Organic or Non-Organic Feed: The GMO Debate

There is a lot of discussion these days about GMO (genetically modified organism) grains in our food stream. At our hatchery we sell two types of feed that is milled at a local feed mill. I recently had a question about whether our feeds contained GMO’s and whether we had considered selling organic feed. My answer was:

” I can’t say for sure whether there are GMO grains in the feed or not. Paul (owner of Mule City Feeds) does not have a certified organic feed mill, so my guess is there is a high probability that there are GMO’s in the feed. The only way to be certain there are not GMO’s in the feed is to buy from certified organic mills. To my knowledge, there is only one in the state that is out of Elon. We have considered carrying it, however we are limited in storage space. There is also the cost consideration. Last fall their feed was above $40 per bag. Since they only sell by the ton to distributors, that would tie up more than $1000 of Ben’s (my 16 year old son who owns Little Birdie Hatchery) money in a product that is at risk from going bad. Most of our customers have said that $44 is too much to pay so we made the decision to stick with Mule City.

While not ideal, we feel buying local is a step in the right direction. Paul only buys his gains from local farmers. Most are small land holders. Over 90% of each bag was purchased from a farm that is less than 15 miles from the mill. That means, each bag has only traveled about 60 miles by the time it reaches our store.”

The same person stated in the email that there are dangers associated with eating GMO food. I have heard this from several people recently. I can’t say I am completely informed about the discussion, so I want to invite feedback from you.

Genetic modification is essentially the insertion of new genetic material in the DNA code of an organism. DNA is a complex protein. From my biochemistry days it was taught that for any protein, to be absorbed into the bloodstream, it must be broken down into the amino acid building blocks. As it related to a genetically modified organism, if eaten, the protein is going to be broken down to the base amino acids regardless of the genetic code. That being said, where is the risk?

I ask for your thoughts.

Brooding Questions

We often get questions about raising chicks. Here are answers to some great questions we recently received:

Q- The chicks are in our house with a heat lamp running 24 hours. I’m wondering if we should be turning the light off for a period to give them some darkness… but that won’t keep them above 90 degrees. What do you recommend?
PP- While it would seem natural to have the chicks in darkness for a period of time every day, this is not necessary for their health. The most important factor in raising healthy chicks is to have proper heat. This will require a brooding lamp to be on 24 hours a day. They are like babies in that they will take naps throughout the day. Most chicks will also settle down naturally in the night and sleep through.

Q- How often do we need to replace the food in their feeder? Do they pick out the nutritious bits leaving filler that we should be throwing away?
PP- The food should not need to be replaced unless they are soiling it with droppings or getting it wet with water from the drinker. Most chick feeders are gravity fed, so they will be getting fresh food as they eat whats in the bottom of the feeder. If you are using a trough feeder, remove any pine bedding that they have kicked into it. Then move the remaining feed to one side and add feed to the other side. That way you’re not putting new feed on top of old. I am a big believer in getting the most out of the feed we give. If there is left over feed from the chicks I’ll often give this to the adult birds. (They love the high protein feed.) Of course, if there are a lot of droppings in the feed, then it goes straight to the compost pile.

Q- I think Ben mentioned that your starter feed can be used until they start laying. Can you confirm I heard that right?
PP- Yes, chicks can be given starter feed until they are moved to the layer at 18 weeks of age (or when they start laying). Commercial feeding systems have the birds drop the protein when the chicks reach about 8 weeks of age. This is not nutritionally necessary, but rather to save money. The major cost of feed is in the protein. If you can afford the high protein feed, (not a big deal for a few chicks) then it gives them an edge in growing healthy muscle.

Q- I’m not sure that the brooder we have will hold them until they go outside to their coop. How much space do you recommend for the four chicks?
PP- Four chicks do not need a lot of space for their first 5 weeks. Generally, for 6 or fewer chicks, a large Rubbermaid container or a medium moving box has sufficient size to keep them comfortable until they are ready to move to the coop.

To Vaccinate or Not (for Mareks)

We have recently had several customers report loosing chicks early for no apparent reason. The chicks seem fine upon transfer to the new brooder and even thrive for a day or so. Then, suddenly, one chick develops lethargy and dies 6 to 12 hours later. Given that other chicks in the brooder are doing fine, the temperature is good, etc., etc., it is most likely a vaccine reaction that is killing it.

This experience fuels the debate on whether or not to vaccinate chicks for Mareks. Until the past few years, the backyard enthusiast has not had to worry about the virus that causes Mareks. However, as I’ve reported before, with the popularity of backyard flocks growing, there are more and more flocks for the virus to leapfrog.

My feeling is that I would rather take the risk of loosing a few more chicks by vaccinating and us (as a business) having to replace them young, then have people invest 6 to 12 months in raising a bird only to have it develop paralysis and die a slow, painful death. When people have just a few birds, they invest a whole lot more time and energy (both physical and emotional) in raising them, which makes the loss of one more difficult when they are older.

If you are a backyard chicken owner, I would appreciate your comments on this topic. Your insights may influence what we do with regard to vaccination.

