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Posts Tagged ‘feeding chickens’

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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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Wednesday, October 3:

We are cleaning the gardens for winter and prepping the beds of cold-season spinach, lettuce, and carrots at the same time.  Late beans entangled with butternut squash vines ramp across the middle of the garden and catch at our hoe and rake; bell pepper plants, always late bearers, huddle shiny and dark green at one end of a row we are planting to spinach.  We will leave them there until either, 1) frost kills them, or 2) we get sick of freezing peppers.  We can go on planting spinach all winter, so the space will not be wasted.  The zinnias bordering the center path in the big garden are still blooming, but their hot bright summer colors have been frost-burned to the muted shades of ‘seventies décor.

We are watching Baby this week for signs of heat; it has been three weeks since she showed her fertile state by mooing – once – and escaping  the morning milker to race up and down the lane, hiding first in the Park by North creek, then in the pine grove along Jeddo’s run.  Pursued by one red-faced, fuming six-foot son, recaptured, and restored to her paddock, she remained restless all morning, pacing the long fence of polywire and rubbing on everyone who came near her.  We called the COBA technician who lives in the neighboring town but he was two counties away at a cattle show, and we knew we would miss that heat.  We do not mean to miss this one if we can help it and we called Drew, the A.I. guy, to give him advance warning that This Is The Week.  We hope.

Chickens in every possible state of maturity are everywhere right now, and their requirements would be wearying to the little girls if they had any idea that weariness was an option.  As it is, it isn’t.  There are three flocks combined in the hen house:  the three-year-old Rhode Island Reds whose reckoning day is coming; the fall flock from last year, which replaced the thirty-five spring pullets the fox took away; and the five or six young chickens hatched in July in the white barn by a motherly Sussex hen.   These birds receive crumbles and cracked corn in the morning, milk and swill at noon, and are laying abysmally.  Some are deep in moult; others are old and spent, ready to furnish the main ingredient of a pot pie.  A few succeed in evading the little girls and laying in some hidden corner of a barn loft, where they hope to keep their eggs and hatch them themselves like Jemima Puddleduck.

Then there are the broilers, more than a hundred of them, fat and draggled, their pink skin showing through the white feathers because they grow so fast their plumage cannot keep up.  These birds are bred for weight gain and large breast size, are fed a commercial non-medicated crumble and will be butchered around eight weeks; by ten weeks they begin to die of heart failure, their bulk increasing faster than their internal organs can keep up.  We raise broilers in sliding cages, moving them onto fresh grass daily.  We enforce a regimen of exercise, putting their feed at one end of the pen and water at the other so that they have to move around a little if they want to live.

In the small brooder by the hen house nine barn-hatched chickens wait to be introduced to the barnyard flock.  With them and dwarfing them is the young turkey we picked up at auction, a tom which has been kept all summer with whichever was the youngest flock at the time.  There had been another turkey, a female, but she proved delicate and passed into the other world.  The remaining turkey seems to have appointed himself bodyguard to all the young chickens on the farm, and he will get the run of the barnyard when this penultimate group of chicks does.  And finally, the flock of replacement pullets is four and a half weeks old now, well-feathered, and acclimating to the barnyard in a sliding pen, or “tractor”, where it can see and be seen by the mature hens, but cannot be pecked and need not compete for feed with bigger more aggressive birds.  These young birds will not be installed in the hen house until all the old Red slackers have been put up in the pantry for winter soups and pot pies.  These last two flocks are fed a mixed-grain ration, but will graduate to cracked corn and swill when they move in with the older flocks.
And all the chickens on the farm get a significant percentage of their free-choice proteins from the fresh raw skim milk or buttermilk which comes to them daily care of Baby Belle and Isabel.

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