Read all posts in the "ABCs of Homesteading" series here.
I interrupt your regularly scheduled blog reading with an important emergency update.
When I started this blog series, I expected to post an entry every couple weeks. Then my dad, who lives with us, had a massive stroke and lost his ability to talk, walk, eat, and lost all of his memories. Thankfully, he's on the mend now, and I've been able to get back to writing.
Believe me, though, when life hits you with a whopper of that magnitude, you are going to need help to get through it. This is true whether you are homesteader or not. As a homesteader, though, you need more specialized help, such as milking your goats, moving animals to new pasture, caring for your garden, etc.
So, originally this post was intended to be only about fodder and feed sources. But after my recent experience, I realized that one of the first “systems” you need to set-up as a homesteader is a reliable network of friends, family, and neighbors who have familiarity with your operation and the ability to assist when necessary. Of course, you also need to be that person for others.
For these kind of community relationships to operate well, they must operate often. Do this by sharing your surplus, giving away extra seed starts, helping others to build a shed or process a pig, and welcome help or gifts from others when offered.
Don't get bogged down in ideas of “fairness” or complex barter systems. Community is a bit like a bank account. You want to give as much to it when you can, so that when you really need it, it is there to be drawn on.
Homesteading may be about increasing self-sufficiency in meeting our regular needs. But sustainable and durable homesteading must also aim to strengthen community interdependence. Just like flowers need bees, and vice versa, we need others to keep our homesteads running well.
It is also important to document your critical procedures — like feed schedules and quantities, organization and planting times in your garden, and maintaining a calendar of important homestead activities. As you set up your homestead operations, keep in mind that whether for unexpected life events or even just a short vacation, your procedures need to be simple enough that others can step in without extensive training.
And now back on to our regularly scheduled programming.
One of your biggest challenges as a new homesteader will be feeding your livestock. If you only need to feed a few chickens or ducks – don't sweat it. Just grow a bit more of whatever you are growing for yourself. Between sharing your food and giving those animals free range around your un-fenced areas, they'll be fat and happy.
But let's be real. An egg or two a day isn't really worth the trouble and you need a lot more manure than that to fuel your home food production. Which means...most of us are going to keep a lot more livestock than our fledgling homesteads can support. And since fencing, pasture, and other infrastructure take time to build, you will probably be confining these animals to small areas with incomplete forage.
So, at the outset, consider feed purchases as necessary “start-up costs” and resign yourself to the fact that you have to buy it until you can develop enough land and free up enough time to grow your own. That being said, there are a number of ways you can reduce your feed costs in the near term.
The term fodder basically means some kind of storable or reproduceable food source that can be delivered to your animals (instead of a self-serve pasture). Usually the term is applied to putting up hay, bagged grain, or sprouting stored seeds for year round feed, but as a small-scale homesteader, you want to think outside the bale or bag.
For poultry, sprouting and growing wheat or barley grass in water is a commonly used as a way to stretch your food supply because these systems are easy to set up. You just need a few containers with holes drilled for drainage, a way to collect run-off water, some kind of shelving system, and a warm, sunny location or grow light.
There are many free plans available on the internet to help you set up your own fodder system. You can also get fancy and use gravity and float valves or timers to rig auto-watering.
Personally, my setup involves a couple bought-on-sale seed- sprouting shelving units, dollar dish tubs, scrap wood, and a cat litter container repurposed into a watering can — for a total cost of about $26. It's in my greenhouse for light and warmth. I also keep my hatchlings in the greenhouse, so I water the fodder when I feed and water the little ones, so I don't forget to do it. I also use the fodder to get them started grazing on grasses.
I've heard from others that a 50 pound bag of feed will become 200 pounds of nutrient rich fodder which means you cut your feed costs to 25 percent or less, depending on your seed costs. My results have been more conservative.
Barley is the cheapest seed in my area, but it grows slower than wheat and usually begins to mold before it quadruples in weight. So, I tend to harvest after about 5 to 6 days, when it is only an inch or two tall. Also, germination rates average 85 percent, which means some of the seeds don't sprout and may not be as easily digestible or “nutritionally available” for the birds.
Wheat grows faster. I usually get a decent crop before it molds. But untreated seeds are only seasonally available near me (e.g. in later summer for cover crops) and it costs more than locally grown feed. It also has germination rates of only 55-60 percent.
Overall, I find growing watered fodder can reduce my feed bill by about 20-30%. It takes more work than bagged feed, e.g. cleaning dish pans, watering twice daily, rotating pans for sun exposure. But, the birds really like it and giving them fresh greens year round is important to me. I also sprout dried peas and some beans using the same method.
Depending on the protein content in your seeds, you may need to supplement fodder with other protein sources for complete nutrition.
Another option using water is to cultivate water hyacinth as animal feed. According to the FAO, it may contain between 12-20 percent protein which puts it in roughly in the same category as wheat and barley fodder.
I originally bought six plants for $8 to populate and filter our irrigation pond. I dropped them in the pond in June. By July, you couldn't see the water. This pond was not intended for duck use, but they accidentally discovered it, moved in and had devoured my water hyacinths in just a few days. During that time, they never touched store bought feed.
After seeing how much they loved these aquatic delicacies, I started filling any empty containers I had with water and a handful of chicken poop or a couple buckets of water from our small duck ponds to the containers as a fertilizer. Then, I would toss in a couple water hyacinth plants.
In hot weather, three plants will multiply to fill the circumference of a large trash can in about a week. I harvest half of the new plants and leave the rest to repopulate.
