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Forage: What You Should Be Feeding Your Flock For Healthier Eggs

Chickens

Feeding Chickens for Healthier Eggs

For those that have chickens, it is just a matter of time before you start to wonder if your precious hens are getting the nutrients they need. You go to the store and buy them a bag of feed, maybe some scratch, and call it a day. Keep the feeder full and throw out garden scraps and scratch, maybe a little free range time. That’s all they need, right? Although they can survive off this diet alone, it is certainly lacking.

If you are like us, nothing makes you happier than free ranging the chickens. Watching them scratch and peck. Chuckle at their enthusiasm when they find a worm and play keep away. But, what if you cannot free range them as much as you’d like? Maybe your work schedule is frantic, or you have a predator problem, or maybe just no land. This has probably lead you to look for ways to supplement your chickens diet, which may have been how you found this page.

Fortunately, you are not alone. After a serious predator problem we have limited our chickens free range time significantly. Although the birds do get out quite often, it is not as often as we would like. We decided to supplement their food with greens, but first we did a lot of research. And boy were we surprised with what we learned.

The Facts

We started with wheatgrass trays. It was fun to grow the trays, which were green and beautiful in just a few days. Even in the middle of winter, it was easy to provide them with luscious, fresh grass. When we delivered the trays, the birds would go nuts and devour it in hours.  Wheatgrass is good for people, so it’s good for chickens too, right? Apparently not so much.

The hydroponic concept may be appealing at first look, but it generally doesn’t hold up to scrutiny after careful thought. Its main problem is that it exhibits a net loss in terms of DM (dry matter) yield of 24 to 30% after 6 to 7 days of growth. The DM yields of hydroponic systems are actually negative, compared with the initial seed input.  Additionally, there is likely to be a loss in feeding value of sprouted grain compared with raw grain, on a dry weight basis.  This result makes sense when considering that the seed must utilize stored carbohydrates in order to drive growth of the seedling. The costs per pound or ton produced are likely to be significantly higher per unit hay equivalent (or feed grain equivalent). Although hydroponic forage has great appeal to those who wish to be more self-sufficient in feed supply, the yield, quality, and costs of this system appear not to be favorable.”(1)

Ok, so wheatgrass is not the solution. We couldn't believe it! Although we weren't hurting our ladies by feeding it to them, we really didn’t help them much either. So, the search was on. We wanted definitive, scientific studies. Hard fact. So we started digging around online.

If wheatgrass loses its nutrient value after just a few days, what about sprouted grain? There are hundreds of pins on Pinterest about sprouted grain. Nearly every chicken blog raves about it. But what do the researchers report?

Seeking better poultry nutrition, some poultry enthusiasts are sprouting grains and seed for chickens, especially when green pasture is scarce. But the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) researched the potential benefits and concluded that sprouting does not significantly enhance the grains’ nutrient levels.”(2)

Once again, shocked. And once again, back to the drawing board. Surely there has to be a source of nutrients for penned birds. Something we could grow to supplement their feed and give them the nutrients lacking from their commercially processed layer crumbles. But what? Further research online, and we found many studies that reported positive findings on pastured chickens. Pastured chickens are basically the epitome of cage free, free range birds. These are birds that get to spend their days running amok in pastures of various grasses, picking at a variety of plants and chasing down bugs. The perfect chicken life that we all strive to give our feathered friends. Penn State University studied pasture fed poultry in 2003, and found some exciting results.

They found that the pastured birds produced about three times more omega-3 fat in their eggs than did birds raised on an industrial diet. Regarding the best pasture mixes, “On average across all these periods, the mixtures highly dominated by legumes—clover and alfalfa—produced 18 percent more omega-3 fat than grass alone,” Karsten says. Eggs from the alfalfa pasture had 25 percent more omega-3s than grass-produced counterparts. “In absolute amounts, this was not a very big increase,” says Karsten. “But with more research and some different feeding regimes, it might go higher.”

Pasturing also boosted levels of vitamins A and E. “On average, we saw about twice as much vitamin E and 40 percent more vitamin A in the yolks of pasture-fed birds than in the caged birds. The longer the animals were on pasture, the more vitamins they produced,” Karsten says.

“From this study we confirmed three nutritional advantages of raising hens on pasture as compared to on an industry diet in cages: the increases in omega-3 fatty acids and in vitamins A and E. We also found that differences in omega-3 levels in plants have an effect on the eggs.” (3)

Increased Omega-3, Vitamin A and Vitamin E in chicken eggs?! We were intrigued, and looked further into pasture fed poultry.