Organic or Engineered

Ordinarily, I restrict my comments to the raising of backyard chickens. After all, I believe that the more each of us does to bring food production closer to home, the better off we will all be. One of the foundations to greener living and the locavore movement is the backyard flock. However, I found the following article very interesting. It is filled with many point, counterpoint arguments between genetic engineering and organic farming. It is always good to get both sides of a story. I’d welcome your comments:

What is the Chicken Poo Telling Us

I have had several questions over the past couple of weeks regarding ill birds whose main diagnostic factor was the condition of their poo. I have found the pictorial guide in the following link very helpful for those trying to make a diagnosis:

One of the chief complaints is blood in the poo. As you’ll see, sometimes it is normal. Sometimes, it is not. It is important to also observe behavior to determine if the bird is showing signs of stress. This can be the differentiating factor between normal blood in the poo and a signal that something else is going on.

When to switch Growing Chicks to Layer Feed

We received a few questions at the hatchery that I thought I’d answer through the blog:


1)    When do we switch from chick starter to layer feed?


The short answer to this is: when your pullets lay the first egg.  There are really two things to consider when switching between feeds.  The first is protein.  The growing chick’s body needs more protein than a layer feed provides.  In the first 6 to 8 weeks of life, chicks grow extremely fast and the demand for protein to build muscle, bone and tissues is critical.  Too little protein early on and your bird will be set up for sub optimal health and productivity throughout its life.  Standard chick starter feeds provide anywhere from 18 to 20% protein.  We prefer to feed growing chicks a higher protein than this, by feeding ours a 23% chick starter.  By week 8, the growth curve of the chick has leveled some from it’s early exponential growth and a lower average protein is ok. A higher protein level is fine, but is not necessary.


One thing to consider in designing a feed for any poultry, protein is where the bulk of the cost comes from.  The higher the protein, the higher the cost.  Most commercial feeds are based on commercial flock demands.  Production birds are being grown by the 10’s of thousands, and 1% of protein added to over 250,000 birds adds up to big money.  Commercial operations are looking for the perfect formula to grow birds to the optimal health for the least cost.  (Optimal here may not mean healthiest.)  A commercial flock, however, has every environmental detail controlled. Birds are in enclosed houses where temperature, humidity, feed consumption, water, air quality, are all closely monitored and controlled. A backyard flock, while more natural, does not have the luxury (if that’s what you call living in those conditions) of a controlled environment. For that reason, my preference is to error on the side of over-providing the chicks nutritional needs.  Higher levels of protein for longer, higher quality vitamins and minerals, etc.


The second consideration for switching a bird to layer feed is the calcium content.  Layer rations have extra calcium added to keep up with the hen’s bodily demands for producing an egg shell every day.  Without supplemental calcium in the diet the hen’s body robs calcium from other areas, particularly the bones, to make the shells.  Over time, the shells become more and more thin and deficient.  Extra calcium in the feed helps prevent this from happening.  A chick’s body is quite different.  Without the pull of calcium from the body into the shell of eggs, the calcium levels in typical layer rations are too high for chicks to handle.  Too much calcium will have detrimental effects on both bone and muscle, and, in fact, can become toxic.


A good rule of thumb when transitioning birds from growing to laying is to make the switch when you get the first egg.  However, I also recommend that at about 18 weeks of age, you put out “free choice” crushed oyster shell.  We simply attach a butter tub to the side of the coop and keep it full of crushed oyster shell.  As the chicks body prepares for the transition to egg laying, it will cause her to seek out extra calcium as she needs it.


2)    As the chicken is switched from starter feed to layer feed, do we need to add grit to the diet?


It depends on what types of food your chickens have access to.  If thier diet is going to be primarily a layer pellet or crumble, and whole grains and other organic material is limited, then no.  Commercial feeds are basically already processed enough to be readily absorbed into the chicken gut.  However, if you are feeding your flock a varied diet, particularly if it contains a reasonable amount of whole grains, then they will need a source of grit.  As a chicken eats, food is stored in a large sack located at the base of the neck called the crop.  This food is then slowly moved into a small muscular pouch called the gizzard.  It is here that food is ground up into a mush that can be absorbed into the blood stream.  If there is a lot of whole grains, or natural graze food, it is helpful if the gizzard has small stones (or grit) in it to help mechanically grind the food.  If your birds have access to free range, you don’t need to provide any grit. They will find everything they need.  If, however, they are confined to a coop and run, and you are providing foods that need mechanical assistance to be ground up, then yes, it is a good idea to provide grit.  This would be like crushed oyster shell (which is often used by the bird as grit) in that you would want to provide it as free choice.

The First Week of a Chicks Life is the Most Important for Nutrition

This is one of the most informative articles I’ve read on chick nutrition, particularly in the early days.

It has all kinds of implications for the backyard flock. Bottom line is that you do not want to pick the cheapest feed. And there is no reason to not allow your chicks to do a little foraging, with your supervision, of course.

Blog Talk Radio Program

I found this Blog Talk Radio program to be quite informative:

So…From Where IS Our Food Coming?

