Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Getting Chickens to Eat Their Added Vitamins and Minerals

Years ago, I experimented with a locally mixed layer feed for my hens.  It smelled so delicious I wanted to cook it myself, and they loved it!  After a while though, I began to notice a buildup of powder at the bottom of their feeders.  It would compact in the bottom and block the actual feed from coming down where they could reach it, so I had to scoop it out every so often.

This was the vitamin and mineral mix the feed company had added in.  In addition to being finely ground and difficult for the birds to pick up with their beaks, I think the taste wasn't very appealing either, so they just ate around it.  Seemed like a waste, and they didn't get the vital nutrients they needed.

I eventually gave up on that feed, bothered by the constant waste.

Fast forward a couple of years and I began mixing my own feed with added vitamins and minerals.  Guess what?  The bottom of my feeders started clogging up again and my birds didn't touch the relatively expensive vitamins I so carefully mixed in with their feed.

There Had to Be a Better Way

Wasting money is bad.  So is having birds that aren't getting the nutrients and amino acids they need to utilize their feed.  All of my animals shared the same water, so water soluble vitamins weren't an option.

Enter soaking.  Soaking is the very best way to make sure our birds get what they need.  It allowed me to put other things in their feed too, such as herbal wormer or other powdered additives to boost them from time to time.

Additionally, soaking makes the grains softer and easier to digest.  The birds love getting their daily soaked grains!  

If you pack water for your birds, you'll be delighted at how much less water they consume when eating mostly soaked grains.

How to Soak Chicken Feed

If you're feeding a homemade whole grain feed, soaking couldn't be simpler.  12-24 hours before you feed it, put your feed into a 5 gallon bucket and fill water up to 3-4 inches above the top of the grain.  Pelleted and mashed mixes might not work as well so you may want to test soak a small batch to see how your birds react.

A few minutes before feeding, drain the grains of all water.  We accomplish this by using a two part bucket system.  The top one has holes and can be lifted out of the intact bottom one.  This only works if the grain level is below the top of the bottom bucket.  We lift the bucket, set it on sticks across the top of the bottom bucket, and walk away to make coffee or whatever morning routine we're at that day. 

With a smaller flock, I used old cake pans and sprinkled the vitamins over the top before soaking.  Depending on where you'll be leaving them, you may want to select containers that can be covered to keep pests out.  I had two pans so I could pick up yesterday's when delivering today's feed.

In warmer weather, soaking can be done outdoors.  If you're using Fertrell's Poultry Nutri-Balancer, like we do, I strongly suggest soaking your grain outdoors.  The smell is rather pervasive and not something I like to have in the house.  

In freezing weather, soaking needs to be done indoors.  To avoid the odor issue, I wait until I feed to mix the vitamins in.  The grains are moist and the vitamins stick to them, although maybe not quite as readily as when they're soaked together.  

Feeding Soaked Grains

Make sure you feed only what your birds will eat in a day.  Standard birds eat an average of four ounces a day; less for banties.  In extreme temperatures, it's better to feed twice a day to avoid spoilage potential or freezing.  They can't peck the individual grains if they're frozen together.

To make sure my birds can self feed when they need more food, I always leave a dry mix of grain out for them, without the vitamins.  They prefer the soaked grains so I haven't had a concern about them getting enough of the vitamins - they'll usually only eat the dry grain when they run out of wet.

When you see how much they love eating soaked grains, how easy it is to manage and how effective it is for feeding minerals, vitamins and other powders without waste, I think you'll be converted, too.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mixing Your Own Chicken (and Goat) Feed

Good nutrition is the single most important factor for raising healthy, productive chickens.  Spend some time reading up on nutritional requirements and it's easy to see why most of us might just prefer to head down to the feed store and pick up a bag of scientifically balanced food.

While buying premixed feed might be easier, it is certainly not cost efficient and the ingredients can be questionable.  Mixing your own chicken feed gives you complete control over the formula, the costs and the health of your poultry.  The beauty of this mix is that it can be used for multiple types of livestock, saving you time and the hassle of storing different feeds separately.

Before You Get Started
Before you start mixing your own feed, take a look around your local area and find out what is available.  Getting it locally saves on the cost of transportation, which can add up to a considerable savings.  We live in an area of plentiful oats, barley and field peas, so those form the basis of my feed mixes and all come to a cost of under ten cents per pound when purchased in bulk.

