Category Archives: chicken

Chicken Experiments – Fermented Grains

I have been planning on putting this post up for a while now. It’s a little late for the winter effects but the value of this process can pay big dividends throughout the year for smaller producers.

I’ve been asked for years what I feed to my chickens. After a few years of evolution, I’ve finally got myself on the right tracks for better year round egg production and have seen a reduction in feed costs with the added benefit of strong, healthy chickens.

Before I get into detail, I want to give you a bit of back story into our road to discover. In 2013, we had a field that was newly seeded down for pastures. The crop specialist, Rich, was determined to plant a cover crop that would sprout fast and provide soil cover to prevent weed growth. The choice was made to plant forage oats.

What are forage oats? Well, it’s the rudimentary form of oats. It’s got wide broad leaves that sprout from the ground after just a few days of germination. It grows much more like a grass but if left long enough will produce the seed heads just like an oat plant.

As summer went by and we tried to get into the field to take the first cutting of hay, we experienced rain delays and scheduling issues. By the time we managed to get the field cut, the forage oats and developed their seeds and they had started to dry. Here on our farm, we like to feed the cattle baleage.

What’s baleage? Baleage is created when hay isn’t left to dry down all the way in the field before it’s baled. It’s not fresh cut but it isn’t dry either. Once the low moisture hay is baled into round bales, it’s then wrapped in a form of shrink wrap plastic. They look like those long tubes you see along the highway or the one’s you joke with little kids about being giant marshmallow poop. 😉

Once the bales of hay are wrapped, they go through a fermentation process that “cooks” the grasses inside, leaving more available nutrients than standard hay and also leaves the grass soft for the cows to eat. Since some of the forage inside these bales were the oats, they were “cooked” too.

That winter when we started feeding these bales, we noticed that one set of our chickens had stopped eating their layer mash (a special mixture of powder feeds that is formulated just for laying hens). Upon monitoring this group, we noticed that they spent all day around the hay feeders in the cattle barns. “Why?” we started asking ourselves.

Low and behold, we had stumbled upon something that had us researching what was going on. Why would the chickens prefer the oats overtop of their own feed?

What was soon discovered is an article about fermenting grains. What was the big deal? Why would chickens like the fermented grains better? Apparently, a little known fact about grains and fermentation processes is that when the grains start breaking down, the release a lactic acid. The lactic acid breaks the bonds within the grains compounds and makes the sugars and proteins more readily digestible. “Huh, who knew?” is what we were thinking.

Off we set to do some experimentation! What did we need to do? According to a couple of reference (listed below), all we needed to do was add water, stir occasionally and sit back to wait.

How to ferment chicken feed by the Art of Doing Stuff

Fermented Feed by Natural Chicken Keeping

Why and How to Ferment Chicken Feed by Garden Betty

We started by using the layer mash we had. While it worked okay, the process took a lot of water and you had to keep stirring and stirring. The chickens did eat it, if there was no other food choice. Maybe my chickens are just picky, but they didn’t care for it one bit. The method was also long, sometimes taking two or three days to even start the “bubbling” needed.

Last winter, I was extremely discouraged and went back normal feeding of just mash. The results were astounding and I didn’t realize the impacts it would have. Our chickens didn’t lay eggs. Their feathers seems more ruffled and they just seemed more down than normal.

This last summer, I decided to give it another go for the winter season. I turned to a local farmer who plants a variety of crops and started talking to him about what my options were based off from what he plants. Matt set me up with a mix of crushed grains. The mix includes corn, wheat, rye and oats. It was mixed at 25% of each grain after it was augered through a pro-box and put through a roller mill. He then bagged it up in 50 lb bags for me to transport it home (and because I can lift that size bag, 100 lb requires assistance).

