Written By Don Schrider
There is a revolution happening all across the backyards of America; a revolution of hen keeping has found its renaissance. If you are reading this newsletter, then perhaps you are a revolutionary, a patriot of local, sustainable cuisine, a libertarian of food independence, a builder of a new food system, and an independent thinker. If so, you are part of a growing group of people who care about the nutritional value of the food they consume and the impact it has on the environment and society. And maybe, just maybe, you have found that keeping chickens is just outright fun.
Fall is the time of year when leaves turn red, yellow, and orange and fall from the trees. It is also the time of year that our best egg layers drop their feathers and produce the new ones that will protect their bodies all winter long. Feathers are an important part of the chicken — they help shed rain and snow, protect the birds from cool breezes, and trap body heat to help keep the birds warm all winter long. Feathers need to last an entire year, so the value of their durability, flexibility, and quality are much more than cosmetic for the home flock.
So what does it take to produce quality feathers? Don’t commercial feeds contain all the ingredients needed to produce and maintain good feathers? The answer to the second question is “No.” Commercial poultry feed has been developed to supply just the bare minimum of expensive nutrients needed to keep a hen in top laying condition – no extra expense has been considered and no consideration has been made in its formulation for the production of high-quality feathers. As a revolutionary you need to understand that feed formulation has economics as its guiding principle.
Feathers are comprised of many tiny, finger-like fibers, hooked at their ends, that are called barbules. As you might expect, the barbules hook together forming solid webs. It is the quality of these barbules meshing that gives good feather quality. Good feathers require a great deal of quality protein to produce. Vitamins, such as riboflavin, aid in producing durable, flexible feathers. And naturally occurring oils, such as those found in Omega Ultra Egg, are needed to maintain water resistance and sheen, and are used to prevent the feathers from becoming brittle and wearing out before the next molt.
Quality feathers are an essential for pastured poultry as the feathers are the hen’s natural protection from the elements. So it is as the new feathers are growing that we poultrymen (and women) should concern ourselves with feeding to grow better feathers. I suggest to you that this is the best time to feed out supplements like: probiotics, poultry mineral supplements, poultry vitamin supplements, oils as found in Omega Ultra Egg, wheat germ, and codliver oil, and to feed a protein supplement, like fish meal, or feed a breeder quality feed such as game-bird breeder layer crumbles. Omega Ultra Egg has high percentages of protein and calcium to help increase the total amount of those necessary dietary items.
November is also the best time to consider internal and external parasites. Both of these can reduce the quality of the feathers and will cause the bird to consume more calories to stay in good shape. There are some good wormers on the market for poultry, but if you don’t have access to these you can use an old method that was once sanctified by the U.S. Army (circa World War II), that of dropping walnuts with husks still on (preferably green husks) into buckets of water and allow to stand overnight. You use one walnut per gallon, though you can put in two or three walnuts and then add one or two more gallons of fresh water when you feed it out. This feedout a few times weekly will rid your poultry of internal parasites. For external parasites, I recommend adding wood ashes to the areas your chickens choose for dust bathing. This should be mixed in the soil a little bit so that it does not blow away. Don’t worry when your chickens eat some of the charcoal in the ashes – it is a natural anti-toxin and helps in the absorption of calcium. Your chicken poop may be black for a few days, but your chickens will be healthy.
Speaking of calcium, the practice of offering oyster shell, or another calcium source, free-choice alongside granite grit, is still an excellent idea for pastured hens. The grit is needed to help digest the choice food the chickens forage and the grains we feed them. The calcium will allow our hens to balance their own diets when their forage does not provide the needed levels. A lack of calcium is also one of the main causes of poor feather condition during summer months and can even lead to feather-pecking and eating (as will low protein levels). Again, Omega Ultra Egg can help increase calcium levels in feed.
So let’s feed our birds for good feathers and make sure they enter winter free of parasites. The result will be lower feed consumption, healthier chickens, and an earlier return to laying. The chickens will be happy and so will we!
Text copyright ã Don Schrider, 2011. All rights reserved.
Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.