Comfrey: The Livestock Feeder, Soil Builder & Plant Disease Stopper

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Comfrey: The Livestock Feeder, Soil Builder & Plant Disease Stopper

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Comfrey (Symphytum spp.) is one of our most distinctive weeds, with its broad hairy leaves, tall flower stalks and deep taproots. It’s also one of the most persistent. Many varieties don’t spread by seed, but they do spread laterally in clumps. Their tough leaves effectively squash out competition. It’s practically impossible to pull their deep roots up in their entirety, and any fragment of root left in the ground is likely to regrow.

Fortunately, comfrey also has many useful properties for the homesteader, including its leaves being used as livestock feed, soil conditioners and preventers of plant disease. All these uses derive from the fact that comfrey’s deep taproots reach down into the subsoil and bring up minerals and nutrients to a level where they’re available to us.

Feeding Comfrey

Comfrey has been used traditionally as a feed for various kinds of livestock, including horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. Comfrey leaves, cut early before the plant flowers, are as protein-rich as clover and alfalfa, and their mineral-rich quality also provides many micronutrients that can improve animal health.

In recent years, studies have come out showing that comfrey contains compounds which may cause cancer or damage the liver. This has understandably left people worried about either taking it as an internal medicine themselves or feeding it to their livestock.

However, the studies that show these results have focused either on feeding comfrey as a very large percentage of the total diet or on taking a concentrated distillation of comfrey. Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats (2010) also recommends comfrey as goat-safe, according to extensive anecdotal evidence rather than a formal study. I have heard from many homesteaders who offer comfrey to their animals along with a wide variety of other feeds; their animals eat it and show no ill-effects. This mostly matches my experience.

Comfrey: The Livestock Feeder, Soil Builder & Plant Disease Stopper

Image source: Pixabay.com

Some of our pigs have been enthusiastic eaters of comfrey, which is supposed to be an appetite stimulant for them as well as a nutritious feed. So have some of our goats and all of our chickens. We’ve never offered them comfrey only; it’s always been part of a wide range of options. We’ve offered comfrey to our rabbits, but they usually refuse to eat it. I have read that animals are more willing to eat comfrey after it has “wilted” for a day. This seems to work for some farmers; our animals either eat it fresh or don’t eat it at all. I have also read that comfrey can be dried and fed, but none of our animals have been willing to eat dried comfrey, although they’re happy to tear into dried burdock.

Comfrey for Soil-Building and Weed-Stopping

Comfrey’s high nutrient and mineral content also make it an excellent garden or orchard soil-builder, and so far this use remains non-controversial. Incorporated into your compost pile, comfrey leaves will break down quickly and add generous amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and other minerals. (For quicker breakdown, add the leaves under a layer of other wet materials so that they start to decompose quickly instead of air-drying.) Undecomposed comfrey leaves can be buried in planting holes along with seedlings to provide a quick localized nutrient boost.

Comfrey leaves also make good organic mulch. They’re broad, thick and tough, presenting a good barrier to weeds, and their high nutrient profile means they’ll enrich your bed as they break down. As with other green mulches, don’t pile them much more than an inch deep, lest they should rot and turn slimy. A British gardener reports that slugs are drawn to decomposing comfrey leaves, which distracts them from eating actual growing vegetable plants. I don’t have much of a slug problem, so I’ve had no chance to verify this.

Some sources suggest being selective about which plants you use fresh comfrey on. One specific website says that comfrey, because of its high potassium content, is especially beneficial for flowers, fruits and fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and cukes. Other sources recommend planting comfrey in orchards, partly for this reason (also, perhaps, partly because it outcompetes grass so effectively).

Leafy greens or root crops mulched with comfrey may go to seed prematurely. I think this must apply only to true root crops—carrots, parsnips, beets, etc.—and not to tuber crops. Some people bury comfrey leaves along with potatoes to reduce the incidence of scab. I have done this for the last two years and have had much less trouble with scab.

What’s your experience with comfrey—in your garden, your orchard, or the diets of your animals? Share your thoughts in the comment section below:

Dirt-Cheap, Non-GMO Livestock Feed? Yes!

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Dirt-Cheap, Non-GMO Livestock Feed? Yes!

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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.

Diatomaceous Earth: The All-Natural Livestock De-Wormer!

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.

