My experiments to make free roaming poultry viable and self sustainable, took many failures, and iterations over years:
Starting with normal White Legon birds, I started making a 20 x 50 structure for their night safety. Then a small courtyard of ¼ acre was left open for them to feed. Then we got the Chicks from a famous poultry business. I didn’t know back then that these were genetically tampered breeds.
In our first iteration, most chicks died. Our error was that we hadn’t given them their full dose of tetracycline and medications. Also we had to buy the feed from the chick supplier, which we didn’t since they were supposed to roam freely and eat.
In short, the breed needed its medications to survive, and heavy corn feed to gain weight. They had to be caged and fed to keep costs under check. Later, we realized that they don’t lay fertile eggs. The medications had hormones which made them lay eggs daily but could not regenerate chicks.
We changed the breed to rural ones- Vanaraj and Grampriya. The poultry experts I approached advised against it since their FCR (feed- conversion-ratio) was dismal compared to industrial breeds.
Since then, I have realized the foolishness of such terms.
The birds were roaming freely and eating voraciously, and since we bought the feed, it was a hugely loss making operation. To add to it, they were catching viral infections often on weather change, and sometimes a lot of them died. I continued to remain against the daily anti-biotics, since I could not imagine anyone eating such chemical laced birds.
One bright take away from this cycle was that they were procreating, whenever temperatures were fine. However, the ratio was almost 1:10 of eggs hatched to eggs where chicks didn’t get formed properly or couldn’t come out. I assumed it was the diet issue. We analysed the unformed chicks to deduce what could have been missing in diet- calcium or proteins or fat.
So three problems had to be handled first: reducing their food cost, reducing their mortality and improving their food quality.
To reduce food cost, we started using cowdung and pits for creating worms. A pit would be made and filled with cowdung. Then, left for 2 weeks for the decomposition.
It was a success as far as cutting down of feed cost was concerned.
To improve food quality, I went on observing what other birds normally ate in that area. There were many Mulberry plantations in forests, in the fields they liked legumes, papaya leaves and many such plants. Then we started planting them in the yard, in the hope that our birds would eat their leaves and fruits and seeds.
Once these plants had attained a few feet height, there was plenty to eat. In addition to the cowdung pits, birds were getting variety and plenty. The results came. Whenever weather favored, they multiplied.
However, the problem of viral remained. By now, I observed another problem. When temperatures soared or dip, the pits dried fast, and the plants also did not have much to give. The birds became thin and distressed. They wouldn’t breed and younger ones died.
Such cycles were happening even if weather changed quickly.
After much deliberation, we came to the conclusion that temperature and humidity shall remain more steady, if there was enough tree cover. Based on what is good for birds, Neem, Kadamba, Gooler, etc were planted to cover the poultry yard.
By now, I had full faith in nature. The trees grew to 6 to 8 feet in one year. That not only solved the temperature fluctuation problem but it also started generating dead leaves, and more worms. Our cow-dung effort was less than halved. Further, the number of predators also reduced, as the trees cut the line of sight.
In addition, we started experimenting with natural medicines. After several iterations, a natural mix made of vetiver, neem and moringa, had wonderful effects. In a period of wide spread flu to birds, our birds did not suffer.
By sixth year, we had various elements in place to call it a success. The FCR pundits may still be unhappy but with free feed and high quality birds, who cares!