Monday, August 29, 2011

When the Chickens Come Home to Roost

The one part of the human diet that is amenable to what I am now calling craft production is surely chicken and egg production.  We are learning that an egg’s value is heavily influenced by the birds feed.  We are learning to take advantage of that.

More interesting is that as we see more and more craft agriculture emerge based on rather small acreages but high labour to produce value added output, adding a flock of say a hundred chickens becomes practical and possibly valuable.

The consumer is becoming aware and his premium needs can be met by the craft producer.

Here we read of one persons efforts to manage the quality of his eggs and how easy it becomes.

When the Chickens Come Home to Roost

When I first changed my diet thanks to reading up at the Weston Price Foundation website, the first piece of advice I followed from them was to find free range eggs in my local grocery stores. Easy enough, there are several brands available, including "Omega-3 Eggs."

But one thing always bothered me about these "free range" eggs...all had the statements on their cartons "100% vegetarian feed." Since chickens are omnivorous, this always bothered me.

I soon learned that what that really meant was soy-based feed. Since I've been striving to eliminate as much soy as possible from my diet, this was a problem.

I also read this article at the WAPF website, Eat Your Eggs and Have Your Chickens Too, in which the following factors were cited to point out the superiority of having free range eggs – 

Without a doubt, fresh, pastured eggs are superior in taste and nutrition to conventionally raised commercially available varieties. Eggs have been a highly valued foods since the beginning of time—eggs from chickens, ducks, geese, turtles and fish. Egg yolks are the richest source of two superstar carotenoids—lutein and zeaxanthin. 1. Not only are bright yellow yolks loaded with these fat-soluble antioxidant nutrients, they are more bioavailable than those found in vegetables, corn and most supplements.2,3 While these nutrients have a reputation of combating macular degeneration4,5 and cataracts6 and supporting overall healthy vision, they have a long list of other benefits, including protecting the skin from sun damage7 and even reducing one’s risk of colon8 and breast cancer.9

Besides providing all eight essential protein building amino acids, a large whole, fresh egg offers about six to seven grams of protein and five grams of fat (with about 1.5 grams of it saturated), which comes in handy to help in the absorption of all the egg’s fat-soluble vitamins. One egg also serves up around 200 milligrams of brain-loving cholesterol and contains the valuable vitamins A, K, E, D, B-complex and minerals iron, phosphorus, potassium and calcium.10 Choline, another egg-nutrient, is a fatty substance found in every living cell and is a major component of our brain. Additionally, choline helps break up cholesterol deposits by preventing fat and cholesterol from sticking to the arteries.10,14 So the bottom line is, don’t be chicken about eating eggs, especially the cholesterol-rich yolks!

Compared to the generic supermarket variety, eggs from pastured poultry are a vivid yellow-orange—proof of a richer store of health enhancing carotenes (more specifically xanthophylls, a natural yellow-orange pigment in green plants and yellow corn).11,12 The more carotenes, the darker, deeper orange color the yolk—and the higher the levels of fat-soluble vitamins as well. Expect to find the richest orange colors in the spring, when grass is fresh and bugs are plentiful. Color also fades as the egg ages. Bear in mind, variations will be seen in these differences due to the breed and age of chickens, their diet (grass, insects, and feed) and the season.

When left to their own scavenger instincts, being the omnivores they are, chickens eat bugs, worms (and even snakes if given the opportunity), grasses and nutritious herbs such as plantain leaves and wilted nettle—both of which boost egg production and yolk hue. While these feathered friends will eat the grain and pellets left in the feed trough, it certainly isn’t their ideal food. Remember, chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians as many people assume, meaning they are designed to consume foods from both animal and plant sources.

I was sold on the idea of getting my own backyard chickens.

It's been an interesting experience to say the least, as I've been now raising chickens for over two and a half years. I've learned a lot about it, and decided to pass along some tips gained from my experiences.

- Chicken manure stinks after awhile. The chicken hatchery I bought my hatchlings from suggested this product, called EM-1 or Effective Micro-organisms Formula 1. I put a little into their daily drastically reduces the smell of their manure. About once a month, I'll spray a 25% EM-1 to water solution all over their coop and egg box...which literally eliminates the manure smell entirely. This product is a must-have if you raise chickens in a small backyard close to your house.

- I feed a mixture of organic grains (barley, corn, oats, milo & wheat) bought from my local feed store. Some paleo diet proponents who are right to castigate grains for human consumption often talk about trying to find grain free chickens. This is ludicrous. Chickens are omnivorous and love to eat grains. If you let them forage in pasture, you will see them literally peck the grains off of stalks of grass. While grains make humans sick, chickens seem to be designed/evolved to eat grains as a regular part of their diet.

- I mix a small bit of ground up oyster shell into their feed. This provides calcium and grit for their gizzards. This makes the egg shells strong. Before I began doing this, my chickens eggshells were pretty fragile and broke too easily. Since I've added the oyster shells, the eggs are so strong, I sometimes have to really strike it hard to crack it open when I'm cooking. If you don't have access to oyster shell, I've heard that some egg farmers will crush up the eggshells and feed it back to the chickens. You don't want to just throw the egg shells whole into the coop though...they may start to look at egg shell as food and begin eating their own eggs as soon as they're laid.

