Making Chicken Feed
Have you ever thought about making your own chicken feed? I know that I probably wouldn’t have thought it possible until I read Harvey Ussery’s book “The Small-scale Poultry Flock” which does a great job of outlining how to grind and mix your own custom poultry feeds.
You might be wondering why go to the effort to make chicken feed when there are many suppliers selling it. It’s not something that I would recommend everyone take on, but I do think it is a good solution for some people. Here are the reasons we do it: freshness, less frequent trips to pick up feed, control over ingredients, higher quality for lower price, and the potential to sub out purchased ingredients if you start growing them on the farm.
Freshness may very well be the most important factor in our choice to make our own chicken feed. Most chicken feed contains ground corn and ground soybeans or soybean meal. In comparison, we purchase whole grains, including wheat, corn, barley, field peas, and flaxseed, and store them whole. Once grains are ground, they should be used within a month, 45 days tops. Since many feeds contain soybean meal and/or oil, people who stock up on feed may be unknowingly feeding rancid food. Any time that we grind and mix a batch of feed, it’s eaten within a few days, so our chickens are always eating the freshest food.
Fewer Trips to Pick up Feed
If stored properly, whole grains will keep for many months without any impact on their quality and nutrient density. That means we can pick up grain just a few times a year, instead of picking up feed once a month to make sure we aren’t feeding anything rancid. Trips to pick up grain add up quick, particularly if you are driving any significant distance. This approach saves us gas money and time. Less time on the road = more time on the farm.
Control Over Ingredients
It’s impossible to have complete control over the ingredients that go into your chicken feed, unless you are growing all of those ingredients yourself. However, by making our own feed we can increase the diversity of grains in our chickens’ diets, choose non-GMO or organic grains as available, and decide what ingredients to exclude.
We have decided to make a soy-free chicken feed. The reason that soybeans are used so often in feed is that they are very high in protein (+/- 35%). This high protein helps to counter balance corn’s relatively low protein, making corn and soybeans the ultimate combo for growing animals quickly and cheaply. The downside is that soybeans contain many anti-nutrients, which can be significantly reduced (but generally not eliminated) by roasting or sprouting. The only way to potentially get rid of all anti-nutrients is through complete fermentation, which is the traditional form of soybean preparation in many Asian countries. We could buy whole roasted soybeans to include in our feed, but I question the ability for soybeans to stay fresh once they have been roasted, and we do not have the equipment to roast soybeans on the farm. I think that the safety of heavy soy use in animal feeds and human foods is still up for debate, but if you’re interested in learning more, here is a good place to get started.
I think that diversity in diet is another important factor lacking in most commercial feeds. Instead of including just corn and soybeans as the main grains, our feed has wheat, corn, barley, field peas, and flaxseed. We purchase non-GMO corn, wheat, and barley from Ernst Grain & Livestock near Hagerstown, MD (fantastic farm, great people to work with) and we purchase non-GMO organic field peas from New Country Organics in VA, which we have delivered a few times a year. We buy our flaxseed from the Frederick Farmers Co-op, which adds omega-3 fatty acids and protein to the feed.
In addition to the main grains, we also include several supplements in our feed which we purchase from time to time from one of the above suppliers depending on price. Those supplements include aragonite (calcium for egg shells), Fertrells Poultry Nutri-Balancer (vitamin, mineral, and microbial supplement), fishmeal (adds protein and omega-3 fatty acids), crabmeal (adds protein, calcium, and selenium), kelp meal (minerals), and brewers yeast (protein and digestive aid).
Higher Quality for Lower Price
Per pound, the cost of our feed is more expensive than most standard feeds you could buy at the local farm supply store. The cost of our feed is comparable to the pre-made feed supplied by Ernst (which is pre-ground so issues for us with freshness/frequent pick-ups). The biggest difference is between the cost of our feed and the cost of an organic, whole small grains, diverse feed such as that available from New Country Organics. Our feed costs 36% less, not including deliveries which would need to be frequent to deal with the issue of freshness.
Potential to Sub Out Ingredients with those Produced on the Farm
In our ideal world, we would be able to feed our chickens 100% from our land. But, it takes time to create abundant annual and perennial food systems. Now that we know how to create our own chicken feed, it would be easy to sub in any ingredients we could produce on the farm, such as a livestock corn or legume. We also have the flexibility to reduce the amount of an expensive ingredient, such as high-protein field peas or fishmeal, if we are able to start producing a high-protein feed on the farm such as worms, black soldier flies, duckweed, or azolla fern.
