According to many recent books on animal husbandry, livestock feeding has become much easier and better with the advent of commercially prepared feed mixes. These mixes are scientifically formulated to provide everything your animal needs, and you don’t have to bother with thinking about them.
I followed this advice for my first few years of farming, and then I began to think and to see some of the disadvantages that come with this convenience.
One is freshness. Commercial mixes have been finely ground, blended and reformulated. They decay faster than whole grains. It can be hard to tell just how long your bag of feed has been sitting around or whether it’s still safe to feed. Back when I gave our goats commercial premix, I occasionally got bags that the goats absolutely refused to eat. I couldn’t see or smell anything wrong, but apparently they could. By the time we started raising rabbits I had stopped using commercial feeds for most of our animals, but I heard from other rabbit growers who lost many animals to bags of spoiled feed.
Another concern is provenance. Some feed bag tags tell you how much fat, protein and fiber are in the feed but aren’t specific about the ingredients. Sometimes when ingredients are listed, they seem inappropriate for the animals in question. For instance, feeds for rabbits and goats, which are naturally vegetarian, sometimes contain animal fats.
The factor which first got my attention was genetic modification. Many experts tell us that there is no health risk in GMO foods, but some of us have doubts. And most commercial feeds are based on soybeans, corn and alfalfa — commercial production of which is dominated by GM varieties.
You can buy certified non-GM feed with appropriate ingredients listed. This feed is often prohibitively expensive, and freshness still may be a concern.
There is another option, and it’s more health-conscious than buying standard commercial feed, cheaper than buying certified GMO-free feed, and more shelf-stable, too. This is mixing your own ration from recognizable, whole, non-GMO ingredients. This approach requires more attention and flexibility than buying prepackaged rations, but in the long run it may be better for your health and your pocketbook.
Feed Components: Grain and Seeds
Most of the calories in concentrate rations come from grains and seeds. While corn and soy are likely to be GM unless certified otherwise, many grains have not yet had GM varieties approved for commercial production. You can buy these fairly cheap and be sure that they’re GMO-free.
Non-GMO grains include wheat, oats, barley, millet and triticale. (Rye is also GM-free, but it’s highly susceptible to a fungus called ergot which can sicken or kill animals, so most resources I’ve read recommend avoiding it.) These are a little less energy-dense than corn, but also a little higher in protein. Some studies say that beef cattle fed on these grains instead of corn eat less and gain weight a bit more slowly and show greater feed conversion efficiency. In place of soybeans you can use such non-GMO legumes as peas, lentils and broad beans or fava beans. Sunflower seeds are rich in protein and vitamins and also high in fats; a little fat in your ration is helpful, but too much may not be healthy for your animals.
There are plenty of online information sources that describe the energy, protein and fat content, as well as the palatability and other relevant information about different grains. Feedipedia.org has detailed crop-by-crop information. GMO-Compass.org has information on which crops are genetically modified. Brief introductions to different feed grains are available here and here.
You’ll also want to read up on the livestock species you have. Find out what they need in terms of energy, protein, fat and vitamins or minerals. Also find out how readily they can digest whole grains and what their particular food intolerances might be.
Also, learn which seeds are available locally. Our local feed mill only offers wheat, oats and sunflower seeds from the list above, so we feed our chickens, rabbits and goats with those grains. Each type of animal gets a somewhat different mix. The chickens thrive on a higher percentage of fats than the goats, so they get a higher proportion of sunflower seed (and would get even more if it was less expensive.) The rabbits do better on a low-fat diet and only get sunflower seeds when they are lactating. Our mix is lower in protein than I would like, so we supplement protein in other ways. There’s more about that in the next section.
Feed Components: Supplements
Whole grain-based feed rations may need to be supplemented with extra protein, vitamins and minerals. There are several ways to approach this.
Pigs and chickens can thrive on animal-based protein. Ours get extra milk, broken eggs, whey, and cheeses that don’t turn out right. The chickens also get bugs picked from our garden and scraps from our rabbit butchering. (We don’t give raw meat to our pigs, lest it should give them ideas, as they are large and have powerful jaws.)
Herbivores, of course, need plant-based protein. That’s easy during the growing season. Most new green growth is reasonably high in protein, and you can collect and feed them especially high-protein plants. In our area, these include willow, mulberry, clover, dandelions, comfrey, redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus; some other plants commonly called pigweed have poor feed value), chicory and purslane. Ask your local extension about high-protein weeds in your area. Some of these weeds dry well for winter feeding. You also can increase the protein content of grains by sprouting them. (Read more about that here.)
Vitamins and minerals can be provided through commercial salt-mineral mixes or through feeding a wide variety of foods. Our goats and rabbits have free-choice access to mineral and salt mixes. We also see that they have access to a wide variety of grasses, forbs and woody plants, which tend to concentrate different vitamins and minerals.
Our chickens get oyster shell as a calcium supplement; the rest of their vitamin and mineral intake comes from the wide variety of animal and vegetable foods they eat. We’re still feeding our pigs a commercial ration now, trying to figure out how to transition.
The Ongoing Experiment
Statistics about the nutritional content of weeds or grains can be a useful jumping-off point, but they don’t provide the last word. The nutritional content of plants depends somewhat on the content of the soils in which they grow, the time at which they’re harvested, and many other factors.
You can try to formulate a ration that seems, on paper, to meet the needs of your livestock. The next step is to feed it and see how your animals respond. Do they eat what you offer? Do they keep producing well? Do they lose or gain weight? What do you notice about their overall health? Keep paying attention and making adjustments. You are the expert on what works for your animals, in your circumstances.
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