Feed Saving Tips for Small Flocks The year 2020 was definitely a challenging one in many aspects of our daily lives and although many of us are looking forward to life getting back to normal in 2021 there are still challenges ahead. As many of you are well aware of, the price of feed is on the rise and has been steadily increasing since last fall. Feed prices of course being directly impacted by grain prices which, for most of the U.S, is corn and soybeans. Prices of both of these ingredients, which combined make up to anywhere from 75-80+% of a typical poultry diet, have been on a steady incline. Poor weather conditions in South America are creating an increase in demand for corn and soybeans produced in the United States and the demand from China has dramatically increased as well, thus driving up costs. There are probably other factors impacting the price of grain, however, that is beyond the scope of this paper. Although our grain farmers are happy to see these higher prices, for those us feeding any kind of livestock it makes things a little more difficult. So, what are some things we can do to help keep feed costs to a minimum? A short list of things we could look at include: • Base feeds on things other than corn and soy • Utilize other by-products from the milling and food-manufacturing industries • Utilize lower protein feeds (that are properly balanced for amino acids) • Appropriate feeding schedules • Properly designed feeders and feed storage • Utilizing home-grown forages or locally available feedstuffs It will be up to each individual to decide which of these options are the most relevant to implement and exactly how to implement them. But all have the potential to help reduce the costs of feeding a small poultry flock. Base feeds on other grains besides corn and soy: In the United States corn and soybeans make up the majority of poultry diets. Most of the time these ingredients are the cheapest and they are highly digestible in terms of the carbohydrates and proteins they contain. But given the current high prices, it may be worth looking into other ingredients. For some locations in the U.S. particularly in the central and western states, ingredients like wheat and milo are the dominant grain crops and may be cheaper. Still in other places barley, rye, or oats may be widely available and cheaper to use. However, keep in mind that many of these grains, particularly wheat, barley, rye, and oats contain high quantities of non-starch polysaccharides (NSPs) which is a collective term for carbohydrates and soluble fibers that are highly indigestible for poultry. These NSPs can be dealt with in one two ways: through the use of exogenous enzymes or through limited inclusion rates when mixed with other, more digestible, ingredients like corn or milo. Typically, no more than 20-25% inclusion rate of wheat or barley is suggested if no exogenous enzymes will be added to the feed. Furthermore, whole barley and whole oats are particularly high in fiber and therefore low in energy (calories), thus giving further reason to limit their inclusion in poultry feed. As far as plant-based protein sources go, canola meal, linseed meal, cottonseed meal, and peas can all be used. However, their price is typically quite high and they are not always easy to acquire. Moreover, many of these meals contain anti-nutritional factors that have a negative impact on digestibility and in some cases egg color and flavor. Nonetheless, in certain areas they may be worth looking into. Be sure to research any potential “alternative” ingredient thoroughly before deciding whether or not to use it and how much is considered “safe”. Utilize by-products from the milling and food industries. For centuries barnyard poultry have been used as “recyclers” and scavengers of farm, garden, and kitchen scraps. Today, milling and food industry by-products can make good feedstuffs for poultry when used correctly. There are many commercially available wheat by-products such as wheat middlingss (midds), wheat shorts, and wheat bran. These ingredients are typically very reasonably priced and can be safely used. The biggest drawback of these by-products is that they can be high in fiber and thus low in energy. Typical inclusion rates normally don’t exceed 15-25%. Bakery meal is another product commonly used to make animal feeds and is the by-product of several different industries that produce cookies, crackers, cakes, and just about any baked goods. Although it is usually priced cheap, the nutrient content is extremely variable and can therefore be difficult to actually use and is commonly only available in bulk form. Distiller’s dried grains w/solubles (DDGS) are a common by-product of the ethanol industry and do have some value for poultry feed. However, due to their high fiber content and somewhat poor digestibility the inclusion rate shouldn’t be much higher than 10-15% depending on the age of bird being fed. Other distillery by-products are sometimes locally available from breweries. Although they can be extremely beneficial to use, they may only be available in a wet form, which would require the ability to properly store and transport such a product and it would have to be used in a short amount of time to prevent spoilage or mold formation. Animal protein by-products like meat and bone meal and fish meal are common ingredients and make great additions to poultry feed thanks to their high digestibility and amino acid profile. However, these ingredients are often expensive due to demand from the pet food industry and may or may not be economical to use. The good thing about these products, however, is that a little goes a long way and normal inclusion rates