Dirt-Cheap, Non-GMO Livestock Feed? Yes!

Image source: Pixabay.com

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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The Livestock Feed That Grows Even During Droughts

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The Livestock Feed That Grows Even During Droughts

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When you think of natural livestock feeding, what do you picture? A smooth, green pasture with animals grazing on grass and clover? That provides a large part of what’s needed. But trees and brush also can be valuable livestock feed. They have several uses.

Woody plants provide extra fiber/roughage and can help to settle digestions upset by too much rich food. Their deep roots bring vitamins and minerals up from lower levels of the soil and make them accessible to livestock. In dry years, these deep roots are especially valuable. During the long rainless summer of 2016, when my family ran drip irrigation on the gardens 24/7 and watched the pastures turning brown, the deep-rooted trees and bushes remained green and growing, giving us something fresh to feed our livestock.

Who Wants Brush?

Goats are champion brush-eaters, and they naturally prefer browsing to grazing. Sometimes, ours get diarrhea when they’re turned out on lush spring pasture. Feeding lots of branches gets enough fiber into their systems to settle their digestions. Sheep also enjoy a certain amount of browse. Some farmers report that heritage breeds of sheep are much more willing to eat browse than recently developed breeds. Horses and cows are primarily adapted for grazing, but some browse can be a useful fiber/vitamin supplement for them, as well. Rabbits should have some woody plants to add fiber to their diets and to keep their teeth from overgrowing.

What Can You Feed?

Willow (Salix spp) and mulberry (Morus spp) are particularly nutritious high-protein feeds. They can grow very rapidly in favorable conditions, which makes them easy to coppice for continual growth (mulberry is even considered invasive in some areas). Willow is also pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory; salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, was derived from willow bark. We feed plenty of this to our goats after kidding. Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) is a hardy legume with protein-rich leaves and seedpods. It’s supposed to cope well with drought, poor sandy soil and other challenging conditions.

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The Livestock Feed That Grows Even During Droughts

Image source: Pixabay.com

Other palatable trees and shrubs include apple, birch (Betula spp — which also has mild de-worming properties), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina — do not ever feed your animals poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix), rose (another mild de-wormer), blackberry (also has some disinfectant and digestion-settling properties) and raspberry (beneficial to animals during pregnancy and soon after birth, and will do no harm at other times). Do not feed branches from stone fruit trees (peach, plum, cherry, apricot nectarine), yew, poison sumac, mountain laurel, or any type of laurel or rhododendron.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Check with your local Cooperative Extension and with your neighbors about what grows and what is palatable in your area. Be prepared for conflicting answers. There’s controversy over whether or not to feed some types of trees and brush. Some sources list maple as toxic; our goats sometimes eat dried sugar maple leaves as a treat alongside their hay and come to no harm. Some sources say to avoid feeding any kind of evergreens, but we give our goats small amounts of white pine branches when they suffer from worms, though we don’t feed pine regularly.

How Can You Offer Browse?

This depends very much on your animals and your land. Goats usually will eat any browse included in their pastures, so enthusiastically that they kill the plants — they’ll completely defoliate low shrubs, and girdle the bark of trees so they die. That can be useful if you have goats and you want a wooded/brushy area cleared; you can just remove toxic plants, fence the area and turn the goats loose in it. The other choice is to keep your goats on grass pasture, cut branches elsewhere and throw them in.

Browse, as well as grass, can be stored for winter. My family cuts willow early, when the leaves have just reached their full size and their nutritive peak. We then bundle the branches and hang them high in the barn rafters. After several months, they’re thoroughly dry and ready to go into a bin for winter feeding. We also bundle and dry raspberry plants.

For obvious reasons, browse for rabbits needs to be cut and put into their enclosures.

I haven’t raised cows or horses. Some sources say they won’t eat browse if they have access to plenty of graze. Others report that they will eat cut branches that are offered them and will nibble on trees or shrubs in their pasture without killing them. So far as I can tell from reading, sheep’s willingness to browse depends on the breed and the particular flock. In a dry year when fresh graze is less available, most natural grazers may show more enthusiasm for branches. I hope that some of you who raise horses, sheep and cattle will comment on this post and tell us about your herd’s eating habits.

