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Growing all your own chicken feed?

 
Dean Moriarty
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Location: Danville, KY (Zone 6b)
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This isn't a question limited to chickens, but it's a start...

I recently bought 12 acres (plus a house) and I'm planning on raising chickens for eggs and meat. In attempt to be truly self-sufficient, I have a goal to create a closed loop system that could supply it's own food for the birds rather than buying feed. Is anyone out there doing this? I've read Salatin's poultry profits book, and plan to use a similar approach with a chicken tractor, but that only offsets 20% of the feed with good pasture. I'd be interested in good books or write-ups that do everything from raising brooders for procreation of new chicks, as well as raising vegetative crops for feeding the chicks. Basically, I want to eventually have a $0 food budget without having to sell my end products for money so that I can then buy the feed.

Long term I'd like to do more of the same with other animals, but chickens is where I planned to start. Does anyone have advice or reading recommendations?
 
Max Madalinski
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Dean,

The best system I've seen to raise chickens the way your talking about comes from the folks at Vermont Compost Company. They basically turn there laying hens out onto commercial sized compost heaps and let them pick through all the scraps to get all of their feed.

Check out the video geoff lawton posted about this system at geofflawton.com under the title "Feed Chickens Without Grain" and "chicken tractor on steroids."

One of the tricks to this set-up that's not pictured in the video is that they keep a winter compost heap in a high tunnel so that the birds can still pick at it through the winter.

I've also seen presentations by Mark Shepard, in which he talks about keeping laying hens in the same fashion, ie. letting them do all the eating and turning over of the compost heap. He explained that they kept the chicken coop right next to the garden and would just throw veggie scraps over the fence and let the birds pick everything over.

I haven't seen anything about raising broilers without grain and I think that there is a good challenge there in trying to get a competitively sized bird to market without any grain. The main obstacle I see here is that most "broiler" type breeds are just not particularly suited for sustainable production. They are all bred for super fast growth on high protein feeds and are not particularly good at getting all of their nutrition from forage. I had a neighbor who tried raising cornish crosses without any grain (as his wife has serious grain allergy issues) and the birds ended up being super skinny and not particularly good eating. I think you'd want to go with a good dual purpose breed (like a Rhode Island Red, or Jersey Giant) and slowly select for good meat characteristics (or find someone whose already done this work and buy your stock from them). I also think having a good established food forest where you could let the chickens clean up fallen fruit, nuts, grains, and pests would go a long way to feeding a free ranged flock of broilers or egg layers.

Personally I think if you really want to raise poultry without purchased in feed, ducks and geese are a much easier way to go if you've got some open pasture and plenty of available water. Geese produce a lot of good meat (and grease) and can survive mostly off of young grass. Geese are a little more of a nuisance personality wise though, since they often become agressive and territorial as they get older (though you could see this as a plus since it makes the task of butchering a little less difficult). Ducks also are much more garden friendly than chickens and can be run through your gardens to harvest slugs and other pests once the plants are large enough that they won't be able to graze on them.
 
Dean Moriarty
Posts: 102
Location: Danville, KY (Zone 6b)
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Thanks Max.

I've seen the Geoff Lawton video you're referring to, and I would love to do that if i had access to a large compost pile. For now, though, my compost consists of our household outputs, which aren't too much. I've also been studying Mark Shepard's work (just got his Restoration Agriculture book a few days ago) and will see if that's an option.

I like the idea of ducks and geese, as I have a dried up pond that will be a few hundred thousand gallons of water once I get it fixed up (hopefully using pigs to accomplish it). I haven't explored it much, though, so it's probably in year 2 or 3 of my homesteading.

Thanks again for your advice, it gives me some more things to look into.
 
Alder Burns
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In the last year I've been working toward a system of feeding acorns to my chickens, and they have become their main calorie source. It was a bit labor intensive....an hour a day for a dozen birds, until I bought an electric nut cracker and took up sorting nuts from shells as an evening handiwork while surfing or watching TV. Read the details on my blog at udanwest.blogspot.com I am still buying in a protein supplement....the plan to reduce or eliminate this involves ramping up my black soldier flies this summer......you can read a lot about these elsewhere......They are magical...converting all kinds of vile stuff....even humanure....into poultry feed!
I agree with the above poster that geese especially, as well as the Muscovy duck, might be easier since they are basically grazers. And of course being able to free-range or rotationally pasture any animal will help it be more self-sufficient, as well as passing on all manner of garden and kitchen scraps to them.
 
