Poultry Nutrition

The following article was taken from:

Poultry: A Practical Guide to the Choice, Breeding, Rearing, and Management of all Descriptions of Fowls, Turkeys, Guinea-fowls, Ducks, and Geese, for Profit and Exhibition.

Author: Hugh Piper

Publication Date: 1872

With the introduction of commercial grade feed a lot of these lessons from the past are falling to the wayside. During a long term SHTF situation, this type of information will probably come in handy.

Protein, one great secret of profitable poultry-keeping is, that hens cannot thrive and lay without a considerable quantity of protein, and therefore if they cannot obtain a sufficient quantity in the form of insects, it must be supplied in meat, which, minced small, should be given daily and also to all fowls in winter, as insects are then not to be had.

Mr. Baily says: “Do not give fowls meat, but always have the bones thrown out to them after dinner; they enjoy picking them, and perform the operation perfectly. Do not feed on raw meat; it makes fowls quarrelsome, and gives them a propensity to peck each other, especially in moulting time if the accustomed meat be withheld.” Take care that long pieces of membrane, or thick skin, tough gristle or sinew, or pieces of bone, are not left sticking to the meat, or it may choke them, or form a lodgment in the crop.

Barley is more generally used than any other grain, and, reckoned by weight, is cheaper than wheat or oats; but, unless in the form of meal, should not be the only grain given, for fowls do not fatten upon it, as, though possessing a very fair proportion of flesh-forming substances, it contains a lesser amount of fatty matters than other varieties of corn.

In Surrey barley is the usual grain given, excepting during the time of incubation, when the sitting hens have oats, as being less heating to the system than the former. Barley-meal contains the same component parts as the whole grain, being ground with the husk, but only inferior barley is made into meal.

Wheat of the best description is dearer than barley, both by weight and measure, and possesses but about one-twelfth part more flesh-forming material, but it is fortunate that the small cheap wheat is the best for poultry, for Professor Johnston says, “the small or tail corn which the farmer separates before bringing his grain to market is richer in gluten (flesh-forming food) than the full-grown grain, and is therefore more nutritious.” The “Henwife” finds “light wheats or tailings the best grain for daily use, and next to that barley.”

Oats are dearer than barley by weight. The heaviest should be bought, as they contain very little more husk than the lightest, and are therefore cheaper in proportion. Oats and oatmeal contain much more flesh-forming material than any other kind of grain, and double the amount of fatty material than wheat, and three times as much as barley. Mowbray says oats are apt to cause scouring, and chickens become tired of them; but they are recommended by many for promoting laying, and in Kent, Sussex, and Surrey for fattening. Fowls frequently refuse the lighter samples of oats, but if soaked in water for a few hours so as to swell the kernel, they will not refuse them. The meal contains more flesh-forming material than the whole grain.

The meal of wheat and barley are much the same as the whole grain, but oatmeal is drier and separated from a large portion of the husk, which makes it too dear except for fattening fowls and feeding the youngest chickens, for which it is the very best food. Fine “middlings,” also termed “sharps” and “thirds,” and in London coarse country flour, are much like oatmeal, but cheaper than the best, and may be cheaply and advantageously employed instead of oatmeal, or mixed with boiled or steamed small potatoes or roots.

Many writers recommend refuse corn for fowls, and the greater number of poultry-keepers on a small scale perhaps think such light common grain the cheapest food; but this is a great mistake, as, though young fowls may be fed on offal and refuse, it is the best economy to give the older birds the finest kind of grain, both for fattening and laying, and even the young fowls should be fed upon the best if fine birds for breeding or exhibition are desired. “Instead of giving ordinary or tail corn to my fattening or breeding poultry,” says Mowbray, “I have always found it most advantageous to allow the heaviest and the best; thus putting the confined fowls on a level with those at the barn-door, where they are sure to get their share of the weightiest and finest corn. This high feeding shows itself not only in the size and flesh of the fowls, but in the size, weight, and substantial goodness of their eggs, which, in these valuable particulars, will prove far superior to the eggs of fowls fed upon ordinary corn or washy potatoes; two eggs of the former going further in domestic use than three of the latter.” “Sweepings” sometimes contain poisonous or hurtful substances, and are always dearer, weight for weight, than sound grain.