Countless studies have confirmed that eggs from birds raised on pasture are richer in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E.” (4)

“The 2005 study MOTHER EARTH NEWS conducted of four heritage-breed pastured flocks in Kansas found that pastured eggs had roughly half the cholesterol, 50 percent more vitamin E, and three times more beta carotene. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene”(5)

Many, many articles and scientific studies are readily available that report hydroponic and sprouted grains are of little benefit, however pasture fed chickens have healthier eggs. But what does this mean for you? Why does it matter if you daily breakfast offers more Omega-3s or Vitamins A&E?

What are Omega 3s?

Omega-3 are an essential fat that cannot be made by your body, it must be provided by your food. Omega-3s...

“...provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.”(6)

And what about Vitamin A & E?

Vitamin A aids in the production of white blood cells, remodeling bone and maintaining cell growth (7). Vitamin E, on the other hand, works as an antioxidant. In addition to removing free radicals, one study linked Vitamin E to a 24% lower risk of cardiovascular death, while another showed a 32% lower risk in developing prostate cancer. Yet another study revealed that Vitamin E from foods may help prevent Parkinson's Disease. (8)

Knowing now that we wanted to provide forage to our flock, we did a quick internet search and found many forage seed mixes available. After our investigation, however, we found that many of the seed blends available actually included plants that are potentially harmful to poultry. So we decided to take matters into our own hands.

We developed our own signature seed mix that provides Omega-3s, Vitamin A & E. Our selection was carefully made after analyzing each individual plant and its specific benefits to poultry. These young greens are a valuable source of nutrients to chickens (which are not able to digest older plants), and our mix is made of plants that will continue to grow even after the chickens eat their leafy tops. You can trust that our seed mix is ideal for your birds and eggs. Our Essential Nutrients blend includes flax (Linum usitatissimum), forage peas (Pisum sativum), alfalfa (Medicago sativa), Ladino clover (Trifolium repens), rape (Brassica napus), annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum)and perennial ryegrass (Lolium Perenne L.).

But what if I can’t free range my chickens?

Clearly, forage fed chickens are significantly healthier and make much healthier eggs. But what if you don’t think you can provide forage to your birds, but would like the health benefits? Don’t worry, because you can provide forage for your chickens, in a few different ways. You could plant a forage patch outside of the chicken run and supervise your birds as they graze upon it. If you do not wish to let your birds out, you can grow forage plots in their pen with something like our Salad Bar planter, or grow forage in flats and provide it to your birds that way.

Our forage seed mix, if planted in the ground, will also increase the nutrients in your soil, preparing it for a more fertile future harvest. Forage attracts nutritious bugs for your chickens to eat. Furthermore, feeding a forage mix will reduce other feed costs, which will save you money.(9)

Here is why we chose this mix:

Flax-

Flaxseed is unique among oilseeds because it is high in alpha-linolenic acid. Flax is one of the most concentrated sources of unsaturated fatty acids available in poultry feedstuffs. Oil composes 35% to 45% of the content of flaxseed, and 45% to 52% of the oil is alpha-linolenic acid.

Flaxseed is used in the United States and Canada in the production of eggs enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. The increase in polyunsaturated fatty acids is accompanied by a decrease in saturated fatty acids. The result is a healthier fat profile. Feeding flaxseed to laying hens results in a six- to eight-fold increase in the omega-3 fatty acid content of eggs. Such eggs are equivalent to 113 g (4 oz) of cold-water fish as a source of the omega-3 fatty acids.

While feeding poultry a diet composed of 10% flax results in significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in hens laying brown and white eggs. Coccidiosis, caused by several species of Eimeria (protozoa), is a problem in many broiler operations. Feeding diets supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids suppresses the development of Eimeria tenella but is not beneficial in reducing E. maxima levels, and may actually make lesions worse at high-parasite doses. (10)

Forage peas-

Peas are valued for both their protein and their energy. The protein content of field peas averages about 23%. As with most crops, the growing environment can affect protein content. Hot, dry growing conditions tend to increase protein content. The protein of field peas is highly digestible and has an excellent amino acid profile. Peas have high levels of lysine—more so than soybeans. Peas, like most of the pulse crops, are low in the sulfur amino acids methionine and cystine. The amino acids of field peas and canola complement each other and are an alternative combination protein source for poultry diets. The available energy content of field peas is similar to that of barley.

