Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Basic Broiler Challenge

Ever since we butchered our 100+ Cornish Cross broilers back in July, I've had a hankering to try an experiment. Those birds were so horribly expensive to feed that I found myself throwing my hands in the air and wondering aloud, "Isn't there some other way to do this!?"
I paid over $700 just to buy feed for those chickens and we still ran out before their 8 weeks were up. Granted, it seemed that something wasn't quite right with this batch and they ate more than my broilers usually did, and I'm sure it didn't help that Heidi would break in to the chicken tractors and eat the feed when I forgot to lock the goats in a different pasture.

But still, $700 to feed 110 chickens? At first, we thought we were going to have to butcher our broilers at 10 weeks of age. By 6 weeks the heaviest bird was only 4 lbs. and the others were woefully behind that. I was panicking, almost out of feed, and was afraid I was indeed going to have to keep the chickens for 4 more weeks before butchering them. I had enough grain to last a week and a half; didn't know what to do after that. I promised my customers that the chickens would only receive organic, no-soy, no-corn, no-GMO feed and that was a special order from a mill that I lived two hours away from. If I was going to buy more, then it had to be in a 1/2 ton increment. Ouch. 

So I did what any frantic, crazy, desperate farm girl might do: I improvised. I had a lot of extra milk in my fridge, and I had organic wheat sprouts that the cow decided she did not want to eat (picky cow... Mutter, mutter, mutter). So the chickens dined on raw, organic cow milk straight from the cow, and fresh wheat sprouts!

Guess what happened? We had to butcher the birds early. Those chickens grew so fast on the milk-and-sprout diet that we butchered at 7.5 weeks!!! 

That experience left me wondering if I could do that again... So maybe the Cornish Crosses wouldn't do so well on a diet that was strictly "homegrown" but what would happen if I used a less hybridized breed and used simpler and more basic ingredients? If you look at the ingredient list of broiler feed, you'll read an amazing array of stuff like wheat, oats, barley, triticale, flax, camelina, alfalfa, corn, soy, fish meal, middlings, and who knows what else! If we were to try and hand mix our own feed this would cost a small fortune (trust me, I've tried it!). Why not just use a couple ingredients and really try to keep it simple? I know it's all about protein, as I have to deal with that when I mix feed for my dairy animals, but do I really need all 8 grains listed above, or could I use just one or two? 

This thought process has turned into what I am calling "The Basic Broiler Challenge". I want to simplify things a bit, try and get that cost down and just create a literal "basic broiler". Let's go back to the basics folks.

My thought here is to try using the Freedom Ranger meat broiler, which grows better than your heritage breed, but it's not so "Frankenstein-ed" like the Cornish X's. Sure there are other breeds like the Freedom Ranger, but I think I'll start with these guys for the first round of the Challenge.

 Feed wise, my secret weapons are the same as used earlier in the summer: raw milk and sprouts. But I'm taking this a bit further... I have a lot of extra milk right now and I'm tired of seeing it go to waste, so I'm going to use different dairy products for the chickens to make sure that they get the high protein that they need. Homemade cheese, whey, yogurt, and whole milk will be the crux of this. Grain wise, I'm sticking with barley. I'll sprout it which turns into 18% protein feed (and this chickens go berserk for this!) as well as rolled barley that's been soaked in whole milk. 

Why barley? I've chosen barley because #1 it has the most Total Digestible Nutrients of all the grains. And #2, it is a very easy grain to grow. If this Challenge works, I would love to try growing my own plot of barley so that this becomes a sustainable project. In the long run I want this to be more than Basic, I want it to be Sustainable. 

I think for this first round I will also feed fish meal and kelp meal. I know those go completely against the sustainable thing I just spouted about, but I'm not going for perfection on this first try. If I feel that the birds need more protein than my milk and barley can supply, then I'll supplement with fish meal. The kelp meal is to provide vitamins, minerals, and all those other goodies that the birds will need.

