January saw the establishment of my Red Wiggler composting worm colony. I have dialed in what makes them unhappy and act like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and what conditions make them all but invisible as they contentedly feed under the bedding. After separating the worms out of their old bedding and castings, my initial goal of raising them for chickens seemed quite misguided. Their wet environment makes them very hard to separate so the only way their production being feasible for chicken feed is by letting the chickens pick the worms themselves. However I am comfortable enough with the worms to scale up my colony (for gardening purposes) and look for a new composting project to feed chickens.
Mealworms are always included in raptor, reptile, fish and amphibian foods so it was not surprising that they are easy to grow. Like the red wigglers, they are content to feast on any carbon organic matter. Unlike worms, they require a very dry environment. That makes them easily separated from bedding and excrement which in turns makes them a viable feed source for chickens. Additionally, their colonies can be built vertically making them very efficient in regards to space.
I somehow stumbled on this amazing and thorough tutorial that knocked the wheels of this project in motion within my head. To summarize the linked tutorial, the author has a vertical colony that occupies about 1.5 square feet, cost her or him $30 to make, and produces 1.5 pounds of meal worms a week.
|Age||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4||Week 5||Week 6||Week 7||Week 8||Week 9||Total # of Bags|
|One Bird||4.2 oz.||9.2 oz.||3.7 oz.||18.8 oz.||26.1 oz.||34.5 oz.||38.5 oz.||42.6 oz.||46.5 oz.||14.63 lbs.|
|25 Birds||6.56 lbs.||14.38 lbs.||21.41 lbs.||29.28 lbs.||40.78 lbs.||53.91 lbs.||60.16 lbs.||66.56 lbs.||72.66 lbs.||7.32 bags|
|50 Birds||13.13 lbs.||28.75 lbs.||42.81 lbs.||58.75 lbs.||81.56 lbs.||107.81 lbs.||120.31 lbs.||133.13 lbs.||145.31 lbs.||14.63 bags|
|100 Birds||26.25 lbs.||57.5 lbs.||85.63 lbs.||117.5 lbs.||163.13 lbs.||215.63 lbs.||240.63 lbs.||266.25 lbs.||290.63 lbs.||29.26 bags|
The above chart is from The Organic Feed Store
For broiler (birds raised for meat), a chick will eat 4.2 oz. of feed a week as a new hatchling and 42.6 oz. of feed in the last week of its life. Chickens need a diet of at least 15% protein for laying hens and 20% for meat birds. Doing the math, a meat bird requires about 1 oz. of protein in its first week and about 10 oz. in its last week.
Protein is the largest expense in chicken feed, and the same holds true for human food! Grains are usually around 10% protein. Even with soybeans added, expensive supplements like animal meal (which I won’t use) or fish meal is required to bring the ration up to the needed protein levels.
Continuing the math, a single meal worm configuration like the one linked above could provide the protein needs of over 25 chicks (not even counting the protein in grains or soybeans). Protein requirements of 2.5 fully adult birds are met by the mealworm colony. The later does not seem very feasible but any reduction in expensive fish meal will be valuable. Keep in mind that any item produced saves the tax rate of the tax deduction in addition to the baseline savings in cost! That is not even including the self-sufficiency of producing animal feed on the farm.
While it would be great to have year round mealworm supplement, my chickens will have adequate access to the bugs of the pasture from spring until fall. Real value in mealworms will likely occur in the winter when the birds require feed exclusively for nutrition. On my farm this would only be laying hens, but the notion still holds true.
Now I only need to run a cost analysis to determine if the cost of feed for the worms (cereal grains mixed with manure or other organic matter) makes the effort worthwhile. Stay tuned!
Note: I have assumed mealworms are 100% protein in the above calculations which I know is not likely the case. All of the calculations above were also done in my head. I will publish a post with accurate data and calculations in the future!