How to 'treat' a chicken

Posted on Thursday, September 16, 2010 | By 2 |
[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="No, this is not my expensive CSA box!"][/caption] Last Saturday I taught a workshop at the SF Underground Market on keeping urban chickens.  There's nothing like teaching to make you take note of all you know...and all you don't know.  People asked lots of great questions and there's one question that's been bouncing around in my head.  How do you minimize the amount of feed you have to buy for your backyard chickens. The old adage 'You are what you eat' rings particularly true when you're talking about chickens and eating their eggs.  The flavor of the eggs, not to mention the nutritional value (see this Mother Earth News article), varies drastically depending upon the type of food your chickens are eating.  By now, you've probably heard about the beef that are fed red wine to start the 'marinating' process while they're still alive, leading to happy, if slightly tipsy and apparently very tasty beef.  I'm not suggesting you should feed you chickens wine (if you did, I would insist on white, anyway - jk), but I am suggesting you should be paying attention to what you're feeding them.  Not only will their eggs taste better and be more healthful, but they will also be happier birds.  Besides that, the salmonella outbreak that recently caused a recall of 500 MILLION eggs, was apparently caused by the food the chickens were eating.  It was littered with rat feces due to improper storage techniques.  What that says to me is that just because your chickens are in your backyard doesn't mean you don't still encounter risk of contamination, especially if you're buying commercial feed.  Plus, let's face it, who doesn't want to save a little bit of money these days? So how do you reduce your usage of commercial feed?  There are a few ways and I'll list them here in backwards order of feasibility (meaning least likely first): [caption id="attachment_836" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Grow your own amaranth?"][/caption]

Grow your own grain - I met a lady at a farmer's market in Austin who was selling an ancient grain at a very modern price.  She also sold chicken eggs and swore they were the best-tasting eggs you would ever encounter, due to their diet of said ancient grain.  I'm sad to report that I was neither able to take eggs home with me (I was staying in a hotel) nor to remember the name of the darn grain.  It was one I had never heard of and she swore that she had researched it her entire life and had to go to some distant far-off land to hunt it down herself.  She claimed to be the only grower of the grain in the US.  A very committed person could grow their own grain but it takes time and land to do so.  You would also want to know enough about the nutritional value of what you were growing and the needs of chickens.  I was quite proud of the two tiny Amaranth stalks I grew this year and I have to confess that I wondered if I could make the yolks pink if I fed it to the birds in enough quantity; however, this is an undertaking I just can't even think about with everything else I'm up to.  Kudos to you if you're trying it!

Find a small-scale processor who dumps seeds, grains, etc - One of these such gentlemen found my booth at the Eat Real Fest and called me later to offer me free seeds and nuts that they had leftover from some of their processing.  Like me, they're of the mind that nothing should be wasted and they were looking for someone with chickens who could make use of their seeds.  This is easier to do than growing your own, but depends quite a big on research, leg work and, frankly, happenstance.

Ask your local market for greens - I stole this idea from someone else and slunk into my local independent grocery to ask if they had green scraps.  They showed me to the back where their veggie clippings lay wilting.  As it turns out, grocery stores do a lot of trimming to keep their produce displays looking healthy and beautiful.  That means tens of pounds of leafy greens that are simply bruised or otherwise less-than-pristine looking get dumped every day!  My market was happy to let me walk out with a box of the spent greens when I mentioned they were for my chickens.  I'm halfway tempted to take two boxes and add one to my compost pile!  This is, by far, the easiest option for most of us city folk who are looking for an inexpensive way to make sure our chickens get good food.

Now that you have some tricks up your sleeve I want to give you a pointer that I think will help quite a bit.  The first time I dumped a bunch of greens into the run with our girls, I stood there flabbergasted as they pecked at a couple and then just walked all over them instead of eating them.  Even by the end of the day they had barely touched the greens.  That kept me from requesting free produce scraps from the grocery store for a long time.  However, there came a point in time when the chickens had destroyed their entire 10' x 40' free range area and were really longing for grass.  I could tell by the color of their yolks that they weren't getting enough color in their diet and I started brainstorming for a solution. [caption id="attachment_832" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Chicken Run Wreckage"][/caption] Since chickens have such acidic waste and tend to scratch up every living thing in their path, it's very difficult to keep nice green grass or clover in their area - even in an area as large as ours is!  I thought about blocking off some areas temporarily to grow clover, but wasn't sure how and definitely didn't have the extra time to commit to the project.  Then I remembered the market greens and started thinking about why they didn't eat them. It hit me in an instant.  When a chicken pecks vegetation from the ground, the plant is attached by its root which allows the bird to pull off bite-size pieces.  On the contrary, if nothing is holding the vegetation down they have a hard time pulling it apart and eventually give up -they'll eat it from your hand, but not the ground, because they need to be able to pull it apart. What I needed was something to put the loose greens in which would give some resistance allowing the chickens to pull bite-size pieces out.  I think I figured out the solution - I made a treat basket!  Below are the instructions so you can make your own at home.

How to make your own chicken treat basket

What you'll need:
  • 2 strawberry baskets (mine still had strawberry juice on them!)
  • 4 twist-ties or other securing mechanism (like a piece of string or plastic zip-ties)
  • free greens from your market!
How to do it: 1)  First, cut some of the segments out of both of your baskets, making holes that are no wider than 1 inch. [caption id="attachment_813" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Cut out tiny segments to create gaps no wider than 1 inch"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_815" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Cut on all sides, including the bottom"][/caption] Continue cutting all around the basket on all sides, including the bottom.  I decided to get all fancy and make a pattern. You want the holes to be wide enough that the chicken can reach in a grab onto a piece of lettuce, but not so wide that it comes out with no resistance. 2)  Use two of the twist-ties to secure the two baskets together on one side only with the open sides facing each other.  This should form a hinge, allowing the basket to open and close freely.  These two ties will be closed permanently so feel free to attach them a little more securely, like with a zip-tie or tight knot. 3)  Open the basket and insert lettuce and other green for your chickens.  Carefully, close the basket back up and  secure the front side (opposite the 'hinges') with your third twist-tie.  This will be a tie you open frequently to refill the basket so don't worry about securing it too tightly. [caption id="attachment_821" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Open the hinge and insert lettuces"][/caption] 4)  Now you're ready to give the treats to your birds.  I put one basket inside the chicken run firmly attached to the chicken wire with the fourth twist-tie.  I attached another one to a small low branch in their free-range area so they could pick at it when they got tired of digging through the compost pile. My girls love this treat - it gives them something to do, keeping them active (and out of trouble) and it's also a great way to get more of those healthy greens into their diets.  Get ready for some bright, beautiful and delicious orange yolks in your breakfast! [caption id="attachment_823" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Watch those green disappear!"][/caption]