Peas can be a valuable energy and protein source for several different classes of poultry, as long as proper considerations are taken to assure that the diets meet the nutrient requirements of the specific birds. Unlike whole soybeans, which must be roasted for inclusion in poultry diets, spring-seeded peas have low levels of trypsin inhibitors, so they can be included in diets without being roasted. Field peas can be included as up to 40% of the content of layer diets, but 10% is a more practical level. (11)

Alfalfa-

The use of alfalfa in diets for monogastric animals typically is limited by its high fiber content. Enzyme supplementation of alfalfa has not been shown to be effective in improving performance of broiler chickens fed alfalfa-containing diets. Alfalfa is, however, a natural source of xanthophylls, which are the pigments that give the yellow color to chicken skin and egg yolks.

High levels of alfalfa have been used in molting diets for egg layers. It has been reported that using molting diets high in alfalfa reduces the level of Salmonella excreted in the feces of hens. Dietary fiber is used by Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species, resulting in the production of lactic acid and short-chain fatty acids. Production of these acids reduces the pH in the intestines, helping the body maintain the normal collection of microorganisms in the digestive tract and, thereby, helping prevent the establishment of Salmonella and other pathogens. At the same time, however, dietary fiber reduces the speed with which feed passes through the digestive tract.

Other benefits of using alfalfa instead of other substances in molting diets exist. Wheat middlings have been used as an alternative to feed withdrawal for inducing a molt in an egg production flock; however, research shows that hens fed wheat middlings show the same level of hunger as hens on a feed withdrawal program. This result does not appear to be the case when alfalfa is used as the molt diet. Research has shown that feeding alfalfa is equally effective as withdrawing feed. The eggs produced post-molt are comparable between the two molting methods. (12)

Ladino Clover-

“They found that the pastured birds produced about three times more omega-3 fat in their eggs than did birds raised on an industrial diet. Regarding the best pasture mixes, “On average across all these periods, the mixtures highly dominated by legumes—clover and alfalfa—produced 18 percent more omega-3 fat than grass alone,” Karsten says. Eggs from the alfalfa pasture had 25 percent more omega-3s than grass-produced counterparts. “In absolute amounts, this was not a very big increase,” says Karsten. “But with more research and some different feeding regimes, it might go higher.”

Pasturing also boosted levels of vitamins A and E. “On average, we saw about twice as much vitamin E and 40 percent more vitamin A in the yolks of pasture-fed birds than in the caged birds. The longer the animals were on pasture, the more vitamins they produced,” Karsten says”. (13)

Ladino Clover Versus Bluegrass and Farm Pasturage

Is Ladino clover necessary to secure the greatest benefits and economy from pasturage or may grass or run-of-farm range serve much the same purpose?

This question is answered in four experiments involving 725 Leghorn and 2,250 R. I. Red pullets. Pullets on Ladino clover pasturage made a consistently faster rate of growth with less feed than did similar pullets on bluegrass or run-of-farm ranges. Leghorns on Ladino clover made 11 percent greater growth with 12 percent less feed than did pullets on bluegrass range. R. I. Red pullets made 9 percent faster growth with 1 2 percent less feed than did similar pullets on run-of-farm range.

In one test R. I. Red pullets receiving the 12-percent protein ration and Ladino clover made 17 percent more growth than did similar pullets on run-of-farm range that received the 14-percent protein ration. Feed consumption of both groups was much the same.

The faster rate of growth of pullets on Ladino clover pasturage with approximately 12 percent less feed indicates the distinct advantage and economy in raising chickens on a range of Ladino clover. Ladino clover, with its greater protein content and greater palatability throughout the growing season, permits the successful use of the 12 percent protein ration or the corn and minerals ration. These rations, with Ladino clover, enable the poultryman to realize greatest economy in raising his chickens on good range and pasturage. (14)

Ryegrass

Grasses suitable for poultry turf are perennial ryegrass. (15)

Here is an EXCELLENT article that goes more in depth on ryegrass and other grains. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=452

Rape

Many common garden cover crops — alfalfa, clover, annual rye, kale (and its close relative, rape)...— provide abundant feed for poultry. (16)

