by Jennifer Sartell
Photos by author
So I started writing this blog post. A simple post about giving leftover whey to chickens. I was going to talk about how we’ve been making hard cheeses from our goat’s milk and how we have all this left over whey, and how somewhere in the cobwebs of my brain I’ve read that whey is good for chickens.
Intentions and Plans
I was going to highlight how to add it to their crumbles and create a mash, or simply fill a bowl or waterer with the whey, then tell you to sit back and watch your chickens enjoy this healthy treat. That’s what I started to do this morning as I sat down at the computer with a cup of coffee and my golden retriever’s nose in my lap. But this simple post got complicated…Eventually I will get back to the simple idea of feeding of whey to chickens, but bear with me over the next few paragraphs.
One of the main reasons we decided to add chickens to our lives was so that we would always have a healthy source of eggs. (But I won’t lie that the “pudding heart” side of me was attracted to the cute fuzziness of chickens.) I love our flock and the idea that chickens are like pets with benefits. You get to enjoy the company of a beautiful little bird, and get fresh eggs too! What’s not to love?
Giving Chickens a Beautiful Life
In raising our own chickens we also get to help an animal live a beautiful life. Healthy and natural as possible, both for the chicken, and for us. Stemming from this idea, we have slowly attempted to take back some of our food sources like growing organic heirloom vegetables and fruits. In addition, we now have a large selection of our dairy covered by our goat Esther, we will have honey from our bees, maple syrup from our large sugar maples, heritage turkeys, and duck eggs.
I must admit that it makes me happy to see our chickens free ranging. They roam our 14 acres, they eat insects and grass and all kinds of things a birds was meant to eat. But something I’m not so happy about is that we also supplement this diet with a store bought feed. It’s a vegetable based food and the protein source is …soybeans.
Now, I’m no dietary expert, but stick with me here. A few years ago I had a thyroid scare. I was having some symptoms and my doctor was fairly certain that some of my thyroid levels might be off. While we were waiting for the results, I did some research about thyroid health and many articles advised to stay away from non-fermented soy because it can imitate the hormones in your body. A trip to the store soon left me with hardly anything in my cart. After reading the labels of countless foods, I realized that some version of soy is in almost every manufactured product on the shelves, including chicken feed.
In the end, my thyroid tests came back somewhat normal, but after listening to my doctor and reading books like Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food, I became very “soy aware”. It worried me that we were feeding our chickens a soy based food, and then eating two and three of their eggs a day. Did the soy “hormones” transfer into the eggs we were eating? Was this something to worry about?
Soy and Whey
Soy is a vegetable based complete protein all in one convenient little green pod. Chickens need complete proteins or health problems can occur which include cannibalism, feather eating, egg eating, among other things. In the wild, chickens (or chicken-like birds, quail, grouse, turkeys etc.) are scavengers and get complete proteins from eating insects, small rodents, snakes and frogs. But in the wild, chickens die. Some of them starve to death, the weak ones get picked off by predators, and nature balances itself.
While we obviously didn’t want our chickens to starve, we did want to see if we could cut back on some of the soy they were consuming. So, shortly after the episode with my thyroid, we decided to slowly wean our chickens from their store bought food. We cut back their food ration each day and left them to free range with minimum store bought supplement. After a few days, egg production slowed drastically, and the chickens acted well…hungry. We noticed them moving outward on the property. Exploring places they never ventured, looking for food.
Now as far as the drop in egg production is concerned, I don’t necessarily see this as a sign of poor health. Are chickens naturally meant to lay an egg every day? Or is the soy in their feed mimicking hormones and kicking their reproductive systems in high gear? Again, I don’t know. Many breeds of chicken have been domesticated for hundreds of years. So what’s normal for a man made chicken?
We never really found the answer because our soft sides gave in and we felt sorry for our flock staring at us with hungry eyes wanting their food. We also live in Michigan where the winters bring FEET of snow. The chickens wouldn’t be able to free range in the dead of winter. So in short order, they went back to their original routine. And soy, once again, became part of the diet at Iron Oak Farm.
Now that we have Esther, our Alpine doe in milk, we’ve been experimenting with making hard cheeses. I remember reading in an old book about feeding whey to chickens and how it’s GREAT for them! I couldn’t really remember the exact health benefits, I knew it said something about a great source of protein, the chickens fattening up more rapidly, and better egg production. But the specifics on whey, I didn’t know.
Weighing in on Whey
My thinking was, if we could feed our chicken’s whey as a source of protein, it might reduce the amount of soy based chicken feed they need to consume. So I went on line and looked up the health benefits of feeding whey to chickens expecting to find hundreds of examples of support, which I did, but I also found just as many examples of people saying that dairy is bad for chickens.
As much as I’d like to simply base this post around feeding whey to chickens, promoting it and saying it’s a great thing all around, I must admit that some of the “say no to dairy” chicken articles have some merit. It would make sense that a chicken’s system wouldn’t know what to do with dairy. Even though chickens are omnivore/scavengers, they would never naturally encounter dairy in their diet. Chickens don’t lactate, and it’s not like their going to find a yogurt bush growing in the woods.
On the other hand, how many soy beans would a chicken find in the wild? Not including the giant fields that farmers plant, I’m talking wild. And if a chicken did encounter a naturally growing soy bean, or soybean type plant, they wouldn’t eat it day after day by the 50 lb bag.
So where do we go from here?
A popular saying/movement right now is “vote with your fork.” Which is an idea I can wrap myself around. But every time I think I’m stabbing my fork into a food or idea that seems to be ok, I find something that trips me up. Which is better organic or local? What if you can’t find both? What about organic soy? It’s still soy even if it wasn’t grown with man made chemicals. Not to mention the nutritional confusion ..just kidding olive oil isn’t really olive oil…coconut oil is a saturated fat after all…eggs are high in cholesterol this week, eat raw veggies because they’re higher in vitamins, but don’t eat raw veggies because they’re hard on your digestive system…and so on. And now that we raise animals, it’s one more step deeper into the confusion. Organic feed vs. free range, vs natural worming, vs pasteurizing dairy…even what to clean your egg shells with seems to stir up differences in opinions.
I still don’t have an answer to these questions. All I do know is that we’re trying, and I would hope that what we’re moving towards is a step in the right direction. As far as feeding whey, we’ve been giving it in moderation. I found testimony from a vet in a poultry forum that seems to feel that it can be healthy if you don’t over do it, and to be aware of negative side affects. I’ve fed Greek yogurt without problems, in fact, it has helped clear up loose droppings with much success.
The chickens do love the whey, as do the dogs, and everything seems to be going great so far. I guess it doesn’t have to be an “either or” conclusion, but for now, I’m going to put my faith in time tested wisdom. The farmers that used to feed their chickens whey did so before the age of the mighty soy bean. For now, I’m sticking with them.
I’d love to hear what the Community thinks about this. Does figuring out the health of your chickens and the health of your family frustrate you as well? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, posting on the Community Chicken’s Facebook page, or come visit us at Iron Oak Farm.