We’re working to help expand local and sustainable food options for backyard chickens.
The problem: 99.4% of all sustainability minded folks (SMF) in suburban settings or on small farms purchase feed for their chickens from the local feed store. The feed however is grown throughout the Midwest and Canada, aggregated, mixed and bagged somewhere else, and then shipped across the country to the feed store, where the SMFs must then drive and pick up the feed to deliver to their hungry chicks. As committed locavores, that just doesn’t seem right. For more on the full set of problems connected to purchased poultry feed, see this post.
Website intent: Present information and resources on how to satisfy the food needs for chickens locally. We will profile best practices from around the globe about how folks are currently supplanting store bought feed, and will share all of our research here. We are looking for more ideas and experiences on how to sustainably provide for chicken sustenance. If you have information on how to create a more sustainable backyard chicken culture, please share your solutions with us in the comments.
This site will also document Christopher Peck and Genevieve Taylor’s on-going experiments with sustainable chicken rearing at their developing sustainable green homestead: GreeningGumview.com, check us out!
Barred Rocks on grass, photo by Thomas Kriese of urbanchickens.net
As we begin this project on relocalizing the source of chicken nutrition, we thought it would be beneficial to post some of our assumptions. These are primarily assumptions we make about you, the people who raise chickens.
- a flock of 5 chickens would be the norm (this also appears to be the legal limit in most jurisdictions), though the techniques discussed here could scale up or down depending on circumstances.
- the enthusiast has sufficient yard and garden space to house chickens and allow them access to the outdoors (no confinement operations).
- the chicken enthusiast is handy and probably also an enterprising gardener.
- you’re not daunted by thinking about nutrition; conversations about protein, carbs, minerals don’t scare you, nor do the details of chicken food preferences make you squeamish (bugs, worms, scratching through poop, etc)
- you share our vision of small flocks of chickens in every backyard, eating grass and herbs and insects and food scraps, with no smell or required medications, and happy people enjoying super fresh, high-CLA, homegrown eggs.
We will likely discuss each of these posts in dedicated future posts, but that’s a good start for now!
You buy chicken feed at your local feed store. You pay the premium and buy organic. But have you considered where that feed comes from? Well, you might be surprised. We’ve called most of the feed stores in Sonoma County, and as of fall ’008 and spring ’009, it is as we suspected, the chicken feed sold here is not from here.
Not even within 100 miles, an important radius for committed locavores. In general the feed comes from throughout North America, with corn from Nebraska, barley from Canada, soybeans from Iowa. Most of the feed you will find is aggregated and then mixed and bagged somewhere in the Midwest, with the exception of a few discussed in a later posts that source at least some ingredients in California.
Take this feed bag label as an example. Forgive the tear in the bag, but the first item is organic corn, with organic soybean meal, flaxseed, barley, and peas. And then there’s a long list of vitamins and minerals, the ethyllenemenadiaonepyrmidinols, you know, the super tasty secret ingredients everyone loves.
This bag of feed comes from Brentwood, Missouri, certainly not within a hundred miles of Sonoma County, California.
The distance this feed has travelled is one issue, another is the quality of the feed. Despite the organic certification, this is not a preferred food for chickens. If you give them the choice of this high protein feed ration and grass, scratch-harvested seeds, bugs, worms, etc, there is no question, the chickens prefer the real food.
So, this is the problem, what’s the solution? We will be outlining our thoughts on that in upcoming posts. If you have ideas, suggestions, questions, whatever, please leave a note in the comments.
Here’s an overview of several prominent strategies we will expand on in coming posts. We are eager for additional ideas, so if you have any, please post to comments.
chooks on patrol
The following major headings are the primary strategies for meeting chicken nutrition at the home-scale level, in as sustainable a manner as possible. Our assumption is that you will provide purchased feed for your chickens, and then will supplement with one or more of the following strategies to reduce the need for purchased feed. Our vision is that over time the percentage of supplanted feed would grow, increasing regional food security, creating happier hens, and improve the quality of our eggs.
breed selection will be important: choose chicken breeds that are good foragers, more wild and hardy, able to walk around and feed themselves from the land.
deep bedding within the hen house and in an enclosed outdoor area can develop into a rich, deep compost over time that will provide many small bugs and insects that the chickens will be able to scratch and peck into for a substantial amount of their protein needs. There are many forms this strategy could take.
compost can be used in multiple ways by poultry for supplemental feed, and to turn the compost for the gardener, saving some labor and chiropractor bills.
planned grazing around a property allows chickens to access a variety of food sources, spread their manure around, and give them and you the pleasure of each others company. Obviously chickens love to roam the garden, scratching and pecking on a daily rotation around a property, finding bugs and soil critters, and eating the plants and herbs they like to keep them healthy. Planned grazing implies that you are pulsing the chickens out into a section of the property in a deliberate manner, in order to minimize any overgrazing or damage to the plants within that property section, limiting any buildup of manure and possible pathogens, and minimizing the damage to soil roots and mulches (from dust baths for example). Planned grazing also implies that you are making sure there is adequate food within the property section for the chickens to eat. If it is mostly bare ground, there won’t be much for the chickens to eat.
