Food diversity for your backyard chicken is a win-win for all

Our chickens are eating our weeds; their eggs taste fuller as a result - all due to a conversation with a man about his goats.Borden - Chicken in run This past weekend I met a man who has a few hobby goats. I asked him if it is true that goats are very destructive to the land. He replied, “No, goats prefer to eat upwards. They are browsers not grazers.” The way he said those words jolted my brain into noticing I had never consciously thought of the difference before. So I did some research.

Deer and goats are soft vegetation browsers, which is why they love azalea leaves, fruit, and your prize peonies. Sheep and cows are grass grazers, which is why their teeth have such high crowns to grind the fibrous tissues and why they will denude a field if not rotated and managed properly. Then I thought about chickens.

Two summers ago, we transplanted mature irises next to our driveway along with a few holdouts of the grass that used to be a lawn. The grass is now taller than the irises. Chicken persistence seemed just the solution to deal with the tenacious grass and the extreme density of weeds.

Our chickens have denuded all soft vegetation as well as grasses in their run - the avian equivalent of sowing one’s fields with salt. Technically their enthusiasm for chomping all things green denotes them as a forager. We translated their brower/grazer/pecker/digger/aerator/fertilizer abilities into a quadruple win when we let them loose in the weed infested area by our driveway.Borden - Chicken in area between driveways

Win #1 - Our backyard chickens ate the weeds (grasses, etc.) when we constructed a temporary fence near the driveway. Fresh, fast growing weeds have soft membranes. As long as we continue to limit their time in that area and watch them carefully, we will keep them away from the denser plants we want to keep.

Win #2 - The greenery supplements their diet.

Win #3 - Their eggs taste better (more complex).

Win #4 - We can watch them weed our own garden while we eat their eggs, an experience that attains a level of synchronicity akin to magic.

Rewatching the videos I shot over the first two days of our experiment, it appears the chickens like the greens almost as much as they like digging for worms and bugs in the freshly emerging soil.

Day 1 - First 10 minutes Day 1 - After 30 minutes

Day 2

Did I mention I find backyard chickens easy and mesmerizing?

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Chicken litter feeds cows feeds chickens feeds cows

The debate for the FDA about feeding chicken litter to cows appears to stem from their concern over Mad Cow disease, which strikes me as the tail wagging the dog. So before I talk about the dog, I will address the tail. Chicken litter, i.e. everything from the floor of a chicken house, sawdust, feathers, manure, spilled feed, etc., is being fed to cows in feedlots. The FDA temporarily banned the practice in 2003 because there was concern that the chicken feed (industrial chicken feed includes “recycled cattle proteins” and “ruminant meat and bone meal” - a.k.a. beef, in its ingredients) was spilling onto the litter and being fed back to the cows. As a chicken owner, I can verify that assumption - chickens are not neat eaters.

In February of 2003, a study done by the North American Rendering Industry, showed, “it will require feeding 10 pounds of poultry litter / cow / day for 6,442 days, or 17.65 years, to achieve a single ID50 dose!” The ID50 is the median infective dose for Mad Cow disease. Cows bred and fattened for industry live less than 2 years. The 17-year time frame is very compelling, and I can see why the FDA removed the chicken litter ban in their later rulings.

I had never heard of the National Renderers Association before reading their study, so I did some research.

Formed in 1933 as the professional association of the rendering industry, they process the leftover parts of the animals humans raise for meat and render the raw materials into usable products. As their Web site states: “Meat and bone meal, meat meal, poultry meal, hydrolyzed feather meal, blood meal, fish meal and animal fats are the primary products resulting from the rendering process. The most important and valuable use for these animal by-products is as feed ingredients for livestock, poultry, aquaculture, and companion animals.”Borden - chicken and chicken litter

Nearly 59 billion pounds of animal byproducts are recycled and reused by the rendering association annually. One third to ½ of an animal we have bred for meat is not used and the renderers turn that into “feed ingredients” as well as “valuable ingredients for various soaps, paints and varnishes, cosmetics, explosives, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, leather, textiles and lubricants.” Renderers are an integral part of the meat industry.

An association of renderers, who recycle leftover animal parts into animal food, paid for a study to show there is no harmful affect on cows eating cows (small amounts of cows). And honestly, who else has the time, inclination, or finances to run that study other than the people directly affected?

Assuming we have successfully rendered (hehe) the argument against chicken litter causing Mad Cow Disease null and void, let us return to the main point - feeding chicken litter to cows.

According to the North Carolina Extension service, the litter should be processed before being fed to cattle. There are several ways to process the litter, but the goal is to stack it to create conditions for bacteria to raise the temperature of the stack to 140 -160 degrees to kill pathogens present in raw litter (the main pathogen of concern being E. Coli).

The University of Missouri Extension has a chart discussing the nutrient basis of chicken litter. On average the litter contains 25 percent protein, which is a fairly cheap source of food for the beef farmer. The ability to recycle the huge amounts of waste from chicken factories into feed for beef in feedlots appears to be a win-win for all involved. Cheap feed for cows translates into cheap hamburgers.

Which brings us to consumer choice, and a theme I have touched on again and again - voting with your wallet. Do you want to eat cows that have ruminated litter from the floor of an industrial chicken facility, or do you want to eat animals that have masticated grass and felt the warm sun?

It is nice to have choices.

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Sounds of the State (in my backyard)

Sounds of the State is a segment on NPR (here in Michigan) where we hear the cadences of nature around Michigan, thank you NPR for a great phrase. I can think of no better way to celebrate Earth Day than to pause for two minutes and see the Earth and earth (soil) from the perspective of my chickens.

In case you, too, are drawn to the meditation of watching birds clucking and scratching in honest absorption, here is a small collection of a few of my favorite videos I have taken of the girls over the past year.

Learning to navigate their coop:

Experiencing the first snow:

Sunbathing and stretching legs and wings in the warm earth:

Jumping to drink water from the leaves:

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