Our farm consists of 205 acres located in central Indiana. We raise beef, pork, broiler chickens, and keep sheep and laying hens. We operate on a 7-year crop rotation as spelled out in the book of Leviticus in the Bible. On the seventh year, our land rests- giving us a pasture to pull our pasture hen houses across. The hens then eat the bugs and leafy plants as well as fertilize the ground with their manure.
We move the ?oor-less houses every few days to a week and employ electric feather nets to keep the hens contained and unwanted predators out.
We have been utilizing the above practices for roughly 20 years. Each year we have progressed with our methods to develop a self sustaining farm to the point of growing and grinding our own feed on site.
GOAL: My goal was to study the effects of using different food substitutes for the laying hens. I set the supplement types as:
1) Brewers distiller grains (boiled/steamed grains, pressed/ spun out). These we grains are typically discarded after the process but still have nutritional value.
2) Kitchen scraps from a local college fed directly to the hens. Also discarded after the kitchen throws them out (these are fresh scraps — not garbage).
3) Home grown grain mix of oats (or spelt), corn, and soybeans. All the grains were non-GMO.
I was hoping to ?nd the best source of feed supplement while feeding a mainstream “brand name” layer hen feed at the same time. During the process I monitored hen health, hen “happiness”, egg production, costs involved in acquiring the substitute, and any other effects that may be involved.
PROCESS and RESULTS
This project was intended to find the most productive means of feeding layer hens on pasture during the summer months. I proposed to supplement a commercial mainstream feed with three different trial feeds using brewers distiller grains from a local brewery, kitchen scraps from a local college kitchen, and a “corn mix” we grew on our farm.
The first trial was brewers distiller grains. We acquired them in 55 gallon drums. This is a very heavy method of transport but we managed. It was freshly “mashed” and “rinsed” (I am unsure of the exact terminology) when we picked it up. When we arrived home we fed the wet contents to our trial flock of hens. The mashed grain was distributed in a windrow on the ground a few inches deep. I was pleased by the hens’ instant interest in the wet grains. They began poking through it all with scratching and pecking curiosity. However, within and hour, after all the hens had examined their new feed supplement, they lost interest, leaving about 95% of what we dumped. I thought they were just full as it was evening.
The next day only one hen of a group of 300 was attempting further exploration of the BDGs. I cut their standard feed back a little to see if their interest would be peaked any. I adjusted many things to try to encourage the hens to embark on the new idea of BDGs. There was absolutely no way they were going to eat the stuff.
So we decided to dry some out on a tarp in the sun before feeding it to them. The dry material helped. It seemed to have perked more interest in the hens. But in the end, they left it on the ground, uneaten. I decided to abandon the idea of using brewers distiller grains. We fed the remaining BDGs to our cattle who absolutely loved it! I composted the uneaten piles left on the ground. I have no official data to share on this type of supplement other than the conclusion that it doesn’t work. At best the consumption rate was about 2% of their diet. With the cost of fuel, time, energy used to acquire this product, 2% of a supplemental diet was a heavy loss in the economic picture. In the ecological picture, the hens gave it two wings down.
The next supplement we tried was the kitchen scraps from a local college kitchen. We picked it up in large “trash can” type containers commonly used in food industry for scraps. We loaded them up and drove home.
We again distributed a whole container on the ground in a long row. The contents were random, but basically consisted of peelings, fruit cores, wilted lettuce, stale bread, leftover noodles and the like.
At first, the hens didn’t know what to do about this. Within 20 minutes a few began to peck at it with vigor. Then more and more joined the trend. It soon became a feeding frenzy! They absolutely loved it! The only thing left after a few hours were the items they can’t quite eat with their beaks which were easily scraped up into a bucket and composted. Every time we drove out to the hens they would come flooding up to the edge of the fence to be the first to get a snack! (This is also a great way to attract them back into the fence if they are out!)
The summary of data collected as follows: within the trial period we used 200 pounds a week for 300 hens. On their own accord, the commercial feed eaten dropped to about 83% of the standard ration. The hens maintained a very happy healthy lifestyle. In fact, I would venture to say they were the most satisfied when we used these scraps. Economically, this is a great supplement to a feeding ration. It can be usually acquired for free and needs pickup truck for hauling. I will say that egg production slumped lightly during this trial from 63% to 59%. Egg quality did not change. Two reasons I consider: one, the protein in the scraps is a lesser rate than the commercial feed I am sure. This would make creating an egg slower inside the hen. Reason two is time spent outside was significantly more as they poked around for hours at a time. Making them have less daylight to focus on lay an egg. This sounds silly even to me. But it is my gut feeling. I began feeding it to them in the early afternoon, knowing that most hens lay in the morning. This allowed them to lay “undistracted” and also benefit from the scraps. This helped a little. Proving my intuition was right on some level.
