In the last post, New Old-Fashioned Chicken Theory, I wrote about the idea of raising chickens without grains or other chicken feed from the store. At the time, I felt excited to try the experiment, but also some trepidation about whether we might not end up leaving our new birds hungry and unhappy. So we bought a bag of chicken pellets from the store, just in case, before we got started.
Shortly after the last post, we purchased four pullets (young female chickens). Our daughter Josephine created a multi-criteria spreadsheet for about 20 breeds of chickens (egg production, friendliness, noisiness, ability to forage, and so forth) which we used to identify desirable breeds and then we looked on Craigslist to find them. First Mark and I got two Whiting True Greens from a lady in Sherborn who we named Winnie and Pooh. It was so exciting sitting in the car back home with our two new girls in a box, reaching in and gently feeling their soft feathers! Finally, chickens! after so many years of thinking about them! A week later, encouraged by our success with WInnie and Pooh, Mark picked up two Australorps from Hadley who were named Kanga and Roo.
Winnie, Pooh, Kanga and Roo had all been conventionally raised on grains, and did not know how to forage; we had to train them, to encourage them to find their true inner chickeness and express it. We made two large piles of old leaves in their run, and after the first couple of days of pellets in a bowl like they were used to, we started to strew a portion of their pellets on the leaves. They were initially quite confused, it was intriguing to see how much they had lost their foraging nature. Gradually we saw them exploring, with a timid little scratch to find an extra pellet, or a hesitant peck at a leaf. Once they seemed comfortable, after just a few days more, we added some kitchen scraps, and started to reduce the pellets bit by bit. By reducing the pellets, we were forcing them to forage around for other food. Over the course of a few weeks, we weaned them off the pellets entirely. Since then, they have lived on a diet of whatever comes out of people's kitchens - vegetables, pasta, bread, beans, chicken bones (!), crushed eggshells, banana peels whatever. If they don't like it, for example because it's moldy, they don't eat it. In addition, they get fresh green weeds, and a constant intake of small invertebrates that grow in the composting materials.
Under the current system, we provide the 6-8 pounds of kitchen scraps per day (1.5-2 lbs per chicken) as our research had told us was sufficient. On some days, it's way more, but that's OK because it adds to the compost pile. We don't produce that much ourselves, but I contacted three neighbors and asked if they would like to collect scraps for me to pick up once a week. This has been wonderful, once a week, I have an opportunity to see my neighbors for a few minutes and catch up on the news. I provide them with a clean 5-gallon bucket, and walk home with their filled bucket for our ladies. Often, I will top the scraps off with some leaves of comfrey or jewelweed or some other fresh green, which they love. On the occasional day, when we have done a lot of weeding, I will just bring them a big pile of fresh greens and leave the kitchen scraps to collect for the next day. If the pile starts to get smelly, I toss half a pail-full of the aged horse manure wood chips that we have outside their run. I am sure we could also use leaves or wood chips, just as long as it's some carbonaceous organic (and free!) material. If the chickens have eroded their pile with scratching, I'll take a pitchfork and put things back up.
Another terrific side benefit of their constant foraging is that the girls clean up their own poops. We have a deep litter of leaves and pine needles under their roost. In the morning there will be a little line of fresh white poop where they slept, but by afternoon, it has been thoroughly incorporated.
Are the girls healthy? Well, first, they have grown into very sizeable girls, and, more importantly, since a few weeks they have been giving us three pretty eggs every day (Roo is not laying yet), which suggests that they are definitely getting enough to eat.
Now that we have been doing this for two months, it seems bizarre that we would ever feed chickens store-bought grains, just as it initially felt a little scary to wean them off it. The compost system is easy, cheap, healthy, and fun! No more store-bought chicken feed ever!