I went to Focus on Farming again this year, and enjoyed it, as usual. Sometimes there is a session where no class jumps out at me as a “must hear,” so I just randomly pick something, and end up finding it really interesting. The first one of these was a class called Locally Sourced Grains for Poultry Production. It was taught by James Hermes, Extension Poultry specialist at OSU. In fact, he’s the only Extension Poultry Specialist in the West; and the last one hired since the ‘80s.
He explained that the poultry industry is already pretty advanced, so it’s not like universities are getting tons of funding to do research projects on improving poultry production. The big producers like Draper Valley and Foster Farms have their production models, they are happy with them, and they don’t require a lot of innovation. Additionally, their industry is very closed, so there is no opportunity for small producers to enter or compete with either chicken or egg producers in the mainstream.
So that leaves niche markets, both for small producers to tap, as well as for Dr. Hermes to research! One of the areas where we can out-compete the “big guys” is in offering poultry products from alternatively fed and cared-for animals. Consumers are getting more sensitive to issues with corn, soy, and GMO crops; as well as welfare issues and the carbon footprint of shipping feed across the United States. Many are willing to pay extra for chicken and eggs where birds have been raised in a non-mainstream way. This is not an option for the big guys: their whole model is dependent upon confinement and shipped GMO corn/soy blends.
So, Dr. Hermes has been doing some studies to assess the viability of alternate feed sources for chickens, and things we can source locally. Any discoveries he makes may help local producers increase the niche market.
First, he wanted to point out that growth hormones are never used on chickens, and never have been. Consumers are increasingly sensitive to this subject, so many poultry producers write “no hormones” on labels. But it turns out, growth hormones don’t work on chickens like they do on other animals: chickens lack the additional hormone receptors to required take advantage of them. So it’s a moot point.
His second strong point is that chickens are monogastrics, like pigs and humans. None of us can be “grass fed” in terms of living largely off of grass. We lack the type of stomach required to ferment forage and convert it into energy. We can derive some vitamins and minerals from greens; but we require higher protein energy sources to survive and thrive. So, chickens need grain as the bulk of their diet, plain and simple.
And, their digestive system and nutritional needs are actually somewhat fragile and particular. You wouldn’t think it when considering what chickens are willing to eat: I’ve seen mine eat cooked chicken, recently expired chicken peers, bacon, dead mice, and Styrofoam!
The first limitation is that they need adequate methionine, a sulfur-containing amino acid. It turns out that the only feasible way of getting this into feed is via chemical sources. So, thus far, the organic standard has been allowing a deviation here for poultry feed. But this is changing, as of 2012, now feed can only contain 2 lbs/ton of synthetic methionine, which is half of what chickens require. Research is being done to find alternate and natural sources, and none have yet been identified. So right now, organic chicken feed is going to be suspect for providing adequate nutrition.
The standard chicken diet for many decades has been 2/3 corn, 1/3 soy. They grow well on it, produce high volumes of good quality eggs on it, and develop little diarrhea or other digestive upsets from it. (And my thought: one might conclude that we’ve been feeding this for so long, we’ve bred a population of chickens which is now optimized to thrive on corn/soy.)
Cottonseed is a good, high protein feed; but is not a viable option for laying hens, because it causes egg yolks green and egg whites pink!
Canola is not an option for brown egg layers, they have a genetic mutation that comes from the Rhode Island Red strain which reacts with Canola to create fishy-tasting eggs. Flax above 5% in the diet, and fish meal in the same quantity, also causes a fishy taste in eggs.
Wheat and barley are not easily digested by chickens without added enzymes to help them break it down. Chickens, of course, are not mammals, so are not designed to digest milk, they lack lactase. So, though they enjoy consuming milk and will grow on it, it gives them diarrhea and a presumed gut ache, limiting performance.
Oats have too much fiber, which does not sit well with the bird digestive tract- chickens get diarrhea from too many carbs. Dried beans also don’t fly (though Dr. Hermes said he intends to do more study with cooked beans). Camelina is ok, up to 10% in the diet.
Not enough research has yet been done on triticale, millet, or other more exotic grains (Dr. Hermes requests that if people know of local sources of these grains, he’s interested in procuring them for study).
Dr. Hermes did find that field peas, up to 30% in the diet, were ok, and the chickens performed almost as well as on the standard diet. Garbanzo beans and lentils also did pretty well in his trials.
But thus far, no big recommendations that can challenge the old standard of corn/soy blends. Scratch and Peck is pulling it off: creating a corn- and soy-free chicken feed. But at considerable cost (nearly double); which is probably not sustainable for anybody who owns more than a dozen chickens or is trying to maintain a profit margin. So, interesting conclusions, but nothing solid yet for producers to work with in meeting this consumer demand.