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Free Ranging Broilers and Fermenting Chicken Feed

I don't know why, but they really seem to like the weeds (and probably the gravel as well) along the edge of the driveway.

It took me a long time to warm up to free ranging my birds.  I'm nervous by nature, so when I finally got up the nerve to do it (which took months) it was for short periods in the late afternoon and evenings and with me in close attendance.  Now, with the exception of my old flock these past few weeks (some of my gold stars simply INSIST on not staying in the yard despite all my fencing efforts, and I am damn tired of chasing them through the underbrush of the shelter belt in order to keep them out of the neighbor's yard... don't worry, this problem will soon be solved...), everyone free ranges most of the day, including, for the first time, my meat chickens.

I was even more nervous to let my meat chickens out of their enclosure- indeed, this is the first batch I have done it with at all.  But I can now see that the nervousness was pretty baseless.  Even more so than with the other birds, as these guys stay a little closer to home so I can let them out first thing in the morning and I never worry about them making a visit to the neighbor's garden.  Because honestly that is the one singular thing I worry about now- my chickens decimating the neighbor's garden.

And there have been huge benefits to allowing them to free range.  Obviously it is better for their health, and this has been obvious as they are going on ten weeks old (old for a meat chicken) and I haven't had one health problem (besides a severely twisted foot in one who is otherwise fine, and I'm pretty sure it is congenital).  No flip, no bad legs, no purple combs, no ascites (build up of fluid in the chest cavity).  But besides improving their diet it has improved their actual comfort.  When it is hot they have more freedom to find the most comfortable place to wait out the heat, be in the enclosure inside of their pen or in the shade next to the foundation of the house (they prefer the latter).  And I'm not constantly worrying about them.  That seems backwards at first, but when you know that I don't worry much about predation in my broilers, I worry far more about early death from either a broiler specific malady such as flip (chicken heart attack, called flip because they usually are found dead on their backs) or leg issues, or about heat induced death.  The last two batches of broilers I had I worried a lot.  I also hauled a lot of water and moved their pen a lot more, and sometimes I even had to get creative to provide them with enough shade.  This year has been much easier.

And here's another reason they have been healthier this year:
Looks delicious, huh?

After having issues in the past with broilers and nutrition deficiencies on commercial broiler feed and then coming across a really long thread on Backyard Chickens featuring several people trying this, I decided to start soaking my broiler's feed.  I started out soaking just chick starter and gradually mixed in more scratch grains (a mix of cracked corn, oats, and wheat) each time I mixed a new batch.  Why do this?  For a number of reasons.

First of all, broilers are notorious for having nutrition absorption issues.  They grow so much over such a short period of time, and they eat a lot of food and drink a lot of water.  I don't think a lot of that food, however, actually gets absorbed, but is instead passed straight through due both to the volume of food and the amount of water they drink, especially once it gets warm.  Soaking the food makes it easier to digest both because of the fluid making the food softer but ALSO because of fermentation, which takes harder to digest substances and breaks them down partially.

But doesn't fermentation lessen the nutritional value of the food if the microorganisms are consuming some of the food?  Not at all.  Relatively speaking the organisms responsible for fermentation consume very little, and it is mostly simple carbohydrates such as starch and sugar, and they create through their waste products a variety of vitamins, most importantly B vitamins (which are often directly linked to nutritional deficiencies in broilers- my problem last year was due to a niacin deficiency, which is a B vitamin).  Furthermore, chicken digestion relies on fermentation (they have a larger cecum, which is essentially a sack off their intestine that ferments food), so why not speed up the process?

And the proof is in the pudding.  Even before I started free ranging them (which I did around 4 weeks old- another problem I had in the past with free ranging broilers is that by the time they are grown up enough to free range in my opinion, it's time to butcher them) they were healthier.  I started feeding them soaked feed at about 1.5 weeks old, when two turned up with foot issues (one died, the other is the one I mentioned with the deformed foot).  Since I started I have had zero issues.  They eat less food overall, drink less water, their poop is firmer (this will be significant to anyone who is familiar with broiler poo on commercial feed... it's noxious, runny stuff), and they are, well, chickens.  At least they seem marginally less like frankenchickens than past broilers have.

But in all fairness I do have to mention I purchased different strains of broilers this year.  Instead of buying from Hoover (which I will avoid after all the issues I had with last year's batch, and a friend recently told me she lost an ENTIRE batch of 50 from them to the exact same issue since she wasn't able to pinpoint and correct the problem as I did) I got my broilers from MT-DI hatchery.  It's farther away than would be ideal, but the chickens turned out amazing.  I ordered 50 and recieved 52, although one was DOA (looked like it got crushed during shipping).  I split the batch with a friend- she took 25 and I took 26.  She has a lost a few (one to mystery death and one due to mismanagement) and I lost the one.  We process this week and I have to say they look pretty good.

We got a mixture of Rosambro and Red Ranger.  In retrospect I shouldn't have gotten a mix, as they have slightly different grow out times and we process all at once (and by that I mean we take them to get processed...), so the Red Rangers are a little smaller.  But overall I've been extremely happy with all of them.

This isn't to say standard Cornish Cross wouldn't do just as well free ranging.  I've heard many accounts of it from others, all with positive results.

I do have one complaint about this particular mixture of broiler management- because the soaked food is so dang popular and their pen is open the whole day, I have had problems keeping all of the other chickens out of it!

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