Sunday, April 10, 2011

Feeding Chickens on the Cheap

I love my hens, I admit that right up front.  I have my second batch of chicks in a brooder box in the shop now.  They are almost past that cute stage as they are teenage chickens, long gangly legs and big feet.  I only have two full grown hens in the coop.  Last year was hard, we lost two in the same day to some predator and one just slowed way down and died in her sleep one night.  Sigh.  The year before we lost several to racoons (three in one night) and then two more to a weasel (after we had the run enclosed).  I had no idea there were weasels in Kansas, and he just walked right through the fencing - bastard.  But the plan was to have 8 hens that would have forever homes here.  We don't butcher critters.

So, I'm not going to let them free range quite as often.  I have always thought that was the best way to go.  They eat bugs, weeds, weed seeds, fertilize all over the place instead of in the coop or run, etc, etc.  They also scratch up whatever you just planted.  Keeps life interesting.  But I hate the thought of them being cooped up in an enclosed run, no pun intended.

We have a totally enclosed run behind the coop.  That's pretty much just dirt with some straw.  The hens also have a fenced front yard.  If I didn't have the little girls going into the coop soon, I'd probably shut the trap door so they couldn't get in the enclosed run and get something planted there for them.  But we have Frank, a young male cat that I also love, who likes to chase the chickens once in a while and he just climbs over the fence.  So the little birds will have to be full size before they go in their front yard.

On to problem solving.  Any food they get other than what's in the feeder is free food.  And I'm all about cheap is good, but free is better. 

Plant some straw bales and water well.  One year I tried straw bale gardening.  I didn't really have success with that, but it was probably mostly my fault.  In the end, I had three, very water saturated bales slowly decomposing.  I finally got around to knocking them apart and they were full of grubs.  Holy cow, those hens thought I had opened up a buffet for them.  They dug around in the straw for days.  Grubs were gone in a flash, but they were eating things that I couldn't even see.  I have access to almost free bales of straw (mostly because the farmer always wants to just give them to me, but I always throw a few bucks in his truck when he brings them.  He gets water from our wells occasionally, so it's a win/win thing.)  I use the straw as mulch in the garden and occasionally I'm lucky enough to have a few volunteer wheat plants from it.  Chickens like that, too.
Saving egg shells.  I just crush 'em up and put them right into the feeder now.  I used to put them in the garden, but then hens aren't always allowed in there. 
Planting extra veggies in the garden so there's plenty to share.  Cucumbers and tomatoes are favorites.  My past girls weren't too interested in pumpkin, squash, cabbage, other things that most hens like.  I read that if you take zucchini, etc and shred it, the hens will go nuts over it.  I guess they think if it looks like worms, it must be edible.  One year I let cucumbers get fairly large, then sliced them in half and froze them in grocery sacks.  In the winter when there wasn't any green stuff, I'd let the bag sit in the sink to thaw, then take the cucumber mush out to the coop. 
Wild sunflowers, etc.  There used to be a lot of them along the outside of the run.  Last year, there were none next to the run, but a good crop of them inside.  As they grew, the run had more shade, and the little seeds were gobbled up later in the season.  I wonder if there will be any this year?  If there isn't, I'll transplant some from the garden, put a bit of fencing around them until they are established and get another crop growing in the run.
Grass clippings.  If your birds are kept in a run, some short grass clippings will give them something green to eat and help cut down on your feed bill.
Plant beets inside their front yard.  A couple years ago, the chickens just demolished my beet crop by eating all the tops as soon as anything was visible.  So much for planting veggies outside the garden. This year, I'm planning on planting a wide row of beets in the middle of their front yard, then put a little hoop of fencing over the top and ends.  They should be able to reach in and get some of the tops, but not all, so hopefully I'll still get some beets later.  If there is enough space, I could do that over a bit of grass, so they'd always have something green to peck at even when it all turns to dirt.
Bug bucket.  Bugs.  I'm against 'em.  But the hens need protein and bugs are protein.  Yeck.  I saw a video on Permies.com that showed a tripod made from tree cuttings and a bucket hanging in the center.  There were holes cut into the sides on the bucket, about an inch from the bottom.  If I remember this correctly, the guy put icky meat (road kill would work) in the bucket, and then some mulch on the top to hold down the smell.  As the meat got really crappy, maggots would drop out of the holes for the hens.  Black soldier flies were buzzing around and then hens would snag them, too.  If I can figure out a way to support the bucket without having to set the thing in concrete, I might try this.  It's pretty windy here some days, so I'll have to ponder this a bit.
Garden cleanup in the spring and fall.  I love this!  I always leave all the garden debris in the garden until close to planting time.  The hens scratch the straw into bits, eat bugs, seeds, old veggie scraps, etc, do light tilling and some fertilizing.  Any bigger, woody stalks that are still there when it's time to plant usually get hauled to the back of our little field to decompose.  Ragweed, well, that stuff we burn.  Hate ragweed.
Kitchen scraps, of course.  I have a rule that nothing goes to waste around here, and that includes leftovers. I won't feed any of my critters moldy food, either. But there's veggie ends, outer leaves, etc that end up in the kitchen compost can.  Too bad the hens won't eat coffee grounds.  I do have a couple recipes that use the seasoning packet from Ramen noodles.  The hens love noodles.  You don't have to cook them, just put them in a bowl, cover with cold water and let them sit.  Any noodle will soggy up and you can dump it all out for the hens.
Bug board. (Added 6-7-11)  I just remembered this the other day.  Some guy said to water a spot in the run or wait until it rains, then throw down some scrap wood flat on the ground.  He had a couple scrap pieces of plywood that he used.  He'd leave it there for several days, then remove it.  Underneath were all kinds of buggy things and the hens were happy campers.
Throwing scratch grains on the ground:  Every morning when I open the door to let the hens into their front run, I sprinkle a couple cups of scratch grains in different areas around the run.  There were always some grains that none of the hens ate, so they'd be there the next morning.  But after we had some rain, those grains would start to sprout and then the hens ate them.  Some people will sprout grains for their hens in the winter, but I wasn't interested in doing it.
There's always grains on the coop floor in front of the feeder.  They don't peck at those, but if I take the time to sweep it up and throw it out into the run, they think it's some kind of treat.  Chickens aren't known for their brains.
Edited 8-9-2012 - Wow, this worked really well!  The hens front yard is a little eco system of it's own this year.  Tall, green stuff to keep the ground cooler, lots of stuff for chickens to eat and most of the time, no watering in spite of our drought!
Flooding the ground with water:  (Added 9-3-11)  This was a surprise.  We had made some waterers using scrap guttering.  Last month when it was really hot outside, I would spray water all over the clumps of orchard grass and whatever that little brushy weed is so the wind blowing through it would cool the air a bit down at the ground level in the hen's fenced front yard.  Then hens would walk through all the wet stuff, pecking away.  On the hottest days, I would do this every couple of hours.  Now the hens just run out to the spray and fluff their feathers.  Anyway, I'd also freshen their gutter waterers.  I noticed that they'd start pecking at the water that flooded over the guttering.  They weren't just drinking, they were pecking at something edible.  So I held the hose in one spot for half a minute or so, then moved to another spot.  It was crazy!  The hens were just pecking away, scratching in the water and having a party.  I don't know what they were pecking at, maybe grass and weed seed?  Invisible little critters?  Whatever it was, it got eaten.  I was able to use the same couple of areas for days before there was an obvious lack of pecking.  So I picked a couple other areas to spray the water on.  The race was on!  I was just spraying enough water to cause some puddling.