Proteins and Grandma’s 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: In Grandma’s day (which was my day not too long ago), protein was easy to supply to your birds.
The meat and bone meal that was once the “backbone” (excuse the pun) of the feeds industry is no longer widely available. 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 their meat, nervous tissue and bones, 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 butcher 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. The proteins in animal products are perfect for omnivores like birds.
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. A variant of it could even spread to humans if they ate the beef. 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 an ingredient. Mills could still use meat and bone meal if they did not make ruminant feed, but it is illegal to use in most mills. That’s good. Mad Cow disease stopped.
Mills can still use pork meal and chicken meal, and some larger feed companies have mills that make no ruminant feed who do use meat and bone meal. 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.
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 you 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. More than anything else, they don’t like the texture of it, so if you use it you probably will need to dampen the mash. There’s no point feeding birds something they will leave in the bottom of the trough.
I like to use wild fish meal from the leftovers of the fishing industry, and we disguise it in pellets, so they happily eat it. If you use too much, it can flavor meat and eggs. Keeping it under 10% is an easy decision anyway, because it is so expensive. The amounts we use are fine. Some fish meals are preserved with chemicals like ethoxyquin, but the one we use is preserved with organic oils like rosemary. We get it from here, which gets most of ours from here. See what I mean about knowing your sources?
Insects are great protein, too, and we carry sustainably farmed bugs. They are absolutely the birds’ favorite treats. Black soldier fly larvae from British Columbia is our pick. We pass on the Chinese farmed mealworms.
Dairy has good protein in it, but also has a lot of water, so bear that in mind.
Legumes like beans, soybeans, lentils, and lima beans work great, but you absolutely must cook them. They have a natural substance in them called a trypsin inhibitor. It inactivates the enzymes that allow the animal to digest proteins. So not only do the proteins in uncooked beans not benefit your animal, they also prevent him from digesting other proteins that might be in the food. Some beans are even toxic when they are raw. The Oregon feeds inspector once told me a small amount of lima beans had poisoned some livestock in a case he had worked on. Who knew?
Soymeal has already been heat-treated, so if you like soymeal, it is available as a protein source. It’s a complete protein, and if it not modified with toxins to repel bugs, it has its place.
Don’t forget the leftovers! Chickens love plain old meat, so if your freezer has meat in it that your family doesn’t like, it won’t go to waste if your birds have anything to say about it.