by Myron Horst
When you prepare meals for yourself and those who will be eating with you, do you use your computer to carefully formulate the percentage of protein, calcium, sodium, fiber, available phosphorous, metabolizable energy, vitamin A, C, D, etc, and select the right foods and quantity of each food to fit the nutritional requirements for each person? Unfortunately, for humans we do not know what the optimum amounts or percentages should be for each of those nutrients. When we eat, we focus on what tastes good and what we think is “good for us”. The health care industry basically ignores nutrition and focuses on drugs.
What we eat is very important for our health, strength, and vitality. What we eat has a significant effect on who we are and what we look like. That point was driven home for me this year as we discovered the reason why our broilers had been smaller last year and also the first batch this year. Being a small farm, we do not have a professional poultry nutritionist to carefully formulate our chicken feed. Unfortunately, those who are advising small farmers are basing their advice on the advice of others, who are basing their advice on old research.
What I found is that in the 12 years since we started farming, the poultry industry has been improving the genetics of the broiler chicken each year. They have been shortening the time it takes to grow out a chicken by one day each year. That means that the market weight of a broiler chicken at eight weeks of age 12 years ago can now be reached at a little over six weeks! To achieve proper growth, these chickens need more protein.
I was able to find a broiler manual for the breed of broilers that we raise and discovered that our feed was lower in protein than what was recommended. We got a computer program for formulating our chicken feed and can now accurately adjust our chicken and turkey feeds for the needs of the poultry. We increased the percentage of protein and increased the average size of the broilers by about 1 3/4 pounds.
Going back to the title, I realized that it is possible in raising chickens to “dial-a-size” to a certain extent with — protein! If you want an average of 3 lb chickens, feed them a low protein diet. If you want 7 lb chickens in the same amount of time, feed them a very high protein diet. It is amazing what 3 to 5 percentage points can make on the size of a broiler chicken. Earlier this year, another pastured poultry farmer was having a problem with getting too many 7 lb chickens in eight weeks. She was feeding them an incredible 29% protein the first three weeks (the recommended is 22-25% protein). She was feeding a mixture of something like two scoops of feed and one scoop of fish meal.
Protein is not the only factor in the size and growth of chickens. There are many other challenges for pasture poultry farms – hot weather, cold weather, too wet, too dry, stress from predators, etc. At our first farm, we had to set up “tents” over the feeders that were outside so that the broiler chickens would not be afraid of the huge “birds” (airplanes) that flew over our farm on their way to Dulles Airport.
With the hens, we found that they were getting too much calcium and it was reducing the percentage of protein in their diet. We reduced the calcium and increased the protein slightly. The hens have been laying well and have not dropped off as much in production with the hot weather like they have other summers.
Protein is necessary for new cells to develop and growth to occur. Protein and the growth of chickens is an important object lesson for each of us in understanding the role of protein in human health. It is important that children get the proper protein so that their bodies grow and develop properly. Protein is important when our bodies are repairing from an injury. Protein is important so that the cells in our bodies can be replaced to reduce aging and degeneration and to increase strength and longevity.
We started raising chickens twelve years ago, not because I liked chickens—I had said, “I’ll never raise chickens”—but because God had directed us to raise chickens. A number of years ago, I realized that our farm was a protein farm. Most small farms are vegetable farms, but we don’t sell any vegetables, just protein – eggs, chicken, turkey, and lamb. I thought that having a farm producing protein was interesting, but did not see the significance of it. Now with the example of the chickens, I see the importance of having a protein farm for human health and strength.
Chickens and eggs are an important protein source. Chickens are the best fed farm animal. Because of their short life span and rapid growth, scientists have been able to pinpoint week by week the nutrients that a chicken needs. Our chicken feed is formulated with many vitamins and minerals. Add to that the benefits of pasture-raising chickens and eggs and you get a superb protein source for your dietary needs. So now I know the rest of the story — why we were led to have a protein farm!