Sunday, April 29, 2012

To Forage or Not to Forage?

I’m no stranger to chickens. Twenty-one years ago my family moved from a residential area of Richmond to 8.5 acres in South Langley. In short order, we had a dozen adorable chicks. Those first chicks were Barred Rocks but my mother didn’t stop there. She just kept adding to the flock. Barred Rocks rubbed shoulders with Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Buff Orpingtons and Araucanas.

Even though these breeds vary greatly in appearance and temperament, they all had one thing in common: character. They’d scratch and peck, chase bugs around the yard and generally act like life was one great party. These birds were efficient foragers and loved rustling up their own grub. I loved watching them and, during my childhood, spent many happy hours observing all the barnyard drama.

Alas, my chickens are boring. Watching them for more than a few minutes is kind of like watching paint dry or grass grow. Like I said before, they eat, they sleep, they poop. Once in a while, one will stretch, which is kind of cute. Every day, I pick them some fresh greens to help them develop their foraging skills.  The other day there was a live worm on the root of the dandelion I picked. I thought “Oh, great! Some extra protein!” and tossed it in. The chickens looked at the worm. They cocked their little heads, scrutinized it intensely and then wandered over to eat out of their feeder. That worm will live to tunnel another day (I put it back outside when it became apparent that the chickens weren’t interested) because my birds are more interested in an easy meal.

To be fair, these birds aren’t designed to be foragers. They’re programmed to laze around and pack on the pounds. Pasture-raised dual-purpose birds (used for both meat and eggs) and laying hens can get up to 70% of their daily calorie intake from foraging. Our birds are Cobb700s, a variety of Cornish-cross, which, according to the website, promises the highest meat yield, best breast meat yield and unbeatable efficiency and cost (more on Cornish-cross vs dual-purpose birds in another post). In short, they’re eating machines, turning all that grain into edible flesh in only eight weeks. My books tell me to expect only about 20% of their calorie intake to come from foraging. If there’s an easier meal, these guys will take it.

My mom currently has some chicks in her kitchen (don’t ask) that are about the same age and if I toss something into their pen they’re on it like sharks, tearing greens apart with their sharp little claws and devouring whatever they can fit down their gullets. The contrast is startling and seeing it makes me realize that I’m going to have to get a few laying hens if I want to enjoy the birds funny, quirky personalities. Layers are probably a good plan, since getting attached to the animals you intend to eat is never a good idea! 

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