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Salt/mineral requirements of chickens

 
Joanna Hoyt
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Location: Upstate New York, USA--zone 4/5
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We're switching to feeding our chickens sprouted grains, potatoes, herbs, eggs, worms etc. instead of commercial premixed feed. We know they'll still need calcium (oyster shells or eggshells...) They'll be pastured in summer, have sod inside in winter. Do they need salt...and if so is it salt in toto or just sodium they need? Are there other minerals of particular importance for egg birds? We're hoping to supply minerals with plants that grow here rather than buying stuff in.
 
R Ranson
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Chickens and salt. That's a great question. Sounds like you are on the right track and have a nice balance of foods for your flock.

Simple answer: sort-of.

Long answer (grab a coffee, this is gonna be loooong):

If you can, have a look at any poultry book published pre-1970. These have some wonderful dietary suggestions. They don't say 'buy xyz feed' because pre-mixed chicken feed just wasn't available in most places. There are lists of different combinations of grains &c and a good book includes how to adjust diet for different conditions or symptoms.


Next, different breeds of chickens seem to have different nutritional requirements - this is my observation and I have no written evidence anywhere to back this up. However, I feel it's true and I think there needs to be research into this. Having had different breeds over the last few years, I've noticed that many of the modern commercial breeds cannot thrive when given free choice of food or fodder. Some fall over dead if they eat a worm. They are just too strongly selected for modern poultry feed. The older breeds, like the heritage varieties from Murray McMurrary are especially hardy and thrive on non-commercial feed and free range pasture.

Not all old varieties of chickens do thrive however, some of the more rare breeds have had too small a bottleneck in their genetic history and are fragile.

So a heritage breed that hasn't found itself on the rare-breed or endangered list would be an excellent choice for feeding with your own mix.


Some thoughts on the feed you mention. Sprouted grains can be exceptionally awesome, but they can also hide dangers within them. They have to be done properly to avoid harmful bacteria. Perhaps a mix of sprouted AND raw grains would be good. Chickens, afterall have evolved to eat mostly raw grains now. Also, potatoes need to be cooked or they can cause problems with poultry - some sort of anti-nutrient I can't remember off the top of my head. Green potatoes can be deadly to them, even cooked. If you are feeding eggs, it's important to make it not look like egg when you feed it to them. If they identify yummy cooked eggs (I'm assuming you are boiling and mashing the eggs) with the eggs in their nesting box then ... well... you won't get any eggs. It's very easy to train a hen to eat her own eggs.

Eggshells alone don't seem to give enough calcium to my girls, so oyster shells are a good addition.

Worms are an excellent idea. Mealybugs are also suppose to be very good and easy to grow, perhaps easier than worms.

Don't forget about grit, they need it year round. I know it's just rocks, but it is essential to their survival. A lot of problems I've seen in chickens is simply a lack of grit.


Now back to salt.

Chickens don't have a great way to store salt, too much salt can damage them. Most of the salt they get, they can get from a traditional diet that includes meat.

Many of the high protein foods - chickens need protein! - also have trace minerals and salt. One traditional winter feed for chickens was roadkill or trapped rats. The blood from the animal provided lots of salt and minerals in the chickens diet. But kind of grosse to feed raw vermin to chickens these days. Personally I don't like feeding raw meat to my chickens, so I cook it. Except for raw liver as an emergency booster if the flock as a whole is looking under the weather.

Depending on your agricultural system, some agricultural inputs will actually prevent the uptake of nutrients in chickens, thus they need more minerals in their feed. This is possibly why there is a correlation between petroleum based fertilizers and the need for more mineral supplementation in livestock. Organic growing often allows for the maximum uptake of nutrition for livestock. (See the writings of Pat Coleby for an example of how this affects sheep and goats, sally fallon for effects on humans, and someone I can't remember for effects on poultry.)

In winter and during times of stress I give my chickens something called electro-vit or poultry-vit in their water supply. It's a vitamin booster, the electro-vit being mostly electrolytes and trace minerals, the poultry-vit being a lot of B vits and trace minerals.


