Making Chicken Feed in Grandma's Day

How Grandma Could Make Her Own Feed

Q: Back in the day, a lot of people made their own feed and there were a million recipes for it that worked. Why is it any harder now?

A: I’ll claim a unique perspective on this, because I am an animal nutritionist, a feed formulator and owner of Union Point Custom Feeds. I have a background in Animal Science and an understanding of the rendering process that makes meat meals, which used to be the foundation of many feeds.

The meat and bone meal that was once the “backbone” (excuse the pun) of the feeds industry is no longer a common ingredient.  It turned out to be a transmitter of Mad Cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE). Mad Cow disease destroys the brain and is the result of a misfolded protein that can be found in the nervous systems of infected animals.  It can be transmitted through the tissue, meat and bones that have come in contact with it, carrying the brain-wasting disease to animals that consume those products. The meat-and-bone meal made from the leftovers of processing all kinds of animals used to be the primary source of protein for animal feeds. All types of animal scraps and dead animals of every sort went into meat and bone meal, and mills used it in truckloads or train car loads. Grandma could buy a bag of it at the feed store and it was considered a good ingredient for the protein, calcium and phosphorus it provided. I have old feed recipes going back a hundred years, and they nearly all call for meat and bone meal or “meat scrap”. The proteins in animal products are complete proteins and provide good nutrition for omnivores like birds and pigs and humans.

Then something changed (long story), and Mad Cow Disease began to strike cows that ate feeds that were contaminated with the remains of cattle that had Mad Cow disease. If a cow had Mad Cow, her carcass might easily end up in meat and bone meal. Once the USDA and others figured out the source of the epidemic in the 1990s they aggressively removed meat and bone meal from the list of approved ingredients and made it a criminal offense to use it in any feed mill that makes feed for ruminants like cows and sheep. That’s when soy meal really took off as a substitute ingredient. Mills could still use meat and bone meal if they did not make ruminant feed, but most mills do make feed for cattle, goats, or sheep, so it is illegal to use it in most mills. That’s good. Mad Cow disease stopped when they stopped using meat and bone meal.

It’s relatively easy to make a homemade chicken feed using meat and bone meal because birds like it and they will eat it. But now that the chicken owner can’t get it, fish meal is the most available protein meal if you don’t want to use soy meal, and chickens just plain don’t like it. At the mill I like to use wild fish meal from the leftovers of the fishing industry and disguise it in pellets, so they do eat it. It’s a problem for homemade or mash type feeds though. There is no point feeding birds something they will leave in the bottom of the trough. Also, if you use too much, it can flavor meat and eggs.

Mills can still use pork meal and chicken meal, and larger feed companies have mills that make no ruminant feed and can use meat and bone meal in those facilities. Obviously, Union Point does not use it. I don’t like the “factory farmed” aspect of pork or chicken meals, so I don’t use them either. But big commercial mills find them much cheaper than fish meal, so they often do use them. We do use insects, but that’s another topic.

Grains are a piece of cake, so to speak.  It’s easy to find grains and other carbs and birds love them.  It’s the protein that is the problem.

Vegetable sources of protein are one good option, but that is limited as well.  Most grains don’t contain the essential protein component lysine, and without it, we single-stomached animals just don’t thrive.  Some oats might have 14% crude protein, but oats alone won’t provide enough lysine to allow monogastric animals to be healthy. They need that lysine and finding that in a form they can and will eat is the goal.

Soybeans and other legumes like alfalfa and peas contain lysine, and there are small amounts in a lot of seeds and grains, but the challenge is getting enough concentration into the feed that the animals will eat. And some vegetable sources, like soybeans, garbanzos and other legumes have anti-nutritional factors that limit their use if not heat-treated. They will block other proteins from being digested!

I will try to teach you some ways to address these things in future articles.




Is Minimally Processed Feed 'Better'?

Q: Is “minimally processed feed” better than feed made at Union Point Custom Feeds? Is the feed’s nutrition damaged by the equipment?

