Friday, April 30, 2010

Chicken Pickin's

Is there a way to minimize purchased inputs when it comes to your chickens? Obviously, a backyard is too small to grow grains for their feed. Eventually, I want to learn how to grind and mix my own feed. Many people recommend that. For now, however, I buy them a high quality organic layer feed.

Traditionally, people have supplemented their chickens’ diets with kitchen scraps and leftovers from human dinners, using the chickens, in the words of our extension agent, as “garbage disposals.” I haven’t done much of that, for several reasons. First, I doubt whether, left to their own devices, chickens would make a fire and cook up some grub. It seems to me that it is more natural for them to eat raw food.

Secondly, much of what humans (American humans, anyway) eat these days is not healthy for humans, let alone chickens. We try to eat healthfully most of the time, but we enjoy things like chocolate cake now and then (more often when I was younger and could more easily keep the weight off!) I wouldn’t dream of giving chickens chocolate cake. They’d have to fight me for it, like anyone else, and although at 4’9” tall I’m smaller than most grown people, I’m bigger than a chicken!

Seriously, the white flour and sugar are empty calories, let alone the hazards of the giving chocolate to animals. If you think I’m crazy to even mention chocolate, you should check out the Backyard Chickens message board sometime. I once saw a post asking whether it was okay to give chickens chocolate. Some of the moderators eventually put together a list of safe “chicken treats” in response to all the questions they were getting.

I’m not trying to put down posters on that site. Some terrific people post over there and I don’t know how I would have made it through my first year of chicken keeping without them. Everyone is extraordinarily helpful.

It is also the largest site devoted to backyard flocks that I know of, and so is a great place to get a sense of what’s going in with the trend. The problem I see is that many people want to treat chickens as pets rather than livestock. Even when you start out, as I did, with the intention of treating them as livestock, if you have just a small number of birds, you find yourself naming them and getting attached to them whether you want to or not.

One problem with treating them as pets is the desire to give them “treats.” People want to give their beloved pets foods they (the humans) enjoy. The result is a lot of fat family dogs and cats. Even foods like pasta, unless it is whole grain, can contribute to obesity (as with humans) because it is mostly empty carbohydrates. Our extension agent says many of the chickens kept in backyards are obese and that obesity causes many of the reproductive disorders you see in chickens, such as double-yolked eggs, internal laying, and prolapses.

What I’ve tried to do is observe my chickens and let them educate me about their diet. They have tiny brains, but they are programmed with specific information related to their survival as a species.

What I’ve learned from my chickens is this:

* They do not particularly care for cooked food, even on a cold winter morning. I’ve read and heard from many sources that cooked grains are good for warming up chickens in winter. Mine had no interest in the oatmeal I lovingly prepared for them. I offered it a couple of times, thinking maybe it was just unfamiliar to them. The only time they went for it was when I put diced apple in it. Then they just picked out the apple! I tried making a porridge of their layer mash and hot water, but they didn’t go for that, either.

Unlike many other chickens I’ve read about, mine do not care for pasta. I even offered them the good stuff, whole grain pasta. They nibbled a bit, turned up their beaks, and walked away. The only cooked food I ever got them to eat was popcorn. But they only like it occasionally.

* They are omnivores; consequently, they usually don’t want the same treats over and over. I knew, intellectually, that they are omnivores, but it didn’t really sink in until I tried giving them something they seemed to like more than once. They went crazy for popcorn the first time I gave it to them, so I made it again the next day. They just looked at me, as if to say, “Popcorn, AGAIN? With no movie? What else have you got?”

Similarly, when they were molting in winter, I read that you should give them a little extra protein. Some people give them dog or cat food, but I questioned the quality of that. Then I read about a woman who gave her chickens deer liver when they were molting. Since liver is a high quality protein, and I happened to some pastured turkey livers in the freezer, I offered them liver. They went crazy for it. The next day I brought out more, and they were, “meh.”

* The “never fail” treats they will always go for, no matter how many days in a row or times per day you offer them are greens, bugs, worms, and grubs. Big surprise, huh? These are the foods closest to what their ancestors, Asian jungle fowl, ate in the wild. The great thing is, you can give your chickens their favorite (and most healthful) treats and minimize purchased inputs at the same time! One of their favorite treats is dandelions, which are extraordinarily nutritious (for people and chickens!).

Whenever Batgirl, one of our Barred Rocks, gets away from me, she makes a bee line for the raspberry and strawberry patch. So now I give them leaves from raspberry shoots coming up where I don’t want them, as well as leaves from extra strawberry runners. I’ve also given them extra parsley from the herb bed, volunteer squash shoots coming up in the compost, pea vines after I harvest the peas, and carrot tops. They also love the leaves, flowers, and seeds of sunflowers – the only crop I plant specifically for them.

Last summer when I was moving their tractor to a new spot on the lawn, I happened to pass over an ant hill and they went crazy. So I just left the tractor there, and they had a blast cleaning out the ant hill. The next day I set them over another ant hill and fairly quickly had my yard cleaned of ants.

One of the hard realities I’ve learned about backyard chickens is that you can’t really let them run free – unless you don’t have a garden. Some people fence off their gardens and give their chickens free run of the rest of the yard. But that only works if your garden is limited to one spot in your yard. From my reading, I thought I’d be able to let them run around and take care of any bug problems in my yard. I especially hoped they’d be a big help with the Japanese beetles. In practice, we’ve had pick the beetles off our roses and cherry trees and serve them up to the chickens, who will greedily devour them.

The reason is that chickens will eat many kinds of greens (even the ones you don’t want them to eat) and will dig huge holes in the garden where you don’t want them. For example, a neighbor who lives a few blocks away from me let her chickens run free, for just an hour or so every evening, in her back yard and they quickly decimated all her hostas.

They’ll work their way through your vegetable garden, too. For instance, they’re smart enough to avoid eating tomato leaves, which are harmful to them, but they love tomatoes – and especially enjoy taking a few pecks from each tempting fruit you have hanging on your vines.

Chickens are champion diggers. Apparently convinced they’re going to find something good somewhere in there, they relentlessly dig without rest. One of my neighbors who has no experience of chickens, watched ours in disbelief one afternoon. “What are they looking for?” he asked. “They just won’t stop!”

It’s useful when you want to turn the soil in spring, so I put up temporary netting wherever I want them to dig and let them have at it. Yesterday, when I went to return them to their pen, I noticed that Amelia was outside the temporary netting. She had dug her way free and was busily digging a deep hole under a nearby shrub.

So, the point is that there are plenty of things you can feed your chickens, or allow them access to, that will keep them happy and healthy and will help to minimize your purchased inputs. I’m convinced that a major reason my chickens are so healthy without antibiotics or vitamin supplements, and survived the winter so well, is that I feed them greens twice a day. Greens are nutritional powerhouses – for chickens and people. I’m trying to get more into my diet.

Unfortunately, since they’re backyard chickens, I usually have to serve the greens up to the chickens, rather than let them forage for them on their own. I hang them in suet cages, in part, to keep them busy for awhile pulling them out. Watching them time their movements so they can deftly grasp a green sticking out of a swinging suet cage, I began to think giving them their greens this way, rather than just throwing them on the ground, might also help to keep their reflexes sharp. They don’t get many opportunities to use their quick reflexes since they’re penned up most of the time.

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