The plan to start the chicken garden is underway. Finally. I mean, I probably should have done this last month when I planned out the other gardens, but this seemed a bit overwhelming. Who do I know that's grown their own feed before? Not one person. So I put it off and put it off. Then this happened:
Since I have a whole mess of eggs all the time, I like to scramble up a bunch all at once so we can have egg muffins for breakfast throughout the week. This time I started crackin'... one egg, two eggs, three.. um, hmmm. Clearly some of the hens are not eating all the chard and pumpkin I give them. When you feed your chickens these nutrient-rich foods, the color of their eggs will show it. I now know that the color of the egg is a good way to determine the health of your chickens. Sometimes the whites have extra color too. Another clue is in the shell. It should be strong, not paper thin like what we were used to buying at the grocery store. Hearty eggs = healthy girls.
So I know I have to consider that chickens have likes and dislikes when it comes to their food, just like we do. The hard part will be trying to please them all. The chicken garden plan needed to be readjusted for this very reason. So I went back to the drawing board, did a bunch of research, and came up with something that is the combined advice of several farms and other online sources, especially the Sustainable Seed Company (where my first plan got its start). The idea is to give them exactly what they need at the right time of year. Makes sense to me! What I ended up with is a recipe for a dry mix, and a list of fresh food to grow.
The Dry Mix
As I mentioned, this is based on several different recipes, and here are the portions that I came up with. I divided the trash can (where I store my feed) into 13 parts so they get enough of everything they need. Summer looks a bit different than winter and that has more to do with the temperature than anything else. Corn helps the chickies stay warm, allowing them to get through rough winter nights. But I'll have to keep watch because they really like it. A little too much!
I have all the seed I need to start these six ingredients. A short list of other good stuff to throw in includes barley, sunflower seeds, kamut, lentils, quinoa and sesame seeds. If I add these I'll have to buy everything. (Except maybe the sunflower seeds. I read that you can just let them have at the flower heads and you're done.) Once I figure out how to grow it all, I'll have to figure out exactly what a "part" adds up to so I know how much to grow. Everything seems easy enough to harvest except for the sorghum. Like wheat, a special technique is used to harvest it properly. Well then, this has turned into quite the ongoing saga hasn't it? As I learn, you'll read about it.
Update: I since decided to take more time to figure out how to grow the grains, and so I'll just buy them in bulk to make the feed this year instead. I realized we need a lot more room to grow enough to fill two garbage cans. (duh!) So I'm growing small patches of each and then I'll harvest one square foot to know exactly what is needed for next time. We have the space to start growing it on the other end of the property which just makes more sense. Right now I have lots of corn and peas started for the remainder of the mix. Stay tuned, should be interesting!
First and foremost is pumpkin. The flesh and the seeds. It is a non-negotiable item that aides their digestive system throughout winter. Pumpkin also immobilizes worms and parasites in the chicken's system, allowing them to poop it right out. And the deep color of their eggs is a sure sign they're eating it and benefiting from it. If you have pullets (or your hens are bantam size) make sure to chop up the seeds (just a bit), otherwise, toss in chunks of pumpkin and watch it disappear.
I'll grow several cover crops in designated "free range" areas that I can move the mobile fencing to so the chickies can have at them. These crops include alfalfa, clover, annual rye, mustard, buckwheat and cow peas. These are especially good for energy and digestion.
Since they eat so much fresh food during spring, summer and fall, it cuts down on the amount of dry food they eat, so I won't have to make as much. These seasons are so much fun for the girls because they get a wide variety of foods to eat. Kale, chard, lettuces and other greens are a big time favorite for the Leghorns. Tomatoes, grapes, melons and squash are loved by the Rhode Island Reds and Americaunas. And they'll be able to scratch under fruit trees too, (a plum tree and a pear tree) so as fall approaches these trees will drop plenty for them to eat as well.
Growing all this extra food won't be easy, and I'm thankful we have the room for it. On the other side of my kitchen garden is a spot for it all. I haven't figured out if the entire thing should be enclosed or if the areas should stay separate..? Either way, it'll work out for the chickens since it's close enough to the coop and we can direct them here when it's time to clean up in the fall.
Because I won't be buying the special "layer feed" from the feed store anymore (provided this all works out!), I'll have to supplement the extra calcium that's added to it with oyster shell. Again, I'll know if they need it by the eggs they produce. And since they scratch all over the place now, I don't have to worry about grit.
With my plan above and some nice grubs, beetles and a lizard or two, this shows promise. And yep, it's all for the eggs we eat folks. And eventually the meat too. Because when they eat right, so do we!
Update: The "test" grains (oats, flax, millet and sorghum) are coming along nicely. Here's to all going well, right?
Update: This will be the last update before I add new posts on how to harvest the grains and put together the chickie food. But as you can see, the grains are just about ready, the corn is drying on the stalks, the sunflower seeds are ready to go and the girls have been eating all the fresh food I give them throughout the summer. The feed store bill has already been drastically reduced. I can't wait to test this later this year... stay tuned!