Animal gardening. (Feeds & feeding).
But don't despair. Almost anyone can grow at least a little supplemental feed for a few animals, even with just a garden.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
The ideal homestead is a self-contained unit, which includes growing feed for animals. Even though the ideal may be unattainable (and is impossible anyway--even simpler peoples had to trade for goods such as salt and pipestone) the expense of store-bought feed often exceeds the value of the animal products harvested. Then there are considerations of security, availability, chemical residues, price fluctuations, and more.
No wonder so many homesteaders ponder growing feed for their livestock!
For most, conventional field crop production is out of the question. While many homesteaders do make their own hay, the line of machinery required for grains is counter-productive for most homesteads. But there are alternatives.
Before we discuss those two other considerations should be mentioned. Homesteaders with feed bills they consider to be too high frequently make one or both of these mistakes: they have too many animals, or they have animals that don't produce as well as they should. If you're serious about reducing your feed bills and you're unwilling to write off hay and grain as "pet food," the first step is to improve your management. This might include health management (including parasite control), nutrition, breed improvement and culling. In some cases it might be necessary to clear the barn or shed and start over with decent, productive stock.
That's basic. When you have the proper numbers of productive stock, then you can think about livestock gardening.
Yes, gardening. As a homesteader, you don't depend on the acres and acres of lettuce and tomatoes grown by agribusiness to feed yourself. Why should your animals have to depend on agribusiness, or its methods?
There are several good examples of how we went astray when the Industrial Revolution caught up with the Agricultural Revolution ... and how homesteaders can go back to pick up the lost thread.
One concerns root crops. A hundred years ago these were common animal feeds, and in some parts of the world they still are. It's been said that in France, carrots were once considered fit only for horses: humans didn't eat them at all. Sheep ate turnips. Even today it's possible to find old beet cutters at farm auctions: mangle beets were common fodder for dairy cattle right into this century.
What happened? Mechanization. Root crops are labor-intensive. Grains are much easier and cheaper to harvest, handle, transport and store--with machinery. Silage is even cheaper and easier. As Industrial Age thinking led to more, bigger, better, and faster machines, and larger farms, root crops fell by the wayside much the way steam power did and for some of the same reasons: all the innovation, experimentation and improvement went off in a different direction and the older ways were neglected.
For homesteaders, the worm has turned. For most of us the old, labor-intensive and land-intensive ways are more desirable, and often more economical as well!
Another example of how mechanized agriculture changed farming, and perhaps not for the better, is land-intensive growing itself.
Many modern gardeners think intensive or wide-row planting is new. It isn't. Neither is planting under mulch. They fell out of favor when horses were used to cultivate gardens as well as fields: single rows of vegetables were planted far enough apart to accommodate a horse-drawn cultivator. Naturally, with the Industrial Age mentality, the next improvement involved the machinery, not the basic problem or concept. So we got rototillers ... which required the same wide rows that had appeared only because of the use of horses. It wasn't until homestead thinking analyzed the situation that we went back to wide rows and raised beds ... which had been used by some American Indians centuries before.
Put all of this together and what do you get? Animal gardens! Suddenly growing feed for animals becomes an extension of something every homesteader is familiar and comfortable with--gardening. It's no longer a huge, somewhat mysterious, distressingly expensive chore.
Start at the beginning
If you have a garden and animals, you have almost certainly made a start on animal gardening, perhaps without even thinking about it.
When you pull young, tender weeds, or when you thin vegetables, you toss them to the chickens.
When you're canning or freezing the harvest, the "waste" goes to the chickens or pigs. After you've stripped the ears from the sweet corn plants, the stalks go to the cattle, sheep or goats. Then, after the harvest, maybe you let the chickens or even a pig into the garden to finish cleaning it up.
And of course you have also taken the next step: what animal-raising gardener hasn't pulled a carrot or picked some lettuce or an apple as a treat for a rabbit or goat?
