Remember the recent article on how cattle and bison are better at mixing their own feed than the people who try to do it for them? Well it turns out that chickens are better at it too!
In a SARE funded study, Dr. Anne Fanatico of Appalachian State University compared feed costs and weight gain of organic meat chickens when one group was fed a fully formulated diet (FF) and another “free-choice” (C) group that was allowed to choose between a high-protein feed and grain. Chickens were raised in houses with access to a grassy yard during the day and were processed on day 64 of the project. The organic, fully formulated diet had 21% crude protein. The free-choice chicks were started on formulated feed as well as high-protien and grain through day 27 of the project. After that they had a high protein feed and grain available to them. The choice diet had 13.2% crude protein for days 28 – 34 and 12% crude protein for the last week of feeding.
The chickens raised on the fully formulated diet did gain more weight over all, but there was no difference in weight gain during the grower finisher period. Although carcass weights and breast fillet weights were heavier for the FF birds, there was no difference in yields (carcass, breast, wing, or leg) between the treatments. Where things were different was in cost and feed efficiency. The Choice diet was less expensive, and given the similar weight gains, feed efficiency was poorer for the birds fed the fully formulated ration. The researchers concluded that allowing chickens to choose their own feed is more efficient and less expensive.
The results were similar for when they compared slow-growing, organic meat chickens. Free-choice chickens chose rations with lower crude protein levels (13.2% compared to the fully formulated ration’s 20.75%). Again, final live weights were not different between the groups, though ready to cook breast weights were higher by 1.4% for the FF group. That’s not a very big percentage, nor was the cost difference great at just a penny per kilogram less for the free-choice feed. But in a business where margins are already small, every little bit helps.
So, if you’re wondering “Do I have to buy this high-priced formula?” keep in mind that the chickens would probably say, “No, unless it makes your life easier. We can do just as well with less.” The researchers suggest that free choice feeding may be more suited to small- or medium-scale production rather than large-scale, because the number of feeders needed makes automation difficult. It is also useful for poultry production in developing countries where formulated feeds and premixes may be limited.
Where it is available (or if you are allowed by regulation to grow it yourself), I would suggest industrial hemp seed for chicks. We don’t produce meat birds but it is a very high quality food for chicks after about the first week. I suggest feeding free-choice with other options of course.
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