Feeding chickens meat and food scraps. Sustainable, safe choice?

This week I went to the movies, my neighbors went to baseball spring training and I received my Mother Earth News magazine. And while these three events may not seem related, I felt that the planets have aligned.

Early this week I went to the movies and due to being conditioned by my neighbors, after the movie, I went to the seats adjacent to mine and picked up the equivalent of two bags of popcorn. I had never done this before. It was free, it was food waste, and it was perfectly edible…for a pet chicken.

My neighbors competed with the custodians this week, after they attended spring training, as they picked up a garbage bag amount of popcorn and several bags of uneaten peanuts for their chickens and neighborhood squirrels.

Pat Foreman, a sustainable agriculture author, local foods activist and chicken guru, says that we have enough scraps in America to feed all the egg layers we need to provide all the eggs we currently use. This statistic is more shameful, than informative. We need to change our attitudes and our behaviors when it comes to food waste. How cool though would it be to have a zero-waste system?

In a school system that I know very well, students are required to take an entree, an iceberg salad and fruit cup. This is suppose to balance their nutrition at lunch. What happens all too often, is that they eat the heavy carbohydrate entree, some of the sugary fruit cup and throw away the unused salad with its plastic bowl. This behavior disgusts me greatly, threefold.

First there is the non-green salad offering. This could be replaced with bright pink peppermint Swiss chard and scaly dinosaur kale. How cool would it be for a kid to chomp down on a salad that reminds them of a dino? Second, the food waste and third the plastic garbage waste is distressing. I have asked many of the students to donate the salads to my chickens, ducks and bearded dragon. And while a half dozen or so, enjoy feeding the animals, their hundreds of peers at the school and hundreds and thousands of peers across the country are too busy with their phones to care. They pick up the food, that was farmed, harvested, and transported over hundreds of miles, to only throw it away at the end of the line.

Can you imagine standing in line to pay for something that you are going to throw away five feet after check out?

In the April / May issue of Mother Earth Joel Salatin shared how chickens, who are omnivores, can be helping Americans with their food scraps.  Three years ago I wrote an article for Backyard Poultry titled, “What NOT to Feed Your Flock of Poultry.” And while I mentioned treats to avoid such as chocolate, candy and spoiled food, I didn’t write a lot about what treats to include. And as a vegetarian I didn’t think about mentioning fresh meat and viscera protein.

In this Howard Hughes Medical Institute video, scientists discuss the origin of birds, by showcasing the similarities modern day birds and small carnivorous dinosaurs share. Chickens and T-rex for example have nearly identical vertebrae, feet anatomy and both have a wishbone.

In addition to comparative anatomy, think about chicken behavior. Watch as this cat is outdone by a chicken!

Protein is a welcome treat for backyard chickens. I’ve witnessed our neighbor’s chicken also chase down a mouse and a snake for an afternoon treat. And chickens love to eat bugs. Salatin, in the article, says that old-timers back in the day would shoot and trap vermin such as skunk, squirrel, rabbit, possum and raccoon and offer the remains to their chickens.

As a vegetarian – I am not opposed to this idea. I understand the need for protein, especially in egg-laying chickens. I also understand that if the remains were not offered to the chickens, that part of the animal would be wasted. In a cold winter this would be welcomed by the protein-starved flock. Today we can easily go to the local feed store and buy protein rich formulated chicken food. But where are those protein sources coming from? Factory farms?

Looking at my museum-quality replica of an Archaeopteryx skull, I am reminded that birds are descended from toothed carnivorous dinosaurs.

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When I read that Salatin offers roadkill and deer carcass, after he has harvested the meat for himself, to his flock in the winter, I am not upset or surprised. He says that they enjoy the choice and I believe it.

In my article I wrote, “The act of tearing, scratching, and pecking at novel food provides poultry enrichment they may otherwise not get.”

But is it safe? Salatin writes that like all animals, chickens have an innate sense of what they need to stay healthy and will seek out what is necessary. If you are eating their eggs, the hen is the biological buffer between the scraps and what you consume, so the author argues that you should have peace of mind that your not going to catch some fatal epidemic disease.

So am I going to feed my flock carcasses – no. And it’s mostly due to the fact that I do not encounter or experience meat waste as a vegetarian. But if you raise chickens, and you have extra meat that is going to waste, I encourage you to offer it to your flock.

What I will start doing is offering more food scraps to my backyard poultry. It is good for the environment, the birds, and my wallet.

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Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA, is a pet and garden columnist. He shares his one-acre homestead with a flock of ducks and chickens. Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more about gardening and poultry as pets.

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