Sunday, December 9, 2012

Natural Feeding Cycles for Chickens

By Bee:

Going to talk a little about natural feeding cycles because I think it's an important part of the natural health of chickens.  Over the years I've noticed certain things about how chickens live on free range and the trends in their production levels and such, so I try to mimic those trends and cycles as much as possible and it makes for a predictable flock. 

In the natural diet of birds, their lives are pretty much focused around survival of the species according to how much nutrition they can find at any given times of the year.  Do you ever wonder why wild birds only produce offspring in the spring?  Or why most wild animals don't give birth in the fall or winter?  It has to do with food abundance and survival instincts that are deeply ingrained. 

 (Photo by "Aoxa")

In the summer there is plenty of food clear up into early fall.  In the early fall is when the types of food available are the kinds that will put fat onto an animal... seed dispersal from trees, fruit trees go to seed as well in the form of fruit, fall fescues and other perennial grasses, etc.  This allows animals to go into winter with a good layer of fat to sustain them when food sources are lean. 

As late winter moves into very early spring the food slowly becomes more plentiful as new buds arrive, insects come out of larval stages, and new grass begins to grow.  You all know that and it goes without saying... unless I am trying to relate it to my own flock's nutrition levels that I provide. 

In the spring, chickens go into their peak egg laying production and they will lay better in early to late spring better than any other time of the year.  Food supplies in the wild are plentiful and wild birds are hatching young.  There is an abundance of food for energy to feed young birds.  This is when chickens that are raised on this natural rhythm will go broody the most.

This is also the time I usually go to a 100% laying ration to support the cycle of reproduction and I normally keep that all through spring and into part of the summer. Then in late summer I start to taper off on the layer ration as the birds go into a natural slowdown. I leave enough of the layer ration to help through the worst of the molt and I add a little BOSS (black oil sunflower seends)... not too much but a little.  This adds some fats into the supplemental feeds. 

In late fall and early winter I go to 40% mash, 60% whole grains, but taper off on the BOSS.  By January I am feeding no BOSS but still the mixed ration as to simulate that lean time of the year and in mid-February I start to taper off of the whole grains and work my feed mix back towards the 100% layer ration to do it all over again.  

By the time the girls are in full swing of lay and wanting to hatch chicks, they are eating high on the hog outside while I supplement with 100% layer ration.

I said all that to make this point ~ if you are wondering where your chicken's nutrition should be, whether they be coop/run dwellers or out on free range, always look to nature for your answer.  You don't have to worry about exact percentages of this or that because you know that formulated layer feeds have all the essential nutrients needed for high production in laying. 

Whole grains have a less total nutrition than the layer ration so cutting your layer mix with them will bring your nutrition levels down a little, but that's okay.  When you feed this mix you will find the birds actually consume less feed, which seems contrary for winter time but it just works that way.  No matter the whys but I'm thinking it has to do with more fiber in the diet and they have lower activity levels to support.  

In conclusion, looking to nature will tell you when to feed what to your chickens if you are providing more than half of their total nutrition, which most folks already are.  More nutrition when they are in reproduction mode/months, less nutrition when they are in survival mode/months, with a slow tapering into each season so as to let them transition as they would in the wild.  

I see a lot of people hopping up their nutrition during the winter months to keep their chickens "warm" ~ which is totally unnecessary.  Do wild birds have high protein and fats in the winter?  No, they don't because they simply don't need it ~ they are living off their stored fat from late summer/early fall.  I am feeding the lowest level of nutrition at the same time everyone else is increasing theirs ~ and feeding higher levels when everyone drops theirs, because they think the birds don't need it as much when the warmer months have arrived.  

Then there are the groups that overfeed nutrients throughout the year because they just love overindulging their pets.  Those are the folks who are not managing flocks, they are feeding pets. 

I believe this trend to feed the wrong level of nutrients during the wrong times of the year is another reason why people are not getting maximum laying, are having erratic laying cycles and reproductive problems in their birds, having broodies in the fall and winter and having health problems in their flocks.  

I wanted to point out that my increasing the nutrition for my own flock into late fall and providing extra fats in the form of suet cakes, calf manna and BOSS was only due to their weakened and underweight status upon their arrival (see the story of The Gnarly Bunch here).  I didn't want those following this blog to think that this regimen should be a normal part of a flock's nutrition at this time of the year. 

Before reclaiming the Gnarly Bunch, I don't recall ever feeding suet or calf manna to my flocks.  Just didn't need to and a normal flock doesn't need them at any time of the year.  Just plain layer rations and whole grains usually suffice, with a little lacing of BOSS in the early fall.  This method has kept my chickens healthy for all these many years and my laying at peak production, with no health issues to speak of.  

Sorry if this ran on a little long but I thought it needing saying.

Bee -

Leigh Says:

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  1. Once again...excellent photos to illustrate the point in the article!

  2. A good idea, tho many of us with mixed age flocks also may have different goals in mind, such as supplying egg customers. Thus having old girls in molt and slowing down alongside young girls at POL and just tuning up.

  3. Great post! I was one of those people that thought they needed more in the winter! I have been adding more whole grains to my feed just to get away from this now :) Thanks Bee and BDM!


  4. Nice! Imitating nature always makes sense to me!

  5. Love your blog and all your methods of chicken keeping! Thank you for such excellent information and your love of nature.


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