Thursday, May 1, 2014

Acorns for ChickensToo!

With easily over a ton of acorns harvested last fall, I set out to establish whether and how I could contrive to feed them to my layers..... making them more self-sufficient on the homestead and removing the imported grain subsidy.  Here in CA I never see the big bags of popcorn in the movie theater dumpster, like I did in GA (these were my main poultry feed there).
      Simply smashing them open and throwing them in there didn't work.  They would peck here and there and largely ignore them, and would quit laying if I refused to give them other feed to encourage them to eat them.
      So I began to soak them for varying lengths of time.  This improved their consumption somewhat.  But still no eggs.  It was still winter though, so they ordinarily take a break from laying then.
      So I determined to give it the maximum amount of willing effort, and get the acorn pieces mild-tasting even to me, and prove to myself that the bitter tannins were not preventing them from eating them.  Each morning I smashed a ration of acorns with a hammer on the concrete floor of the barn, picked out any loose shells, and put these to soak in a gallon paint can.  By trial and error I found that seven such cans, changed daily, would render the acorn bits mild enough for me to chew.  This research took place in midwinter, with ice often forming on the cans at night, so there was no danger of them fermenting.  The last days' soak, I added some wood ash (which I also add to my own acorn) and then after that I would put them into a cast iron pot with fresh water, more ash, and some clay and bring them to a boil, either on the embers of the wood stove or in the solar cooker, weather depending.  (Thus the energy for this is "free" or at least multitasked)....  The ash and the clay additions were techniques I had read that various CA native people used in acorn preparation.
      This, plus a bit of cottonseed meal (for protein supplement....due to be phased out as soldier flies come on line),  our kitchen scraps, plus garden weeds and trimmings, plus half days on free range, brought them into laying (along with springtime coming on) within a week or so.  Since then the challenges have been whether they will stay laying with any reduction in this amount of processing. As my partner says "that's a lot of work for three eggs a day!"   Going a day or two with non-boiled acorns or acorns soaked a day or two less doesn't seem to diminish their laying, but I have noticed a slight reduction as spring has begun to turn toward summer....I suspect this is due to their finding fewer insects during their hours loose.
       Marginal yields include acorn shells and acorn leach water, both of which I am putting on my eleven or so blueberry plants, since I believe both are acid, and blueberries like acid,  which is not the default state of our soil.  And, at seven gallons a day,  it's a significant water recycle.  The water from cooking them, containing ash (and therfore not as acid), is dumped on whatever handy plant is there....a small mulberry and apple getting most of it.
       Early on, mostly just after the acorns were being harvested, weevil grubs would come out of them and accumulate in numbers in the bottoms of the buckets and boxes that they were in, so I would pour them from one container to another and feed these to the chickens also.   Storing the acorns successfully in the shells is also an avenue for research....now, at six months out and coming into hot season, the average is about 1/3 moldies (which I am setting aside and re-drying if need be, for the soldier flies).  Blue and valley oaks were not the favorites of native people for long term storage....usually they would go to the foothills and gather black oak acorns for this purpose.   These are more tannic, requiring longer leaching, and higher in oil, and apparently would store for a full year in shell.  One thing I may try is smashing a bunch right at harvest time and sun-drying them hard, similar to what I do for my own, but accelerated in not bothering to remove the shells yet.  I need to try this, but I have a suspicion that when dry, most of the shell might float and the nut bits sink.....

UPDATE 10/23/14:  Now in the final growout stage of the 10 remaining young chickens, plus the two old Araucana layers we've kept.  I harvested the old rooster and the old Buff hen last month....they were due for replacement and were the two biggest stomachs in the flock.   At this stage, I crack and separate from the shells about 1/2-3/4 of a gallon paint can of acorns daily (depending on how many are set aside for being moldy).  I have a square wooden frame of 2x6 boards that I lay flat on the concrete floor of the barn and "work" the acorns in, to keep pieces of acorn and shell from flying everywhere.  First I lightly tap each nut with a 3# sledgehammer to crack it open, and sort the moldies to one corner, the good ones with any clinging shells to the opposite corner, and the loose shells to the third. (the pile of acorns I'm working with is at the fourth corner where I'm sitting).  After the bunch is shelled and sorted, I spread out the pile of "keepers" and pick out the pieces of shell from the nuts.  Nuts go into a paint can, shells into a 5 gallon bucket (which goes to mulch selected plants when full) and moldies with shells into another bucket (which eventually get soaked, smashed and fed to soldier fly grubs, along with coffee grounds and dog manure....this then produces a yield of protein chicken feed supplement).  These nuts, mostly in halves, get soaked in water overnight.  The previous day's nuts then get brough back into the frame on the floor, spread out (after draining off the soak water) and smashed with a heavy wood-splitting maul, wielded lengthwise so it's flat end face smashes the acorn against the floor.   These are then gathered up and put back into the paint can and taken back to the soaking area.  In the soaking area are six more gallon paint cans, each with soaked, smashed acorn.  The water is changed in these each day, and each day the last can...the one that has been soaking, altogether, a week or so, is drained and taken away for cooking.
This lot of acorn is usually put into a cast iron pot with about 3/4 cup of dry cowpeas (from a bumper crop several years back that has since been superseded by other legume yields), and some wood ash and clay (perhaps two heaping tablespoons of ash and one of clay) to help neutralize remaining antinutrients in the acorns and the peas, and the whole covered with water and either put into the solar cooker ( in sunny weather), the embers of the woodstove ( in cold weather), or in the in-between time, heated to boiling on the propane canning stove, and the wrapped in old sweaters and blankets to slow-cook on the residual heat.  The next day, or in the evening if I'm behind and the birds have run short, this is opened, drained if there is excess water, and a bit of oystershell (left behind when we came here....more ash would do as well as a calcium supplement), a heaping spoonful of kelp meal, and a half-cup of cottonseed meal ( a protein supplement---if I had more and more reliable soldier flies, this would be unnecessary)...all mixed in and the whole troweled into the feeding trough.   I've had to quit free-ranging the birds after losing 2 or 3 to coyotes and foxes....better fencing for sheep in the coming months will enable the next hatch to be out more.....and so I've been diligently taking them greens of some kind twice a day....various weeds, vegetable thinnings, and general kitchen trash...
       All of this, particularly the acorn processing, takes upwards of an hour daily.  It seems like a lot of work for ten chickens most of which are destined for the freezer.  The older two hens still lay one egg every couple of days.....this should increase to one egg per hen by next spring, for the same level of feed, which will seem more efficient.  I'm also growing my own wheat and corn on site, and the amount of work I put into these things makes it seem all the more astonishing that they are used to feed poultry.  What it all points to is the fairly incredible subsidy of energy into grain contrived by mainstream, fossil-fuel powered agriculture, destructive as it is.  I can, with my abundant wild food, withdraw from the purchase of wheat or corn for my poultry at $15 or so per 50#.....( which my ten birds would go through in about a month, I'd guess), but at the cost of an hour of my time each day.
Permaculture preaches solving problems of work, money, and sustainability by means of design....and the fundamental design shift is that the chicken isn't the best animal to be eating surplus acorn....pigs, sheep, goats, even turkeys or geese, would serve better, being able to use the acorns with less processing...  But we like our eggs!  And if I didn't use the acorns from the yard, they would attract deer, pigs, squirrels, and other unwelcome critters into the system.