Should We Switch To Home Grown, Home Blended Feeds?
There's a lot to consider. One of the first questions a flock owner should ask him/herself, is this: what is the motivation to change feeds? When deliberating whether to stay with a complete feed, or blending/raising our own, the flock owner can ask a few questions to help narrow down the priorities:
1. If the flock is performing well with the feed, and the flock owner is generally pleased with the ingredients, what is the motivation for changing it? If cost is the highest factor, can the flock owner source that same feed at a lower cost? Some ways to do that would be to buy feed by the pallet rather than by the bag. Many feed stores will offer a small discount (say, 10%) for ordering feed by the pallet, rather than by the bag. Saving 10% off the feed bill, with no change to the nutritional value, can be some of the easiest savings possible. If the flock owner has the room, and the trucking equipment needed, he or she can save even more by ordering in bulk. That generally means ordering feed by the ton, and often requires driving to the mill to get it. If the mill is nearby and the flock owner has the truck and/or the storage capacity for that much feed, he or she can save 20%, even 25% over the cost of bagged feeds of the same product. For folks who don't want to mess around with blending their own, one of these two options is generally considered about as good a deal as it gets.
2. The math starts to change for those flock owners who are already raising a lot of their own feed, products that could be used as alternative feeds, and/or pasture which can dramatically offset the normal feed program. Here is where the flock owner would need to be willing to put in a lot more time, in order to save a lot more money. And here is where a lot of folks get off track if they aren't careful. It all starts innocently enough. The flock starts getting garden weeds or suplus, and wow they sure like it! They don't eat as much of their normal bought-in crumble and they seem happy enough, so hey, maybe give them home-bought produce to offset the bill? Or the birds are put out on pasture, the feed consumption drops as the birds eat grass and bugs, and the owner thinks hmmm, more pasture = less purchased feeds? Or on those farms where grains are produced, the birds will happily get into the feed trucks or scour clean the fields after harvest. Anyone would reasonably wonder if they could perhaps reduce that feed bill by at least supplementing with home-purchased feed.
3. A completely different motivation may come up if the flock owner, or a member of the flock owner's family, has food allergies or sensitivities. Two of the biggest concerns in this category are corn and soy. Those two feed ingredients are typically the two most plentiful in any given commercially available complete feed blend. There are several reasons for that:
• Corn and soy are both produced in enormous quantities in North America, and thus can be made available to feed mills at commodity bulk prices.
• Corn and soy, when combined, offer a complete protien (ie, all the essential amino acids), good energy levels and good taste.
• Corn and soy are both easy to store after harvest, and easy to ship for long distances, namely from the fields or storage to the feed mills.
Yet corn and soy are near the top of the list for most common human food sensitivities and allergens. That sensitivity can be mild, with symptoms of subtle digestive upset or skin irritation. Yet some people have such pronounced sensitivities that eating corn or soy will produce intense digestive upset, hives and other skin outbreaks, and other moderate to severe reactions. While many folks simply eliminate those ingredients from their own diet, some folks are going the next step and working to eliminate those feeds from the diets of their animals. Given that corn and soy are the two most common ingredients in conventional complete feeds, these owners are strongly motivated to find alternnatives.
4. A fourth issue is the topic of GMO contamination. The scientific debate on whether GMO products are safe, will undoubtedly rage for some time to come. Yet for a growing number of flock owners have already decided that they simply do not wish to eat GMO products, or meat/eggs from animals who have consumed those products. This becomes a powerful motivation to find alternatives.
Suffice to say, many flock owners are strongly motivated to leave behind commercially available complete feeds, and find some cost-effective alternative.
Making the Switch Away From Bagged Feeds
Even after an owner has decided to make the transition to home grown/home blended feeds, the general consensus is to proceed cautiously. One very good option is to segregate the flock into a control group and a test group, and keep the one batch on their existing feed while experimenting with the other. In that way, flock owners can see very specific results and comparisons without worrying about whether differing performance was perhaps due to other factors, such as different climate, different housing, etc.
Another very good option is to alternate the existing feed, with any alternatives. For instance, if the flock owner has developed a new blend, he or she can feed that blend on odd days, and continue feeding the purchased complete feed on even days. This serves several purposes:
• if the new feed is nutritionally imbalanced, the flock won't go so quickly into deficiencies. Symptoms will be slower to surface and less severe in presentation. The flock owner thus has more time to remedy the situation before the deficiencies become severe and/or before production is dramatically affected.
• If the feed is unpalatable, the supply irregular or that new blend has any number of other logistical issues, the flock owner isn't caught in a situation with hungry birds and nothing to feed them.
• If one or more of the ingredients in the new blend doesn't live up to expectations for any reason, the flock owner still has a proven feed to work with while changing the new blend to something that works better.
Not to use a very old cliché, and no pun intended, but this is a prime example of not putting all our eggs in one basket. If a purchased feed has worked out well in the past, keep at least a few weeks' supply on hand while the new feed is being tested. If the new feed blend works out, fantastic. If not, then the birds won't be put into a tizzy by switching back to their previous feed. And the flock owner won't be desperately scrambling to figure out how to feed birds if that new blend doesn't work out.
Even if the owner is unable or unwilling to do such careful comparisons between a control group and an experimental group, or alternate between experimental and commercially available feeds, he or she should try to avoid simply making a huge random or spontaneous jump from bagged feeds to home grown or home-blended feeds. Any change from one feed source to another, done suddenly, can throw off the birds’ laying, bring to the surface any smoldering health issues, or invite in any opportunistic bugs in the general area. If nothing else, the general recommendations are to phase out the old feed regimen, and phase in the new feed program, over at least a week. For instance, on Day One feed 90% of the old feed, and 10% of the new. Change the ratios by 10% each day, such that on Day Two the feed mix is 80% old and 20% new, and so on. By Day Ten, the birds will typically have adjusted nicely to the new feed and the old feed can be eliminated entirely, if that is the owner’s intent. Also during that time, the owner can watch for problems with the new feed. One very interesting option is to feed the old and new side by side in different containers, and see which feed the birds prefer. Ultimately the hens are the ones who need to decide they like the new feed. If they reject the new feed, all the planning and calculations and research which said that feed should have worked, won’t matter very much. If they do accept it, a flock owner’s work isn’t quiet done. The flock laying performance and general health must still be monitored to ensure that the ration is achieving the flock owner’s goals. If a few weeks into the new diet all seems well, keep watching. If six months later all still seems well, keep watching. If the new ration is working from year to year with good acceptance and good performance and no spoilage or waste, congratulations. That’s a great new feed program. If at any point, health or performance issues crop up, it’s back to the drawing board.