Effective use of food scraps as poultry feed
In general, small egg operations (less than 5,000 birds) are economically challenging given the high cost of feed within current production models. Feed costs can represent as much as 70% of total production costs and 30% of the retail value of the egg. Communities everywhere generate substantial volumes of discarded food and other food processing byproducts that may be cost-effective alternative feed sources, and these materials, when integrated into a composting system, may yield additional benefits.
Our farm and a small group of other farms in Central and Northern Vermont have raised laying hens on a diet of discarded food for over ten years, however no quantitative assessment on food scraps as a feed has been conducted, and we are interested to clarify any concerns with the transmission of salmonella. This project is assessing the opportunities and risks associated with feeding food scraps to laying hens. Specifically, we are assessing nutritional value and pathogenic risks associated with food scraps as a feed, and the economic viability of this practice for small-scale commercial production (50-2500 hens). We are operating a split flock with 55 birds in each group. Group One is fed only food scraps, while Group Two is fed strictly Organic Grain. Both groups have year round access to pasture and Ferrell’s Poultry Mineral Mix. Food scraps are thoroughly sampled with a rigorous sub-sampling process, and tested for nutrient composition and Salmonella Entridis. Eggs have been tested for Salmonella Entridis and we are waiting on nutritional testing. Egg production and production costs (including labor) are tracked by group. Dr. Michael Darre, UCONN Poultry Specialist, is developing feed ration recommendations and Dr. Jarra Jagne, Cornell Poultry Pathologist, is helping us assess the pathogen risk and develop pathogen management protocols that can be used on our farm and others to ensure healthy birds and consumers.
Analysis of composting food scraps
In May 2014 we began sampling food scraps. In June we brought on 50 chicks to increase the size of each group and yield better outcomes (55 birds per group). In June and July we began semi-monthly sampling of food scraps, and operational and husbandry observations. To date we have submitted two samples of food scraps for nutrient and pathogen testing, one sample of eggs for pathogen testing, and three environmental swabs (one from each participating farm). We are preparing to submit additional food scrap, egg and environmental samples, as well as begin testing eggs from each group for nutritional characteristics.
Feed amount and diet
Between May and July hens were fed roughly 60% food scraps and 40% grain while we built infrastructure to break the flock into two groups, obtained collection equipment and completed farm infrastructure for receiving and feeding food scraps in order to scale up our operation. In July we obtained a 10 yard dump trailer modified to lift and tip food scrap collection containers mechanically and rapidly scaled up our operations, going from 0.6-0.75 tons per week from 4 stops to ~16-17 tons per week from 34 customers.
In August we began environmental sampling, here at the farm, as well as at two partnering farms. Due to a variety of logistical challenges we were unable to split the flock until September. By September we had completed the necessary receiving and feeding system to handle full loads (5 tons at a time) here at the farm and split the flock. Our food scrap receiving and feeding system could now be easily scaled up to at least 2000 hens. Group One is fed 100% food scraps, while Group Two is 100% Organic Grain. Roughly 5 tons of food scraps are tipped into the Group One Feeding Bin each week, where they are blended with whiskey mash, wood chips, hay and active compost.
We are still very much in the data collection phase and no clear outcomes have been established at this time. All pathogen testing – food scraps, eggs, and environmental (three farms)– have come back negative. Nutritional testing of food scraps has shown that the nutrient composition of community food scraps are significantly lower than desired for most nutrients, however through observation and further consideration we have identified a variety of factors that make this testing and ration development challenging.
First, the hens do not eat the way we sample. They are rather selective in deciding what materials to eat, and may feast on one item for some time, consuming a disproportionate amount of that item compared to what would be captured in our sampling. For instance, though our testing shows food scraps low in total energy and protein, there are plenty of times when the hens will circle up around a pile of pasta, whiskey mash or a baked ham, and eat considerable amounts. Additionally, food scraps have been sampled when they arrive at the farm, however hens are often foraging on food scraps that have been blended with other materials and begun composting for a week or two. Pile temperatures of 50-120F suggest that the bacterial population in the mix is growing (thus generating heat) and therefore the hens may be consuming considerable amounts of protein from a bacterial film on the food scraps which sampling has not captured. Reconciling the inherent chaos in the food scrap feeding system (compared to a formulated and consistent pellet) is challenging and we are adjusting our approach and expanding our sampling to include inoculated (in compost mix) food scraps in future testing.
Despite the challenges of sampling, we are very pleased with the function of our current systems and believe we have good operational models in place for evaluating the enterprise and operations aspects of this practice.
We began our outreach through a couple early outreach opportunities. We provided data and observation to Compost Technical Services for their report to the Vermont Association of Solid Waste Management District Managers, who are playing a leadership role in the roll out of mandatory diversion of organic materials from the landfill through Vermont’s Universal Recycling Act. Recently we collaborated with the Composting Association of Vermont to prepare a section on feeding laying hens in a forthcoming University of Vermont Extension report on laying operations with 1-5,000 hens.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The impacts of this project will not become fully apparent until the data collection is complete, analysis done and the outreach phase begins, however several things have emerged early. Early testing suggests that Salmonella Entridis is not a major concern, but that nutrient composition of food scraps as a complete ration may be insufficient. Despite this, however, egg production in both groups has remained similar - over 107 days of tracking Group 1 (food scrap group) laid 1,032 eggs, while Group Two (grain group) laid 1,036 eggs (pullets only started laying in the last 30 days of tracking). This raises many questions about the ecology of feeding food scraps to hens in a composting system that may not be getting captured by the current scope of sampling and testing.
Egg production in Coop One (food scrap group) has recently dropped below Coop Two as the birds grapple with winter conditions as their feeding bin is out of doors and requires being exposed to the elements while feeding. Production costs appear to be similar in total, though costs are represented differently. The food scrap group labor is significantly greater, especially during the winter if the feeding bin is not covered and requires snow removal, and food scrap feeding requires carbon material inputs (wood chip and hay).
Coop 2 (grain group) has significant feed costs, and this is without the time and cost associated with obtaining bags of grain. When we compare three months of data the costs for each system are nearly identical, though the Grain Group's costs are typically in cash, while the Food Scrap group's costs are typically in labor and carbon materials. Since we produce our own hay our actual out of pocket costs for the substantial hay input is nominal, however in our cost analysis we have assigned market value to it for the sake of comparison. Though production costs are similar, the comparative income is not. While egg income is identifcal for both groups, the food scrap group generates tipping fees of $35 per ton of food scraps received on the farm and generates considerably more compost. If the compost is valued at market value (as e have done for hay), the Food Scrap Group is generating nearly 40% more income at current rates.