Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Cost of Chicken Feed

This is part two of the story (see part one:  To Be Organic or To Not Be Organic - What does the USDA call it?) from Milk and Honey Farm on what it takes to feed their chickens organically using locally grown, non-GMO (not genetically modified) grain.  I continue to be impressed with the dedication of this young couple to live the life on the farm that they have chosen.

Posted on Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Talking about poultry and eggs last week we mentioned some things in passing about how we feed our chickens, and it occurred to us that we might have given a false impression about the simplicity of keeping chickens the way we do, so we thought we'd tell you more this week about what's involved. Straight heirloom corn, for example, is certainly a simple chicken feed, but feeding simply corn (or barley or wheat, depending largely on the season) presents a whole array of other challenges, which is why most small farmers and even most people with backyard chickens opt for the store-bought, “scientifically formulated” chicken feed mixture with the long list of mysterious ingredients (whether conventional or USDA organic) like we discussed last week. So the question we want to address here is why feeding a homegrown kind of feed to chickens is so uncommon. In other words, what's not simple about feeding simple, homegrown feed?

The first challenge is that locally grown, non-GMO (not genetically modified) grain -- which is the only grain we feed -- isn't typically for sale anywhere, so generally our only options are to grow grain ourselves (and hand-hoe and hand-harvest it, etc.) and to find local grain farmers willing to deal with us in relatively, by today's standards, very small quantities. However, a small quantity for the grain farmer is typically a large quantity for us. The heirloom corn we bought from a nearby “retired” hobby farmer last year -- it took years just to locate a farmer growing a surplus of heirloom corn like this -- wasn't for sale by the bag as needed; really the only way we were able to buy it was to buy the entire crop at harvest time. And the corn came on the cob, so we had to have built a corn crib to store it (about 70 bushels on the cob) and finish drying it. Then in order to feed it we had to remove the cobs by hand and pass them one at a time through our corn sheller. That's one series of logistical hurdles, but since we don't use insecticides we can't simply store large enough quantities of corn to feed our flock of chickens through the summer and early fall without the corn getting destroyed by little grain-eating insects.

So to make it through those months we've been buying wheat from some brothers that keep an old combine running and grow a few acres of grain, as best we can tell, just as a hobby. (That the only farmers growing the kind of grain that we'd want to buy can only justify their farming as a hobby shows how badly we need to increase our awareness and the value we place on local grain farming and grain-fed products like pork and poultry, etc.) Together with another friend that raises livestock and poultry, we've been buying these brothers' entire wheat crop as feed for our animals. What that means for us is that we wind up with a row of 55-gallon drums full of wheat lined up in front of our barn, where the brothers are able to unload the wheat. Then we had to get those drums under shelter. This past year we borrowed a hand truck for moving appliances, which was a big improvement over brute wrestling, but with uneven ground and barn bedding, etc. still took two plus hours of strenuous work. As nice as it would be to avoid that kind of work, it was the most efficient way to get the job done, given the scale necessitated by breaking with mainstream ways of farming, which is the broader point we're trying to make: breaking with mainstream ways of farming isn't easy and it often dictates a scale incompatible with modern, labor-saving machinery.

But the challenges to simply feeding locally grown grain don't end with the grain, because grain isn't a complete feed. Corn or wheat only work as feed for our chickens because all day long, until we feed them in the evening, they're eating grubs and worms and grass and weed seeds, etc., etc. In order to make that kind of foraging possible, we have to manage predator threats, we have to keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from all the crops they would eat or scratch up, and we also have to deal with infringements on people spaces. We keep predators shy mainly by keeping a couple outdoor dogs (which have their own set of requirements) and by being here, working outside and walking back and forth, all day long almost every day. We keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from our crops at the expense of fencing, and by chasing down the occasional fence jumpers with a fishing net (i.e. at the expense of our dignity) and then finding someone else to whom we can give or sell those hens. Furthermore, allowing chickens to free forage means allowing chickens to poop in all sorts of places we would rather not have chicken poop, like on the walkway from our driveway to the house. Fortunately for the sake of our chickens' forage we don't have neighbors within 1/8 mile or too much traffic on our road -- that comes with the cost of being further from town and market and customers -- but for most other small farmers providing comparable forage would probably mean daily setting up new rotations with poultry netting.

All this to say there are plenty of hurdles and costs to keeping things simple. We hope understanding some of these things will help you appreciate the end product.

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