Upon getting it home, I took an old folgers coffee can and filled it up roughly 3/4 full (to the top of the handle mold). I added hot tap water (roughly 140 degrees) until it was just covering the grain by about a 1/2″. I put on the top and set it aside. Later that afternoon, I checked it again, stirred it up and added a little more water to one of the two I had set up. Much to my surprise, the next morning I had bubbles forming on the top of both containers. I left the one I had added water to and just fed the other. At first, the chickens and turkeys weren’t too sure but by sprinkling some of the dry grains on top, they devoured what was left. I repeated the process for the container I had fed.

On day two, the container I had left had fermented so much that there was literally mold growing on the top of the grain! Nope, that wasn’t going to work. Matt did such a great job with raising the grains and the processing that I only need to wait 24 hours!

The routine now goes like this: Morning feeding, I take out two coffee cans of fermented grains to feed to roughly 50 birds. As soon as the mixture is plopped out of the can, it’s standing room only around the dish. The grains are devoured in less than 1/2 hour with not even a kernel or glob left! I refill the containers and bring them inside to repeat the process again.

What’s the benefit? Prior to beginning the fermented grain feeding, I was getting roughly 2 eggs a day. The chickens were always huddled together and rarely ran around the barns. After just three days of feeding fermented grains, the egg production shot up to 6-7 eggs a day. After a week, the chickens were running around on days when it was -30 below outside and still laying an astounding NINE eggs a day from three year old chickens!

This week, we topped our highest egg days that we’ve seen in months at 12 eggs. I can see a vast improvement in their energy, their overall condition and their eggs. I see the same thing in the turkeys too. I’ve also seen their water consumption drop. Probably because they are getting the moisture and flavored water from the grains.

I might not have fancy photos like the other folks do above…but I do know this is the better way to go. We are feeding roughly half the amounts we were before and the layer mash that been given as free choice over two months ago, is still sitting there in the feeder. The wild birds and chickadees are loving it though.

If you have any questions or would like to know more about the grains themselves, Matt is the guy to talk to! He’s available on Twitter and is full of great information about a variety of other stuff too (Just ask him about pressing ragweed for oil for confirmation). He can be found at @mdedrick1.

If anyone wants to see photos of the entire process, the way I do it… Just give a shout and I will edit accordingly!

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Winter Grazing

We’ve been posting some photos on our Instagram and Facebook pages about the cattle and their winter choices and preferences. I’ve had various people from all over the world comment about their cattle and if they go outside and graze or stay inside to just eat and lounge around.

Here is what we have discovered over the past couple of years in our attempt to gain more days of grazing throughout the year.

Fall Grazing
Here the cattle are grazing (not an intensive grazing) in late October

1. We had a field that was going to be used for hay that didn’t get cut due to many days of rain and an over abundance of shale rock sticking out of the ground. This is the second year we had this issue and decided fairly early in the year that our new seeding fields would produce enough hay crop for our animals over the course of the winter. We allowed the grasses to grow over the entire growing season and created a stockpile of grasses in the field. Late in the year, starting toward the first of October we started grazing the animals in this unmowed paddock. The grasses were of various heights, many of which ranging between the 8-12″ mark. Some was taller and had died off while the bottom was a thick carpet of new growth.  The cattle stayed in this paddock until we got a heavy rain in November that caused some severely muddy areas that were starting to freeze and creating a hazard for the cows. They were shifted out of this paddock on November 27th.

Day One of Winter Grazing, November 27th, 2013

2. Cattle that have been raised to graze WILL graze when given the chance. The Irish Dexters we have here are natural grazers, so it makes sense to us to run all the younger cattle (yes, even the dairy breeds) with them as much and as often as possible. Cattle learn from repetition and by example. The older cows teach the younger cows what to do. Sometimes, this has additional woes to consider when it comes to animal handling but that’s another topic. Here is a link to a short video, taken on December 30th with about four to six inches of snow on the ground Post by Barrows Farm of one of our dairy cows grazing.

