The Best Feed For Poultry: 50 years of Experiments Part I
2020 marks 50 years that I have raised poultry. It all began in the Spring of 1970 with 4 small ducklings that I lost to a weasel at 6 weeks of age and then came a mixed breed very old bantam hen with several chicks and 3 old White Wyandotte hens. I wasn't quite 9 yet when I started and it was a big learning curve. My father had lived in the mountains in his childhood where you fed poultry what you had available. There were no prepared bagged foods in the 1920's in an area as remote as where he lived. We tend to learn from our parents and Dad said he grew up where chicks got mashed hard boiled egg mixed with a little cornmeal. Dad said the mother hen would take care of the rest as they started moving around. My ducks didn't get a prepared feed during their short life and my bantam hen didn't get any either.The hen and chicks got some wheat and foraged around the yard for bugs and grass and got table scraps. The 3 old Wyandotte hens were fed the same. I didn't know any different. Was egg production great? Well, not Earth shattering but adequate, and they were healthy and happy. Growing up in Salmon, Idaho the choice of grains was limited usually either hard red winter wheat or sometimes soft spring wheat. Soft spring wheat was much more desirable for the poultry but I used what I could find and afford. I am sure if you looked in any dictionary of the time and looked up the word nerd my photo would have been there. I was collecting data and experimenting from the time I could write. I soon realized the hard red winter wheat was not liked by the birds but hunger made them eat it. We heated with wood and had a wood cookstove in the kitchen and I learned quickly that if I brought in the hard red wheat and let it cook slowly in an old kettle on the corner of the wood stove over night the chickens went wild over the warm breakfast the next day. Soon I experimented with chunks of vegetable and fruit peelings basically anything edible to make a nice stew for the poultry feed. They thrived on it but they also had a free range place to get bugs and grass and did not know confinement except to be locked up in a building at night. Winter times were a challenge. My father was a trapper and during the winter I would watch him skin the beaver and muskrats and thought the carcasses might be good poultry feed. I have always been a person who tries to make sure everything gets used and everything has a purpose. Mistake number one, raw meat is not a good idea as it promotes cannibalism. I then took chunks of beaver meat and muskrat and in another old kettle boiled it up on the wood stove in the shed Dad skinned his animals. The meat protein was a big plus for winter diet and kept us in eggs during the long cold winters. I also supplemented with alfalfa hay. This first couple of years things went well and we got eggs and had healthy birds and used no pre-made bagged poultry feed.
In those early years I had a good root cellar and supplemented the grain diet with squash, pumpkins, storage cabbage and beets. Poultry love to pick at a squash in the middle of winter and adore sugar beets even as they are frozen, kind of like a popsicle to them as the beets start to thaw if left in the pen and freeze. Storage cabbage varieties were in abundance in the 1970s and it is sad to see they were lost. The heads were so tight that I remember having to use an ax to cut them open. They grew all season but at seasons end would only be the size of a large softball but would keep all winter in the cellar, You just peeled back the outer leaves and had fresh cabbage. I would pull the plant in the Fall and pile them in the corner of the root cellar and take out one a week to the poultry all winter. Fresh greens in the long cold days. I also would take all the pea vines and bunch them as the plants stopped producing and hung them in the rafters of the building to dry and use that also for a dry form of green feed in the winter.
Bagged food became a necessity as my flock grew larger. Taking care of a dozen or so birds is one thing, 50 then 100 then 200 is a different story. With bagged food and more confinement into breeding pens the whole needs and focus of the feed became different. Raising birds for eggs and meat and raising birds for breeding purposes and larger scale totally changes the methods and types of feed you can use. Bagged feed provides convenience, speed and a guaranteed nutrient analysis (usually). Bagged feed reminds me of modern school lunches where everything comes in equal pre-made portions to “guarantee” a serving size and nutrient amount. In the old days the cooks made the meals and dished out the servings and it tasted better. I am guessing it is the same for poultry and prepared food.
The summer I would turn 16 we would move to the northern part of Idaho to the pine woods, new feed possibilities and new challenges. Farming areas were few and far between and just like in Salmon, corn could not be grown( at least what varieties I had access to at the time). Feed possibilities were similar but more oats was grown here, nights were cool and squash didn’t grow quite as well. Snow was deeper and winter longer. I quickly learned whole oats are not a great feed for poultry, even soaking or cooking on the wood cook stove made them less than attractive to the fowl. Longer winter periods without outside access makes a well balanced feed all the more important. Here snow was on the ground from early November to early April. Homemade feed had to be heavily supplemented with treats for proper nutrition. Three years here was along enough to learn how hard it is to maintain poultry on a natural diet in such a climate.
In part 2 I will address grain mixes that have worked well for breeding chickens and laying chickens also the importance of a breeding feed versus laying feed. Part 3 will address modern chickens and their requirements and ways to decide what is best for each person and their specific needs.