One of the biggest costs of keeping chickens is the feed. Most people buy bags of the stuff at feed stores. These 50-lb bags come in a variety of forms, usually pellets or crumbles. In my experience, the crumbles make a big mess as the chickens hunt for larger chunks to eat, spilling the smaller bits out of even the best-designed hoppers. It’s also possible to get organic and/or GMO-free feed for the discerning poultry-keeper. Different feeds are formulated for fresh-hatched chicks, growing birds, and layers, as they contain grit, more protein, and calcium, respectively. A 50-lb bag can cost between $10 and $25 depending on the variables. During the summer months, the food bill drops noticably because the girls are out foraging for greens and bugs. While cutting down vegetation the other day, I was reminded of a scene from the BBC documentary Edwardian Farm (highly recommended watching, all of which can be done on YouTube, here), where the lads put up fresh-cut hay for winter silage (mins 2:33–5:37):
Silage is still-green vegetation packed into an anaerobic environment. This inhibits the growth of the microorganisms that cause decay and break down the plant material. The reason every compost guru urges you to turn your compost heap (that reminds me . . .) is to get fresh oxygen into the middle of the pile to keep things breaking down. If, on the other hand, we starve these organisms from fresh air, only lactic-acid-producing bacteria can thrive, which, in an extreme simplification, is essentially air pickling. It loses vitamin D, but otherwise maintains at least half of its nutritional value.
I remember helping my grandfather feed the cows on cold North Dakota evenings. I was always impressed by the steam pouring off the warm silage coming out of the silos, thinking back to the warm fall afternoon when I had been allowed to run the combine and help harvest it.
I do not have a silo, and I would like to test this out before investing the time and energy into building a below-ground silage pit, so I’ll have to borrow from modern farming practices to keep my fresh greens airtight: plastic bags. If you’ve been out in farm country recently, you’ve probably noticed long white plastic tubes laid next to fields or feed lots. These contain silage — they’re temporary, horizontal silos. I have an excess of grain bags, which have a woven polypropylene exterior with a plastic inner bag. To this I’ve added an additional inner plastic bag.
As I mow the lawn with my scythe, I make windrows, which are long piles of cut plant material. Ideally, I would chop all this up into little bits, but I don’t have equipment for that, so the stalks, leaves, and all get crushed up and packed into the bags. As the inner bag gets full, it is compressed by hand and foot until no more will fit inside. I twist the top shut and push down again, expelling as much air as possible. The top gets tied and another inner bag is put on top and filled, repeating the process. Once I have two inner bags (I have two because my garbage bags used on the inside are small), I compress the whole outer bag and tie it shut. I now have a 50-lb grain sack packed full of silage. I label the bags with a date, so I know which to use first.
Over the next few months, aerobic processes will turn some of the nutrient value into lactic acid, which should inhibit the growth of mold or other decay. It will raise the temperature of the bags up into the 90°Fs (hence the steam I saw as a child). Once the winter sets in, I’ll open up a bag each week to give the chickens a little more to munch on than just straight feed for the bleaker part of the year. I’ll post an update to see how this method worked out this winter.