No doubt there's a bright light bulb over your head even as you read this. You can see how easy it would be to plant extra carrots or corn as livestock feed. Perhaps you have already planted a little extra Swiss chard for the chickens, or a few comfrey plants for almost any animal.
That's one way to start: just plant more of what you already grow. If space is a problem and you haven't already gone to wide-row planting, this is a good time to make that move.
The garden seeder
It's also a good excuse to invest in a seeder. Put seed in the hopper, and as you push it through the garden it digs the furrow, drops the seed at the proper depth and spacing, covers it, and marks the next row ... just like its big-farm cousin. (These too are old-time machines that were considered too small for large operations and too large for backyard gardens. They made a revival about 20 years ago, during the back-to-the-land movement of he '70s. Now they're made out of plastic, mostly, but they're ideal for homesteaders.)
Our seeder paid for itself many years ago, just on carrots. Any given amount of seed goes much more than twice as far as planting by hand, there is much less thinning, no stooping, the rows are straighter, and planting is much faster because you're walking.
Change the seed plate for different sizes and spacings, and plant corn, peas, beans, radishes ... almost anything.
The machine works on the same principle as the four or eight or twelve row corn and soybean planters your farmer-neighbors might use (unless they have up-to-date plateless planters), but of course those probably wouldn't even fit in your garden. Naturally, there's no comparison in cost! You can hang your planter on the wall in the garage, instead of building an expensive shed for it.
And you can probably plant your entire garden in the time it takes the farmer just to grease and hitch up his machine.
That's animal gardening.
Oh yes: you can space the rows as closely as you want to. We plant carrots in rows three-to-four inches apart. Why space the rows far enough to drive a horse through, waste ground and water and compost, and then just have to weed the empty area anyway? If you've been stuck in industrial era gardening, this one change will let you produce five or even 10 times as much in the same space.
You know how easy it is to grow sweet corn. If you have enough land you can grow field corn for livestock just as easily, especially with a walking seeder. (Be sure to plant the sweet far enough away from the field corn to avoid cross-pollination.)
Again, there's no need to leave enough room between rows to drive a horse or tractor--or even a tiller through. If corn grows well with 8-10 inches between plants in the row, why would it need three feet between rows ... except for that horse? For cultivating use a narrow tiller, or a narrow walking cultivator. (Several types are available from Lehman's Hardware.)
Leave the ears on the stalks until they dry, then pick them just like you pick sweet corn.
The ears will have to be husked. If you have a lot of corn, this is the perfect time to show your friends just how much fun old-time small farming is: have a husking bee! (Don't forget, whoever finds an ear with red kernels gets a kiss.) Husking pegs and gloves are available from Lehman's Hardware.
Even today some older farmers insist that corn stored on the cob is of better quality than the grain that is combined ... where kernels are taken off the cob by machine, in the field at the time of harvesting, and then usually dried, using LP gas. Again, you're ahead of the money rat-race. And your animal garden corn is probably organic, and could be open-pollinated as well.
Be sure to store the ears in a dry and well-ventilated place. For small amounts, rodent-proofing might also be a consideration.
For some animals, especially for occasional use, it might not even be necessary to shell the corn. Rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats seem to be able to do that for themselves, and it offers a winter diversion.
Small amounts of dry corn are easily shelled by hand. Although this can result in a sore thumb after awhile, for those with the time and inclination there is nothing more satisfying than sitting in the henhouse or chicken yard creating poultry excitement by shelling corn. Done little-by-little on a daily basis, it's not an overwhelming task.
However, two forms of hand-operated shellers are also available. One is a simple hollow cylinder. An ear of corn is stuck into the tool and twisted against the ridges there. It's not much faster than hand shelling, but it saves a lot of wear on your thumb. The other is a larger, heavier, hand-cranked, much faster and more expensive machine ($110 from Lehman's).