Emily Wilson
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Harvey Ussery's book: The Small Scale Poultry Flock goes into extreme detail regarding producing your own feeds. I don't believe he grows his own grain, but the calculations for how much land you would need would be easy to figure out once you get an idea of the feed needs, provided in the book. I was really surprised when reading this just how complex the process was. Chicken have very high protein needs, and that seems to be the piece of the puzzle that is the trickiest to provide on your own steam. Layer feed from the store includes protein pellets, "in the wild" a chicken would get that same protein from insects and the occasional snake or rodent. These are the type of protein sources you need to provide, Ussery points out that just feeding chickens something like a dead raccoon is not nearly as effective as letting the raccoon become a mass of maggots, and then feeding that instead. A large part of what Ussery does is vermiculture and growing various insect larvae - a big job, I really admire his dedication. Aside from the chapters on feeds, his book is fantastic and a must have for anyone interested in fitting chickens into a permaculture system.
 
Peter Ellis
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It seems to me that black soldier flies provide a number of solutions in a permaculture system. They are incredible natural dispose-alls, reducing the volume of most any organic matter they are offered and converting it into protein at a tremendously efficient rate. The difficulties with using them, as I see it, relate to their temperature needs (I understand they don't breed below 85 F) and the sheer quantity of food they require.

But where you can keep them warm enough and provide enough food for them, they make a terrific feed for chickens and other insectivorous critters.

I wonder how chickens do on chinopodium seeds? I am wondering if one could provide the 'grain' element for chickens with amaranth, quinoa and lamb's quarters. The seeds of all of these are good protein sources, they produce well and can be harvested and stored. They are also all directly edible by humans, but require some processing to remove saponins. Perhaps using as chicken feed is an easier way to get human food from these 'grains'?
 
alex Keenan
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Well it has been only in the last few hundred years that people would buy "chicken feed"
They did purchase grain and it is still common for people to purchase grain to feed their chickens.
I have talked to people raising soldier flies. This is a nice concept but these flies thrive on fats more so than anything else in the compost.
If we take a step back and look at how do we preserve food we may see another way.

1) With compost we are really letting material decay. The birds can get value from some of this before it decays. The birds can get some food from the organisms that take part in that decay. However, for this to work you have to bring in outside material. If it is not sterilized with heat, steam, etc. you could be bring in a number of microbes into your food chain.

2) We can dry plant material. We bail hay, dry herbs, etc.
I have in the past mixed dried pelleted plant material into feeds.
Geese get 80 percent of their food from grazing when there is good grazing. So supplementing their feed with some form of dried plant matter they can actually eat works.

3) We can ferment. Think miso, fermented vegetables, silage, etc.
In this case we let the microbes produce an acidic environment that preserves the food value of the material. This is very old tech and can be done in as small as 50 gallons.

4) We can freeze. In most places this is not very practical. However, I have times when I can get animal fat cheap or free. So I can cook this down and store in small blocks in the freezer to break apart in winter and add to feed for extra calories.

5) We can store grains and seeds. Grains and legumes have been used to feed people and animals since man first farmed and raised animals. Now one question is do I have to raise the feed? Can I wild harvest feed? One example is giant ragweed. It grows very well in my area and is easy to harvest the seeds from. It is high in fat and high in protein. Plus my birds love to eat it. So what seeds can we harvest that we do not have to farm? Can we use bigger seeds such as nuts and acorns?

6) We have the whole world of root crops.
I would put these in to two camps.
a. Those that can winter over such as ground nuts, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, etc.
b. Those that must be harvested like potato, sweet potato, etc.
Many of these are high calorie crops!

7) Plant that can be stored for months. One of the main ones in my system are winter squash family. I collect pumpkins after Oct 31st. I store them in a root cellar and check them for bad spots. When I find some that are questionable I remove them and smash them in the chicken pen. The birds eat everything.

Growing calories and protein in the summer months. For example sweet potato vines are edible and a nice source of protein. Lambs quarter and spinach are also good. Again do not forget the wild harvests. My birds love sunchoke leaves and giant ragweed leaves both provide protein.
My turkeys go into the fields in spring and eat the wild onion and chickweed. I lots a whole crop of shallots one year because my turkeys have developed a taste for onion!

9) We can farm insects. Many insects can feed on our kitchen scraps. Worms can feed on bacteria produced by decay of our food wastes. I have collected coffee grounds and treated them with fungus. So we can small farm insects as feed.

10) Fish heads, fish heads, yummy yummy fish heads! When I lived next to a cannery on the coast fish waste played an important role in feeding farm animals. Today aquaponics and lake farming are very big. If one is raising fish to eat one will have fish wastes that can be ground and feed to birds. I know one person who catches cray fish and grinds them for his bird feed. He can catch them in late summer or fall just before they dig into the soil for the winter and keeps them in tanks to use as needed. You just need to live in a place where fish are still safe to eat.