I got a lot of my information on individual grains from Feedipedia, which is an excellent resource when you want to learn about virtually any foodstuff typically used in feeding animals and research the grains that may be available to you in your own area.

Understanding Protein Requirements
Every animal has certain nutritional requirements.  One of the most important is protein.  I want to be able to feed this mix to all of my animals instead of mixing special batches for each species.

Lactating dairy goats need from 12-20%, depending on the quality and type of forage they have available.  UMN breaks this down excellently in Feeding Dairy Goats.  We feed free choice alfalfa, but during summer they pasture too, so my goal was to provide a consistent 16% protein feed to my goats.

Laying hens need 16-18% protein too, according to UC Davis, so mixing one batch to feed both goats and chickens is starting to make sense.

The big difference in the two is their mineral requirements.  We handle this by supplying minerals separately.  The goats get free choice Redmond Naturals 90 and Sweetlix, either Meat Maker or Caprine Magnum Milk, depending on what I can get (Magnum is a special order).

To the laying hen feed mix, I add Fertrell's Poultry Nutri-Balancer, which is applied at a recommended rate of 60 pounds per 2,000 pounds of feed.  This works out to .48 ounces per pound of feed.  They also have free choice oyster shell and whatever garden and kitchen scraps I can spare.

The importance of minerals cannot be stressed enough.  Adequate and correct minerals are essential for optimal health.  Deficiencies in various vitamins and minerals can affect reproductive health, parasite resistance and both milk and egg production, in addition to causing a host of other health issues.

Also, chickens cannot produce certain essential amino acids and need to get them from their feed sources.  Of particular importance in the following feed mix is the fact that field peas are trypsin inhibitors and can cause health issues if amino acids aren't also provided.

Homemade Livestock Feed

Now, onto the ingredients.  We sourced items that were easy to get here at bulk prices.  This means we're buying 1,000-2,000 pounds at a time, although the minimums for bulk orders are usually much lower than that.  The goal is to buy once a year to cut down on gas costs and give us a cushion of feed if for any reason we can't go on a bulk buy.  

One important thing to note about individual ingredients is that they all have a recommended maximum inclusion rate based on research for each animal type.  Because goats eat forage and hay also, their ration does not represent a significant portion of their daily intake.  Chickens, on the other hand, get the majority of their nutrition from this feed mix, so the amounts I use are based on the data provided by Feedipedia for poultry maximum inclusion rates.  The information is freely available, so when in doubt, research each feed type to be sure it will work for you.

All of these numbers work for rabbits, too, but developing a complete ration for them is a whole 'nother article.

Barley is a staple in most livestock feeding programs.  It is also widely available and inexpensive.  It has 11.8% average protein.  Studies show rolling improves digestibility over whole grain, but grinding can cause a host of problems.  Whole will retain nutrition better.  The choice of processing type is up to you, your storage capabilities and the animals you're feeding.  This accounts for 20% of the total ration.

Oats average 11% protein.  They are high in starch and fiber, mostly because of the hull.  Interestingly, studies have shown little or no effect on growth rates and other measurable factors when oats were processed by rolling or crimping.  Even more interestingly, crushing oats caused lower milk fat production in dairy cows.  This means whole oats are a perfectly reasonable choice over rolled, making sourcing them a little bit easier.

Oats are a hot grain and can increase body temperature, so it is not recommended to feed these to poultry during hot weather.  Our birds eat little grain during the summer anyway, so I am including that at up to 20% of the total ration.

Field peas are an excellent source of protein for all kinds of livestock and are better tolerated than lentils, with only slightly less protein at 24%.  For goats, they can be included at a rate of up to 23% of total ration (keep in mind the goats' ration includes their forage, so 23% is easy to stay within).  They have a sweet smell and all the animals love to eat them.

Peas are trypsin inhibitors and can cause pancreatic trouble if fed at too high a rate.  The nutrition rep at Fertrell said it is for that reason they recommend no more than 600 pounds of peas per 2,000 pounds of ration, or 30%.  He also said yellow peas do better for poultry than green.  Thanks for the info, Casey!

NOTE:  Heat treating, such as cooking or roasting, destroys the trypsin inhibiting factor of field peas. If you have a small flock or an efficient way to heat treat peas, they can be included at a higher rate.  For us, it didn't seem practical because we have 60 birds, but this would be an excellent way to get all the needed protein for a small flock.

