Cutting Costs without Cutting Quality – Of Permaculture and Feeding Chickens

Since we ordered our chicks I have been sitting here wondering how on earth I am going to feed 202 little tummies, even if I know the vast majority of them will not be kept. Still, feed seems to be the single most expensive thing when it comes to chicken keeping. When I had 25 very obese large fowl they were eating $300 a month in the dead of winter. I can’t afford that! This seems insane. In order to remedy the problem I have come up with a few solutions.

1) I picked different breeds. The Buff Orpingtons ate enough food for a horse and I only had four of them – that I hated. So no Orpingtons! And although I loved my Brahmas they were HUGE and had the apatite to match, so no more Brahmas either. I still wanted large eggs so it was a conundrum until I stumbled across the Brabanters, laying ample large white eggs these hens only weigh a petite 5-5.5 pounds, much less than my 8-12 pound Orpington and Brahmas! Theoretically the smaller the animal the less it eats. I am hoping this is true.

2) I have been told “fermented feed” is amazing. It’s been claimed that it helps hatch more female chicks, keeps the gut bacteria of the chick’s parents healthy, and cuts down on food costs because wet food fills up a chicken far quicker than dry food. Fermented feed is basically regular chicken food put in a bucket with water and apple cider vinegar and left to ferment for a few days until the resulting sour-smelling (but mold-free) slop is fed to the chickens. Apparently chickens love it. If I have to feed grain I think this would be a good way to do so though it is more work and takes some getting used to.

3) I want to plant the pastures in a way that will allow the chickens to feed themselves in the warmer months. This might be asking a lot but if I don’t have to feed the chickens in the warmer months that is going to drastically cut down my costs. Because of this I tried to get breeds I thought would have foraging skills, breeds that don’t would simply starve in this simulation if they didn’t have the skills to feed themselves. I have looked into how other people have managed this, knowing full well that before industrialization people didn’t feed their chickens grain at all. They had to get their food from the environment so what was that food? The first farm I saw had maybe 100 or more chickens and claimed it never fed them at all, even in the winter, because they were able to utilize a giant pile of manure and compost which provided bugs and scraps of waste for the chickens to eat even in the winter because the heat from the decomposition kept the pile hot enough to keep snow off it. These people were in Vermont and I’m a little dubious of this claim…. as l look out the window at my own enormous manure pile which is covered in 4 or 5 feet of snow right now. The other farms I found made no such claim about winter feeding and instead concentrated on having the right plants for the chickens to eat growing in their pastures. To prevent the chickens from overgrazing any particular plant or spot they split their pasture into 4-6 lots which they would rotate their chickens to at the end of each week, allowing the plants a month or more to recover before the chickens got their chance at them again. To make life easier they would put the coop in the middle all these pastures and simply opened a different door for the chickens to go into a different section. Genius but what is there to plant?

Permaculture is the idea that you shouldn’t just garden or raise livestock, you should be the keeper of a whole ecosystem. The chickens eat the plants, the plants get nutrients from the chicken poop to grow better, and in the end there’s an endless amount of green for all. It is much preferable to the bare sandy-bottom runs I had my last chickens in. What I don’t know is how big of a pasture is needed for how many chickens and what are ideal plants to have out there. There is an idea that it’s best to plant the lowest layer with various grasses and legumes, such as mixed grasses, chick weed, clovers, African violets, and marigolds, and above that you can plant berry bushes and fruit bearing shrubs. The chickens can pick at what they can reach and anything out of their reach humans can harvest for themselves, with a 30% increases crop due to all that lovely manure! Above this layer a final touch can be given by planting a couple fruit trees. I have noticed that the old apple trees I was used to as a kid gave a TON of apples. Sure chicks can’t fly up to the tree to eat them but they certainly can when they drop to the ground which fruit untimely does. Being a New England native I know apple trees are by far the most productive fruit tree in these blustery climates and I look forward to planting a few along with berry bushes, clover, and whatever else I can find. The biggest problem right now though is that pastures planted with perennials need a year to grow out before grazing is suggested… and I really don’t have that time… but perhaps I can see what I can do in the first year while planting the largest part of the pasture and leaving that untouched until it’s time to graze them. Another thing to consider is that bees would make this whole process better. I don’t have any bees and it sounds damned expensive to get into. I will look further into that though, as I think bees would be a great thing to have eventually, I just don’t know about the first year.