In summary, if a producer is looking for hen health over production, this is a great option. Find a kitchen that offers healthy food to its customers. Good food will mean good scraps. And who knows, you may even pick up an egg customer!
The next trial we did was a corn mix. We mixed corn, oats (spelt will work too- we used them interchangeably), and some soybeans we saved for the project. I did varying sets of this experiment. First for my own knowledge and curiosity, and second for this grant project.
We took shelled corn, soybeans, and oats and ran them through a hammer mill. (Mix weight breakdown was 80% corn, 15% oats, 5% soybeans. All the grains used were non GMO.) This created a powdery substance. I fed it to the hens in the same feeders as the commercial feed. We were surprised that egg production only slowed down by 3%. However, egg color, and quality just seemed less. Not bad by any means, just not the best I have seen. I decreased the rate of the corn in their feed ration.
At the end of the experiment, the conclusion was a good balance of 20% grain mix and 80% commercial feed seemed a good rate. The hens maintained a healthy body condition, and the egg quality and laying rates were acceptably average.
Second corn trial:
We took shelled corn and a feed vitamin/bean meal concentrate sold at our local feed mill. I ground the shelled corn like before and added the bags of supplement as directed. (the mix was 75% our corn and 25% vitamin/bean meal.)
I fed to the hens in their feeders at a rate of 20% corn/ 80% commercial feed, just like the first trial. I learned that the hens like it just as well. They didn’t change much more than a 3% drop in production just like before. Egg quality and hen health were in good standing as well.
My conclusion on this trial goes like this: If a producers resources are such at he can own a hammer mill, grow his own grain and have the marketing leverage of producing some of his own feed- the first trial is a just as good as the second trial. However, the second trial allows a producer to not have the financial responsibility of owning a tractor, mill, fields and equipment related to crops. Depending on the specific resources of the producer, this trial is a good one to put into practice in one form or another.
My final summary: In my operation, with the contacts I have developed, I have come to the conclusion that the kitchen scraps are the most economical means of providing a supplemental feed to a layer flock. The first reason coincides with my philosophy that the hens are the workers. Give them what they want to be happy. Happy hens (like happy workers) will produce good work. My second reason is economical. The actual dollars of savings will vary per producer as each sale price is different, commercial feed costs will vary per area, and hen breed may even play a factor. In my experience, it is worth the extra time and work to collect the kitchen scraps. My third and fourth reasons are the connections to chefs and other local networking and the ecological benefit of “recycling” the scraps themselves. For a creature to be able to use food that would otherwise be thrown out and produce something from it is actually quite amazing. Besides the fact that chickens LOVE these scraps!
A suggestion to those that may pursue this with a professional kitchen would be to not be overly picky with what they put in the “chicken can”. Especially if they are doing it for free. However, large amounts of grease and other nasty kitchen things wandered into the can at times which I had to compost straight away. Be sure to have an open, easy going attitude of communication to the staff and be clear on what is not good for the hens.
During the grant project my farm hosted a half dozen customer tours from our meat retail shops, a local club, and two different Purdue University classes. Interns Paul and Chris (last names withheld) also were able to learn alongside this project. I would like to thank the people at SARE for funding this project.
As I have learned, I would encourage farmers to be creative and seek out resources that may not be conventionally considered when looking for differing methods. I would strongly suggest communicating to other business people (or anyone) who have overcome trials and used “outside the box” thinking.
Our family retail meat business (www.moodymeats.com) held many tours on the farm. The exposure to (over 150 of) these families and individuals was quite memorable for them. This project was mentioned during the “layer hen” portion of the tours. I am sure these families (especially children) will remember collecting eggs and holding the hens.
The specific details of the actual workings of the project and the daily work/observation was witnessed by two interns Paul and Chris. They both have a passion for this type of farming and lifestyle. The project was a great exposure to them in thinking outside the box, pursuing a desired goal, and the work involved in making a living on a small farm will set firmly in their minds for a lifetime.
In the future, I will no doubt be able to help others with a project with the same type of obstacles — not only in farming but in business, work, and life.
Please visit our business website for more about our philosophy about our family farm. There are also photos and more information about our meat processing facility and three retail locations: moodymeats.com