One of the points I always try to convey when I host farm tours at Polyface Farm is that chickens are omnivores. Visitors have no problem with the fact that pastured poultry eat lots of green grass, herbs and clover, but cringe at the notion that these beautiful, healthy birds also supplement their diet with plenty of animal foods as well. In the green season, the birds eat lots of grasshoppers and fly larvae (out of the cow pies).
But what happens when the chickens go indoors for the winter, and insect life is all but nonexistent except for the occasional pill bug and spider in the deep bedding material? Traditionally this is when farm flocks were supplemented with vermin, cut open for easier access to the internal organs. Chickens gladly and voraciously tear at the flesh and guts of a freshly shot groundhog, opossum or raccoon. Chickens have a featherless face for a reason—it is easier to keep clean after indulging in flesh. We see the same physiology in wild avian scavengers like vultures.
Large-scale organic and free-range egg producers love to advertise the “vegetarian-fed” status of their birds. Certainly, a vegetarian-fed chicken does not have access to insects or it would lose the privilege of this label. We can also assume that no access to insects means no access to pasture, little to no access to the outdoors, or, worst of all, continuous confinement.
Unfortunately, the vegetarian feeding regimen of organic and free-range poultry induces a paler, weaker egg yolk than their omnivorous, beyond-organic counterparts. There is absolutely nothing natural about a vegetarian-fed chicken, and to be sure, the nutrient profile of eggs and meat from birds fed this way is going to be far inferior to birds with access to insects and meat scraps. Traditional farm flocks were often kept solely to consume the family’s kitchen waste— much of which was meat and scraps of fat.
I recently bought two hundred Rhode Island Red pullets for my farm in Potomac, Maryland and began feeding them a local, custom blended mix of corn, soybeans, oats, Fertrell’s Nutri-Balancer for poultry, and some fishmeal for extra protein. The grind was a bit coarse for starting chicks, and the mill could not ensure that the ingredients were GMO-free. The local certified organic mill was charging fifty cents per pound, and I wanted to offer eggs to my customers that were under five dollars per dozen. So I went with the cheaper feed option.
Within two weeks the chicks were beginning to eat each other. The more aggressive chicks were tearing at the weaker ones from the outside in, and fifty percent of the batch had bleeding tails from being picked at. I tried crushing the feed to a finer consistency, thinking that the pieces were too large for the chicks to ingest and digest well, but they continued to cannibalize.
When I originally placed my feed order, I had asked for roasted soybeans. Roasting neutralizes many of the nutrient and growth inhibitors in soybeans and makes the protein more available—essential for growing chicks. But by my own personal taste-test and the pale softness of the bean, it was apparent that they had not been roasted. Luckily, it was mid December and the whitetail rut was in full swing. Suburban roads in Maryland this time of year are lined with deer carcasses. I picked up a fresh one, skinned it and began tossing small pieces to my chicks. They went crazy. This one carcass lasted me about a week—enough time to get down to Sunrise Farms in Stuarts Draft, Virginia for a GMO-free broiler ration with roasted soybeans. Problem solved. The deer meat put the chicks back on track within hours and they continued to mature beautifully.
FERMENTED GREENS BETTER THAN FRESH
The only thing better than fresh green forage for poultry is fermented green forage. This can come in the form of any herbivore’s manure, but ruminant manure is by far the best because the pre-digested forage comes slathered with so many digestive enzymes. We see the same principles and benefits of fermentation at work for these avian omnivores as we witness in people who consume lacto-fermented vegetables and grains. The telltale sign that the fermented greens are beneficial is a bright, tall egg yolk from a layer, or a deep yellow bundle of kidney fat in the cavity of a broiler. Don’t cut this away!
Another wonderful relationship is raising laying hens under rabbit hutches. The hens indulge in a portion of the fermented alfalfa pellets (rabbit manure) and scratch the rest into the carbonaceous bedding creating a superfine, blended compost. Just add water, and you will create heaven for red-wiggler worms. Of course, the grass growth to follow an application of rabbit-chicken bedding is nothing short of luxuriant. With the spreading of such rich and balanced material on a pasture, we can create bumper crops of hay, or a standing forage bank to get the cows through a late summer drought.
FOR INDOOR CHICKENS, DEEP BEDDING IS ESSENTIAL
Proficient composters know that a compost pile must achieve a certain mass in order to heat up and activate. The same is true for the bedding beneath your chickens. The most common mistake people make when keeping poultry indoors for the winter or otherwise is settling for a bedding pack that is too shallow. There is simply not enough carbon to absorb the accumulation of manure, and the material will never begin to decay effectively. At worst, the bedding will begin to smell and will fail to trap and suspend nutrients.
The goal in an indoor setting is to “grow” some of the protein for the birds in the bedding. We achieve this through creating the right conditions for the bugs—an “if you build it they will come” type of scenario—which is a carbon to nitrogen ratio of twenty-five to one. When this ideal medium is achieved, the birds will begin to scratch out deep bowls in the bedding as they search for worms, centipedes, pillbugs and other organisms virtually invisible to the human eye, supplementing their diets with a diversity of animal protein, reducing our reliance on purchased protein, and creating a more nutrient-dense egg in the process.
Soybean Alternatives : Toward a Soy -Free Future
Let’s start thinking of creative ways to eliminate soybeans from the diets of our omnivorous livestock! Here are some options and alternatives to the soybean:
ROAD KILL AND SLAUGHTER WASTE : Ground-up, or even cut into small pieces, the meat and organs of these wild
ruminants is tremendously rich protein for poultry. On a larger scale, an on-farm mixer grinder equipped to crush bone might be a wise investment. The only impediment to scaling a system like this is a regulatory structure that discriminates against the on-farm handling of meat. Another option is utilizing the bones and trim from beef, lamb and goat carcasses. In many cases, this material can be brought back from the butcher and fed directly to the birds or put through the mixer grinder prior to feeding (making it easier to feed out of a trough and minimize waste).
EARTHWORMS : Mature compost piles are often filled with red wiggler worms. These can be harvested with sifting
equipment and fed live, directly to the birds. Industrial composting sites often sell these worms, but they can be created as easily as piling up woodchips and waiting six months.
COMFREY: One plant that deserves honorable mention is the highly proteinaceous herb called comfrey. The protein
content of dry comfrey is as high as the soybean, the portion fed is the green chlorophyll-rich leaf and it is perennial and self perpetuating, no tillage required. It also builds soil very rapidly by harvesting minerals with its deep root system.
SKIM MILK AND WHEY : There is hardly anything more synergistic than feeding skim milk and whey to hogs and chickens. This protein and mineral-rich byproduct of butter and cheese making is a complete food. From an economic standpoint it is win-win because the high value portion of the milk is marketed to the consumer without the expense in disposing of the byproduct. Normally farmers or dairy processors pay a fee to get rid of it. As the synergy embedded in this system is leveraged on diversified farms around the nation, the recognized inefficiency of soybean production may well make this protein source obsolete.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2010.