Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cheap Chicken Feed?

This is a pretty common question, and something that I think many of us think about at least once in a while. If we subscribe to the ideals of homesteading at all, I think most of us have come to the conclusion that if we're buying chicken feed, we're probably paying more for our eggs than it would cost to buy them in a grocery store. Without going to far into the obvious differences between homegrown eggs and grocery store eggs, I'm going to go over a few things that I've learned over the years that help me cut my feed bill down to almost nothing. How close to almost nothing? It costs me about 90 cents to produce a dozen eggs during the summer, and about $2.00 during the winter. Considering the recent spike in egg prices thanks to bird flu, that's pretty darn good.

So how do we accomplish this?

First of all, you will have to reference a post I wrote a couple years ago about growing your own chicken feed, and the followup post I wrote last year. You can find those here and here. They will get you a good start on storing up homegrown chicken feed for winter.

Today, though, we're going to talk about summer feeding and production. There are a lot of different ways you can save a ton of money on feed.

First of all, let's start with a baseline - assume we buy commercial feed and feed our birds nothing but that. Very easy, very safe. Also very expensive. Various sources put the intake of a laying hen on commercial bagged pellet feed at about 1.5 pounds per week. Let's assume we have 10 birds. 1.5 x 10 is 15 pounds of feed per week. Now if we start counting on April 1 (which is about when I can start letting the birds out in a tractor) and go until about November 1 (which is when it gets too cold to leave them out in the tractor overnight), that's about 30 weeks, give or take a few days. 30 x 15 is 450. So during the pasture season, if you just feed bagged feed to birds in a coop/run setup, you need 450 pounds for those 10 birds. That comes out to a little over 11 40 pound bags of feed. For me, quality chicken pellets are about $17 for that 40 pound bag. $187 to feed those birds for that 30 weeks. Ok now let's figure the cost per dozen eggs. Let's assume that your hens do about what my barnyard mix of cross breeds do, and assume you get 6.5 eggs per day average from those 10 hens during the summer. I'm not going to factor for molting, just for sake of simplicity. That comes to 1365 eggs in that 30 weeks. Round to 114 dozen eggs. Of course you aren't going to actually get that many. Some will be cracked, some will get eaten, then there's the molt to think about, but we'll just use that number to figure. Using $187 as feed cost (and we won't even start to talk about other costs here) that comes to $1.64 a dozen using my rather optimistic numbers. Reality is going to be closer to $1.80-$2.00 in the summer. And then how about winter when your egg production is cut in half or worse?

So what can we actually do about this? Well, Let's start making a list.

1. Feed kitchen scraps - Instead of putting it in the compost pile, feed it to the birds. They'll ultimately turn it into a more concentrated fertilizer anyway.

2. Get them out of confinement - A chicken tractor is one of your best friends here. Not only does it allow the birds some freedom to forage, while still being generally safe from predators, it also gives your birds some freedom to choose what they eat. This is important for happy, healthy birds. If you have the room and a safe area, let them roam during the day.

3. Start gathering feed - I'm going to break this section down further.

I have an astoundingly low-brow method for this. Much of my yard area is has gone from grass to clover over the years. Also, tons of dandelion, dock, and other edible plants that chickens love. I run over a patch of this with a bagging lawnmower and dump the contents into the tractor or run, and let them sort through it. There's lots of greens, not to mention a good handful of grasshoppers and other insects that get mowed up, and they clean it up nice.

Use a maggot feeder - yeah, gross I know, but it's important protein. I've also written about that here.

Your land is probably full of things chickens like to eat. Go pick it and throw it to them. Every pound of that they eat is one pound of expensive commercial feed you don't have to feed them.

Talk to grocery stores and restaurants and ask if they will save waste produce for you. Some will, some won't. Here in my town we have a bread store that sells expired or nearly expired bread, I can buy about 25 pounds of stale bread for $5. That's about half the cost of commercial feed.

4. Find a grain elevator - This is the best way for you to separate yourself from commercial feed. Our local farmer's co-op elevator sells grain in 50 pound bags, and in bulk if I want to have them load up the back of my pickup with a skidloader. Depending on where you live, you might have one of the keys to this system available to you at your local elevator. Current prices here in town put cracked corn at about $6.25 per 50 pounds, whole corn at $5.50 per 50 pounds, whole oats at about $8 per 50 pounds, and then my favorite. Something commonly referred to as DDG or "Dried Distiller's Grain". DDG is a waste product of ethanol production. It's what's left of the corn after the fermentable sugars are used up. DDG is about 25% protein - a key to a balanced diet when you're not buying more expensive feeds like soy meal, fish meal, or alfalfa meal. DDG usually costs about $5.50 for a 55 pound bag.

5. Everything that comes out of your garden - including weeds - goes to the chickens. They'll eat 75% of it if you offer it to them.

Dried Distiller's Grains

Putting these ideas into practice

So by now you're feeding everything edible that comes out of your house to your chickens. You're either pasturing, tractoring, or harvesting/gathering available greens/nuts/seeds and bringing them to your chickens in their confinement. You've stopped buying commercial feed and you want to use bulk grains to make up the difference between what they get from the above methods, and what they need.

It's important to consider nutrition here. I know I've talked a lot about bulk of feed, but quality of feed is important. If you're pasturing/tractoring your birds, they will probably get a lot of the nutrients they need on their own from grazing. A common problem with this model of "feed scrounging" is that many of the greens, scraps, and grains are low in protein on their own. DDG will do a lot to alleviate this problem, being very high protein. There is a potential pitfall here, though. There is more than one type of protein, and you will find that if you feed your hens nothing but DDG and wild greens, they'll eventually start eating their eggs to try to make up whatever protein deficiency they have. This is why it's important to have an alternate source of protein. Whether this be insects they catch at pasture, a maggot feeder, or maybe you just go collect nightcrawlers after a rain and toss them to the birds the next day, you need something. I have one friend who traps minnows from a local pond and then feeds them to his hens. It's really about using your imagination and being resourceful.

For my hens, this breaks down something like this.

Sometimes the hens are in the run, when they are I mow up greens and feed them that. When they're in the tractor I do this too, but much, much less often. I keep 10 birds in a 10x10 tractor and move it twice a day to make sure there's enough there for them to find to eat.

I feed all kitchen scraps I can find.

Any time I'm about in the yard and I find something they'll eat, I grab it and throw it to them.

Everything that comes out of the garden that doesn't go to the kitchen goes to the birds. This includes rotting/damaged/waste veggies.

In addition to this, I give my birds free access to a mix of whole corn, DDG, and whole oats. I mix this as 2 parts DDG, 1 part each of whole corn and whole oats. Some of this corn I grow, some of it I buy, depending on the time of year. On average, I spend approximately $12 per month at the elevator on those grains. This is what it costs to purchase the amount of grain that the hens eat from the feeder that supplements their foraging and the feed-stuffs that I collect for them. If I could expand my corn growing operation I could probably cut this down to $8/month, but I don't find this to be worth the extra space and work.

$12 per month comes out to $84 over the course of that same 30 weeks that bagged commercial feed costs someone else $187. If I use the same formula I used above, that means that hypothetically my cost is about 73 cents per dozen eggs. In reality it's about 90 cents - which is why I can safely say that the $1.64 I mentioned above is a low estimate. In the end, though, I spend slightly less than half to feed my chickens of someone who buys bagged commercial feed. And here's the kicker - the more hens you have, the more real dollars you can save. If you have 30 hens, you could easily cut your summer feed bill by $300. Whether this is worth it or not is a big question that you'll have to answer for yourself.

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