3. I’m slowly learning that weather issues that bother me might not actually bother the cattle much at all. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say:

Snowy Cold Weather? These cattle are having a blast on their “snow day”
Older cattle teaching the younger to eat "grassicles"
Older cattle teaching the younger to eat “grassicles”

4. It isn’t only the cattle that prefer to eat something out in the pasture. We have chickens that refuse to eat the “rationed” diet provided by the feed store, instead the forage for their own food.

Look at those chickens go out and get goodies!
Look at those chickens go out and get goodies!

We have 18 head of cattle right now and we are still feeding hay. We feed 2 bales that measure 4 foot x 5 foot every two to three days depending on how much the cattle graze. We’ve done some rough estimates and we are figuring about 25% of their diet is still coming from pastures every month. Hard to imagine but it’s happening. We do want to increase the amount from pastures but after dealing with the harsh reality from this winter, I don’t think we are doing too bad since I think we have had two or three days in the past three to four weeks that have been above 15 degrees. The cattle go out everyday to walk the pastures and nibble on grass…all by choice, not force. They always have hay available inside the barn. Sometimes we do roll bales out in areas that could use some additional organic matter…

Bale grazing on January 27th
Bale grazing on January 27th

Overall, I have to say that this has been an experience for me. Each generation seems to be more adaptable to the winter grazing. Maybe we are just noticing it more but I can demonstrate what I mean by viewing the photo below. All the calves are doing great and at six to seven months of age are developing well.

A Dexter cow and her 2013 calf at 8 months old

We will continue to monitor and push for more “grazing” days. Of course, every day the cattle graze here but we want to get more of their diet from the grassicles (frozen shards of grasses) than the current percentage. There will be some additional trials into the paddocks themselves to increase the winter fodder coming for many years to come. One thing is certain, we aren’t afraid of change or adaptability. I will keep you all as up to date as possible on the happenings…and don’t forget to stop by and like our Facebook page to stay more current on details. I try to post a couple photos every week of what’s going on around the farm. “See ya soon”

 

 

 

Muddy Tires, Sore Knees and Baby Chicks

Spring equals mud! Mud makes farm girls happy!
Spring equals mud! Mud makes farm girls happy!

Nothing like starting right out with a photo that can manage to bring a big ol’ happy grin to my face and a twinkle to my eye. I love mud. Spring mud specifically. That greasy, slimy stick to everything kind of mud.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the truck or the four wheeler…I must drive/ride to get “dirty” every spring. It’s my way of saying GOODBYE OLD MAN WINTER! HELL-LO SPRING!

I think that thing that makes it best right now is the simple fact that my knee has been driving me insane over the last week. I think it has something to do with the 5-6 mile walks everyday, chasing loose cattle and sliding down very steep hills. Could just be old age too. Not really sure…all that matters is it gives me an excuse to get muddy! Mud makes me happy!

As the paper lining the box says...Great Expectations
As the paper lining the box says…Great Expectations

Babies make me happy too! Doesn’t matter what variety, two-legged or four. Covered in fur or feathers, doesn’t matter either. This time, we have NINETEEN babies! Little associated, mutt mixed chicken chicks ranging in all sorts of colors and color mixes.

They are so much fun to watch running around, learning how to peck at food and scratch the paper to shreds. The first day is always kind of quiet. It takes a lot out of the chicks to hatch…but they are just too adorable to watch as they run around and just flop down to take a nap.

Of course, all those fluffy feathers make it that much cuter!  Nothing like babies to make a grown woman act like a young child.

Needless to say, I am definitely young at heart….now I think I need to act my age and take a nap. Maybe I can take this little chick with me?!?! Nah…maybe another time!

Napping newborn chick
Napping newborn chick

Let talk Chickens

Since I always stress the importance of knowing your food. Today, I would like to talk about chickens.

Barred Rock Hen

The breed has survived at large for about 8,000 years—rare for a wild ancestor of a domesticated animal.

It is thought that the nearest relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex is a chicken.

This bird was probably first domesticated for the purpose of cockfights, not as food.