Rape grows quickly and grows very rank if not cut back It is the cheapest green food for summer and early fall. Anyone having a summer egg trade in fancy eggs cannot find a better egg producer and it also gives a richness to the egg. The leaf is very tender and succulent and is greatly relished and easily digested It is an ideal greenstuff for the range in which young chickens are growing. (17)

Here are the seeds we avoided, which are commonly found in other seed blends

Rye grain (secale cereale)

The nutrient content of rye is very similar to that of wheat and corn, but its nutritive value for poultry is very poor. When rye is included in poultry diets, the poultry experience depressed growth performance and/or reduced egg production. The use of rye in turkey and broiler diets results in sticky droppings that add moisture to the litter and can cause problems with ammonia. (18)

Buckwheat

The amino acid composition of buckwheat appears to be nutritionally superior to that of cereal grains, but this has not translated into good performance of poultry fed buckwheat-based diets. Buckwheat contains protease inhibitors and tannin, antinutritional factors that appear to inhibit performance. Buckwheat has some potential as a protein supplement to cereal grains. Buckwheat has a high lysine content, which can compensate for the lower lysine levels common in cereal grains.

Although some research shows that broiler feed can be composed of up to 60% buckwheat with no impact on overall body weight of the poultry, there is a reduction in feed efficiency when buckwheat composes so much of the diet. Diets of animals raised outdoors should not include such high levels of buckwheat. Buckwheat contains fagopyrin, a substance that increases skin sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) light, leading to sunburns. It is recommended that poultry raised outdoors be fed a diet of no more than 30% buckwheat. (19)

Cowpea

The cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) is an important grain legume in tropical and subtropical regions. Cowpeas are heat- and drought-tolerant crops. Cowpeas are suitable for use in poultry feeds, and their nutrient composition is similar to that of lupins and field peas, but not as good as soybeans or canola.

Cowpeas have an amino acid profile similar to that of soybeans. Cowpeas are characteristically low in sulfur-containing amino acids (methionine and cysteine) and high in lysine. Like other grain legumes, cowpeas contain antinutritional factors. Such antinutritional factors—including protease inhibitors, nonstarch polysaccharides (NSP), pectins, and phenolic compounds—reduce protein quality and nutrient digestibility. The protease inhibitors impair the activity of pancreatic enzymes such as trypsin and chymotrypsin. (20)

So, here's the summary. Wheatgrass and sprouted grains are of little benefit to poultry. Foraging your chickens (or feeding them with flats/planter) will increase the Omega-3s, Vitamin A and Vitamin E in your eggs, making them healthier for you to eat. Forage attracts nutritious bugs for your chickens to eat, and reduces feed costs. Our forage seed mix, if planted in the ground, will increase the nutrients in your soil, preparing it for a more fertile future harvest. 

The only question now is why aren’t you feeding forage to your chickens yet?


Sources:

  1. http://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=11721
  2. http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/poultry/sprouting-grains-for-chickens-zm0z16fmzkon.aspx
  3. http://news.psu.edu/story/140750/2003/05/01/research/pasture-ized-poultry
  4. http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/poultry/sprouting-grains-for-chickens-zm0z16fmzkon.aspx
  5. http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/free-range-eggs-zmaz07onzgoe.aspx?PageId=5
  6. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/
  7. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-a/
  8. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-e/
  9. http://articles.extension.org/pages/69065/feeding-chickens-for-egg-production
  10. http://articles.extension.org/pages/67350/using-flax-in-poultry-diets
  11. http://articles.extension.org/pages/67359/feeding-field-peas-to-poultry
  12. http://articles.extension.org/pages/65503/feeding-alfalfa-to-poultry
  13. http://news.psu.edu/story/140750/2003/05/01/research/pasture-ized-poultry
  14. http://www.plamondon.com/clover.html
  15. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=452
  16. http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/poultry/poultry-feed-zmaz10fmzraw.aspx?PageId=2#ArticleContent
  17. https://books.google.com/books?id=YjFJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA684&lpg=PA684&dq=growing+rape+plant+for+chickens&source=bl&ots=Fjyq47vWdg&sig=500FiE8SjEx2OHvDIwZySsMiqEQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwifotT7jaHNAhVLQ1IKHTbeCJU4ChDoAQgdMAE#v=onepage&q=rape&f=false
  18. http://articles.extension.org/pages/67364/feeding-rye-to-poultry
  19. http://articles.extension.org/pages/67472/feeding-buckwheat-to-poultry
  20. http://articles.extension.org/pages/67049/feeding-cowpeas-to-poultry

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