We also grow it in our duck-free frog ponds near our garden areas and harvest regularly. The frogs love it as shelter.
This plant is not cold-hardy, so plan to store it in a warm location for winter if you live in planting zone 9 or below.
Remember that homestead support network we covered earlier? Well, another happy side effect of building those relationships is that they can help you meet your animal feed challenges. Our friends and family have given us spent beer grains, fish parts, surplus harvest, past-prime apples, left-overs, out of date foods, fridge dumps before vacations, and more. In return, we frequently invite them to join us for meals to enjoy the fruits, eggs, and meats from their contributions.
Some items, which may not be suitable as direct feed for our animals, might be perfect for your worms or as maggot habitat. I know – eeeww! Seriously, though, once you get over the gross factor, growing these juicy suckers is an easy way to augment the protein content of your feed supply.
If you have a flies, cultivating maggots is easy. Just leave a wet, gooey bucket of nasty food-stuff where you see lots of flies. When the contents are crawling with maggots, dump it out in your poultry yard.
If you are not already vermicomposting, start yourself a worm bin or bed. This will be your worm production factory, so set-up it up in a permanent site. I have mine in my garden, dug two feet into the ground (for temperature and moisture control), lined with concrete blocks and weed mat and topped with a heavy, mostly rodent proof lid. It's 4 by 8 feet in size.
Care is easy. Worms need a moist environment, so keep mulch on bottom on a light layer of straw on top then water as necessary to keep your bed moist. Feed the worms about once every two weeks with coffee grounds, tea leaves, banana peels, garden stuff that's not fit for animal eating, edible mushroom stems, spent mushroom mycelium, goat poop (yep! See the next posting 'G is for Goats' for more details), straw, and shredded paper.
Only feed half of the bed each time. Doing this will cause many of the worms to migrate to the new food source and get to work. Give them a couple days, then harvest the lazy worms who stayed put in the unfed half of the bed for your poultry. When you dig out the compost, you'll find the more worked areas have less worms. So use that in your garden and save the really wormy stuff for your birds.
If you feed your worms eggshells, they will eat the contents, but leave the shell mostly intact. So, you can just mash down the shells so they don't resemble eggs and give them back to the birds as a calcium source.
Incredibly, after you dump worms in your poultry yard a few times, some of them will escape into the soil and reproduce. In a couple weeks, between the poultry poop, uneaten feed and scraps, and a few good rains, their populations will boom. Then all you need to do to make a worm buffet is move a straw bale around the yard. The worms will come to the surface of the soil to feed on the straw. After a few days, the bale and the first couple inches of soil beneath it will be crawling with them. At that point, roll the bale on its side and call your birds. Repeat again every few days.
Just before the straw bale falls apart, move it to your garden, and water it heavily for a few days. The remaining worms will populate the bale, convert it to soil, and then you can spread it on your garden to add more worms and vermicompost.
If the straw bale trick is working for you, take it to the next level. Grow your watered fodder directly on the ground. Put your fodder container on the ground in your poultry yard, cover with a milk crate and concrete block, and water twice daily.
When your fodder is tall enough, uncover and serve. Your poultry will eat the grass. But they will also quickly discover the bonus crop of worms congregating under the container to play in the fodder water.
I finally accepted that no matter how diligent I am, weeds will grow in my garden. Nature hates exposed soil and I hate fighting against nature. So, I made a decision to welcome the weeds. Not just any weeds, but the easy to harvest, good for my poultry kind like Lambs Quarters, Wood Sorrel, Dandelion, Harry Cat's Tongue, Wild Roquette, Purslane, Chickweed and others.
Go ahead and let them get big, just don't let them seed or overcrowd your intentional plants. Then weed into a big container and deliver to your birds. It may take them a few days to eat non-favorites, but they eventually will.
Also, if you are an organic gardener, you are probably doing daily insect inspections. So, take a bowl of plain water with you when you make your rounds and drop pests into the bowl.
Japanese beetles are particularly easy to collect in the early mornings, but cabbage worms, squash bugs and borers, harlequin beetles, tomato hornworms, etc. are all delicious and nutritious for poultry.
As you enrich your soil using your poultry manure, you will be able to increase your food production and provide more fodder for your poultry. As you do, don't feel bound by traditional ideas of poultry feed, e.g. grain and corn. Grow more of what you like to eat and what you like to see growing in your garden. And don't feel like you have to deliver your fodder to your birds in pellet-sized portions. Confined poultry are usually bored and are very happy to do the harvesting for you.
For example, you can serve entire sunflower seed or amaranth heads and let the birds pick them clean. You can give peas in pods still attached to the pea shoots. You can throw them half a head of cabbage and let them figure it out.
It may take a couple days for non-preferred edibles to be consumed, but a hungry bird will eventually figure out how to eat anything edible (that or the worms will).
Also, poultry can handle some tree and fruit leaves as part of a diverse diet. Mine like young tulip poplar and black locust leaves and grape and blackberry vines. Since these grow wild in my area, I give any trimmings to the birds. I also put up electric netting and let them clear underbrush and cull seedlings to help keep back the forest.
Now we've spent a lot of time on using poultry, particularly ducks in your homestead. But if you are ready to upsize your manure production and meet your daily dairy needs, stay tuned for our next installment: The ABCs of Homesteading: G is for 'Goats'.
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina where she currently raises pigs, goats, poultry, bees, worms, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and mushrooms. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Find Tasha at The Way Back and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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