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Eight dollars for a bale of grass hay, $11 for a bag of dehydrated alfalfa, $10 for 50 pounds of goat pellets, $25 for a 20-pound sack of organic layer feed—it all adds up and only continues to increase in cost year after year. Growing a portion of your livestock and poultry feed is easier than you might think. In days gone by, people like you and I raised or foraged a significant amount of feed for livestock—be it a household dairy cow or goat, a pig raised for slaughter, or a coop of hens. The knowledge is still out there, and we can do it today.
Consider garden and orchard waste: corn stalks, bolted lettuce, pea vines, lawn clippings (not treated with chemicals, of course). Why toss them on the compost heap when some of your animals could eat them? Chickens, for instance, swoon for leftover fruit, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, corn, herbs and greens, such as lettuce and beet, carrot, radish and turnip tops. Goats, sheep and pigs love them, too. To be on the safe side, don’t feed rhubarb leaves, avocados, citrus, onions or potato vines, as they are toxic. Also, rotten or moldy foods can cause health issues or reduced productivity for livestock and poultry, especially when fed in large quantities.
Here are a few items to add to your feed-growing repertoire.
A staple in most livestock and poultry rations, corn is a high-energy feed that’s been given to animals for ages. If you have 1 to 2 acres available for planting feed, growing your own corn can cut down on traditional feed costs. Bonus: By choosing heirloom varieties, you can grow delicious corn that, unlike most garden and field corn grown today, is not genetically modified. Corn provides energy but not a lot of protein in animals’ diets. Look for varieties that have proven high forage yields, high digestibility, low fiber levels and high fiber digestibility.
Grow corn for your own consumption and share it with your livestock and poultry, or grow it specifically for its grazing qualities. According to Ohio State University Cooperative Extension, grazing immature corn is similar to grazing other annual forages. The biggest difference is that while cool-season forage is going dormant in the middle of summer, corn plants are thriving. Graze corn as a grass 70 to 90 days after planting. With proper management—not allowing the animals to graze down the corn plants to below 3 inches from the ground—you can rotate livestock back onto the field later in the season.
Another option is to allow the corn crop to mature and then turn out livestock into the field. OSU estimates 12 to 16 125-pound pigs per acre of grazed standing, mature corn can produce 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of pork.
When growing corn for fresh eating, freezing and canning, choose delicious, heirloom sweet-corn varieties that grow on tall, sturdy cornstalks so you can share them fresh from the garden with your animal friends. Two old-time, open-pollinated varieties ideal for this purpose are Stowell’s Evergreen and Country Gentleman.
Nathaniel Newman Stowell, of Burlington, N.J., developed Stowell’s Evergreen sweet corn in 1848. It grows on enormous stalks up to 10 feet, with two huge, plump ears of delicious, sugary, white kernels per stalk. It’s ready to eat in 95 to 110 days and matures over a long period, providing fresh corn fodder for weeks.
S.D. Woodruff & Sons introduced Country Gentleman in 1890. It also matures in 95 to 110 days, yielding two or three ears of white, milky sweet corn per 8-foot stalk. It’s a shoepeg variety, meaning its kernels grow irregularly instead of in rows.
Feed fresh cornstalks judiciously, rationing a stalk or two per sheep, goat or piglet, and a small armful for larger animals, like adult hogs and cattle; too much, too fast can cause digestive problems, including diarrhea and bloat.
You could also grow 1 to 2 acres of dent corn to feed your stock. Dent corn is old-fashioned field corn—the kind our great-grandfathers raised for flour, cornmeal and animal feed. One variety is Reid’s Yellow Dent—at one time the most popular variety in the Corn Belt. Developed in 1846 by Robert Reid, of Tazwell County, Ill., and improved by his son James Reid from 1870 to 1900, it’s easy to grow, prolific and disease-resistant. It has large, yellow kernels and a skinny, red cob. It matures in 85 to 110 days. Reid’s Yellow Dent stalks are tall, heavy and leafy, providing plentiful dried corn stover to feed beef cattle during the winter.