Well I hope this helps.
 
Peter Ellis
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Alex, I do not understand your point re BSF. They do not feed on cellulose or lignin effectively, but do have a high conversion rate on other organic matter, and they are in themselves good sources of both protein and fat. Fats are high calorie foods.

Historically humans consumed grains directly rather than feeding grains to livestock. What went to livestock would be either waste from the processing of grains for human consumption or post human use waste product (brewing byproducts, for example).

Regarding compost - you do not have to be bringing in from outside, and properly managed compost is an environment that is not conducive to pathogens.

Methods of storage are worthy of discussion, but something of their own subject, as contrasted with what we can grow as feed, and then may need to store.

When we are able to let our chickens forage, they can do a better job of finding the wild feed for themselves than we can do of finding it for them. Giant ragweed is a nutritional powerhouse, too bad so many people have allergies But I bet chickens are happy to eat it. I think letting them find it for themselves is more efficient than me taking time to harvest it for them.

Squash and root crops can be fed to chickens, but is it sensible to feed our chickens food that we can directly consume? In that process, we essentially lose energy.
Sort of depends on how much work it takes to grow the crops and whether surplus beyond our own direct consumption is better utilized going to the chickens or being traded with other people. I would certainly say it goes to the chickens before it goes to the compost pile.

You mention fishheads, and I would agree and add any sort of offal, although I hesitate to feed chicken to chicken, without cooking it first for fear of pathogens.
Farming insects takes me full circle to the BSF. I have not come across any insect cultivation that comes close to matching their efficiency, and on many levels. You can set up a BSF bin to self-harvest into your chicken run
 
Su Ba
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Dean, first things that come to my mind.......how many chickens? And where are you located?

I feed a flock of around 50 birds without much in the way of commercial feed (I use feed when I'm away from the farm to make it easier on the caretaker). But then, I have established outside sources of feed stuff and set up large enough gardens to provide the feed that they need. Plus even more importantly in my situation, I've developed an efficient use of my time to gather or grow the feed. Time is my limiting factor. It takes ALOT of time to feed my flock. But I started out initially using 100% commercial feed and gradually started generating home-grown to replace a percentage of the commercial stuff. As I got better, I used less and less commercial feed.

Another important factor is that I have the ability to forage or grow food year around. If I had to generate enough surplus to carry a flock through the winter, I might not have the time to do that. And one more factor.....equipment. When I lack the time, I have to make it up by spending money for equipment or outside labor. Need to grow more than can be done by hand? Then tractors, tillers, or mowers may need to be purchased. No time? Then I'd have to pay someone to help out. As soon as I would need to buy equipment or labor, then kiss any profit or savings away. Just something to think about.

Massive compost piles sound nice, but one would need heavy equipment to work with massive piles. Plus one would need a steady source of organic material to feed those piles, shredders to process that material, and trucks to bring it to your farm in the first place. Your kitchen waste won't be enough to feed even one chicken, let alone a flock. So if you plan to go with massive compost piles, you'll need to work out the logistics. I can't do this method because of the lack of enough local organic material to feed large piles.

My own flock is fed:
...foraged fruits and greens. I've established locations which are convenient to me where I have permission to collect stuff.
...delivered waste. Neighbors bring bags or buckets of various food waste and greenery that they exchange for eggs, veggies, compost, or manure.
...roadkill, which I cook on an outdoor wood fired stove.
...hunters' slaughter waste, which gets cooked.
...general slaughter waste, cooked.
...homegrown veggies, fruits, greens, grains, lawn clippings.
...they are allowed to be loose to forage on their own each afternoon for about 3 hours.

I don't bother with BSF because of the size of my flock. It's too much time and materials to produce such a small amount of protein. Roadkill and slaughter waste gives much more protein for the time and effort. But I do collect about 2-3 quarts of flies and yellowjackets in the pasture traps, which I collect every morning and add to the hens' "slop & glop".

Right now I still buy a bit of scratch grains which I use to get the hens back into their pen when I need to. Usually they go in by themselves, but there are 2-3 days a week when I need to get them penned before dusk. The grain does that. Eventually I will be producing enough of my own grain year around to eliminate commercial grains.

 
Dean Moriarty
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Location: Danville, KY (Zone 6b)
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Thanks Su.

I'm planing to start my flock with about 5-6 layers, and soon after I'd like to start about 25 broilers. I have 12 acres, but nothing growing on it yet - so I'm years away from having fruits to feed, and my veggie garden has always been for human consumption - but I have plenty of space to grow grains or anything else that would be ideal for the chickens.