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7 Invasive Weeds You Can Turn Into Livestock Feed

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7 Invasive Weeds You Can Turn Into Livestock Feed

Stinging nettles. Image source: Pixabay.com

Most homesteaders have to deal with some kinds of invasive plants. On our farm in upstate New York, the main culprit is multiflora rose. People planted it as deer feed back in the 1960s and now, it’s everywhere, taking over hayfields and pastures with its sprawling big-thorned fast-growing stems. Multiflora rose removal was one of my least favorite chores: heavy, prickly and never-ending. Then we discovered that our goats enjoyed eating multiflora rose. And then we learned that it was actually good for them.

I still spend time every summer hacking down multiflora roses in the orchard and pasture, but my attitude has changed. Instead of endlessly beating back a useless nuisance, I’m harvesting a forage crop.

Deciding What’s Safe To Feed

I’ll discuss some specific nutritious invasives below. I likely won’t include all the invasives in your area, so you’ll need to do some of your own research. This may be complicated by the fact that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. Some plants, for example, appear both on lists of safe food for rabbits and lists of plants toxic to rabbits. Here are a few factors to keep in mind as you decide what to feed your animals:

Many plants are safe when fed as a small portion of the overall diet, but become problematic in heavy concentrations. It’s generally not a good idea to offer only one or two types of forage to your animals, or to feed huge quantities the first time they’re introduced to a new food. Offered free choice, as part of a varied diet, many weeds can be safe and healthy. Some, like mountain laurel or locoweed, are truly poisonous and should be completely avoided. But if you find a lot of recommendations and some cautions around a particular plant, you might try offering your animals a small amount of it and seeing what happens.

Diatomaceous Earth: The All-Natural Livestock De-Wormer!

Toxicity and nutrition may vary depending on your location and soil type. Try asking local farmers and/or your local Cooperative Extension about the effects of plants grown in your area.

Some plants are healthy at one stage, problematic at another. For instance, we feed young leaves of burdock and curly dock to our rabbits, but after the plants have flowered we stop feeding; older plants may accumulate nitrates to the point of mild toxicity. If you keep cutting plants off before they go to seed, you can harvest young leaves over a long season.

Plants that are safe in themselves may be unpalatable or unsafe if they’re diseased. Clover is generally a safe and healthy feed, but in my region in wet summers it can develop white mold; we take care not to feed any of this to our rabbits, since rabbits are highly mold-sensitive.

Many different plants may share the same common name. Use Latin names in your research to be sure you have the right plant.

A Gallery Of Gourmet Weeds

1. Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), the thorny invader previously described, contains 10-13 percent protein, and it can help ruminants to expel worms. Goats, sheep, cows and horses can eat it. Our goats don’t mind the thorns. After the rose has flowered, our goats may get diarrhea from eating too many of the hips at once. I’ve seen one report of a horse injuring its eye on the thorns.

2. Kudzu (Pueraria montana). Farmers south of us have reported great success with feeding kudzu to cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and horses. It’s high in protein, and apparently highly appealing to many animals. Given its legendary growth rate, it’s a nearly inexhaustible food supply.

7 Invasive Weeds You Can Turn Into Livestock Feed

White Mulberry. Image source: Pixabay.com

3. White mulberry (Morus alba) is an invasive tree in many states. Its protein-rich leaves and stems are a valuable feed for cows, goats, sheep and rabbits; pigs and chickens will eat its fruit.

4. Burdock (Arctium spp.) is a nuisance in pastures. Its flat leaves spread widely, killing everything else; its burrs tangle in animals’ hair. But young burdock leaves, cut before the plant flowers, are rich in protein and minerals. We feed tender small burdock leaves to our rabbits, who tolerate them, and larger leaves to our goats, who relish them. Chickens and cows also will eat burdock leaves, up to a point. Older leaves may accumulate excessive nitrates, so don’t feed them heavily.

5. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) does just what its name suggests. I was very displeased when it started taking over a corner of our pasture. Then I learned that it’s rich in protein, iron, calcium and vitamins. Once it’s dried, it no longer stings. We give our dried nettle to nursing mother rabbits in the early spring before other rich foods are readily available. Chickens, pigs, cows, horses, sheep and goats also can benefit from eating dried stinging nettle.

6. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) self-seeds copiously and comes up in dense mats. Since it starts to grow earlier than many other annuals, its leaves can provide an early treat and a vitamin boost for chickens, rabbits, goats, cows and sheep. Later in the year it may be less palatable—and any way you’ll want to cut it or graze it before it goes to seed. Some sources say it shouldn’t be given to horses.

7. Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) takes over garden beds and farm fields. It’s widely agreed that young plants which haven’t yet set seed are safe and nutritious feed for chickens, rabbits, pigs, sheep, cows and goats. We’ve fed seeded redroot pigweed to our rabbits with no ill-effect.

What are a few of your favorite weeds to feed livestock? Share your tips in the section below:

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The Corn-Free, All-Natural Way To Feed Your Backyard Chickens

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Image source: Pixabay.com

Image source: Pixabay.com

The standard advice for feeding laying hens is simple: Just buy corn and layer mash. And if you’re primarily concerned with saving time and trouble, this is probably the right approach for you. But if you’re concerned with health and sustainability, you might consider another approach. Natural feeding can allow you to avoid pesticide-treated GMO corn. It also helps you make fuller use of your land’s resources in feeding your flock, and produces tastier, healthier eggs. We’ve been moving toward more natural feeding for several years, and so far we’ve been pleased with the results.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to natural feeding. This article lays out some basic natural food sources. Don’t worry about getting the proportions exactly right. Proportions matter if you’re feeding one pre-blended ration, but if you consistently offer your hens different types of whole foods, they can select what they need. Think about what you have available, mix and match to create your feeding program, and notice how it works for your hens. Make adjustments as needed.

Outdoor Feeds

Pasture

Pasture provides chickens with greens, worms and bugs; it also may include seeds and fruits. Pasture can provide a substantial portion of your flock’s energy requirements. It also provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals, and those benefits get passed on to you; eggs from pasture-raised chickens are higher in omega-3 acids and some vitamins.[i] Foraging also keeps chickens occupied and makes them less likely to attack each other.

Fully free-ranging hens get the broadest nutritional boost from their extensive pasture.

They’re also quite vulnerable to predators, they may tear up your gardens, and they may hide their eggs where you can’t find them. Electro-net or other portable fencing allows chickens to range somewhat while providing a boundary.

Unless you clip your birds’ wings, they’ll be able to fly out. Hawks also can fly in. Chicken tractors of various kinds allow you to fully enclose chickens while still providing access to fresh pasture. The tractor must be moved frequently.

Diatomaceous Earth: The All-Natural Livestock De-Wormer!

Our current chicken setup features a small A-frame yard with an open bottom which rotates around our chicken coop and chicken compost pile.

Compost

Tractored chickens are likely to exhaust the bug and worm supply in their fenced yard fairly quickly. Compost piles are a good source for bugs and worms and also give chickens a chance to enjoy scratching while not destroying their fresh pasture. We throw weeds into the compost pile throughout the year; the chickens eat parts of them, and the rest rots down and provides habitat for red wigglers, sow bugs and many other chicken treats. We water the pile when it starts to dry out. Sometimes we also lay a board down over part of the pile for a day or two at a time; flipping the board always reveals a layer of sow bugs for the chickens to gobble.

Supplements

Some people manage to raise laying hens entirely on compost and pasture. This works best if they have access to extensive piles and pastures. Many backyard growers will need to offer supplements, as we do.

Grain

Image source: Pixabay.com

Image source: Pixabay.com

Seeds are a very compact and efficient source of energy. We still buy some grain to feed our chickens. Corn and soy are the basis of most commercial chicken feeds, but we avoid these because they are usually genetically modified. Many other seeds, including wheat, oats, millet, barley and sunflower seeds, are not commercially available in GMO forms. The grains are high in energy, relatively low in protein. Sunflower seeds are high in fats and proteins. We feed a mix of wheat, oats and sunflower seed ordered from the local feed mill.

Field peas are not genetically modified now, although that may be changing in the next few years. Lentils are non-GMO and expected to stay that way for some time, according to the website GMO Compass. Both are high in protein but not fatty like sunflower seeds. Our feed mill doesn’t carry these, so we’ve had to find other protein sources.

Protein

Chickens need a high proportion of protein in their diets for health and good production. We’ve found several ways of supplementing protein with farm-raised inputs.