Some poultry-keepers recommend that the grain should be boiled, which makes it swell greatly, and consequently fills the fowl’s crop with a smaller quantity, and the bird is satisfied with less than if dry grain be given; but others say that the fowls derive more nutriment from the same quantity of grain unboiled. Indeed, it seems evident that a portion of the nutriment must pass into the water, and also evaporate in steam.

The fowl’s gizzard being a powerful grinding mill, evidently designed by Providence for the purpose of crushing the grain into meal, it is clear that whole grain is the natural diet of fowls, and that softer kinds of food are chiefly to be used for the first or morning meal for fowls confined in houses , and for those being fattened artificially in coops, where it is desired to help the fowl’s digestive powers, and to convert the food into flesh as quickly as possible.

Indian corn or maize, either whole or in meal, must not be given in too great a proportion, as it is very fattening from the large quantity of oil it contains; but mixed with barley or barley-meal, it is a most economical and useful food. It is useful for a change, but is not a good food by itself. It may be given once or twice a week, especially in the winter, with advantage. From its size small birds cannot eat it and rob the fowls. Whether whole or in meal, the maize should be scalded, that the swelling may be done before it is eaten. The yellow-coloured maize is not so good as that which is reddish or rather reddish-brown.

Buckwheat is about equal to barley in flesh-forming food, and is very much used on the Continent. Mr. Wright has “a strong opinion that the enormous production of eggs and fowls in France is to some extent connected with the almost universal use of buckwheat by French poultry-keepers.” It is not often to be had cheap in this country, but is hardy and may be grown anywhere at little cost. Mr. Edwards says, he “obtained (without manure) forty bushels to the acre, on very poor sandy soil, that would not have produced eighteen bushels of oats. The seed is angular in form, not unlike hempseed; and is stimulating, from the quantity of spirit it contains.”

Peas, beans, and tares contain an extraordinary quantity of flesh-forming material, and very little of fat-forming, but are too stimulating for general use, and would harden the muscular fibres and give too great firmness of flesh to fowls that are being fattened, but where tares are at a low price, or peas or beans plentiful, stock fowls may be advantageously fed upon any of these, and they may be given occasionally to fowls that are being fattened. It is better to give them boiled than in a raw state, especially if they are hard and dry, and the beans in particular may be too large for the fowls to swallow comfortably. Near Geneva fowls are fed chiefly upon tares. Poultry reject the wild tares of which pigeons are so fond.

Rice is not a cheap food. When boiled it absorbs a great quantity of water and forms a large substance, but, of course, only contains the original quantity of grain which is of inferior value, especially for growing chickens, as it consists almost entirely of starch, and does not contain quite half the amount of flesh-forming materials as oats. When broken or slightly damaged it may be had much cheaper, and will do as well as the finest. Boil it for half an hour in skim-milk or water, and then let it stand in the water till cold, when it will have swollen
greatly, and be so firm that it can be taken out in lumps, and easily broken into pieces. In addition to its strengthening and fattening qualities rice is considered to improve the delicacy of the flesh. Fowls are especially fond of it at first, but soon grow tired of this food. If mixed with less cloying food, such as bran, they would probably continue to relish it.

Hempseed is most strengthening during moulting time, and should then be given freely, especially in cold localities.

Linseed steeped is occasionally given, chiefly to birds intended for exhibition, to increase the secretion of oil, and give lustre to their plumage.

Potatoes, from the large quantity of starch they contain, are not good unmixed, as regular food, but mixed with bran or meal are most conducive to good condition and laying. They contain a great proportion of nutriment, comparatively to their bulk and price; and may be advantageously and profitably given where the number of eggs produced is of more consequence than their flavour or goodness. A good morning meal of soft food for a few fowls may be provided daily almost for nothing by boiling the potato peelings till soft, and mashing them up with enough bran, slightly scalded, to make a tolerably stiff dry paste. The peelings will supply as many fowls as there are persons at the dinner table. A little salt should always be added, and in winter a slight sprinkling of pepper is good.

