This is a post that I made in response to a friend's blog regarding poultry nutrition. I decided to put it on my blog in case any of the rest of you would be interested in it.
I raised both Cornish cross broilers and dual purpose chickens (Buff Orpington, Barred Rock, Black Australorp, RIR, Ameraucana etc) for meat for the years we were on the farm, and it was growing problems that spurred me to find out why they weren’t growing, and how I could formulate a diet that would fulfill all of their needs without turning to a commercial feed. There is no animal alive that can be raised on a mono diet of only one ingredient such as flax screenings – imagine if our Mothers raised us on a diet of rice alone? ;) I don’t think it is outside a homesteader/self sufficiency mentality to research and formulate a home feed based on what an animal’s growth requirements are any more than it is wrong to research and correct the imbalances in our garden soil to produce the best garden crops.
It isn't that Cornish broilers were bred to be fed commercial feeds: a huge % of people out there raising pastured poultry (myself included for 5 years), raised them on non commercial feeds right from day one. If you add the proper amount of amino acid rich feeds and protein (I used excess milk made into cultured yogurt, alfalfa, field peas, young grass etc), they will grow properly because they are receiving the amino acids required for maximum muscle growth. The birds are only limited by the amino acid and protein deficient feeds they are fed, not strictly because of their genetics. Purchasing supposed dual purpose birds will not guarantee happiness or success either – the dual purpose birds of nowadays are not the same as what our grandparents raised. Dual purpose birds are genetically bred to have less meat and more eggs than birds of 75 years ago. Our grandparents had 2-3lb chickens and were happy to get 100-150 eggs a year out of their chickens. My Buff Orpingtons would lay a good 250-300 eggs a year which is double what the scrawny birds my grandparents raised could produce even on commercial feeds and this is because the breeding poultry houses are producing animal’s acceptable to modern home egg raisers. On the wrong feeds, modern dual purpose chickens will have restricted growth also, but because they are bred more for egg production than meat, you will not notice the amino acid/protein deficient feeds having an impact on them, UNTIL they get to egg laying age and don’t lay high numbers of eggs. Dual purpose Buff Orpingtons are probably 1/2 the size on twice the feed, but would only dress out to 2lbs at most at the same age as a Cornish broiler. Animals, humans and otherwise require protein and amino acids to build muscle. Cornish broilers on a dry weight basis are more than 65% protein when mature, so if they aren't given the protein/amino acids to build muscle they will not grow. As a side note, there is some research that indicates that in broilers, lysine requirements may actually be higher for optimum breast meat development than what was originally recommended for optimum growth or weight gain. This would help explain the “scrawny breast meat” on most home raised chickens and turkeys.
Many homesteaders that I have talked to have made the mistake of assuming that all protein sources are equal, meaning that a monogastric animal should be able to be raised using a single ingredient as a food source. The problem with this thinking is that all protein sources are not created equal and actually feeding too much or not enough of a single protein source can produce major deficiencies resulting in poor feed efficiency, growth characteristics and reproductive performance. The reason for all this gets back to the biochemistry of protein metabolism. Protein is comprised of chains of different amino acids, that are liberated during digestion. Different protein sources have variable relative concentrations of different amino acids. Amino acids are grouped into two categories known as essential and non essential. Non essential amino acids are those the body can make in sufficient amounts as long as the appropriate starting compounds are available. Essential amino acids are those that cannot be synthesized in adequate amounts to meet growth and maintenance requirements. There are 22 amino acids commonly found in feed ingredients and 11 of the 22 are referred to as essential amino acids and must be provided in most diets. This is where the problem of mono ingredient feeding arises. Different animals require different concentrations of individual amino acids for specific purposes (ie. A chicken laying eggs requires different relative levels compared to a pig putting on weight for slaughter). Lysine, methionine and tryptophan are the three most critical amino acids in poultry diets. Deficiencies or imbalances of these amino acids, leads to a significant loss in efficiency. To get around these problems, nutritionists formulate diets from a variety of sources to meet the amino acid needs of poultry, because as we implied above, there is no single ingredient that includes all the essential amino acids for growth. The feeds they use are what is known as complimentary proteins. An example is the use of corn which is a poor lysine source but an adequate methionine source, and soybean meal which is low in methionine and high in lysine. Either fed by itself is deficient and would not allow optimal health and growth, but when they are combined they provide a more balanced diet of lysine and methionine. But my argument here is only applicable to protein requirements: there are a whole host of other nutrients such as minerals, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins that need to be in proper balance for optimum health. This may all sound terribly complicated, but I’m not trying to overwhelm you. Neither am I suggesting that the only way to solve the problems I’ve raised is to go with commercial feeds or a professional nutritionist. What I hope to communicate is that through a basic knowledge of nutritional requirements of animals and potential sources of those nutrients, even homesteaders without advanced nutritional training can balance diets to produce healthful, high quality, sustainable, cost effective food products. I think a major error is made when we assume that living off the land in a simple fashion means that we must be content with inferior quality.