Soybeans are grown just like the garden beans you're already familiar with. Again, you can plant a lot of them in a hurry with the seeder ... and narrow rows will reduce weeding and increase the bushels per acre (or perhaps in the animal garden we should speak in terms of quarts per square yard).
Soybean plants can be cut and fed green, or cut and dried (cured) to use as hay during the winter. Or the beans can be allowed to grow and mature, being harvested and handled like any garden dry beans.
Peas are very similar. For larger areas, check out field peas, as opposed to the more expensive garden varieties. (Note also that seeds are much cheaper in bulk, or even just in larger quantities.)
You're already familiar with another garden crop that is grown for appearance as well as food ... and even some city gardeners grow it as animal food.
That's the sunflower, which many people grow to feed wild birds. Your domestic animals will savor them as much as the blue jays and cardinals do.
Other common feed grains--oats, barley, wheat and rye in most areas--can also be grown in small, garden-size plots. For these, merely work up the ground well, as for a regular garden, scatter the seed by hand, and cover or rake it in as you would such garden seeds as radishes. Weeding is a hand job, but a well-prepared plot that has been in garden before and has been kept weed-free should present few problems.
Very small plots can be harvested with a scythe, or a sickle or even a knife, but for any sizable area a scythe with a cradle (which catches the grain stalks after they're cut) is a technological improvement even Luddite homesteaders will appreciate. Generally such grains are cut before they're completely ripe and placed in shocks to complete drying. (Shocking is an art worthy of another article, but for the purposes of this one it's sufficient to tie bundles of stalks together with string or baler twine.)
Threshing could also be another article. This is knocking the kernels of grain off the stalks. One method would be to scatter the stalks on a clean, hard surface--a barn floor or a concrete garage floor or driveway--and having the kids dance on them. Beating the grain with a flail is more conventional of course.
Fork off the straw, scoop up the grain, and winnow it (separate the grain from the chaff) by pouring it from one container to another when the wind is blowing. You don't have to be as meticulous winnowing grain for animals as you'd want to be when preparing it for human consumption.
Be sure the grain is dry, and store it in rodent-proof containers.
While growing small amounts of grains will be fun and instructive, you'll soon see why farm folk welcomed mechanization. But what about those crops that got left behind in the process?
The leader is probably the mangel, or mangold, or mangle-wurzle or stock beet. These are fun to grow: they'll amaze your friends and neighbors.
The roots reach fantastic proportions ... two feet long and more. Don't worry: they grow mostly above ground You won't need a backhoe to dig them.
At one time mangels were a staple feed for dairy cattle, even in the U.S. They were displaced because the growing of other feeds was more easily mechanized ... and because of the research into and improvements in silage. (Some writers maintain that if as much work had gone into root crops as was invested in silage, root crops would be the more common today.)
After harvesting, cut off the tops and store the roots in clamps--rudimentary root cellars. Dig a pit, put the mangels in, and cover with enough straw and soil to keep them from freezing.
We once had a Jersey cow that ate mangles whole, just nibbling on them like people eat apples. But conventional wisdom says cows can choke on these beets, so they must be cut into bite-size pieces. If you want to feed mangels and you're lucky, you might still be able to find a beet-cutter hidden away in an old barn. Failing that, you might study one in a farm museum and replicate it ... or devise your own. On a small scale, of course, they can be chopped with a large butcher knife or machete.
Other root crops include the aforementioned turnips and carrots. Turnips have made a recent comeback among some shepherds. Planted in pastures, the sheep can harvest them themselves. (Turnips are said to produce off-flavor milk if fed to cows or goats.)
Carrots require more work to harvest, but if you have good, sandy carrot soil they're certainly worth considering. Store these in clamps, like mangels.
Jerusalem artichokes have also been highly touted as livestock feed by modern homesteaders. This member of the sunflower family produces stalks and leaves that are relished by cows, sheep and goats. Any animal (including humans) will eat the potato-like tubers, but that involves a lot of digging labor for little reward. We have found, however, that pigs enjoy both the labor and the rewards.
