Chicken feed has been a problem lately. When I first got chickens, I bought regular commercial feed from the feed store where I bought the chickens — they carry the Nutrena brand (which is Cargill) and Purina. Regular layer feed runs about $16 for a 50lb sack, and scratch is about the same.
Then a new feed store opened in town, and they carried a local organic feed and scratch milled just north of here in Fort Benton called Big Sky Feeds. This is a photo of their scratch mix — and here’s the label:
— wheat, sunflower seeds and flax (although there seems to be some corn in there too, but that’s probably because I poured the dregs of the regular feed into the scratch when I ran out of feed).
Here’s what their mash looks like — what I like about this stuff isn’t necessarily that it’s organic, although that’s nice, but it’s that it looks like actual food. The label for this one looks like this: One reason I went into something of a tailspin about chicken feed last week, is because this company actually tells you what the ingredients are. You can’t find a list of actual ingredients on the commercial feed bags — you can find the “Guaranteed Analysis” but not what’s actually in the stuff.
Where the “lifestyle” part comes in is in the cost differential. “Lifestyle chickens” is the term my Sweetheart uses when I try to argue that backyard chickens are cost effective. That’s when the Man-with-no-affinity-for-livestock points out that you can buy ranch eggs for about three bucks a dozen all over town. Backyard chickens, he argues, with some validity have become a sort of status symbol, a marker of lifestyle. Since one of my other gigs is reviewing cooking and sustainability books for Bookslut, I’ve also got two or three years worth of evidence on that front in the form of various guides to urban and suburban homesteading (a term which alone is a sort of marker of class. Drive around Montana and you can see what homesteads actually were — dry, barren chunks of 120 acres where people, mostly unsucessfully, attempted to eke out a living). Most of these glossy books, filled with illustrations of largely white, largely professional folks seem as concerned with the aesthetics of one’s backyard setup as they are with the practical issues. I won’t even go into the holier-and-more-organic-than-thou tone of a couple of recent books, because they just pissed me off and what’s the point of giving them more publicity?
This all came to a head for me last week when I ran out of chicken feed and discovered my local feed store had as well. The girl here told me she thought the feed stores in Bozeman carried the Big Sky Feed, and when I wound up at the fancy feed store over there, I found myself buying a 28 dollar bag of organic crumbles. As I drove away, I thought “I can’t spend $28 on chicken feed!?!” so I went to the nearby regular feed store to see what they had. They only had the regular Nutrena and Purina feeds, which don’t actually list what’s in them (nor can you find a list of ingredients on their websites). I knew I had some scratch left, and that my local feed store had the good feed on order, and although I felt ridiculous and precious about it, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the processed commercial feed. So I get back in the car feeling pissed off and ridiculous and like some character from Portlandia with my first-world, organic chicken feed problems. I decide to return the too-expensive bag of feed, because although it’s organic, it’s just as processed as the non-organic ones, and what I really like about the Big Sky stuff is that it’s just grains. You can see what’s in it. I figure that I’ve got enough scratch to get through the week, and if the Big Sky stuff doesn’t come in, I’ll just buy the regular feed from my local feed store (which is Payback, another commercial brand).
So the long and the short of it is, that by the time I’d convinced myself that I was being precious, and that I was spending far too much money on chicken feed, the good chicken feed came back in, and I wound up spending $23 bucks on feed, and $22 bucks on scratch. Not really much less expensive than the $28 dollar bag that sent me into a tailspin, and, as someone I live with has pointed out, not any kind of economy. Especially with only 5 chickens in the yard, which really does put me smack in the middle of the least economical end of the spectrum. I’m not getting enough eggs to make selling them worthwhile, and yet, I’m getting more than Himself and I can eat. I’ve been waiting until I have about 4 dozen in the fridge, then taking them to our local food pantry (if nothing else, I figure this is good karma in a bad economy). I get about 3 dozen eggs a week, and lets say I stretch these bags of feed and scratch to last 6 weeks, that means I’m spending just under $3.00 a dozen to grow my own eggs. Which is, as Someone will be happy to point out, no economy.
Yes, I know, I’m supporting a really good local company (in Montana, 190 miles is local), who are milling and marketing organic products whose food value is apparent just from looking at them. My chickens are healthy, and lay gorgeous eggs. I like my chickens, and the chicken-shitty-straw and compost is great for my garden. But as much as it pains me to admit it, what I have are indeed “lifestyle chickens.” On the other hand, if the revolution comes, I now know how to raise (and slaughter) chickens, which is a useful skill. But for now, I guess I have to accept it. I’m raising lifestyle chickens. Expensive, organic, lifestyle chickens.