The plan is to start the chicks out on organic chick starter from Q-Bar Farm (a great local mill); once they hit 3 weeks of age, they'll be put in the chicken tractor and start gleaning bugs as part of their diet. Once they're around 4-5 weeks (not entirely positive on age yet) they'll be switched to their milk/barley diet. The Freedom Rangers grow slower than the Cornish X's and take 9 to 11 weeks before reaching slaughter weight. I'm okay with that though. 

It's already September now, so I've been thinking on putting my order for the chicks in soon; maybe this week, maybe next week. I'm only going to get 20-25 for this trial batch, but I think that's a decent number. I plan on tracking growth rates, weight gains, and health records on the birds to see how it all pans out in the end and the results and pictures will be shared here on the blog. 

Anyone else want to join in and try this with me? There's certainly room for experimentation here and if you don't have a blog of your own then you can email your pictures and updates to me and I can post them here. I have no idea if this will work, but I'm hoping it will and now it's time to see if will work or not.

So get ready folks. The Basic Broiler Challenge is fixin' to start!


Stacey said...

I just sent you a comment...did Blogger eat it? I think it did...errrr

Stacey said...

Here I go again. I can't wait to follow along as you try this experiment. I've been reading about using fodder for dairy animals and it's quite fascinating.

It sounds like you have plenty of ideas for your extra milk now but I recently read on the KFC forum about using milk to fertilize your fields. I meant to ask you about it earlier but I forgot.

Thanks for all that you are an inspiration!

Goat Song said...

Stacey, I've been putting milk on my pasture for about 3 years now and the change in the grass is UNBELIEVABLE!!! I read about it on KFC, like you did and immediately started trying it out. Now I'm thinking I need another cow just so I can have milk for my pasture, chickens, and some day hogs. :)

I didn't have very much luck with the fodder, but that's mostly just because my cow is so darn picky!

nancy said...

I've heard about others experimenting with making their own feed. How to you put milk on your fields? A sprayer or?

Goat Song said...

Nancy, I've been using what is known as a "syphonject" (which you can see at: but it finally keeled over this year. Hehe, I guess I *did* use it pretty hard... Now I'm looking at something similar to this but hopefully more effective. The syphonject really needs a lot of water pressure in order to work and sometimes that's hard to get here.

Anonymous said...

You've gotten me excited!
I can't wait to see how it turns out. If it does work then if I had enough pasture and kept a grass fed dairy cow and that would cut chicken feed down to...sheesh it seems almost too good to be true.
Thank you for sharing you experiments!!

Wendy said...

Love the idea, and hope to read more about it. Question what's KFC? ;)

Goat Song said...

Wendy, "KFC" stands for "Keeping a Family Cow" it's an online chat forum that revolves around cows, livestock, and homesteading. It's pretty cool. :) The link is:

Kristin said...

I can't wait to see how your Freedom Rangers turn out. I have been raising Cornish X and dang they are expensive to feed. Buggers sit in beautiful, weedy, bug filled grass and won't try a bit of it!

I have 50 more Cornish X chicks right now and they seem to be dropping like flies. I wonder if it's the humidity this week? I've lost 7 or 8 of them. It makes me want to cry.

I'm also going to look into the sprouted barley. I hope they'll actually eat it. They look at kitchen scraps like I'm trying to poison them.

Kamela said...

Please keep us updated, i would love to know what ends up happening. I wonder if you could also mix in some homemade sauerkraut juice for probiotics or even possibly soak the grains in it? From what ive heard farmers use to fatten their hogs on skim milk, so after you make the butter or what ahve you with the cream you could make that into kefir and soak the grians in it... Im not sure how much the protein content changes when you soak versus sprout but just a thought for things that would be "throw away" after we get alll the nutrition we can out of it.. I always get overwhelmed when i think of mixing my own feed, good luck!

Anonymous said...

We grow fodder for our llamas and have been feeding sprouts to our chickens for about 3 years now. We're thinking of raising some freedom rangers for meat. You might want to check out this fermenting feed blog. I started feeding our layers fermented organic soy-free layer feed mixed with sprouts and they love it. The fermented feed thread started on Backyard Chickens as an experiment for reducing the cost of feed for cornish-cross.

Elly said...

I would love to know how well this method works for Bresse chickens!