Did you ever wonder what
poultry keepers fed their flocks before the modern feed mixtures came
on the scene? Feeding Poultry was published in 1955 by
G.F. Heuser, who had spent the last forty years researching poultry
nutrition, and his book is a fascinating peek into the era during which
commercial feeds were being developed (but while poultry keepers still
remembered the old ways).
Heuser began his book by
looking at chicken care from a hundred years prior. In the middle
of the nineteenth century, chickens were being kept in small flocks on
diversified farms, so they mostly fed themselves, with a bit of corn or
other grain tossed in once or twice a day. Some farmers would let
the hens into the garden for an hour or so of monitored bug control,
and they generally had free rein of the barnyard, where the chickens
happily pecked apart manure from horses and cows. A slightly
later nineteenth century text mentioned feeding chopped and scalded
clover hay. Heuser reminds us that this laissez-faire method of
chicken-keeping worked at the time, but that the hens didn’t lay
terribly well, concentrating most of their efforts on the spring months.
As we entered the twentieth
century, chickens began to be bred for high production and were crammed
into small spaces in large numbers. We also started to stress the
birds by raising chicks unseasonably (such as in late winter to ensure
the pullets would lay their first fall). The changes in poultry
setups necessitated a similar change in chicken feeding.
Commercial chicken feed
mixtures began to be used in the 1910s, and scientists continued to
perfect their formulas over the next several decades. We were
just learning about the differences between animal and vegetable
proteins and were discovering many vitamins and minerals, so it became
clear that chickens thrived on milk because of riboflavin and needed
cod liver oil when kept in confinement because they couldn’t make their
own vitamin D.
I’ll be regaling you
with more highlights of Feeding
Poultry this fall
and winter, whenever a rainy day tempts me to dip back into this thick
but easy-to-read book. Stay tuned, or pick up your own copy and
healthy chicken diet — clean water.
I don’t remember my grandparents (also in SW Va.) ever offering anything other than feed corn and oyster shells. Otherwise, the chickens grazed all day. Plenty of eggs.
Elizabeth — I think that systems like that work best with diversified farms. If you’ve got horses and cows and so forth, the chickens have scads of insects to go after! So I guess the moral of the story is to make a homestead more diverse if you want to feed chickens less. 🙂