Joel Salatin claims chickens can get 20% of their daily calories from grass (You Can Farm, page 233). I assume this is calories from carbohydrates (seeds) and protein from bugs and lots of minerals and vitamins from fresh grass and herbs. Carla Emery confirms this saying chickens “will use greens for 20% of their diet” (page 652)
chicken food forest is a mixed planting of multiple plant species that chickens are known to prefer. A food forest generally consists of a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses and herbs. There are many species that can fit the requirements for a useful food forest, and special attention should be given for mixed use species, plants that provide food for humans as well as chickens, might be placed to screen an unsightly view, or might provide shade.
duckweed could be the cornerstone of a sustainable poultry farm. Research indicates that duckweed is not difficult to grow, and is one of the richest sources of protein. As you might infer from the name, it is a weed that poultry like. The richer the brew it grows in, the higher the protein and the higher the quality of feed produced.
home food scraps are a well known and well used strategy. There are ways to improve the palatability and usability of the food scraps, that will increase the quantity that the chickens eventually eat.
worms and vermiculture is another well used strategy. High in protein and easy to grow, wrigglers can be an important food source for chickens, and oh how they love to eat them.
gleaning is collecting unused food resources that would otherwise go to waste. One of my favorites in Santa Fe was grabbing the large bag of popcorn leftover from the movie theater at the end of the night.
OK, that’s probably the major strategies, let us know if you have other ideas.
Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living
Rachel Kaplan is a farmer and mother and therapist and urban homesteader and a darn good writer. She’s written a new book called Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living. I’ve had a chance to read the preview PDF, and it is impressive. Every page has at least one lush color photo, the writing is clear and accessible, and the topic is near and dear to my heart.
In the slightly more than three pages dedicated specifically to chickens (in a section titled ”Chickens are the New Black,” love it!) there are 8 lovely photos of coops, nesting boxes, and a creative tunnel run that would be a great “chicken subway” to move your chooks from their coop to a garden bed or area you wanted them to focus their attention on (photo after the jump). Just scanning the photos and reading the captions is informative and inspiring.
The book covers an impressive array of homesteading topics, as expressed in an urban context. Most of what has been written previously about homesteading is focused on a much larger scale, the 5 to 10 acre farm. Rachel demonstrates what can be done in a small backyard, in extra yard space at the neighbors, or in a community garden. Her book is also current, reflecting the needs and dreams of the latest generation of homesteaders, with information on community organizing, powering down, and growing your own medicine.
It helps that many of my friends are profiled, including Trathen Heckman of Daily Acts Organization, a non-profit based in Petaluma, CA where I am currently the board chair. Trathen’s house and impressive front yard transformation, from small lawn to ample food forest, is well documented.
~UPDATE: I now have the book and it is gorgeous! The photos really pop, get your copy now! ~
There are many great quotes, and I especially love this quote from Richard Powell, it expresses a life philosophy at the core of Urban Homesteading, and I imagine, at the core of life for many of us:
Nurture all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. To accept these realities is to accept contentment as the maturation of happiness, and to acknowledge that clarity and grace can be found in genuine unvarnished existence. Filled with subtlety and depth, this way is a river flowing toward and away from you, and always within you.
More photos from Rachel’s excellent book here –> Continue reading Rachel Kaplan’s Urban Homesteading book is almost here!
Chickens and kale from Joey L. at thegreatergreen.typepad.com
“my daughter has a gluten intolerance and we found that she cannot eat eggs. I have 1 hen and she and her mate wonder our two acres all day and eat bugs. Her egg yokes are a bright beautiful blood orange and I have just found out my daughter can eat these eggs. Since most hens eat grain it seems that free range is best for my daughter to eat. But I am not sure how to feed them over the winter months. any suggestions?”
