I wanted to post about feeding practices for free-range chickens, or should I say the obstacles you may encounter when trying to raise them the right way...
With all of the research I've done to date (mostly via the internet) in an effort to give my chickens the most natural life possible, or as Joel from Polyface would say "express their chickeness", I have found that the most useful information has come from the very person I got my 5 pullets from; the same organic sustainable farmer my wife and I buy our table birds and lamb from. His knowledge when it comes to organic sustainable farming is impressive, and unfortunately based on my experiences thus far I can say these practices are not practiced by many farmers. So why do I say this you ask?
When I started this man-chicken venture I was simply looking for a healthy source of free-range eggs for my family. My thoughts were simply; a few chickens, some organic feed, and all of the chemical free grass and clover, worms and other bugs my property had to offer. It didn't take long though before my free-range birds became *free-range birds; with the asterisk denoting "within bounds". Because they frequented my neighbor's yard more then I or my neighbors would have liked, I was forced to buy some electric poultry netting; currently I have 200ft of fence that I rotate when I feel the grass needs a rest. The fence surrounds a mulberry tree, giving them shade over part of their fenced in area, and the tree itself is surrounded by some raspberry bushes and about a 6ft radius of dirt and rocks, giving them an area to take dirt baths, hunt for bugs, and again cool off in more shade. I do plan to increase the size of their fenced in area, but for now the 200ft of fence is all I have to work with.
Since I was pretty satisfied at this point with the 'free-range' part of the equation, my attention quickly turned to their feed. Originally I had them on an organic layer mash that I purchased from a local supply store. Many of the "backyard chicken" books I read said that the "experts" prefer mash over pellets, because they (chickens) would get their fill of pellets too quickly and become bored... Does anyone see what's wrong with this sentence?
A chicken by nature has the right to live out its life as it would in the wild; let the chicken be a chicken. A wild chicken or game hen would never have the chance to be bored, so neither should yours. In order for a chicken to be a chicken you have to give it enough land (per chicken) to graze hunt and forage for food as well as plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and shade or cover when necessary. This means they need to be outside in the elements when they're not sleeping or laying, and from observing my chickens in the short 5 months or so that I've had them I can say that they have yet to look bored to me.
Now back to my feeding regimen... I was unhappy with the organic layer mash that I started with for two reasons; first it contains soy and second the grains are processed. To address my first concern, the soy, because I have a soy allergy and because I feel that soy is the root of all evil (mass produced chemical concoctions being passed off as food) I did not want it being fed to my chickens in any way! My second problem with the layer mash was although the ingredients were listed as "organic" the grains are processed; and just as I've learned with humans all grains should be eaten in their natural whole grain state, the same goes for chickens. A whole grain loses much (if not all) of its nutrients once it is broken down and therefore is not worth the energy it takes to digest this overly processed mash.
So what to do? Well I set out to buy a healthy organic medley of whole grains; whole corn, whole oats, and whole wheat berries. This is where I found it to be easier said than done... After contacting multiple feed distributors in 1-2hr radius I was only able to find one, a co-op less than a half hour from my house, that was able to get organic whole corn; even that took almost a month. This was due mainly in part because their distributors did not carry organic whole grains in their warehouses because no one is buying them. Needless to say I ended up having to get the other two whole grains from the natural health food store that my wife and I do some of our food shopping at. All in all when I did the math, per 50lb bag, the price was comparable to purchasing an organic soy-free layer mash off the internet.