“It is indispensable,” says Mr. Dickson, “to give the potatoes to fowls not only in a boiled state, but hot; not so hot, however, as to burn their mouths, as they are stupid enough to do if permitted. They dislike cold potatoes, and will not eat them willingly. It is likewise requisite to break all the potatoes a little, for they will not unfrequently leave a potato when thrown down unbroken, taking it, probably, for a stone, since the moment the skin is broken and the white of the interior is brought into view, they fall upon it greedily. When pieces of raw potatoes are accidentally in their way, fowls will sometimes eat them, though they are not fond of these, and it is doubtful whether they are not injurious.”

Mangold-wurtzel, swedes, or other turnips, boiled with a very small quantity of water, until quite soft, and then thickened with the very best middlings or meal, is the very best soft food, especially for Dorkings.

Soft food should always be mixed rather dry and friable, and not porridgy, for they do not like sticky food, which clings round their beaks and annoys them, besides often causing diarrhoea. There should never be enough water in food to cause it to glisten in the light. If the soft food is mixed boiling hot at night and put in the oven, or covered with a cloth, it will be warm in the morning, in which state it should always be given in cold weather.

Fowls have their likes and dislikes as well as human beings, some preferring one kind of grain to all others, which grain is again disliked by other fowls. They also grow tired of the same food, and will thrive all the better for having as much variety of diet as possible, some little change in the food being made every few days. Fowls should not be forced or pressed to take food to which they show a dislike. It is most important to give them chiefly that which they like best, as it is a rule, with but few exceptions, that what is eaten with most relish agrees best and is most easily digested; but care must be taken not to give too much, for one sort of grain being more pleasing to their palate than another, induces them to eat gluttonously more than is necessary or

M. RĂ©aumur made many careful experiments upon the feeding of fowls, and among them found that they were much more easily satisfied than might be supposed from the greedy voracity which they exhibit when they are fed, and that the sorts of food most easily digested by them are those of which they eat the greatest quantity.

No definite scale can be given for the quantity of food which fowls require, as it must necessarily vary with the different breeds, sizes, ages, condition, and health of the fowls; and with the seasons of the year, and the temperature of the season, much more food being necessary to keep up the proper degree of animal heat in winter than in summer; and the amount of seeds, insects, vegetables, and other food that they may pick up in a run of more or less extent. Over-feeding, whether by excess of quantity or excess of stimulating constituents, is the cause of the most general diseases, the greater proportion of these diseases, and of most of the deaths from natural causes among fowls.

When fowls are neither laying well nor moulting, they should not be fed very abundantly; for in such a state over-feeding, especially with rich food, may cause them to accumulate too much fat. A fat hen ceases to lay, or nearly, while an over-fed cock becomes lazy and useless, and may die of apoplexy.

But half-fed fowls never pay whether kept for the table or to produce eggs. A fowl cannot get fat or make an egg a day upon little or poor food. A hen producing eggs will eat nearly twice as much food as at another time. In cold weather give plenty of dry bread soaked in ale.

Poultry prefer to pick their food off the ground. “No plan,” says Mr. Baily, “is so extravagant or so injurious as to throw down heaps once or twice per day. They should have it scattered as far and wide as possible, that the birds may be long and healthily employed in finding it, and may not accomplish in a few minutes that which should occupy them for hours. For this reason every sort of feeder or hopper is bad. It is the nature of fowls to take a grain at a time, and to pick grass and dirt with it, which assist digestion. They should feed as pheasants, partridges, grouse, and other game do in a state of nature; if, contrary to this, they are enabled to eat corn by mouthfuls, their crops are soon overfilled, and they seek relief in excessive draughts of water. Nothing is more injurious than this, and the inactivity that attends the discomfort caused by it lays the foundation of many disorders.

The advantage of scattering the food is, that all then get their share; while if it is thrown only on a small space the master birds get the greater part, while the others wait around. In most
poultry-yards more than half the food is wasted; the same quantity is thrown down day after day, without reference to time of year, alteration of numbers, or variation of appetite, and that which is not eaten is trodden about, or taken by small birds. Many a poultry-yard is coated with corn and meal.”