On the contrary, it is improved. Our equipment is specifically designed to mold freshly ground material into pellets using nothing more than pressure and low temperature steam. When the pellets come out of the pellet mill you can comfortably hold them in your hand. The temperatures throughout the processes stay well below boiling. Although it is true that prolonged cooking can destroy vitamins in any food, our system ensures that your feed is at 100% of its vitamin level when it goes into the bag. And our emphasis on freshness and clearly dated tags means your animals always get the nutrition you are paying for. When making pelleted feeds, grain and other ingredients go from their whole form into finished product in a matter of minutes, and then are effectively re-sealed into pellets. The pelleting process actually serves as a substitute for the seed coat by limiting surfaces that are exposed to oxidation and other environmental stresses.

Q: How much do meat birds eat?

A: I get asked this a lot. Here’s what I wrote not too long ago:

 A: It depends on the breed and your goals.

How long do you plan to raise them?  It depends on the size you want.  Somewhere between 6 and 8 weeks should do it for Cornish.  I like big birds, so I do 8 weeks, but they are practically the size of small turkeys by then.  By 10 weeks they may have problems from getting too big.

This is very efficient feed with no losses to dust and it is nutrient dense so you can figure on a "feed conversion rate" of around 2.5 to 1 if the weather is decent, more like 3:1 if it is not.  What that translates into is, say you grow a bird to a butcher weight of 7 lbs.  (That's live weight.)   It will eat about 7 x 2.5 lbs. of feed, or about 15-18 lbs. of feed in its lifetime.  Worst case would be 21 lbs., best case, 15 lbs. 

If they were housed in perfect (inside) conditions) the conversion would be more like 2:1, or 14 lbs.  You don't count on the grass for much of their growth.  It's more like salad.  It makes them healthier, it makes them happier and they like to eat it, but it doesn't put much weight on them.  If you like a smaller bird of course it will eat less and be ready younger.

If you had 100 birds, for the season you would use 100 x 18 lbs. = 1800 lbs. of feed (1500-2100).  Fifty birds = 900 lbs., etc.  How big you want them, the weather, etc. all figures in.


Q: How about Ranger-type birds?  How much do alternative breeds eat in a pasture model?

A: Figures based on the various alternative breeds are less well studied and less reliable, because of the many differences in management inherent in pasture based systems in different areas, different climates and so on.  The best numbers I have found so far (and I’d love to see more) are from a SARE grant I’ll cite here:

     and the graphs are here:

My takeaway from their study was that the Rangers were going to have to live longer, and although they ate about the same amount of feed per day as the Cornish, they ate for more days and so came out eating about 30% more by the time they were harvested.  They found that if a Cornish bird used between 15 and 18 lbs. of feed (see above), a Ranger might eat from 19.5 lbs. to 27 lbs.  I did the math myself from their figures, so they are not written in stone, and they are based on extrapolation from their data.   I think those numbers might be a little high.  Chances are, the Rangers will be harvested smaller than the Cornish, so the lower number is probably more accurate.  But between weather, management practices and quality of feed, your mileage is likely to vary quite a lot.

That’s my take on it from what I have seen to date.


Fermenting and Sprouting

Q:  Isn’t fermented or sprouted feed better than pelleted feed?

 A:  Fermented and sprouted feeds are fun! It’s natural!  It makes a great treat.  But it’s a lot of work, and if the object is to end up with excellent nutrition, it’s not the most efficient way to get there. It’s no better than a good feed in a simpler form, unless making it is just plain fun. 

 Some of our farmers do sprout or ferment some of their feed, but mostly as you might ferment food for your family.  I can buy yogurt at the store or I can make it.  It can be fun if you have the time and the interest.  I’ll cover fermenting and sprouting together.  Even though they are different, they are both intended to improve the nutritional value of grain.

Fermenting does have value in increasing beneficial bacteria and enzymes.  Animals (and humans) like it and eat it happily.  They appear to eat less overall.  And it can work to make a tasty feed. But the devil is in the details when it comes to practicality. And I am unashamedly practical, like most farmers need to be.