And what about potatoes? At first blush it might seem like some kind of a crime of waste to grow potatoes for livestock feed, but why is that any different than growing corn for them? Potatoes were once a common stock food, and culls are still used in potato-growing regions.
Earlier, we mentioned comfrey. Most homesteaders are familiar with this plant today, but for those who aren't, it's a broad-leaved hardy perennial grown from crowns or root cuttings: it has purple flowers but seldom or never sets seed. It's good feed for almost every homestead animal: chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses and cattle.
It's also well-known to herbalists. The tender young leaves are used as salads (they get hairy as they grow), tea, and a healing poultice. (One of its names is "boneset," and I'm among those who will vouch for its efficacy in that department.)
On the downside: Comfrey can easily become a weed, almost impossible to eradicate. And worse--at the peak of its modern popularity some researchers claimed it caused liver problems when fed to livestock over long periods. (Human consumption of comfrey is under even more serious attack.)
After years of experience with comfrey, I still like it as an animal feed. It's not an exclusive diet, of course, but even in limited amounts it has produced wonderful results, particularly in young pigs and in horses. Feeding large amounts when it's growing prolifically hasn't caused us any problems.
The advantages are apparent. It's a perennial. It's winter-hardy. Cut it and it grows back. It's high in protein and other nutrients. It's ideal for an animal garden.
I have cut it by the pick-up load, by hand, but others have told of using flail choppers on larger fields. More commonly, I would cut an armload or a wheelbarrowful on my way to the barn from the house. Grasping a bundle of the stems and cutting them off at ground level with a pocket knife, I barely broke stride on my way to chores ... and each armload saved a bit of other feed.
Comfrey can be dried to store as hay, but it's difficult. The stems are particularly thick and juicy, and dry best on raised racks, under shelter. Obviously, this is best done on a small scale ... but what are homesteaders if not small scale? I always try to dry a little at least, if only to use as a tonic or for medicinal purposes.
Finally, there is hay, aside from comfrey and soybeans which have been mentioned.
If you have a few acres of land and only a few animals, maybe you don't even have to plant hay, or have a hayfield.
You probably have a lawn. You probably mow it. Being a homesteader, you don't overfertilize it or spray it with herbicides or other chemicals. Cows, goats, sheep and rabbits eat grass.
Don't overfeed lawn clippings, and be particularly careful if the animals aren't accustomed to succulent feed. Also be extremely cautious about heating. Fresh lush lawn clippings will heat up rapidly Don't let a pile of them stand in a manger; feed only what the animals will clean up in a reasonable amount of time. Cutting the grass without a catcher, then picking it up after it has dried a bit, will help.
With more drying, the clippings will become hay.
And grass can be made into silage, in drums or plastic bags.
Homestead grass isn't confined to lawns. If you use a sickle-bar mower to mow the orchard, fencerows, or other open spaces, there's your hay. Even if you don't have a tractor and mower, you can cut an amazing amount of forage with a weed-eater. Lacking that, there's always the old scythe ... and we know of one lady who cut forage for her rabbits with a scissors!
In other words, think. Get out of the agribusiness rut, look around, experiment and see what works.
This article hardly begins to cover the topic. It doesn't cover "foraging" behind grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, etc. It doesn't go into detail on threshing. It doesn't talk about pumpkins, another standard old-time stock feed, or fallen fruit or mast such as acorns. And it doesn't even begin to mention animal nutrition ... which must be our final caveat.
Introduce any new feed gradually and carefully. Use restraint and common sense: an animal isn't going to live, much less thrive, on a diet of lawn clippings, or even just corn. Learn something about animal nutrition before you leap into alternate feeds too enthusiastically.
And as always, watch your animals. The eye of the master fatteneth the cattle. Be aware of any changes in condition, or even attitude.
This article was first published in 1994.
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|Publication:||Countryside & Small Stock Journal|
|Date:||May 1, 2003|
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