Just like all of us, John and Holly Arbuckle wanted to know what to feed their chickens that would get them the best egg for the least amount of money. So they applied for a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant and in 2013 they ran an experiment to see what the answer was.
Their goal, as John describes it was “…to find out if laying hens would be able to make up for the under supply of nutrition lacking in sprouted wheat by foraging for insects in a rotationally grazed cow pasture environment. The reasons for that one goal were myriad. IF hens can lay competitively well while consuming sprouted wheat and pasture (pasture as defined here as anything they eat while on pasture. Worms and insect life will be included in that.) THEN: There is no need to buy a complete, balanced ration in the summer months. This would:
- Save money. NON-GMO bagged feed is $20 for a 50-pound bag right now. I can get Certified Organic wheat for $10 a bushel (60 pounds). More than a 50 percent savings.
- Reduce our Carbon footprint by reducing shipping. Our feed source is in Ohio. Wheat is grown locally.
- Reduce our Carbon footprint by reducing processing. We sprout out wheat instead of mechanically grinding it. Many ingredients in the vitamin pack concentrate are heavily processed. For example, synthetic methionine (an amino acid) is a byproduct of natural gas extraction! One would hope sustainable agriculture could find a less industrial source of methionine. Grasshoppers for example.
- Reduce packaging. We get our wheat in reusable barrels instead of single use bags.
- Enrich rural communities. When you buy grain from a farmer more of your money stays in your community. Economists call this “sticky money”. Neighbors buying from neighbors makes for a richer countryside.
- Participate in the circle of life. All of our efforts to avoid depending on the industrial method to meet our needs bring us closer to the earth. I feel enormous satisfaction in tinkering with this possibility!”
The Arbuckles used four sample groups, with 50 chickens per group placed in portable pens on pasture. Two of the groups were hybrids and the other two were heritage birds:
Group A: Red Sex Link hens supplemented with formulated organic rations;
Group B: Red Sex Link hens supplemented with sprouted wheat;
Group C: Rhode Island Red hens fed organic rations;
Group D: Rhode Island Red hens fed sprouted wheat rations.
For the first five weeks the weather was good, and the wheat-fed chickens were the most profitable, laying 24 percent fewer eggs but costing 55 percent less in feed. But when temperatures hit 90 and the rain stopped egg production for Groups B, C and D dropped. In fact, group D, the heritage, heavy bodied hens on wheat stopped laying eggs entirely. When September arrived with cooler temperatures, Groups B, C and D began producing eggs again. Through it all, Group A laid well. When frosts began to kill off insects and send worms deeper into the soil, another downward trend in egg production occurred.
So what did John conclude? Based on the data, his general impression of the hens’ behavior, and their known nutrition needs, here’s what he learned:
“Light bodied modern hens are more efficient converters of feed to eggs. That in itself is not new information. What does seem to be new is that when weather patterns are right, that is day time high of 85 degrees or less and precipitation of 1 inch or more a week, that all populations were able to lay acceptably well. During that time purchasing a balanced ration is not necessary. During that time we found out that our type of rolling cow pasture was capable of producing enough of what the wheat was lacking to allow competitive egg production.
“Furthermore we found that the hens were all equipped to find it [the additional nutrition in bugs and worms] and the light bodied hybrids were equally aggressive foragers as the Rhode Island Reds. Also we found in the nutrient density study that there is not a significant difference in the nutrition of the eggs no matter which population they came from.
“All this leads me to believe that a cottage industry style egg producer in a Midwestern ecosystem can save money at certain times of the year by feeding sprouted wheat. Adversely we found that stubbornly continuing to feed sprouted wheat when there are no insects for the chickens to find will not yield a viable cottage industry. The farmer must be ready to feed a balanced ration if nature is not yielding its abundance to your management plan. OR when it frosts. OR when the farmer for whatever reason doesn’t have time to move the hens as often as they need. On our farm we experienced the first two. We happily always had time to care for these hen by rotating them twice a week.”
Thanks John and Holly and your project partners for your hard work and to SARE for funding the research. We appreciate the information!
Editors’ note: To see the Arbuckles’ complete SARE report, you can visit: Examining the Cheapest Way to Produce the Best Egg.