Monday, February 8, 2010

Mixing My Own

Sophie when she was little

When I came home from the feed store last week with a $360 hole in my pocket, I decided it was time I did some serious reworking of our feed bill. I've already changed most of the animal's feed from the premixed varieties that come in a complete pellet to mixing my own combination of grains. I've found the premixed varieties aren't as effective for they don't take in to consideration the changing needs of the animals. One brand of feed for pigs in our area is for start to finish which carries a very hefty price and the hogs fed it through out their lives end up looking flabby and mushy. It is only common sense that a twenty pound pig and a 220 or 260 pound hog's nutritional needs are not the same.

When I quit feeding premixed hog food some years back, even strangers began to stop and tell me how good my stock looked and ask me if I'd mind telling them what I fed them. Most are interested until they find out it takes some research, skill, and is changed according to: how old the animal is; the individual animals metabolic differences; and current cost of different types of grains at the feed store. Then they decide that it isn't as easy as a pom pom and pipe cleaner craft project and dismiss the information never mind the results are drastically different.

I'll use my feed program for my pigs this year as an example. When they were tiny they were given lots of goat's milk, and a little grain. Then they moved on to cracked corn, and crimped oats. Crimped oats because rolled is more expensive though it is a better choice. And I'm adding oats because it is proven that hogs don't do as well on straight corn, especially whole corn and the two are a good combination. I also mixed in a little beet pulp for digestibility benefits. When we hauled hay the pigs were older and I switched from beet pulp to lots of alfalfa hay which universities have found some profound improvement in weight gain with feeding hay with grain, particularly alfalfa. As the pigs grew, I added some soybean meal to see if it made a different and decided for me, it didn't. I think the alfalfa hay was the reason. Then as they've neared finish weight, I raised the amount of oats and hay they received for corn makes hogs fat. I'd love to show you some wonderful pictures but they are always woofing and tearing around the pen like a couple of hooligans. I've tried and tried and tried and when they aren't playing or taking a quick bite, they're right in front of the camera lens seeing if it's edible.

Sophie as a full grown character

We need to butcher them SOON as they are eating 150 pounds of grain a week and lots of hay. Every time I feed then, I can hear the cash register go cuching, cuching. But my mom's 80 birthday party is this weekend so it will have to be the next weekend if the weather cooperates. Even though we've cut the cost down it needs to go even lower and I've a few ideas floating around on some new changes for 2012 when we'll raise hogs again. It's an every other year project. Our options are limited since we have to raise them in a large pen and we have no land to raise a crop for them. I'd love your ideas and experiences in this area as we are very limited on options. We don't have the locally grown products and grains to buy in this area. A very small percentage of our land in this area grows oats, a little winter wheat, and a bit more hay., That's it. Most of the country is pasture.
Chickens eating buttercup squash
My chickens have much of the same tale. They have the second highest feed bill. Last week, I eliminated six - two year old hens as I had too many chickens, too many eggs, and their feed bill was high. This should have been done months ago but circumstances didn't allow. Next week, I'll thoroughly examine each one of the twelve remaining young hens who will be one this spring. I'll see who's laying well and has good strong conformation. This should eliminate at least four more chickens. The remaining hens, I plan on breeding the end of March and incubate their eggs to have chicks.

One of the big criteria for hens in Wyoming is that they lay decent even in cold weather. Winter lasts for a long time in this country and if they are a fair weather layer, I'm not getting many eggs from them and yet they've got to eat so I'm pouring the feed to them. Most of what I've raised in the past has been cross bred chickens. I'd cross these once to a Wyadotte rooster and then I'd go back and start over. I don't mind a few cross bred chickens but I want to move away from buying from the hatchery. Mainly, I want two breeds and keep them going pure. My reading says that continual cross breeding has a tendency to cause the undesirable traits to perpetuate. What breeds have you had great success with cold weather tolerance, good egg production, and has a decent carcass for the stew pot? No, Banties. I already have two pet chickens, Mildred and Gertie. I need feedback in this area.

This year I choice to try the Austarlorps because they are suppose to lay well in winter and mine were the first to start laying. The Barred Rocks have a bit larger body and so I'm trying a couple hens. I like their dispositions and wonder if a rooster has the same quiet nature? Can any of you tell me?

The Wyadottes I've raised for years and have been quite pleased with them, whether it is a hen or a rooster. We had one Wyadotte rooster that became a pet. He use to perch on the warm wooly backs of our kid's 4-H sheep when the snow covered the ground. His favorite place to hitch a ride was from the warm sheep shed to the hay feeder and back again. That way his feet never had to touch the cold ground. His name was Chanteeclare and he came when called better than most dogs. Of course we always had grain ready for him before we hollered.

I've had experience with three Australorp roosters and they have all been somewhat aggressive. Can anyone tell me if that is true to the breed? On the other hand, my two beautiful Buff Orpington roosters are calm and gentle though I now wish I didn't have them since the hens aren't laying well. I'm going to have to break down and put them in the stew pot.

As you can see it is in this area that I wish to make major changes. We want to start our own breeding program and raise more of what the chickens eat. A big step was take last summer when we put six pullets in the garden to eat the severe grasshopper infestation. It was a huge success other than the harvest ready beets which were an all time favorite snack along with any ripe tomatoes. Chickens have this thing for red you know. A...nd four tomato plants lost their height when the chickens decided the cages made great roosting perches. Then as the hens grew larger and the plants more dense, the wind found more resistance and would rock the top heavy cages back and forth. Lullaby, lullaby, they didn't like that and would flap their wings to try and regain balance while squawking in a grumbling protest. Sometimes a gust would topple one off and we'd hear a particularly loud squawk and I confess we would laugh. After a while, the cages began to lean precariously and I had to string a rope through them (the cages not the hens) and tie them to metal T-posts.

A couple other vegetables took a minor hit. The zucchini now and then had a few tasty morsels removed from the fruit that stuck out from the plant. It wasn't a problem though since they're prolific by nature and a bit prickly which kept the hens nippling at the edges only. The early forming small pumpkins and buttercup squash had a few peck marks but then the ground hungry prickly plants grew large enough to keep the pullets at bay. As for the salad greens, they were pretty much gone before the hens arrived.

Now I know how well chickens do in the garden I want to go a step further and actually grow crops in the garden beyond Swiss Chard for them to eat. With this in mind, I studied the tags on my feed sacks to see what nutritional value the contents offered and then searched for what I could exchange in its place. I scoured the seed catalogues and the Internet. Then my dad and I got to talking about the wheat screenings he buys in bulk and feeds to his beef in preparations for their entering the freezer. Our beef just gets hay. I don't think Tinker Bells needs fattening do you? But the cost of wheat screenings was enticing and I researched whether it had application with chickens. I found with a few other additions it is a good trade for the expensive lay mash I've been buying at the feed store. It is also a good feed for broilers.

I'm going to toss around some ideas with you off and on this week and share with you the research I've found. It will include needed combinations to meet chicken's needs that will involve a number of possibilities such as sunflower seeds, wheat screenings, goat milk, sprouted grains, cold weather crops and vegetables, how to mix cover crops and chickens. and hay. I'm also thinking hard about how I can feed chickens in the season they're in or in other words what's available at that time of the year. So please join the discussion and together we'll teach each other a thing or two.

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