After church this morning, I stopped at Starbucks to get a coffee and a snack for the ride home.  One of the new menu items was a chicken sausage wrap with cage free egg whites.  I thought, hummm, that sounds good and wholesome.  I’ll try one.  Well, as I was munching through this delicious treat, I was surprised to see some paper stuck to the side of the wrap.  I pulled the car over to inspect closer.  My surprise turned to shock, for the paper was baked into the bread and on it were Chinese charterers:


I have no idea what the paper is for.  My guess is that it had nothing to do with the wrap itself, or even of Starbucks.  However, the Chinese characters on the paper could only mean one thing.  At least part of this wrap (the bread part) or the entire thing originated in China.  It was part of the bread.  It was not stuck there after the fact.  Now, perhaps somewhere in America, there is a factory that is turning out Chicken Sausage Wraps for consumption in America and for possible export to the Chinese market.  However, I find this scenario unlikely.

Since the recession began, I have been much more vigilant in looking for the “Made In…” tag on the items I buy.  You go to Wal-Mart and you can hardly find a product that wasn’t made in China.  But, I must say, I never even considered the possibility that American companies would outsource the production of our food to China.  Seriously, our food?  China has cheap products for several reasons, one of which is minimal government control and oversight.  How many things have been recalled in the US because of poor quality control in China.  Does anyone remember lead paint on toys?

I realize that we live in a truly global economy.  Our food comes from all over the world.  A lot of our fresh fruit and vegetables are grown out of country, particularly during the winter. But at least most of the imported food is whole foods.  Grains, whole fruits, whole vegetables, etc.  But there are certain things I expect to be grown in America.  Most of my meat. My milk. My eggs.

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I should expect my chicken wrap to be assembled in China and shipped across the Pacific, fresh to my table.  If I thought locally sourced food was a good idea before, I am more committed to it now.  I have already expanded my garden this year.  I have already expanded my flock.  I even grew a flock of broilers last year to put fresh chicken in the freezer. I now plan to double that flock this year.  Food from my garden, I know what went into the soil. Chickens and eggs from my backyard, I know what went into their mouths.  And therefor, I am much more certain of what is going into mine.

A century ago, a backyard flock made perfect sense.  And back then, almost all of our food was locally produced.  Today, who knows where food is coming from, or where it is going.  I can’t think of a better reason or time to get closer to the source of our own food by starting our own flock in every yard.  Let me know what you think…

Poultry Professor




Mareks Disease in Wake Forest?

Last week we had a former customer call us about a chicken in their flock that had
developed paralysis of a wing and was starting to struggle walking. My recommendation to
him was to take her to the state lab to have an analysis done. (We are in North Carolina.
Our state provides a valuable service in allowing anyone to bring up to 6 birds to be
autopsied and full lab panels done to help identify mysterious illness for a mere $30.)

Anytime a bird dies in your flock and you are unsure what has caused the death, it gives
great piece of mind to know what has caused the loss. If there is disease being passed, it
can be invaluable to saving the rest of your flock.

Well, our state lab confirmed my suspicions that our customer’s bird did in fact have Mareks.
Two things made this a surprising discovery. First, it is believed that Mareks is still a
relatively rare condition, particularly in small backyard flocks. Second, Since they bought
their flock from our hatchery, Little Birdie Hatchery, we know that his birds were vaccinated
for Mareks.

This to me, confirms our program of vaccinating all birds. Even though vaccination is not
100% effective (as this experience confirms,) because his flock is vaccinated, the other birds
in his flock will likely not be affected. Had they not been vaccinated, it is possible he would
have lost a significant portion of his flock.

It also confirms that with the growing popularity of backyard flocks, the likelihood of your
flock being exposed is becoming greater. According to the Merck Manual of Veterinary
Medicine, the virus for Mareks can travel up to 20 miles in the air. When backyard flocks
were a rare thing, outbreaks were easily confined. Not so anymore. There is hardly a place
in North Carolina where there is not at least one flock within every 20 mile radius of the

This opens the debate on vaccination programs for small hatcheries. At our hatchery, most
of the birds we sell are purchased from larger hatcheries as sexed pullets. Large hatcheries
have the economy of scale to offer this service most often for as little as .25 cents per bird.
For the small hatcheries however, it is not economically feasible. The smallest size that the
vaccine is available in is a 1000 dose vial. This must be shipped refrigerated, which adds
significantly to the cost. Also, once mixed, it is viable to only about 1 day. For a hatchery
like ours, which hatches no more than 100 birds in a week, it is just not feasible.

Now, am I saying you should only buy chicks from a source that can vaccinate? Absolutely
not. Even given the growing popularity of backyard flocks, the chance of seeing a bird
infected is still relatively small. Plus, even if your flock is exposed, not every bird will
become symptomatic. Even vaccinated birds can become symptomatic. But, if you have a
choice, the added protection is worth it.

Hopefully, in the next few years, suppliers of the vaccine will start selling in smaller dose
options. Until then, just be aware of the symptoms, and be prepared to cull if you see them
in one of your flock.