Episode 19 Show Notes
Shep Got Fixed
If you have been listening to the podcast for a while, you know we have a now 6-month old Australian Shepherd / Catahoula mix puppy named Shep. Sadly for Shep, procreation is no longer an option in his future.
Chicken Feed Showdown!
Two weeks ago, right after receiving 18 New Hampshire Red and Black Jersey Giant chicks, we started a chicken feed showdown. We divided the chicks into two groups with equal numbers of New Hampshires and Giants.
Group A has been fed a diet of combination starter / grower with an 18% protein content. Group B has been fed a diet of 24% chick starter. The chicks are now three weeks old and have been on different feeds for two weeks. Here are the results so far:
The Jersey Giant chicks on the higher protein diet are 3.4% heavier than the ones on the lower protein diet. This is exactly what we expected.
The New Hampshire Reds on the lower protein diet outweigh the ones on the higher protein diet! This doesn’t make any sense. I believe the two roosters are both on the lower protein group, which is skewing my results. We will know for sure in a few weeks when it is easier to tell the difference between them.
Are Your Backyard Chickens Getting All the Benefits of Free Ranging?
Free ranging hens are healthier and happier than chickens kept in factory farms, and the products they produce – eggs and meat – are healthier for you to consume. But are backyard chickens automatically free-range chickens?
In short, not necessarily. Not all backyard chickens are free-ranging. But before we get too far down the track of how you define free-ranging, we need to differentiate between something being labeled “free-range” and something having the benefits of “free ranging.” Sound confusing?
Label vs Reality
Let me explain it this way. The US Department of Agriculture says that big chicken factories (Big Egg) can label their eggs “Free Range” as long as there is a door that leads from the chicken warehouse to the outside so that hens have an option to go out if they wish. The USDA doesn’t say how big the door must be. They don’t say the chickens have to go outside. They don’t even say what has to be outside. It could be a concrete pad not big enough to hold 5% of the chickens in the warehouse.
In this scenario, eggs can carry the label “Free Range,” but not carry any of the health benefits of eggs from truly free ranging chickens.
In your backyard, there is no government authority to tell you what you can call your chickens. You can call your dog a free-range chicken if you wish. So which is more important, the label or the actual real benefit to the chickens (and to you when you consume their eggs and meat)? Hopefully, you chose the latter.
Standard Chicken Coop & Run
What determines the health benefit of the eggs and meat you consume is how your chickens are housed and where they spend their day. Specifically, how much access do they have to fresh grass and bugs?
In a typical stationary coop and run, the flock sleeps in the coop at night and spends their day in the run. Because the grass in the run cannot grow as quickly as the chickens eat and trample it down, the run will quickly become a barren dirt patch. As soon as the vegetation is gone, your flock is no longer any different than a factory farm chicken. Okay, they are getting fresh air and have more room, but nutritionally they are living on commercial chicken feed alone.
Truly Free-Range Flock
At the other end of the spectrum you have truly free ranging chickens. They still sleep in a coop at night, but during the day they have free access to all the bounty your property can provide. They can go eat wherever they like. They can play and dust bathe wherever they want. Sound ideal, right?
Nutritionally, yes. But free ranging involves it’s own issues. While your hens have unrestricted access to your property, predators have unrestricted access to your chickens.
Best of Both Worlds?
Is it possible for your flock to get all the healthy benefits of free-ranging while limiting the impact of predators? With carefully managed rotational poultry paddocks or by using chicken tractors, you can have the best of both worlds. But it does take some effort. Poorly managing either of these systems will reduce or eliminate the benefits.
A poultry paddock system uses a stationary coop with four or more separated runs called paddocks. You rotate your flock from one paddock to another over time to control which area they are grazing.
Let’s say you rotate once a week. The chickens spend a week in paddock A, then a week in paddock B, then a week in paddock C and finally, a week in paddock D. By the time they come back to paddock A, it has had three weeks of down time so that the grass can grow back and more tasty bugs can move back in.
You need to make sure that you are rotating often enough so that they don’t run out of grass and bugs in their current paddock, but not so quickly that there isn’t enough time for a paddock to be refreshed by the time the flock comes back around.
Chicken tractors, chicken arcs and pastured poultry pens are all moveable structures that combine the coop and run together. When the chickens are beginning to deplete the ground they are sitting on, simply move it to a new spot so that they have have fresh grass and bugs to terrorize.
Chicken tractors tend to be smaller than permanent coops, but they can still be large enough for the backyard environment. We have three chicken tractors that are 8′ x 12′. They sit on skids and we can move them with a golf cart or riding mower.
Chicken tractors tend to be more predator proof than paddocks and are much more secure than free ranging.
However, if you leave them in place for too long, the grass and bugs in that spot will be run down and you start losing the benefits of free-ranging. You need to make sure you are moving a chicken tractor on a regular basis.
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