Also, I'm retired so I have abundant time to do the work - I'm just looking for resources of what to grow and what to feed. BTW, I'm in Kentucky, zone 6.

So let's say you have plenty of space and time, what exactly would be your optimal plan for what to grow for the layers? Would it be different for the broilers?

Thanks!
 
alex Keenan
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Peter Ellis wrote:Alex, I do not understand your point re BSF. They do not feed on cellulose or lignin effectively, but do have a high conversion rate on other organic matter, and they are in themselves good sources of both protein and fat. Fats are high calorie foods.

Historically humans consumed grains directly rather than feeding grains to livestock. What went to livestock would be either waste from the processing of grains for human consumption or post human use waste product (brewing byproducts, for example).

Regarding compost - you do not have to be bringing in from outside, and properly managed compost is an environment that is not conducive to pathogens.

Methods of storage are worthy of discussion, but something of their own subject, as contrasted with what we can grow as feed, and then may need to store.

When we are able to let our chickens forage, they can do a better job of finding the wild feed for themselves than we can do of finding it for them. Giant ragweed is a nutritional powerhouse, too bad so many people have allergies But I bet chickens are happy to eat it. I think letting them find it for themselves is more efficient than me taking time to harvest it for them.

Squash and root crops can be fed to chickens, but is it sensible to feed our chickens food that we can directly consume? In that process, we essentially lose energy.
Sort of depends on how much work it takes to grow the crops and whether surplus beyond our own direct consumption is better utilized going to the chickens or being traded with other people. I would certainly say it goes to the chickens before it goes to the compost pile.

You mention fishheads, and I would agree and add any sort of offal, although I hesitate to feed chicken to chicken, without cooking it first for fear of pathogens.
Farming insects takes me full circle to the BSF. I have not come across any insect cultivation that comes close to matching their efficiency, and on many levels. You can set up a BSF bin to self-harvest into your chicken run


I have talked to commercial growers of BSF
It is not something for everyone. They are great provided you have the right food sources and can provide the right environmental conditions.
I have found that other insects actually work better for my specific conditions.

You do not need to eat any animals if you wish to use the most direct energy source.
One can develop stands of wild birds that can supply limited food. If you have enough land you do not need domestic animals.

I believe your point was that one can make use of resources that will not be consumed directly by humans. Most of the compost operations I have seen used as animal feed are NOT self contained. They depend on outside inputs of waste materials. One can create a self contained compost system but the amount of compost limits that amount of birds that can be raised on it.

I have a closed flock formed in late 1990's. My birds do a great deal of foraging. However, if I want high survival rate of eggs hatching and chick growth I generally have to make sure they get a certain amount of protein and fats in their diet. Most people are not breeders or do not have many generations within a closed flock. Also any flock has a limited range for foraging. In my area the greater the extending foraging range the greater the odd of death due to attack. So it pays in my case to bring forage to my birds as I move them around. The other issue with foraging is competition with wildlife. If I do not collect seeds and store them it is likely there will not be enough for my flock after the rodents and wild birds take their share over the season. I have had one case where I planted three acres of sunflower only to have all of it gone when I had to leave town for a week at the time it ripened. A massive flock of migratory birds came in and wiped it out.

So in a nutshell much of what I do I have learn the hard way. It may not be right for anyone but me. But it matches what I have experienced in real life over almost two decades.



 
Emily Wilson
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Just a wee interjection regarding fish as feed: does it make the meat or eggs taste fishy? I know it does if you fed a lot of fish to pigs, and wild waterfowl often have a very fishy taste. I've never done it myself as I no longer live near the coast.
 
Dean Moriarty
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Emily - I'm no expert (obviously), but here's what I found after googling it. Looks like people are reporting that it is NOT fishy tasting.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Dean Moriarty wrote:I have 12 acres, but nothing growing on it yet


Nothing growing? On 12 acres? In Kentucky?

I recommend taking a closer look at what's actually there... I bet there are tons of chicken food already there, waiting to be eaten.

I might give you a pass if you said that your place was inside the evaporation basin of a salt lake, but anywhere else that I've ever been, something is growing. Even the salt flats around the Great Salt Lake offer insects to eat that have blown in from the badlands.