Sunflower Seeds
There is very little not to love about sunflower seeds.  They are proven in studies to improve the quality of milk by adding essential fatty acids.  The animals love them, they have good protein and high fat.  The only potential downside is high pesticide residues.  Our personal goal is to start producing enough of our own.  At a suggested maximum of 6% of the total ration, growing our own is not too far out of reach.  In the meantime, they are easily sourced at the feed store.

How Much of Each Grain?

Here's where the calculations get tricky.  In order to keep the minimum protein levels, you might need to source something like linseed meal or soybean meal, but I didn't want to try to source an expensive organic option for these.  Instead, this grain mix will account for 76% of their daily ration and the remainder will be made up of milk, kitchen scraps and forage, all of which contribute much needed protein.  We also raise mealworms to sell and to feed the chickens, something you could easily do with a spare closet if you're so inclined.

The total protein when combining 30% peas, 20% oats, 20% barley and 6% black oil sunflower seeds is 16.78%.  You need the remaining 24% to be at 15% protein or higher to maintain a total protein of 16%.  The bugs and critters free range chickens forage will provide a large amount of that, but special attention will need to be paid during winter months.

Here are some other grains with their protein content and maximum inclusion rates for poultry:

Pearl Millet: 12.4% protein, feed at 15%
Sorghum: 10.8% protein, feed at up to 70%
Linseed meal: 34.1% protein, feed at up to 10%
Soybean meal: 51.8% protein, feed at up to 40% (must be heat treated in processing, trypsin inhibitor)
Rapeseed meal: 38.3% protein, feed up to 15%
Alfalfa: 18.3% protein, feed a "fairly low" amount (I am guessing 10-20% based on documentation)

For us, the soybean and rapeseed meals are a concern because of GMO content (soy is worth researching more, it has other concerns).  If you can find organic varieties of those, you'd have no trouble whatsoever getting to the minimum protein recommendation.

Cost of Homemade Livestock Feed

Prices at the time of this writing are $.08-$.10 per pound for field peas, barley and oats.  BOSS is $19.99 for 40-pounds at the feed store.  Using the percentages for inclusion listed above, the grand total per pound comes to $.17, including Fertrell's Nutri-Balancer.  The average chicken eats four ounces per day and this is 76% of the daily ration, or about 3 ounces per day.  That comes to $11.79 per year per chicken.  

When I calculated our own costs, I added in milk at a weight basis to complete the ration.  The last time I calculated, my cost per gallon (8 pounds) to produce my own milk was $1.72.  Using this new and improved feed ration, it will be lower, but with the $1.72 a gallon rate, my total cost for a complete, home mixed chicken feed came to $16.78 per chicken per year.  That number is highly overestimated, since we free range as long as it's practical from spring to fall so they will eat virtually no homemade grain mix at least half of the year.  Keeping the total high allows me to over budget and include extra funds for replacement birds and various bird related expenses.

We have two high quality non GMO sources of chicken feed in our area.  The costs per pound of these two ranges from $.25-$.39.  Conventional chicken feed is still around $.25 per pound, so this non GMO, few ingredient chicken food is less expensive than virtually all bagged food options.

Mixing It All Up

Mixing the grain can be quite a chore.  I use a coffee can and scoop out parts of each type into a 5-gallon bucket, where one of the kids is usually eager to help "stir."  Once it is roughly mixed, we dump the bucket into a trash can and begin again.  A cement mixer is on our wish list though - I've heard they work great for mixing up batches of grain!

While it is important to pay attention to inclusion rates and get a balanced ratio, don't forget that chickens have been around for a lot longer than scientists.  You aren't going to kill them by feeding 35% peas or not enough protein, but aiming for this optimal mix will help your hens produce to their potential and maintain better health through nutrition.

What I'm saying by all that is that you don't need to weigh out each portion exactly.  Just get a pretty close estimate and work from there.  You could weigh one time and then put marks on a coffee can or scoop to help you know about how much to mix for the future.

There's also a lot more leeway if you're supplementing pasture and foraging with a homemade feed mix.  Free range birds can seek out the nutrition they need and make up for any shortages with the feed you provide.  This allows them to be as close to their natural inclinations as possible without sacrificing egg production or bird health.

While not fancy or "gourmet," this chicken food recipe will give you the foundation for eliminating your dependence on processed chicken feed and saving money, two things I think almost any homesteader can get behind.

Happy mixing!