Here’s my answer, it’s brief, but might provide some help:
Hello Colleen- I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s gluten intolerance, that can be challenging! I have read some about how omega-6 and omega-3 oil imbalances can come through in eggs, making it all the more pressing to re-orient the feed for chickens to something more “natural.” I don’t know where you live and what winter means for you. Where I live in Northern California winter just means rain and less sun, but not really that cold. We can maintain worm bins easily here, and have a large abundance of greens to feed the chickens.
Probably the easiest strategy is worms in a well insulated bin where you can dig some worms out and feed them to your chickens each day. Don’t clean the worms off, I think the residues are beneficial too. I would keep the proportion of high quality greens as high as possible, perhaps using sprouted radishes or something similar. If your chickens cannot go outside in the winter, I’d make extra sure that they have a large pile of bedding to work through. With a small flock it’s easier to get a big pile of bedding for them, but it’s a crucial strategy for everyone. The chickens will scratch through for bugs and ingest beneficial antibodies in the process. I’ve also been reading up on small-scale silage, which could be a useful technique for chickens, though I have not posted about that yet.
Let me know more questions, and I will answer as best I can. All the best, Christopher
This lovely blog has a nice post on what to feed chickens in the winter, it might be more appropriate to your climate than what we do here. The cool photo of the chickens eating kale in the snow is from them.
What strategies have you found that are helpful in the winter time? When it gets cold, how do you modify your chickens outdoor diet? Please answer in the comments and I will compile and post, thanks!
Marin Chicken Coop
My good friend Nancy Wiens, PhD, one of the co-creators of the Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality here in Sonoma County, CA, alerted me to a great resource for small chicken coops made just south of here in Marin County, CA. Juan Carlos makes small coops that look like they’d be great for back yards, and are designed to accommodate 2 to 6 chickens.
I like the shaded and fenced area below for the chickens to contact the ground, and the many ways the coop opens up so you can get inside and add litter or grab eggs or tend to a chicken. I also really like how the oval latches on the front that hold the fencing together are made from the ventilation holes above. Details like that make my low-waste loving heart proud!
Here’s how to find Juan Carlos and the Marin Chicken Coops: http://www.marinchickencoops.com
Harvey Ussery is writing a book
Honest, we’re not a paid front for Harvey Ussery and The Modern Homestead, we just love what he’s doing. And now, with all of his other writing, he has secured a book deal with Chelsea Green Publishing, one of the top publishers of sustainability and small farm related books. From a quick glance at my bookshelf, I have a dozen books from them, let’s see …. Edible Forest Gardens by Jacke and Toensmeier (big and good), Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier (excellent, highly recommended), Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman (excellent, a classic), well, you get the idea. That Harvey will be joining this illustrious crew, he should be very proud. And we’re eager for the book to be out so we can read, review, and learn the latest from this sustainable chicken pioneer.
Free Range Chickens by woodleywonderworks
Harvey Ussery, one of our favorite writers on backyard, sustainable chicken raising, has started a new project, called The Home Feeding Project. He shares our goal to become independent of purchased feeds, and is leading this project to compile the best information out there about how to create, yes, more sustainable chicken flocks.
As we’ve mentioned several times on this site, Harvey has an excellent website call The Modern Homestead. You can find the specifics about the Home Feeding Project here. If you’d like to email Harvey with your ideas you can email him here: firstname.lastname@example.org, or, if you’re really old school, you can mail him a letter at POB 67, Hume, VA 22639. And hey, if you’re going to go to all the trouble to send him some info, please, mention it to us too in the comments, that would be much appreciated!
Here are the details he’d like for you to note when sending him ideas.
- Some ideas are so obvious and commonly employed (“Feed table scraps to the chickens”) there is no need to mention them. Your unique twist on such widespread strategies may be useful, however. (“I’ve made an arrangement with a local diner to take their food wastes.”)
- It is as easy for us to grow seed crops like corn and small grains as for farmers, though harvesting, threshing, and storing such crops are likely to be obstacles. Are there ways to make such options more practical?
- If you do advocate growing particular crops for home feeds, please specify type (e.g. single-head sunflowers with large seeds, or multi-headed types with smaller seeds) and/or varieties you have worked with.
- Remember to place your practices in context: species of fowl you are feeding, size of flock, management model, etc.
- If you have kept statistics that demonstrate the effectiveness of your practices, please include them.
- Some bright ideas that failed to work out in practice may be worth sharing as well.
- Remember to include your location, and (if you know) your climate (plant hardiness) zone.
I first read about this idea in Backyard Poultry magazine, and most of the details came from Harvey’s website.
Gorgeous photo is from woodleywonderworks on Flickr.
Not what we're doing ...