- If you do have chickens that cannibalize their own eggs, buy a wooden egg from a craft store and put it in the egg box. After a few painful pecks of the wooden egg, the chickens stop trying to eat their own eggs.

- I also mix in flax seed into their feed. If you google it up, you'll find a lot of conflicting claims regarding whether or not this benefits the Omega 3 content of the egg. Here's one source I found on the topic, from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the U.N.

Elongation of n-3 fats and their enrichment in eggs

Chickens have the unusual ability of rapidly converting ALA into DHA in significant quantities, and to EPA in lesser amounts. This means that eggs can be enriched with these important fats, provided that there is an adequate supply of ALA in the hens’ diet. 

The diet of hens usually contains some of the n-3 fats, and 100 g of edible egg typically contains 150 mg of total n-3; of this, DHA + EPA is about 20 mg. By adding 10 percent flax seed (2 percent ALA) to the diet of layers, the total n-3 will rise to more than 600 mg/100 g. About one-third of this will be DHA + EPA.

You really shouldn't bother trying to add more flax seed than around 10% of their scratch in an attempt to get higher levels of n-3 in the eggs, as they do not eat it all up anyhow. They don't seem to particularly care much for flax seed, but they do eat some of it. The benefit of having the scratch thrown on the dirt floor of their coop is that when it rains, they'll sprout and the chickens will eat those sprouts too.

- The fact that chickens like and eat grains does not mean that is all you should be feeding them. That should only be a portion of their overall diet. Chickens are literally pigs with wings. They eat anything and everything. Broccoli stalks, carrot peels, old rice, rotten left overs, bread, cheese, fish, meat (yes, they'll even eat chicken...I don't feed my chicken's chicken...but I could if I had to), pear and apple cores, potato peels...basically anything you would normally flush down the garbage disposal, or throw in the waste basket? Just chop it up into peck sized pieces and dump it in the coop. They won't leave a single scrap left.

- In addition to kitchen scraps and a ration of grain feed, I let my chickens wonder the backyard for every afternoon from around 2-3 pm 'til sundown. This is when they eat grass, seeds, bugs, worms and anything else they can scavenge. I've seen my chickens catch and eat mice and centipedes before.

Once the sun sets, they all come back to the coop and roost for the night. I then shut the gate to their enclosure. I do this because if I were to let them roam truly free range all day long, they find nooks and crannies and begin laying their eggs all over the property. Many times you never find them, until they go rotten. Then you find them by smell.

By keeping them in an enclosure for half the day, they usually lay all their eggs in an egg box I constructed in their coop. When I let them out of their enclosure, I than grab their eggs from the egg box as they run out into the yard to begin their daily scavenging.

- Sometimes your chickens will get sick. I had a chicken get sick, diarrhea, and she stopped eating and started refusing to leave her roost in the coop. She slowly wasted away until she died. I tried everything I could think of to save her, but nothing I tried worked. Than another of my hens started coming down with the same symptoms, I began to google frantically to try and find the answer. 

I found an online forum in which backyard chicken raisers shared tips and advice. One was to put some raw apple cider vinegar (not distilled) in the drinking water, and to spray a 1:10 ratio of the vinegar all over the coop and common areas the chickens frequent.

Within a single day after doing this, she began to recover, eat, and come out of the coop and run around with her fellow hens.

- Other tips were to occasionally feed the chickens fresh garlic and onions...but this purportedly will make the eggs they produce have a peculiar flavor. I've fed my chickens garlic, but never noticed any strange flavors in their eggs.

- If you raise the chickens since they were hatchlings, frequent handling while they grow will make them very used to human presence. Certain breeds however, are more flighty and nervous than others, while other breeds are downright friendly. I had one Aracuana who literally flew up and roost on my shoulder every chance she got, like a pirate captain's parrot.

- If you make a specific noise whenever you go outside to feed them kitchen scraps, you can than use that noise as a call. I can walk into my yard and make my imitation of a chicken cackle (ba-GAWWWK!) and it's almost comical to see them come running from all corners towards you in anticipation.

In closing, I can say this: it may require a lot of initial work to set up a system for raising your own chickens, but once you have it set up and you figure out what works best in your situation, it's almost effortless to daily maintain them, with only the occasional bi-annual clean out of the coop necessary to keep them clean and healthy and producing eggs. And their eggs they produce are certainly worth it.

You don't even need that many hens to make enough eggs for your family. I have 11 hens, and they produce more than enough eggs for my families daily needs. I often give away eggs to friends and family. Besides a good food source, they make great pets to boot.

One last piece of advice - if you have hunting dogs, make sure they cannot get to the chickens. I had my best hunting dog's runner leash break once, and I came home to a yard full of feathers, no chickens in sight, and one fat and happy hunting hound. If he were not my best hog dog, I would have put a bullet in his head right then and there, I was so angry.

I had to start all over from scratch, get all new hatchlings, and resume buying store bought eggs for a full 6 months until the new flock matured and began laying eggs.

Sometimes, you learn some lessons the hard way.

No comments: