requirements per day are measured in ounces, so a little goes a long way. Worms, grubs, and any other creepy-crawlies provide wonderful sources of protein. But anything with meat will work.
Old-timers in our community tell me that one of the first chores for farm kids used to be shooting, trapping, or snaring a small animal and giving it to the chickens in winter, when protein-rich bugs and worms were unavailable. A skunk, squirrel, rabbit, possum, or raccoon with its belly slit open offered a welcome feast for protein-starved chickens.
Done once a week, this fresh meat and viscera protein would carry the home flock until the following week. Today, here at Polyface, we routinely throw in roadkill or deer carcasses (after we’ve harvested most of the meat) left over from hunting into the chicken shelters during winter. They may take several days to actually peck off the final flecks of meat from a carcass, but they will eventually clean it completely and enjoy the choice.
The difficulty in balancing the scraps fed to flocks is why I recommend having a ration on offer. Even if the birds receive most of their food from scraps, they can always supplement it from the trough. This way you can be sure the birds are getting everything they want and need.
Fortunately, chickens don’t watch TV or read advertisements at the supermarket. They aren’t swayed by marketing slogans or graphic artists. And even though they don’t have the biggest brains in the world, their brains are plenty big enough to signal to their beaks exactly what they need to eat. Chickens, like all animals, have a wonderful innate sense of what they need to stay healthy, and they’ll seek out what is necessary.
Having that safety valve of feed on the sideboard will ensure that your birds won’t suddenly lack an important nutrient. Remember, their metabolism is faster than a cat’s or a cow’s.
One of the big challenges when feeding food scraps is hygiene and sanitation. As smart as chickens are, I’ve never seen anyone train a chicken to eat with chopsticks or silverware. If you give them a dinner plate filled with scraps from your kitchen, I guarantee that your hens will not surround it civilly and reach over the side to peck out the morsels. One chicken won’t defer to another with proper etiquette and cluck, “After you, friend.” No, they’ll be all over that plate, scratching, pecking, examining. In moments, all the plate’s contents will be spread around the pen and throughout the bedding.
When feeding juicy scraps, be sure they’re in a pan with a high enough side that the birds won’t be able to scratch it all over the area. Not only will that create an unsightly mess, but it might also facilitate parasite ingestion. Ideally, a feeding system that denies the birds actual scratching access is the best. This is why commercially manufactured feeders contain spindles on top.
A simple exclusion board on top of the pan, allowing side access but not chicken entry, will help keep everything clean. Just be sure that the pan is narrow enough to allow the birds to reach the middle. Of course, big, coarse items, such as garden weeds, are great to add to a quasi-composting area. Let this area build up and the ongoing decomposition will help keep it sanitary by default.
Another option is to place the juicy food scraps on a wire mesh or slatted platform so that whatever gets scratched out doesn’t land on the ground or the bedding. The birds will go ahead and pick up dropped morsels from there, and the juice will drain below the permeable platform. If you keep the carbon bedding deep enough under this platform, the moisture will feed a gentle decomposition process and the chickens won’t drag wetness around the area.
From time to time, you should move the platform to a new area and let the birds enjoy the worms and bugs that will inevitably be drawn to the wet area. They’ll churn it up, adding oxygen, and that will stimulate more decomposition, bugs, and goodies.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about feeding meat and meal scraps to chickens is that laying hens offer a biological barrier between the scraps and what you eat. This is a degree of separation that can give all of us peace of mind that we’re not going to catch some pestilence from our feathered friends.
Obviously, when the hens age and it’s time for the stewpot, this separation is not the case, but nature is seldom perfect. After all, we need to build up our immunities, too.
In all, I don’t know of a more hard-working companion in ecological function than the home laying hen. She offers personality, diligence, and function beyond anything else, clucking happily as she goes about her work and paying dividends in one of nature’s most perfect foods. What’s not to love about that?
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