 
Dean Moriarty
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OK, fair enough. I attached a picture so you can see what it looks like. I plan on letting some animals loose on it, but I wasn't sure how useful it would be for chickens as it stands now.

gose.jpg
[Thumbnail for gose.jpg]
 
Jay Grace
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IMO. Spring summer and fall chickens can get there own food if you have enough space and rotate them through it. Now winter time when very little grows and all the little critters are not out and about is a different story. Any kind of winter greens kale, mustards, and collards would get you into the really cold part of the winter. Sorghum ( seed type) can be grown and harvested pretty easily. Instead of stripping the seeds just snip the whole seed head off and throw it in a sack. Stored Pumpkins, and squash would round out their diet along with table scraps.
But it all depends on how many chickens you put up there. 1-20 or so i believe would be no problem. 200 would be a little more work.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Dean Moriarty wrote:OK, fair enough. I attached a picture so you can see what it looks like. I plan on letting some animals loose on it, but I wasn't sure how useful it would be for chickens as it stands now.

That looks like very good chicken food there. I see stands of native grasses (seeds) I see greens, so you know there are plenty of bugs lurking in there too. I would just let the chickens free range during the day. at night you might need to use a little treat food to get them to come back to the coop for lock up at night but otherwise it looks like great free range land to me. To improve it, think about broadcasting some clovers, curly dock, kale, cereal rye, millet, teff, amaranth, chia seeds, Millet, quinoa, etc. in that field so there is more variety for the chickens to utilize.
 
Lou Schultz
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My great-grandfather had a chicken farm; I wish I had asked my grandma more questions about it while she was alive. One thing I remember is that they grew a lot of mangel beets to feed the livestock through the winter. Here's an article I found:

http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/mangels-heritage-feed-heritage-chickens/
 
Dean Moriarty
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@Lou - thanks, that's great information. I checked on my seed supplier website and the mammoth red mangels have very high reviews for livestock feed (pigs and chickens) as well as pretty good for human consumption as well. I'm looking forward to trying it out as a way to help get through the winters.

@Bryant - That's god to know. I didn't know if there'd be enough nutrition there to get started, but I can certainly test it out. As I clean up that pasture this coming year, I'll let them graze out there and start getting other things planted as well.

@Jay - It's my hope that I can have 5-10 layers out there getting their own food most of the year, possibly rotational grazing following some american guinea hogs. If I can just keep a few small hogs and chickens happy on that land while I begin my earthworks and tree planting then I'll be a happy camper.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Dean, you will be able to let the chickens and Guinea hogs graze together, no worries, they will get along quite nicely.
 
Dean Moriarty
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Bryant - is it better to have them together or have the chickens follow? I was picturing the Salatin "Salad Bar Beef" model of following, mainly because I don't have real life experience yet. In the book, he had them follow which gave them time to spread the manure and eat whatever bugs were in and around the manure, so I figured following was best. But are there are benefits of having them together? Because if having them together is as good or better, then that would make my job easier, and seems like more fun to have them all interacting...
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Yes it would be better to let the chickens follow, but that is just one way to do it. I've seen pastures with goats, hogs and chickens all in there at the same time, the animals were in a pasture area for about a week before being moved in those cases.
 
Ross Raven
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Quick Question. Someone mentioned sunchoke leaves as feed. I have no shortage of sunchokes. Do you think they would eat it dehydrated? Or dehydrated lambs quarter for that matter. Dry in the summer. Feed in the winter?
Im left with the same question about ducks. If they will eat 80% crass clippings...Will dehydrated lawn clippings work? anyone?
 
Kevin MacBearach
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My concerns are mainly how can I be more efficient feeding my 50 hens during the long wet Oregon winter. Since I have lots of manure available, for me the best thing would be a long pile of compost in their 30' chicken run with a small poly-tunnel like structure over it. I'm planning on adding another 30' run on the opposite side of the coop so when one compost pile is being worked over by the chickens, the other pile will be being built. My questions are, when would be the optimal time for introducing the chickens to the pile ad for how long? And is my goal for a super hot pile like Berkley method? Or a cooler, slower pile that might contain more critters? I imagine a hotter pile would be more work o m part but then again it would also mean more compost and more fertility in a shorter time.

Another idea would be to somehow add a BSF breeder inside the run where the compost could help keep it around the 85 degree zone for a longer breeding season. I think if the breed box was inside a poly-tunnel and next to a large compost pile might do the trick.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Hau Ross Raven, I know that chickens will eat the dehydrated sunchoke, lambs quarter etc. usually they will hunt through it for bugs then go after the dried greens.

Kevin, I think your best bet for composting manures for chickens would be a cooler pile. Your idea for the breeder is a good one. I would make up to separate piles in that case, one for heat for the breeder and one for the chickens to hunt through for food. Another way to introduce heat is by using concrete blocks, painted black and set in the area where the sun can heat them during the day. They then release the heat over the night. Keep us up to date on what you do and how it works for you.
 
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