Resources:
Although about ducks, not chickens, The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe talks about growing your own poultry food and how to balance the nutritional needs.
Small Scale Grain Raising by Logsdon has some interesting thoughts and experiences on feeding chickens home grown grain.


Summary:
The nutritional needs of your livestock depend a great deal on the health of your soil. Different additives will decrease or increase the mineral needs of your chickens.
Different breeds of chickens respond differently to diet.
Chickens need meat.
Always cook eggs and potatoes before feeding to chickens.
Keep some water soluble chicken vitamin mix on hand for your birds during times of stress (commercial or home grown feed).
Check out old farming books for different homemade feed mixes for chickens.

Hopefully this helps a bit. Sorry I couldn't give you a definite answer, but perhaps it helps you think about some new aspects. Please let us know how it goes, what you learn, what works, what doesn't, and so on. In the next year or two I'm keen to start raising my own chicken feed. It's a fascinating subject. There are so many opinions on how best to do it, it's difficult to know where to start.

I can't wait to see what others have to say on the subject. Most of this is from my reading and personal experience. I've only a few years of chicken raising under my belt, and I would love to hear from people with more experience.
 
Joanna Hoyt
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Location: Upstate New York, USA--zone 4/5
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Thank you for the very informative answer!

I should have been clearer in my first post about some things. We started our new chicks (Golden Comets, Brown Leghorns, Ameraucanas; we ordered New Hampshires but they didn’t come; from the store, not hen-raised--that's the next thing we want to work on) on a mix of boiled potatoes, scrambled eggs, oat or whole wheat flour and dried nettles, and they're gobbling that up. We'll start them on worms once they're a little bigger. (We've heard mealworms are easy to raise, but we are trying to keep mealmoths out of our grain storage, and we already have a vermicompost box indoors as well as a very wormy and large outdoor compost pile...)

We didn't start to offer sprouted and/or whey-soaked grains until we'd seen them pecking up grit (we put sod and gravel in a small pan in their brooder box). They're still getting used to the grains. I know about the danger of mold with sprouting, as we've been growing fodder (7-day sprouts) for our rabbits and giving younger sprouts to our goats and figuring out how not to get mold in there. Are there other nutritional reasons why chickens do better with dry than soaked/sprouted grain? The soaking and sprouting were an attempt to raise the protein content and make it easier for chicks to handle unground grains.

The part about the importance of soil mineral content makes a lot of sense to me. The native soil here (what the nettles grow in) is sandy and stony with passable organic content, no recent non-organic inputs (don’t know the management of the land before 1998 well enough to say) and (if it's like most of our area) low selenium. The potatoes grew in our garden soil which is pretty well amended with compost and reasonably rich in organic matter, and has been treated organically at least since 1998. The grain is bought in from God knows where... I need to think more about this.

Thanks, too, for all the suggestions for further reading. I’m looking forward to learning more about this.

 
R Ranson
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Sounds like you're off to a great start. I would be very happy if I were one of your chickens.

Are there other nutritional reasons why chickens do better with dry than soaked/sprouted grain?


I wish I knew.

Given my lack of information, and my tendency to err on the side of caution, I would imagine that a mixture of sprouted and raw grain would give a more complete nutritional profile than just one or the other.

I also wish there was more information and studies on chicken nutrition. If there are, I can't seem to find it. I suspect that since a commercial chicken lives 2 to 15 months, there isn't a lot of research on how to keep them healthy over the long term. We can fall back on pre-industrial knowledge, but then there's the problem that almost no one bothered to write anything down because it was common sense on how to keep a chicken healthy. Everyone knew how to feed a chicken.

Selenium is such an important supplement for my grass munchers (goats and sheep) that I've been thinking of trying my chickens on some free access kelp.

Please let us know what you find out, this is my goal too soon, so I'm eager to learn from you.
 
Henry Ikeme
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In commercial mix, they use 0.5% salt. So you can consider that amount.
 
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