Enough soap boxing and back to my personal experiences. I “got away” with a lot more with my Cornish cross because I provided their requirements in the form of sunflower seeds, alfalfa, field peas, cultured milk, sprouts, young grass and herbs for proteins/amino acids, fats and a variety of vitamins and minerals; a variety of grains for carbohydrate, amino acids, calcium, phosphorus etc, and free range, pens moved 2x a day, or fresh greens cut daily to balance the rest of their diet, because admittedly, when animals in general have access to good quality feeds and forages, they do tend to balance their diets. The moment we pull them from an environment in which they get to choose their diet, (assuming the appropriate nutrient sources are available in “free range”/greens/insects etc), we have to more closely manage what they eat if we want anything more than scrawny, tough, unhealthy, poor quality animals.
Raising dual purpose breeds for meat and chicks may seem to be the epitome of self sufficiency (the reason I got into them :), but it is far more expensive, more work AND requires more chickens than for egg laying purposes alone. If you raise your own grains, each dual purpose rooster will require 2-3x the amount of feed per lb of meat produced which means growing 2-3x the amount of grain per bird. Then you must raise 2x the amount of birds to get the same amount of meat you would from a broiler so in essence you will be raising 6x the amount of grain. At some point you will either have very inbred animals or you will need a lot more chickens and roosters to raise separate lines so you can breed them purposefully without inbreeding. Because you will need at least 2x the amount of dual purpose roosters for eating as you would cornish cross, you will need a lot of hens to produce and hatch the eggs for chicks. Then when you aren't hatching chicks you have a lot of egg layers that are producing more eggs than you need and requiring a lot more feed than for self sufficiency alone. If your goal is to provide for you and your family’s needs (ie. Self sufficiency), then producing a surplus of a non preservable commodity during most of the year (with its accompanying inflated requirements for inputs), is neither cost effective nor efficient. All of this helps to explain why my grandparents and their generation did not actually raise chickens for meat the way most people think they did. Grandpa had a home flock and stewed the old hens that were not laying well or were eating their own eggs. They didn’t roast the stringy 3 year old hens, but made them into soup and would butcher the excess roosters a couple times a year when company came. The rest of the time they ate pork or beef they produced: they did not raise dual purpose birds to eat chicken 1/3 of the year. They raised hens for eggs and butchered the excess. I don’t think they would have been any more happy with the results of trying to raise dual purpose birds for supplementing their diet than most homesteaders are.
So you may be asking what I am trying to convince you of. For the record, let me say that whether we choose to purchase genetically modified, ping pong head with no brains on a basketball sized body, Cornish cross chickens for the most efficient and cost effective meat; or poor feed converting, egg producing, less efficient meat, more cost, but make us feel good about feeling self sufficient chickens, is a purely personal choice and doesn’t matter at all to me who has done both at the same time. :) In the end, both these types of birds are produced by the same industry and regardless of what we purchase, we are contributing to the same producer’s pockets. The major point of this is that there probably aren’t any completely dual purpose birds and either egg layers or meat birds can produce disappointing results if they are fed unbalanced diets.
Heather for sunflower seed eating Emily, M and M snacking Benski and dogs locked in the bedroom to keep me from going crazy with their begging