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Archive for the ‘laying hens’ Category

We recently encountered the opinion of someone named Mary Cuff, in a periodical called Modern Age, dismissing the family smallholding in these words:  “Only the most privileged people can afford to quit their jobs and their urban and suburban lifestyles to become gentleman farmers living off the land.”  We do not know how many people ‘living off the land’ Ms. Cuff is acquainted with, but relative to opinions like this one, we would like to share some numbers:

A chicken is supposed to eat one-quarter pound of feed per day.  I’m not sure whose chicken that would be, or what would be its breed, age, size, and position in life, but we’ll take it as a general rule that a laying hen eats something in the neighborhood of 4 oz. of something every day.  Ours do.  Generously, that means we need a few pounds short of 100 lb. of feed per bird per year — not a small amount.

Our own birds eat fermented or sprouted wheat, in addition to grass, bugs, and a bit of meat or milk for protein.   The grass, bugs, meat and milk are all free products of our land, things we have in abundance and need to feed to something. The wheat we buy, at $5/bu. (roughly 60 lb.).  That’s just over $.08/lb., so we may spend as much as $8/bird/year on feed.

Now, our birds lay at a rate of something like 50%, averaged over the year, or about 180 eggs/bird/year.  180 eggs is 15 dozen eggs — from a bird we pay about $8/year to feed.

That’s 15dozen pastured, cage-free, soy-free, corn-free, GMO-free eggs for just over $.50 per dozen.

The cost of buying the chick and raising it to laying age — about $7 — can be discounted, because when the hen gets too old to lay we’re going to make chicken pie, and feed the bones to the hogs.

Glory be to God for chickens and privileges.

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This from a question about calculating protein in a homemade ration:

Standard laying mash is around 16 – 18% protein; that’s what they make for commercial producers and backyard chicken keepers aiming at a very high rate of lay.

This is at least in part because modern hens have been selected for maximum performance in the short run, not longevity or duration of lay.  It takes a lot of dietary protein to make an egg.  Today, the commercial goal is to get at least 300 – 330 eggs per hen in her first year of lay, then sell her to Campbells; in the typical backyard flock, same genetics, you might keep her around for a second year if you don’t mind much reduced performance.  After that, the soup pot.

In contrast, eighty years ago a hen was considered a good layer if she gave 200 eggs per year, and she was expected to lay for several years.

If what you want is an accelerated rate of lay, you’ll need to supply a lot of protein. But if you’re going to pasture or free-range — which is what it sounds like you intend to do — then you’re probably electing to go for a more natural rate of lay, which leaves more latitude in the matter of how much protein supplement you provide.

Now, if you were really setting out to determine precisely how much protein you needed to reach 18% of the birds’ diet, you’d have your work cut out for you. First, you won’t know what the birds are picking up as they forage, so you can’t know its food value. Secondly, the percent protein of those bulk foods (like corn, wheat, oats) with which you make up the majority of their ration can vary a great deal from batch to batch, depending on a lot of variables, so you’d actually have to test each batch of grain you purchased or grew to determine its composition. Only if you know all of the variables can you calculate with accuracy the amount of milk or other protein you need to raise your total ration to the 16 – 18% rate.

img_9916Fortunately, it’s not really that hard to get a satisfactory ration without all of the numbers.

You say you would like to switch to ‘grass and natural feed’ for your flock. Let’s assume that means you’re going to free-range or pasture the birds, while providing some kind of grain ration. Corn and most of the cereal grains average well below the minimum recommended percentage protein, but they’re good for some protein and for plenty of carbs. With dry grain rations, it’s generally considered that a hen of average size needs about one-quarter pound of feed per day, and somewhere around that’s not a bad place to start.  18% of 4 oz. is 0.72 oz. protein, and they’ll get more than half of that from their grain and whatever they pick up foraging, so if you offer a high-protein supplement like curds or waste meat, which are about 25% protein, an ounce of one of these per day gets your birds’ ration up in the high-protein range.  For visual reference, that’s a lump about the size of a hulled walnut, or rather smaller, per bird.

IMG_0118All that said, in the summer a free-range bird with plenty of pasture (not bare soil) to range about in is going to pick up a lot of bugs and worms, and might do very well without protein added to her grain allotment.  And since she’s free-range, she may also hide all her lovely eggs where you can’t find them.

The practice of farming has more in common with dancing than with science:  if you want it to be beautiful and enjoyable, you pay attention to your partner and respond to changes in the rhythm.

 

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Mangels are great pig food for the winter months since the store very well and are a high-energy food, good for helping animals keep warm when the temperatures drop.   We harvested a 30 x 50 foot bed two days ago; the crop was just fair, but even that is about 1500 lb. of roots, plus there are all the tops to feed out right away — about 200 lb. of high-iron greens.  Fall is abundant in its provision — we are backed up with farm-produced calories for the animals.  It helps to have some experience in determining how to put these to put these to the best use — for timing, for the right animals, in the right proportions and combinations.  On the farm, there is no such thing as waste.

 

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Cheese making has many permutations.  There are enough curds in a ten-gallon cheese that we can steal some for the chickens’ daily protein ration and never miss them.  Whey goes to the pigs, except the quart we’ve reserved to backslop the next cheese.  Now the cheese cabinet is nearly full, it’s time to buy in a couple of extra calves and take the burden of milk processing off the cheese makers.

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Poultry serve multiple purposes on our farm, moving over pastures and gardens in (at the moment) four different flocks of from ten to thirty layers and a couple of roosters.  Some of the birds clean up after the grazing animals, but about half of them are pastured in garden areas where we want to apply some high-nitrogen fertilizer, clean up insect pests, scrap out weed seedlings, or flatten a grown-in-place mulch.  In the fall, though, when laying slows down, we cull non-layers so we don’t carry so many birds through the winter.  This isn’t done on the basis of age, at least not solely — some twenty of our birds are in their fifth year and still productive — but according to a physical examination that considers the space between their pelvic bones, the space between the pelvic bones and the keel bone, the color of their feet and legs, and the condition of their vent.

Two fingers or more space between the pelvic bones, four between pelvis and keel, bleached legs (not yellow), and a moist, open vent are what we are looking for, and three out of four of these will usually win that hen a reprieve from the hatchet.  Last week we went over all the birds; seventeen didn’t make the cut.  A very busy morning for three of us, and (for one) an afternoon with a couple of canners.  Only two birds had eggs in them, which we would consider a good score; the older birds we kept seem to be laying at about sixty percent, not bad for November.  We’ve had a lower rate of lay, but much better luck with longevity in our layers since we switched from commercial laying mash to fermented whole grains with no GM or soy; and our mix of whole grains, supplemented three or four times a week with milk or meat scraps, is much cheaper per pound than commercial feed.

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The new chicken tractor is as easy to move as a wheelbarrow, making it a good choice for use by our oldest grandchildren.  It holds five birds comfortably (27 square feet of space) and creates good impact on the pasture we are presently renewing.  In the winter it will be a great tractor for use in the garden, where we put chickens over the dormant raised beds to clean up weeds.  In the fall, they will be followed by a sowing of winter-hardy greens, or else a green manure of rye; when the weather turns really cold, bare soil will be covered by a good mulch of hay or shredded leaves.

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The layers who are getting our five-grain mix — barley, wheat, oats, black oil sunflower seeds and millet — are laying about seventeen eggs a day, from nineteen hens including the dark leghorn with spurs who crows like a rooster but still lays — the only white egger in the bunch.

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