rarely need to exceed 10% (even less for fish meal). These products are also great for use with birds that have high energy and high protein requirements such as young meat chickens and turkeys. Regardless of what by-products are available, it is recommended to first of all have them analyzed for nutrient content as this will determine their exact usage and appropriate inclusion levels. Utilizing lower protein diets. This is probably one of the simplest methods to help reduce feed costs and is usually pretty easy to implement in a small flock. Protein ingredients are the most expensive ingredients and the final cost of a diet is usually directly correlated with crude protein content. Very often in small flock situations the owner will start their chicks on a 20% crude protein chick starter and keep them on that high-protein feed at least through the rearing period and sometimes for the whole life of the bird. In older aged birds, this is not only a waste of protein, as it is likely exceeding actual protein requirements, it is also a waste of money. Many people are understandably afraid to use lower protein diets as they fear it will have a negative impact on growth or feather development. However, hundreds of studies have proven that as long as the amino acids are properly balanced and in a digestible form lower protein feeds can be used and bird performance will remain unchanged. Be sure to check with your feed manufacturer about the amino acid profile and sources in your feed. Utilizing a proper feeding schedule. As mentioned above, many small flock owners like the simplicity of using only one or two diets throughout the life of the bird. However, costs can be saved if a simple feeding schedule that reduces the amount of dietary crude protein as the bird ages is followed. Furthermore, bird health can potentially be improved. Reduced protein intake typically reduces water intake and thus helps keep litter drier. Drier litter and less wasted nitrogen in the excreta means that ammonia production becomes less likely and birds will remain in better respiratory health. By keeping the birds’ environment dry and ammonia-free the chance of them becoming ill is drastically reduced and can reduce the need for expensive medications. In addition to protein reduction, reductions in other nutrients like calcium and phosphorus can also prove to be healthier for the bird and the environment as less excess phosphorus is excreted. A simple phase feeding program used to raise layer chickens is as follows:
20% Chick starter for the first 6 weeks.
18% Chick Grower from 7 to 12 weeks of age.
16% Developer from 13-18 weeks of age.
Typically, birds would be switched to a layer or breeder diet at around 18 weeks of age which is just prior to sexual maturity. Later maturing breeds may be kept on the developer phase for a few additional weeks. Such a feeding program with lower protein and proper amino acid balances in each diet will yield similar production and development results. Pictured below is a table representing what the cost of feeding one chicken on a 20% chick starter diet at typical retail feed pricing, compared to what a phase feeding program would cost. Feed intake levels are based on typical feed intake for a commercial brown egg laying breed with a bodyweight of around 3.5lbs at 18 weeks of age. Presumably the relative feed consumption in each stage would be similar for all breeds, in that they consume the least amount of starter and the highest amount of developer. As can be seen, a savings of $.32 per bird can be achieved by using phase feeding. Although this may not seem significant at first, once this $.32 is multiplied by the total of number of birds raised in a year, the savings will add up. For an exhibition breeder raising 100 chickens to maturity in a year, this means a total savings of $32. For those people raising larger breeds like Orpingtons and Brahmas that have higher feed intake, the amount of money saved would be even more. Properly designed feeders and feed storage. This is another area where many small flock owners can do a simple check to see how effective their feed storage and feeder designs are. Feed should always be stored where it is dry and in containers that exclude birds, rodents, and insects from eating the feed. Plastic trash barrels are an affordable, practical way to store feed. Feeders can be a big source of feed waste if they are improperly designed. Hanging feeders should be hung to a point where they are level with the birds’ backs, this keeps them from being able to scratch in the feed. The trough of any feeder should also be deep enough to prevent feed being wasted by raking. This is when the birds use their beaks to pull feed towards their body and out of the feeder. Birds perform this behavior in order to search for their favorite particles or they may do it out of boredom. A deeper trough makes this action much harder to perform. Consider using mesh grates to lay on top of the feed. ¼” galvanized mesh laid on top of the feed will also prevent this raking behavior and can be very effective for small birds like quail or for chicks. Other small flock owners place a short wooden box under the feeder to collect spilled feed and then place that feed back in the feeder on a regular basis. When self-feeders are used it is a good idea to wait until the feeder is completely empty before re-filling it. This forces the birds to eat all of the feed particles and may also force them to clean up any spilled feed. In general, try to prevent wild birds and rodents from gaining access to feeders. This is not only a biosecurity threat, but wild birds and rodents can eat a significant amount of feed over