If two fowls will not run after one piece, they do not want it. If a trough is used, the best kind is the simplest, being merely a long, open one, shaped like that used for pigs, but on a smaller scale. It should be placed about a foot from one of the sides of the yard, behind some round rails driven into the ground three inches apart, so that the fowls cannot get into the troughs, so as to upset them, or tread in or otherwise dirty the food. The rails should be all of the same height, and a slanting board be fixed over the trough.

Some persons give but one meal a day, and that generally in the morning; this is false economy, for the whole of the nutriment contained in the one meal is absorbed in keeping up the animal heat, and there is no material for producing eggs. “The number of meals per day,” says Mr. Wright, “best consistent with real economy will vary from two to three, according to the size of the run. If it be of moderate extent, so that they can in any degree forage for themselves, two are quite sufficient, at least in summer, and should be given early in the morning and the last thing before the birds go to roost. In any case, these will be the principal meals; but when the fowls are kept in confinement they will require, in addition, a scanty feed at mid-day. The first feeding should
consist of soft food of some kind.

The birds have passed a whole night since they were last fed; and it is important, especially in cold weather, that a fresh supply should as soon as possible be got into the system, and not merely into the crop. But if grain be given, it has to be ground in the poor bird’s gizzard before it can be digested, and on a cold winter’s morning the delay is anything but beneficial. But, for the
very same reason, at the evening meal grain forms the best food which can be supplied; it is digested slowly, and during the long cold nights affords support and warmth to the fowls.”

They should be fed at regular hours, and will then soon become accustomed to them, and not loiter about the house or kitchen door all day long, expecting food, which they will do if fed irregularly or too often, and neglect to forage about for themselves, and thus cost more for food.

Grass is of the greatest value for all kinds of poultry, and where they have no paddock, or grass-plot, fresh vegetables must be given them daily, as green food is essential to the health of all poultry, even of the very youngest chickens. Cabbage and lettuce leaves, spinach, endive, turnip-tops, turnips cut into small pieces and scattered like grain, or cut in two, radish-leaves, or any refuse, but not stale vegetables will do; but the best thing is a large sod of fresh-cut turf.

They are partial to all the mild succulent weeds, such as chickweed and Chenopodium, or fat-hen, and eat the leaves of most trees and shrubs, even those of evergreens; but they reject the leaves of strawberries, celery, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, onions, and leeks. The supply of green food may be unlimited, but poultry should never be entirely fed on raw greens. Cabbage and spinach are still more relaxing when boiled than raw. They are very fond of the fruit of the mulberry and cherry trees, and will enjoy any that falls, and prevent it from being wasted.

Insect food is important to fowls, and essential for chickens and laying hens. “There is no sort of insect, perhaps,” says Mr. Dickson, “which fowls will not eat. They are exceedingly fond of flies, beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets, but more particularly of every sort of grub, caterpillar, and maggot, with the remarkable exception of the caterpillar moth of the magpie (Abraxas Grossularia), which no bird will touch.”

M. RĂ©aumur mentions the circumstance of a quantity of wheat stored in a corn-loft being much infected with the caterpillars of the small corn-moth, which spins a web and unites several grains together. A young lady devised the plan of taking some chickens to the loft to feed on the caterpillars, of which they were so fond that in a few days they devoured them all, without touching a single grain of the corn.

Mr. Dickson observes, that “biscuit-dust from ships’ stores, which consists of biscuit mouldered into meal, mixed with fragments still unbroken, would be an excellent food for poultry, if soaked in boiling water and given them hot. It is thus used for feeding pigs near the larger seaports, where it can sometimes be had in considerable quantity, and at a very reasonable price. It will be no detriment to this material if it be full of weevils and their grubs, of which fowls are fonder than of the biscuit itself.”

Earthworms, there is not any food of which poultry generally are so fond as of earthworms; but all fowls are not equally fond of them, and some will not touch them. They will not eat dead worms. Too many ought not to be given, or they will become too fat and cease laying. When fowls are intended for the table worms should not be given, as they are said always more or less to deteriorate the flavour of the flesh. A good supply may easily be obtained.

