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!