time. Consider only placing feeders indoors or at least under the roof of pasture shelters so that wild birds can not find the feed as easily. Exclude wild birds by using small (at least one-inch) mesh and covering outdoor runs with netting to prevent wild birds from entering pens and runs. Also keep bait boxes full or use live traps to prevent mouse and rat infestations. Using forages or locally available feedstuffs. Domestic poultry species are naturally omnivorous and have evolved on diets where nutrient-dense feed stuffs (seeds, grains, insects, etc.) make up the majority of their diet. This, along with their ability to fly, has resulted in a short, light-weight, highly efficient digestive system. Unlike a ruminant animal that relies on bacterial fermentation to synthesize nutrients from forages, birds have little to no fermentative capacity and can not eat the quantity of high-fiber forage they would need to meet their nutrient needs. Put simply, domestic poultry can not sustain themselves on grasses and foraging alone. Especially when these birds are producing eggs or growing rapidly. However, that doesn’t mean that forage can’t make up some part of the diet especially for certain species, classes, and ages of domestic poultry. Many chickens and turkeys are kept on pasture as the preferred management style of the owner. They do voluntarily consume some grasses, legumes, and invertebrate animals but if growth or sustained egg production is to be achieved supplemental feeding is absolutely needed. Mature chickens and turkeys, that are not being managed for egg production, may be able to get a higher proportion of their needs from foraging. Furthermore, smaller breeds/varieties with lower maintenance requirements and active temperaments will likely be better suited to surviving on less feed. However, no breed or age of chicken or turkey should be expected to live on foraging alone. Ducks are very capable foragers particularly around ponds, streams, and wetland environments. But similar to chickens, most domestic breeds should not be expected to live on forage alone if they are to also produce eggs or grow to their full genetic potential. However, ducks on average, are probably capable of surviving on a higher proportion of foraging than chickens. Muscovies, lightweight and bantam duck breeds are particularly good foragers. One study did determine that ducks are more capable of digesting the carbohydrates in fresh rye grass than are chickens or even geese, indicating that grasses could make up a portion of at least the energy needs of some ducks. Of all domestic poultry species, geese are perhaps the best suited to living on a high-forage diet. Geese naturally have big appetites and are capable of eating a large quantity of feed. Feed passage rate in geese tends to be fairly rapid which allows the digestive tract to empty sooner and thus make more room for more feed to be consumed. This is especially useful in the consumption of grass which is relatively low in nutrients and a high quantity needs to be eaten. Furthermore, hindgut fermentation in the cecae may play a large role in digestion of fiber and amino acids. In the previously mentioned study, it was found that geese are highly capable of digesting the protein found in fresh rye grass, more so than chickens or ducks. This indicates the ability of geese to utilize high proportions of forage. Guinea fowl are very adaptable to thriving on foraging and the majority of guinea fowl owners keep their birds in free-range situations. Adult guineas are probably able to get a relatively high proportion of their nutrient needs from foraging compared to chickens or turkeys. Many people let their guinea fowl roam for the day and only feed them once in the evening to encourage them to roost in certain areas where they are protected from predators. Given the chance, guinea fowl will spend a large part of their day searching for food, but young guinea fowl do have high protein requirements and should be provided with a diet suited to their needs. For any poultry species kept on pasture, similar pasture management protocols that are used for large grazing animals should be followed. Too many birds kept in one area for too long can overgraze and trample a pasture causing the desirable forages to die and weeds to take their place. Furthermore, internal parasite infestations can become a problem if birds are constantly exposed to contaminated ground. Range shelters should be moved on a regular basis to help spread manure, prevent pasture damage, and optimize forage quality. Poultry can have many health benefits for the pasture and can dovetail nicely with a grazing plan for cattle, sheep, goats, or horses. Kitchen and garden scraps are also often fed to poultry, but most of the time, the quantity supplied is too low to account for a significant savings in feed costs. Even if a locally available and cheap feed source or food waste is available, it is important to remember that these things by themselves are not balanced diets. For example, stale bread can be used as a treat for birds, but should not make up a large part of their diet as it is deficient in protein, minerals, and vitamins. In conclusion, there are several different tools available that can be used to help save feed costs. Careful research and study should be done in order to best implement any particular one of them. Whether that means using a non-conventional ingredient or finding a custom mixed lower protein diet, or upgrading to a better designed feeder. Each poultry owner is unique in terms of the birds they raise, their purpose, and number of birds kept and thus the feeding program and tools that are the best to implement.