By stamping hard upon the ground, as anglers do, worms will rise to the surface; but a better method is to thrust a strong stake or a three-pronged potato-fork into the ground, to the depth of a foot or so, and jerk it backwards and forwards, so as to shake the soil all around. By going out with a light at night in calm, mild weather, particularly when there is dew, or after rain, a cautious observer will see large numbers of worms lying on the ground, gravel-walks, grass-plots or pastures; but they are easily frightened into their holes, though with caution and dexterity a great number, and those chiefly of the largest size, may be captured.

Mr. Dickson advises that cottagers’ children should be employed to imitate the example of the rooks, by following the plough or the digger, and collecting the worms which are disclosed to view; and also to collect cock-chafers, “and, what would be more advantageous, they might be set to collect the grubs of this destructive insect after the plough, and thus, while providing a rich banquet for the poultry, they would be clearing the
fields of a most destructive insect.”

Snails, fowls are very fond of shell snails. They are still more fattening than worms, and therefore too many must not be given when laying, but they do not injure the flavour of the flesh. Some will eat slugs, but they are not generally fond of these, and many fowls will not touch them.

Pieces of suet or fat,” says Mr. Dickson, “are liked by fowls better than any other sort of animal food; but, if supplied in any quantity, will soon render them too fat for continuing to lay. Should there be any quantity of fat to dispose of, it ought, therefore, to be given at intervals, and mixed or accompanied with bran, which will serve to fill their crops without producing too much nutriment.” It is a good plan when there are plenty of bones and scraps of meat to boil them well, and mix bran or pollard with the liquor before giving them to the fowls, as it makes the meat easier to mince, and extracts nourishment from the bones. When minced-meat is required for a large number of fowls, a mincing or sausage machine will save much time and prepare the meat better than chopping.

Fish, fowl are as fond of fish, whether salted or fresh, as of flesh. Crumbs, fragments of pastry, and all the refuse and slops of the kitchen may be given them. Greaves, so much advertised for fowls, are very bad, rapidly throwing them out of condition, causing their feathers to fall off, spoiling the flavour of the flesh; they cause premature decrepitude, and engender many diseases, the most common being dropsy of an incurable character.

Where there is no danger from thieves, foxes, or other vermin, and the run is extensive, it is the best plan to leave the small door of the fowl-house open, and the fowls will go out at daybreak and pick up many an “early worm” and insect. The morning meal may be given when the household has risen.

Water, a constant supply of fresh clean water is indispensable. Fountains are preferable to open vessels, in which the fowls are apt to void their dung, and the chickens to dabble and catch cold, often causing roup, cramp, &c. The simplest kind of water vessel is a saucer made of red pottery, containing several circular, concentric troughs, each about an inch wide, and of the same depth. Chickens cannot get drowned in these shallow vessels, but unless placed behind rails the water will be dirtied by the fowls. They are sold at all earthenware shops, and are used for forcing early mustard in. A capital fountain may be made with an earthenware jar or flower-pot and a flower-pot saucer. Bore a small hole in the jar or flower-pot an inch and a half from the edge of the rim, or detach a piece about three-quarters of an inch deep and one inch wide, from the rim, and if a flower-pot is used plug the hole in the bottom airtight with a piece of cork; fill the vessel with water, place the saucer bottom upwards on the top, press it closely, and quickly turn both upside down, when the water will flow into the saucer, filling up the space between it and the vessel up to the same height as the hole in the side of the jar or flower-pot, therefore the hole in the side of the rim of the vessel must not be quite so deep as the height of the side of the saucer; and above all the plug in the flower-pot must be airtight.

This fountain is cheap, simple, and easily cleaned. Water may also be kept in troughs, or earthenware pans, placed in the same way. The fountains and pans should be washed and filled with fresh water once every day, and oftener in warm weather; and they should occasionally be scoured with sand to remove the green slime which collects on the surface, and produces roup, gapes, and other diseases. In winter the vessels should always be emptied at night, in order to avoid ice from forming in them, which is troublesome to remove, and snow must never be allowed to fall into them, snow-water being most injurious to poultry.