Creating a Feed Recipe
I use two spreadsheets on Excel to calculate feed recipes for our animals. One sheet is for ingredients and includes information such as protein percentage, lysine percentage (important for pigs), cost per pound, and any limitations for that ingredient. We got our protein percentages directly from our suppliers, who have their grains tested periodically. Here are the limitations to be aware of for poultry diets:
Wheat – no more than 30% of diet to avoid digestive problems
Barley and oats – no more than 15% of the diet to avoid digestive problems
Flaxseed – no more than 10% of diet to avoid off smell to eggs and meat
Fishmeal – no more than 5% of diet to avoid fishy flavors to eggs and meat
Crabmeal – no more than 2% of diet to avoid off-flavors and too high of selenium levels
Pre-mix – in general we have found that the birds go for the grains first and eat the powdery pre-mix last (or not at all), so we have over time adjusted our recipe to reduce the powdery ingredients and maximize the grain ingredients.
My second spreadsheet includes a chart for individual types of poultry feeds, in this case a 15% protein layer feed. The second column (Amount/100 lb) is also the percentage of each ingredient, so these are the numbers that I can adjust to change the recipe. The third and fourth columns allow us to make 50 or 25 lb batches of feed, which can be mixed by hand. The spreadsheet is set up with formulas connecting the various pieces of information so that if I change something, such as update a known protein percentage for an ingredient or change the percentage of an ingredient in the recipe, the total lbs, protein, and cost will all instantly reflect that change. In this way, I can play around with the quantities of the grains and supplements to reach the lowest cost recipe while still providing 15% protein and staying within the limitations of each ingredient.
The more that you tinker with grain ratios trying to get to the correct level of protein and keeping cost in mind, the easier it is to see why most animals are raised on a diet based mostly on corn and soy. Corn is cheap, high in energy, and quite digestible. Soy is relatively cheap compared to the high amount of protein it contains. So, in creating your own animal feeds, you will quickly find that protein, the main nutrient for muscle growth, is the number one constraint.
Making feed has a few key steps: storing grain properly, making pre-mix, grinding grains, and mixing feed.
You can forget everything that I said about the storability of whole grains if you don’t store them properly. The two main factors are preventing mold growth and keeping rodents out. We decided to go with 55 gallon plastic barrels set on pallets off the concrete. We keep the grains in a room in the downstairs of our bank barn, which stays cooler in summer and has less temperature fluctuation than any other space in our outbuildings. We pour the whole grains into the barrels right after pick-up, being sure to hold an untreated piece of two by four in the barrel which absorbs any excess moisture in the grain, helping to prevent mold growth. Keeping the barrels off the ground prevents condensation from occurring between the barrel and concrete, which again prevents mold growth. The thick plastic of the barrels keeps out rodents.
We make big batches of pre-mix, usually enough for at least 100 lbs of feed at a time. This makes it much faster when putting together a batch of feed. We use a hanging scale to measure out the ingredients, pour it all back and forth between two tubs to mix it well, then store it in a bucket with a lid and use as needed for batches of feed.
The whole corn and whole field peas must be ground for the chickens to eat and digest them. Thankfully, chickens have crops, an organ that uses grit the chicken eats to grind down food before it continues on for further digestion. This means that small grains such as wheat, barley, and oats can be fed whole to chickens. In fact, some believe that it’s better for them to have some whole grains in their diets as chickens are adapted to eating whole seeds as part of their natural diets.
None of this would be possible without our trusty Bravo grinder which we purchased from Premier 1 Supplies. The hammermill grinder is made by an Italian company Novital. Premier 1 is the only US supplier we know of that sells the grinder with a US plug. The 4 mm sieve works great for grinding corn and field peas.
Once enough grain is measured and ground for a 25 lb batch, we mix it with the correct amount of pre-mix to make the finished feed. To mix, we pour all the ingredients back and forth between two tubs. It’s easiest to mix 25 lbs at a time; 50 lbs is just a bit heavy but still doable. With 47 hens laying, we tend to go through a 25 lb bucket of feed roughly every 2 days, though we are experimenting with making it last longer through rationing and simultaneously maximizing access to forage or compost. Once our chicks join the flock, we will likely make more batches of feed at once and store in a metal trash can off the ground on a pallet, like we do with our pig feed.
Learning the process and developing recipes for animal feed taught us a whole hell of a lot that we may never have understood as well otherwise. Even though we are purchasing the ingredients, we have gained a greater sense of independence and resilience from having this process as a foundation to work off of as we experiment with other farm-based feeds over time.