Over 9 billion chickens are raised for food annually in the US.

With 25 billion chickens in the world, there are more of them than any other bird species.

Chickens doing the hunt and peck for bugs

Chickens are omnivores. They eat seeds and insects but also larger prey like small mice and lizards.

Chick
A pullet (Take note that the comb is small and low to the head. The wattles are also tight to the beak.)

 

 

 

 

Baby chickens are chicks.

 

 

 

 

 

Female chickens are pullets until they are old enough to lay eggs and become hens.

Laying Hen (Note the larger comb and wattles)
Rhode Island Red Rooster

 

 

 

 

 

Male chickens are called roosters, cocks or cockerels, depending on the country you are in. A rooster announces to a flock of chickens that he’s found food with a “took, took, took.” But the hens don’t pay attention of they already know there is food around. Roosters perform a little dance called “tidbitting” in which he makes sounds (food calls) and moves his head up and down, picking up and dropping a bit of food. Researchers have found that females prefer a male that often performs tidbitting and has a larger, brighter combs on top of his head. Scientists think that the rooster’s wattle—the dangly bit beneath his beak—helps him to gain a hen’s attention when he is tidbitting.

Chickens aren’t completely flightless. They can get airborne enough to make it over a fence or into a tree. The chicken can travel up to nine miles per hour.

The chicken was the first bird to have its genome sequenced, in 2004.

In Gainesville, Georgia, the chicken capital of the world, it is illegal to eat chicken with a fork.

Alektorophobia is the fear of chickens.

The egg-laying process for a chicken begins in its eye. Chickens lay eggs only after receiving a light cue, either from natural sunlight  or artificial light illumination. The light stimulates a photo-receptive gland near the chicken’s eye, which in turn triggers the release of an egg cell from the chicken’s ovary.

A hen must eat about four pounds of feed to produce one dozen eggs.

A chicken will lay bigger and stronger eggs if you change the lighting in a way to make her think a day is 28 hours long.

Some farmers add marigolds to the feed of their chickens to make the yolks of their eggs a darker yellow. A diet rich in corn will also make the yolks darker in color.

Most eggs are laid between 7 and 11 am.

Eggs are a good source of lutein, important for eye health.

The waste produced by one chicken in its lifetime can supply enough electricity to run a 100-watt bulb for five hours.

Agricultural researchers have found a carbonization process that converts ordinary poultry manure into granules and powders that can mop up pollutants in water.

Researchers have found a way to turn chicken feathers into strong, plastic composites for products as varied as car dashboards and boat exteriors.

Researchers at NASA are testing a new jet fuel made from chicken fat.

Feathers make good paper, even for filters or decorative wallpaper. They work best combined with wood pulp to increase the number of times the fiber can be recycled.

The superfine size and shape of feathers make them well suited to filtration needs.

Chickens also require space. They will need up to 3 ft. of floor space in their house per bird. They also require lots of ventilation.

Nest boxes should be a minimum of 1 ft. wide by 1 ft. deep and be at least 1 ft. tall.

Chickens like to roost at night. They require up to 8 inches of space per bird while on roost.

Chickens consume approximately 3 grams of fat per day. Yet, the average egg yolk contains approximately 6 grams of fat. Much of the fat found in yolks comes from synthesized carbohydrates and protein.

2.5% of the fat found on a chick in located on the abdomen. Low-fat whole chickens sold in the supermarket have had this area removed.

Chickens have a focus range of 20 diopters, twice that of a 20 year old human. It vision is considered the finest of all animals.  They have both monocular and binocular vision with a 300 degree field of view.

To predict egg color, look at the hen’s earlobe. If it’s white, then the egg will most likely be white. If it’s red, the egg will most likely be brown. This works about 75% of the time.

Eggs will last up to 5 weeks in the refrigerator. To check the freshness of your egg: fill a container with at least six inches of water. If the egg drops to the bottom, it is still a good egg. If the egg floats to the top, get rid of it.