TOOL KIT: Feeding Food Scraps to Laying Hens

Systems to feed laying hens food scraps in commercial operations are still evolving. Generally, a farm’s set-up reflects the scale of the operation and the role of food scraps in the feed ration.

Feeding

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Some operators feed their hens exclusively on food scraps, compost, and pasture with mineral supplements, while others offset a portion (5-50%) of their purchased feed with food scraps.  In Vermont, when this practice is occurring with flocks over 40 birds, the food scraps are typically imported from surrounding communities.

Experience from two laying operations where food scraps and compost are 100% of the feed ration suggests that providing 2 pounds of food scraps per day works well.  It appears hens will eat up to 1.5 pounds of food scraps daily, however not all of the food scraps provided will be desirable or edible to the hens.  Therefore, modestly over-budgeting the food scrap amounts is advisable and supports the hens’ ability to fill themselves while using discretion about what they choose to eat.

Sourcing Food Scraps

Typically food scraps are captured from grocers, restaurants, schools and colleges, hospitals, residents (through drop off programs at recycling centers), prisons, corporate and state cafeterias, resorts, food processors, brewers, distillers, and other food-based businesses and institutions.  Collection systems range in scale and mechanization.  Some farms do not haul food scraps and receive loads from commercial or municipal haulers, while others self-collect using methods including small containers (5-32-gal) in the back of a pick up truck, medium size containers (32-48 gal) on a flatbed trailer, or larger containers (48-64 gal) with mechanical systems for tipping containers into a dump trailer or truck.  Where small and medium sized containers are collected and food scraps are transported in the container, operators exchange clean containers (requiring extra containers) for full ones, while operators tipping containers into a truck or trailer carry onboard washing systems and clean containers on-site once they have been tipped.  These systems carry their own water and collect wash water in with the food scraps.

Handling and Feeding Food Scraps

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Handling and feeding food scraps requires good infrastructure and husbandry.  Like other aspects of one’s farm operation, the handling and feeding food scraps system must work reliably and every day.  Therefore the parts of the system need to function under all potential circumstances.  For example, predictable access to the tipping location throughout the year is critical.  Useful features of food scrap feeding infrastructure include:

  • Access Road(s) – Stable road surfaces and plenty of turning radius.
  • Tipping Dock – In most cases the operator will benefit from having an elevated platform for tipping loads into a receiving or feeding bin.
  • Feeding System – This is an organized, contained, and manageable system to feed materials with adequate access for tipping loads, blending materials, and removing contents.  These systems can be mobile or static and can be designed to support feeding food scraps alone or in a compost blend.  A Feeding Bin can be useful in giving hens contained access while providing equipment with a place to blend materials and push walls for easy removal.  Covering the feeding area will increase hen foraging in inclement weather, keep mix drier, and prevent snow from accumulating on the food scraps.
  • Compost Management System – Under most scenarios there will be residual food scraps that the hens don’t eat.  If the food scraps have not already been blended with a carbon material to support composting, the residuals will need to be combined with dry matter and carbon.  Either way this system will result in a combination of uneaten food and other organic materials requiring management.  The operator will need a place sufficiently large and easily accessible to actively manage this composting process.  This can be within or outside of the feeding system.

The primary and obvious difference in handling food scraps as opposed to grain is the moisture content and putridity of the food scraps.  As a result of this high moisture, ‘ready-to-rot’ condition, food scraps have the potential to cause odors, create environmental pollutants, attract rodents, skunks and other unwanted critters, and potentially, create poor animal health conditions.  Additionally, moisture content makes food scraps prone to freezing in cold temperatures, making the food unavailable to hens for eating.

By integrating the feeding of food scraps into a composting strategy the operator can mitigate these concerns, while also gaining other benefits.  The composting process requires blending the food scraps with other organic materials, of which a good portion must be dry carbon material to support active composting.  This requires that the operator secure these other materials proportionately to the amount of food scraps they anticipate handling.  When these materials are blended they create the conditions to support exponential growth in the beneficial microbial population, especially bacteria.  This process mitigates odor creation, leachate, colonization by pathogenic organisms, and produces heat that keeps the materials from freezing. In some cases the feeding pile remains free of snow.  Additionally, there is reason to believe that by culturing microbes in the food scraps we can increase the protein available to the hens and gain other health benefits associated with grazing birds.  In order to support these conditions, the handling system must lend itself to passive pile aeration, blending and rolling, and operator management.

Economic Benefits

As noted earlier, one of the clearest benefits of feeding food scraps to laying hens is reduced feed cost.  The range of savings on feed depends on whether the grain is bulk or retail, conventional or organic.  Another economic benefit is potential new revenue from tipping fees (a fee paid to the farmer by the hauler who delivers the food scraps).  In scenarios where producers receive a tipping fee for accepting food scraps, the operator is able to turn feed from a large cost to a modest income.  In addition, like pastured or organic eggs, there may be a marketing opportunity for eggs produced by a method that uses of a locally available resource – food scraps – instead of imported feed. Additionally, if current and future research reveals nutritional attributes of the eggs similar to pasture raised layers, the health benefits will become a strength in creating additional value.

Labor

The trade off from reduced feed costs with this system is higher and different labor costs. Adequate scale and facility development can reduce labor demands significantly, though initial capital costs will increase.  Mechanizing the tote handling and washing system provides dramatic reductions in labor costs per ton of food scraps handled.  Covered feeding areas with adequate space for managing several weeks of food scraps in one place will reduce snow management and materials movement (food scraps, and especially food scraps blended into a compost mix will reduce in volume over time).

Pathogens

While farmers have been feeding food scraps to laying hens for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the resurgence of this practice for commercial flocks has raised issues about potential pathogen pathways. Current research (scheduled for release in late 2015) has narrowed down that concern, with Salmonella Entridis the pathogen of most concern.  The concern is that s. Entridis could be brought into the laying operation and hen exposure in feed could result in the vertical transmission into eggs.  From the testing already conducted on three farms (including one not following best practices) researchers have not identified elevated levels of pathogens.

To mitigate pathogen concerns, feeding food scraps in a composting system enables the producer to grow out a dynamic bacterial and fungal food web that will prevent bacteria of concern from reaching pathogenic levels (due to resource competition for the most part). While questions remain about how to best manage this integration and optimize pathogen management, adequate literature exists to substantiate the efficacy of composting systems in destroying and managing pathogen colonies.  Since hens are benefiting from this microbial diversity and abundance year round, there may in turn be animal health benefits we do not yet fully understand.

Advancing the Practice

A Northeast Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (NE SARE) grant supported a collaborative research project between Black Dirt Farm (Stannard, VT), Cornell University, University of Connecticut and two participating farms in central and northern Vermont to further assess aspects of this practice as discussed here. (Results available after January 2016)  Further research and documentation is needed to advance this practice, and fully leverage the opportunity presented by State legislation banning discarded food from the landfill.

Text provided by Tom Gilbert, Black Dirt Farm, Stannard, VT, USDA/SARE grant recipient, 2014

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