Fermented whole grains are more digestible than whole unfermented grains, but a fortified pelleted feed will have those advantages also.  (Activated enzyme activity, beneficial bacteria etc.)  A crummy pelleted feed won't have those benefits, so fermented good grain will beat pelleted junk pellets.  But fermented whole grains will be less efficient than fortified pelleted feed by a significant margin.  Fermenting is simply one of the ways to get the benefits of easily digested, nutritious food.

 Fermenting is labor intensive.  Keeping the product fresh, wholesome and preventing toxic mold growth requires a lot of cleaning of feeders and buckets. The technique is an attractive concept for those of us that like to be self-sufficient and for the cooks and do-it-yourselfers amongst us.  It has value in making otherwise hard-to-digest whole grains more digestible if you don’t have a quicker or easier way to do it or if you just plain want to do it. 

 Sprouting provides a different, attractive, tasty living product.  Nothing wrong with that! But will it save you money? Some of what sounds good for your wallet is just bad math.

 For example, how'd you like to make one pound of feed grains into five pounds of feed, or ten?  Maybe you like the idea of sprouts or fodder.  The chickens certainly love it.  Just add water to seeds and wait awhile. You have no more calories, but it is bigger, bulkier, and heavier so it depends on how you measure it.  Do you have more?  Really?

 It may look like you are saving money but you really are just getting the birds to eat less because the feed has swelled up with water.  They may eat less, but they are getting less nutrition overall. 

 And have you increased the protein percentage?  Technically, sprouting grains will result in higher protein numbers, but that’s not because you have more protein.  It's because you have fewer carbohydrates than you started with because they were used up with the sprouting.  They turned into energy for the baby plant.  Stay with me here...or just nod your head and say, “Enjoy your math, Alice.”  (Truth is, in school I did NOT enjoy math.  But it is handy.)

 Let’s say you have 100 points of feeding value to start with, 80% carbs and 5% fiber and 15% protein:

80% carbs

5% fiber

         + 15% protein

            100% value of feed

You use up about 10% of the carbs in sprouting, because it takes energy to live, even for a sprout.  It’s a basic natural law.  Now you have 70% of the original carbs, a little over 5% fiber and about 16% protein.

            70% carbs

            5%   fiber

         +  16% protein

            91% value of feed

You have no more protein in total than you started with, but you do have less feed value overall.  See what I mean? Now these numbers are approximate, so don’t hold me to the decimal point. But you get my point.

 In summary,

·         Animals love fermented and sprouted feeds, so it is a nice treat for them.

·         Fermenting and sprouting are fun.  They are like cooking, sewing, woodworking, gardening or other activities that produce something useful.

·         Fermenting and sprouting are a lot of work, so it is fine as a leisure or hobby-type activity, but if your time is limited there may be better ways to spend it.

·         Fermenting and sprouting not a very efficient way to feed your birds, unless you have no other way to process the feed, and you have a good source of non-grain protein in addition to whatever protein the grain contributes.

·         If the feed is dusty and you need to get it wet so that the birds will eat it, that is a solution to a problem.  It’s not an advantage.  It’s a workaround to get them to eat something they would not naturally eat.  It is not better than a feed that they eat readily that is easy to digest.  It is a way to compensate for a dusty material they don’t like.

·         Do make sure there is NO MOLD.  Moldy feed, even just barely moldy, is much worse than no feed at all.  Do the sniff test! 

·         If it is fun, do it!  There is cleanup involved in most hobbies, so the cleaning may be no big deal for you.  When I make yogurt, I have to wash dishes, too. 

·         Don’t feel that you are cheating your animals by not doing it.  Lots of treats make them happy, so feed the ones that make you happy, too!

What is the shelf life on your feed?

It’s going to depend on several things.  The feed industry standard is that feed is good from 6 months of the date it is bought, since you can’t generally read the date on the tag or bag.  We like to be more conservative here at Union Point and that may be one reason our feed performs as well as it does.  We like to see it used in 3 months, which is an arbitrary half of the industry standard, but I’m not saying that it will explode into flames in four months, either. It’s just that fresher is better, and we’re committed to building the best.