If you’re in a part of the country where the grass goes away or is buried under snow in the winter, how can you achieve your goal of grass-fed eggs? And if it’s twenty below and a gale is blowing, are free-range eggs really a good idea?
It’s easy to get hung up on definitions and take things too literally, but we ought to allow reality to intrude, at least a little bit. We don’t want our chickens going outside when it’s unhealthy for them to do so, and it would be stupid and irresponsible to do so just so we could cling to labels like “free-range” or “grass-fed.” Climate happens.
We are blessed with a wealth of practical information about such things if we know where to look. Back before scientists figured out about vitamins, everyone knew that poultry needed green feed year-round. They just didn’t know why. So they worked out a variety of ways to keep green feed in the picture, regardless of weather.
Some contenders were:
- Vegetables. Carrots, kale, and lettuce are good, cabbage less so. Kale was particularly popular in the Pacific states, since it can be left standing in the field all winter and nothing will happen to it. The others were stored in the usual ways. Of course, these days such vegetables are available fresh year-round, and maybe you can get them for free through the discards of your local supermarket.
- Lawn clippings are an obvious substitute for grass range, though of course they aren’t available except in weather where the chickens might just as easily go outdoors. In this modern age, maybe it’s practical to freeze lawn clippings if you only have a few hens. Grass clippings are also practical if your chickens can’t range widely (a lot of neighborhoods would tolerate chickens in the back yard but not the front, for example).
- Hay. Alfalfa meal, alfalfa hay, and clover hay are all good and can be stored indefinitely. Alfalfa products are easy to find, too.
- Sprouted grain. Greatly beloved by some people, there’s a lot of skepticism in the poultry literature. Not green and leafy enough to do much in the “green feed” line, and way too labor-intensive — that’s the verdict.
Feeding methods varied. Whole kale plants were often uprooted and hung upside down from a piece of twine, just above the floor, so the chickens could peck at the leaves. Similarly, farmers drove spikes into the chicken house walls and spiked cabbage and lettuce heads on them. Others thought that slicing the green feed made it more palatable, so they bought slicers or shredders and fed the cole-slaw-like shredded greens in troughs. Alfalfa pellets or cubes are probably more palatable if you soak them for a while first. Hay can be fed in troughs or hay nets. Tossing it on the ground is wasteful.
Basically, you give the chickens as much as they want, or, with wet feeds, as much as they can eat before it freezes. If they have green range available, they won’t like alfalfa hay, etc., but when the range becomes barren or inaccessible, their attitude will change.
Do it right, and your eggs will have a spring-like flavor year-round.