Another option, especially if you’d like to grow a colorful Indian corn variety, is Bloody Butcher, a prolific field corn with red to almost-black kernels. It originated in Virginia around 1845. Bloody Butcher matures in 100 to 110 days and grows up to 12 feet. Both varieties are delicious when prepared like sweet corn while their kernels are in the soft, milk stage, and their green stalks can be fed to your livestock.
Store thoroughly dry dent corn in a cool, rodent-resistant location, shelled or on the cob. Improperly stored corn can mold and cause animals to become ill, to refuse the feed, or to experience reduced productivity. Feed corn shelled to prevent larger animals from choking on cobs, but realize shelling is a time-consuming process, if you have a large quantity to shell by hand.
Allowing animals to graze the stalks and chaff left after corn harvest is the most economical use of these residues, particularly for beef cows, according to Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. Nutritional quality isn’t so high that you shouldn’t supplement other feed sources, especially for growing, lactating or pregnant animals, however. Also be aware that 60 to 150 pounds of corn might remain in the field per acre, and over-consumption can cause health issues, such as acidosis or founder. (Sorghum crop residue also makes good grazing ground for cattle and sheep.)
Pumpkins and Squash
Poultry, pigs, sheep, cattle and goats all love pumpkins and winter squash. These vegetables are easy to grow and keep well in storage, providing feed with good fat, fiber and protein content through the winter months.
Connecticut Field pumpkin is a quintessential heirloom, medium-sized, jack-o’-lantern type. You can grow it to sell for Halloween, and feed the leftovers to your chickens and livestock. Introduced to America prior to 1700, it’s one of the oldest field pumpkins in existence. Under optimal growing conditions, Connecticut Field produces between 16 and 20 tons of pumpkins per acre.
To feed pumpkins, cut or break them in half and let fowl and livestock scoop out the seeds and flesh. Often, you can just break them open as you toss them into the field or pen for your animals.
Feed winter squash the same way. Even better winter keepers than pumpkins, most squash varieties store for three to six months. Two types to consider for livestock are the prolific Hubbard and butternut, as each are useful in cooking and baking, as well as in feeding to animals.
Harvest pumpkins and squash for animal feed when you cannot easily pierce their skins with a thumbnail. Make sure they’re full-grown; immature fruits don’t store well. Use pruning shears to cut them from the vine, leaving 1 inch or more of the stem attached. Wipe them clean with a damp cloth and cure them for two weeks at 70 to 80 degrees F. Store cured pumpkins and squash in a dry place, such as a barn stall, an unheated room or a cool cellar. Check them weekly for spoilage.
Root crops have been fed to livestock for centuries, and there is much historical documentation of the practice.
“Roots may be regarded as watered concentrates high in available energy for the dry matter they contain. … They are usually chopped or sliced before feeding, and should not be fed alone, but always with some dry feed, since they carry much water … . It is usual to put the cut roots into the feed box and sprinkle meal over them,” according to W.A. Henry in Feeds and Feeding; a Handbook for the Student and Stockman (published by the author, 1911).
Of the available root-crop varietals, potatoes, carrots and mangels are easily grown, stored and harvested by hand. All root crops have laxative qualities, so they should be introduced over a period of time, allowing the microbes in animals’ dietary tracts to adjust.
Stock-feed carrots are grown like garden-variety carrots only on a larger scale; they yield between 29 and 40 tons per acre, depending on variety and crop-management practices. They’re nothing to sneeze at, even on a small-scale basis, as they contain about the same amount of protein, less fat and more minerals than corn. Carrots are especially valued for their high beta-carotene content and were traditionally used as a winter feed for dairy cattle so the cows would produce yellowish milk and cream. Washington State University research published in 2003 indicates that carrots increase the vitamin A and fatty acids in cows’ milk.
Cattle can be fed 40 to 60 pounds of carrots per day. A medium-sized adult sheep or goat can eat 5 to 10 pounds of chopped carrots per day. For poultry and pigs, substitute 8 pounds of carrots per pound of meal.