Hello LIFEE Colleagues! Here is the link to the PDF I wrote about how to set up your own website and become an Activist Publisher
Please download, read, give feedback, ask questions. I will try to update and reply as quickly as I can.
Thanks, and lead on!
Sonoma County Food Share is live!
Looking for an abundance of local veggies you might feed your chickens or yourself? The Sonoma County Harvest Share (SCHS) is now live. A brilliant idea whose time has come, the SCHS is a NING site that is easy to locate, register on, and use. If you haven’t used the NING software technology yet, it couldn’t be easier to set up, and is very easy for the casual user to use.
From their description: Sonoma County Harvest Share links farmers & backyard gardeners with abundant produce to people who can use it. It’s free & simple to use. What could be better? Get on it and get sharing!
The BioPod turns kitchen wastes into tasty grubs for chickens
As you probably realize by now, I’m mildly obsessed with bugs. I have eaten grasshoppers several times, once in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a couple times in Santa Fe. Crunchy, high in protein, and easy to eat, they’re known as “prairie shrimp” for a reason. But a weird human’s occasional curiosity is a chicken’s bread and butter, or steak and eggs, so to speak. Insects are incredibly efficient at taking resources low on the food chain (poop, table scraps, roadkill carcasses, etc) and turning them into more insects. And insects are prime chicken food. High in digestible protein, live, local, and perfectly designed to satisfy a chicken’s scratch and peck mentality, insects would seem to be a crucial link in developing a sustainable feed system for backyard chickens. But how to do it efficiently? Ideally chickens can forage for insects on their own, when they’re allowed to free range with sufficient space. But that isn’t always enough.
What if there was a simple way to grow and harvest a high level of insect protein, a process that fits into your daily habits without too much extra effort? Well, turns out there is, check out the BioPod.
OK, checkit, this thing is incredibly cool. It’s a new twist on composting, vermiculture, and home grown and sustainable chicken food: a system for turning home kitchen wastes into grubs. It’s very similar to a worm composting system, but faster. You deposit your kitchen waste into their specially designed BioPod, and within 24-36 hours (assuming proper temperature range and other factors) the Black Soldier Fly (BSF) larvae have converted your leftover banana peels and rigatoni into compost and more larvae. The little grubs then crawl out of the BioPod into a collection chamber, which could go directly to your hungry chicks! According to the website:
A working BioPod™ can easily handle the daily food scraps produced by a large family – up to 5 lbs per day. It can even digest pet feces. For every 100 lbs of kitchen scraps you will get 5 lbs of friable compost, a few quarts of nutritious compost tea, and approx. 20 lbs of self-harvesting BioGrubs™ – which are the ultimate fish, herp, and bird food. [I love it when people post actual numbers!]
I don’t know about your family or household, but we easily produce 100 lbs of food scraps in a month, probably twice that in the summer harvest season. That’s 20 lbs of grubs for our chickens to eat each month, and, according to their dry weight calculations, the grubs are about 40-42% protein. As you remember from this helpful Energy Farms post, soybeans have about 37-40% protein on a dry weight basis, so black soldier fly larvae could easily supplant soybeans in the chickens’ diet. I’d wager a 50 lb bag of organic layer mash that if you laid out a big plate of dried and crumbled soybeans and a big plate of wriggling BSF grubs, the chickens would eat the grubs first, and with relish.
Let’s do some calculations on how much food waste we’d need to convert into BSF larvae to supplant the soybeans in our purchased feeds. If we assume a backyard flock of 5 chickens, and also assume that those chickens will consume approximately 500 lbs of purchased feed in a year, and we assume that 25% of that purchased feed is soybeans, then our chickens would eat 125 lbs of soybeans in a year, assuming it all came from a feed bag. Since it looks like BSF larvae and soybeans have roughly the same protein content, that means we need to provide 125 lbs of larvae for our flock of 5 chickens. According the the BioPod folks each 100 lbs of table scraps yields approximately 20 lbs of BSF larvae. Doing a little fancy math, that comes out to 625 lbs of table scraps to provide enough protein for a flock of 5 chickens for a year. That’s slightly more than 50 lbs of table scraps in a month, a number that’s well within the production capacity of most suburban families.
My conclusion and why I’m excited: your average suburban backyard chicken enthusiast can produce in their backyard all the protein their small flock requires, from a local and sustainable food source. To reduce any impediment to the excitement this discovery has created, the residential BioPod only costs around $220 delivered. That’s competitive with other backyard composters.
MAJOR CAVEAT: I have not yet purchased and tried the BioPod, so I do not have first hand experience with this technology. I will have both in the next several months, and will report on what I learn then.