It’s best to choose a large variety, as big carrots tend to last longer than smaller table carrots in winter storage. Harvest them as late in the season as possible, just before the first killing frost. Trim their greens at least 1 inch from the carrot before storage, and feed the fresh greens to your livestock. Carrots store well for seven to nine months when held at a steady 32 degrees F and 99 percent humidity. Pack them in a spare refrigerator; store them in a cool, damp basement buried in boxes of sand; or in milder climates where winters aren’t too harsh, simply pile them up and overwinter them in the garden covered with a thick layer of sawdust and leaves. Heirloom varieties to consider for stock feed include Danvers and St. Valery carrots.
Danvers is a thick-rooted, cone-shaped, disease-resistant, dark-orange carrot with a small, yellowish core. Developed in Danvers, Mass., in 1871, it has broad shoulders measuring up to 2 inches across and a root up to 8 inches long. It matures in 70 to 80 days and thrives even in carrot-unfriendly, heavy soils and summer heat.
The St. Valery carrot is a French variety dating back to the 19th century. It has a smooth, bright-orange, 10- to 12-inch root and is 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Sweet and fine-grained, it’s enormously productive and an exceptionally good keeper.
“While mangels, rutabagas and carrots are considered practically equal in value for hogs, mangels are consumed with the greatest relish,” according to Growing Root Crops for Livestock; Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1699 (USDA; 1937).
To say that mangels (aka mangel-wurzels, mangolds or fodder beets) yield astounding crops is a vast understatement. According to “Fodder Beets,” a Washington State University Extension fact sheet, Mammoth Long Red Mangel produced between 23,940 and 59,040 pounds of roots per acre in USDA tests conducted in 1918 in South Dakota; a 2008 trial in Pennsylvania yielded 13 to 48 tons per acre.
European farmers were growing mangels by the mid-1500s, both as animal feed and as table fare during food shortages. Every old textbook pertaining to livestock and poultry production mentions mangels, which demonstrates their value during that time.
Mangels are drought-tolerant and nutritious, offering 11.3 percent protein for roots and 17 percent for aerial parts. Their high water and sugar content makes them attractive to poultry and livestock. Historically, dairy and beef cattle were fed up to 30 pounds of chopped mangels per day.
Two heirloom mangels to investigate are Mammoth Long Red and Giant Yellow Eckendorf. Both mature to 20-pound roots in 90 to 100 days. Their nourishing tops can be harvested and fed green. Mammoth Long Red has red skin and white flesh; Giant Yellow Eckendorf has golden-yellow skin and light-yellow flesh. Both are easy to harvest, as one-half to two-thirds of the root matures above ground.
Root crops are injured by heavy frosts, so harvest mangels in late fall before a hard freeze. Cut back their tops to 2 to 4 inches from the root. Mangels frozen in the field quickly rot in storage; otherwise, they keep well through spring. They should be stored until late December to concentrate their sugar content and increase palatability. Feeding mangels to male sheep and goats contributes to urinary stones, so they shouldn’t be fed to wethers, rams or bucks.
According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, potatoes can be fed to livestock. Four-hundred to 500 pounds of potatoes supply as much feed value as 100 pounds of grain. Feeding 25 to 40 pounds per day per 1,000 pounds of an animal’s body weight is acceptable. Feed them raw to most livestock; cook before feeding to poultry and pigs. Chop or slice the potatoes to prevent choking and increase palatability. Do not feed green potatoes or potatoes with sprouts, as these can cause illness.
Ohio State University reports potatoes are an excellent energy source, but animals will still need supplemental feeds to provide adequate protein, minerals, vitamins and fiber.
These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Put up your own premium hay, plant a small orchard for your animals, or investigate additional easy-to-grow and -store crops. To truly have a balanced ration for your animals, get your alternative feeds tested for nutritional content and work with a veterinarian or nutritionist to develop the right feed program. Think outside the box and save money while feeding your fowl and livestock nutritious, GMO-free, farm-fresh food.
This article originally ran in the July/August 2014 issue of Hobby Farms.