The pasture and compost provide some bugs and worms. Japanese beetles handpicked from our gardens are another good protein source; we collect them in a jug, pour them out into a shallow pan of water in the chicken yard, and watch the hens gobble them up. We’ve also given the hens minnows from our overstocked pond. Some poultry keepers raise red wiggler worms or soldier flies to supplement their hens’ diets.

Our chickens also get meat scraps. When we butcher rabbits, the hens get the offal. When we eat meat with bones in it the hens get the bones to pick.

Dairy products also work well for hens. They get the whey from our cheesemaking; usually we put it in a waterer and let them drink it, and sometimes we soak their grain in it. Cheeses that store too long and get too strong and sour for our taste also go to the hens.

Some poultry-keepers collect discarded food from delis or restaurants to feed their hens. This may contain a high proportion of meat and dairy products.

Vegetable Supplements

We live in upstate New York, where the ground is frozen and covered in snow for several months each year. During the winter our chickens move off the pasture and into an enclosed coop. The yolks of their eggs turn noticeably paler, as they have a more restricted diet. We periodically feed them fodder pumpkins, weeds and limp leaves from the greenhouse, leftover baked potatoes (never feed raw potatoes!), and wheatgrass to provide variety, vitamins and minerals.

What advice would you add on feeding chickens an all-natural diet? Share your tips in the section below:

[i] Jeff Mulhollem, “Research shows eggs from pastured chickens may be more nutritious,” Penn State News, July 20, 2010 (http://news.psu.edu/story/166143/2010/07/20/research-shows-eggs-pastured-chickens-may-be-more-nutritious)

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How To Grow Livestock Grass During Winter — Quickly & Easily

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Joanna Hoyt

Joanna Hoyt

During the growing season it’s easy to pasture livestock, offering them a healthy and varied diet. When the snow flies, though, things get harder.

But even in a Northern winter you can offer your animals fresh greens by sprouting grains indoors. This sprouted grain grass is often called “fodder” — a slightly confusing term since it’s also used generically to mean animal feed.

Many types of animals can benefit from fodder. My family’s meat rabbits live mainly on fodder and root crops through the winter. We’ve also given fodder to our chickens and goats, usually as a supplement rather than the main feed. I’ve read about other farmers who give fodder to their horses, cows, sheep and pigs.

You can buy an expensive ready-to-go fodder system in order to enjoy these benefits. Or you can spend a little bit of time and a very little bit of money and create a fodder system of your own.

What You Need

Seeds

How To Grow Livestock Grass During Winter -- Quickly & Easily

Joanna Hoyt

In theory you could sprout any kind of grain or nutritious seed. In practice, some are easier than others.

Wheat and barley are the most common fodder crops. They’re GMO-free. They also germinate quickly and easily. Speed matters — the faster your fodder grows, the less likely it is to be colonized by mold. We grow wheat because it’s available from our feed mill and because it thrives in our cool, 50-60 degree (Fahrenheit) greenhouse temperatures. I’ve read that barley grows best at around 70 degrees.

Sprouting Setup:

For the early stages of sprouting you’ll need watertight containers that are easy to clean and rust-free. We use plastic coffee cans. Cut small slits in the bottoms of nearly half the cans; you’ll need one more solid than slotted cans.

How To Grow Livestock Grass During Winter -- Quickly & Easily

Joanna Hoyt

For the later stages you’ll need trays or pans where you can spread your sprouts out in a thin layer and water them. We use 10-inch-x-20-inch plastic nursery trays. These also need notches cut in one end to let the water drain out.

You’ll need some kind of frame or table on which you can spread your trays. Prop the un-slotted ends up slightly so the water will wash through slowly and drain out the slotted ends. Put some kind of gutter (rain gutter or split PVC pipe work well) under the slotted ends; slope it and run it into a bucket.

Growing Fodder

Winnowing

Feed-store grain may contain a lot of chaff and dust which increase the chances that your fodder will turn moldy unless you take time to winnow your seed before soaking it. Take two large mixing bowls or cooking pots. Put a manageable amount of grain in one. (I find 3 quarts is the most I can winnow effectively at one time by the easy method described below.) Stand outside in a breezy place, or inside in front of a fan. (In the latter case, spread out a tarp or blanket to catch the chaff.) Hold the full bowl at shoulder height and pour its contents slowly into the other bowl. Wipe the dust out of the newly empty bowl, switch the bowls and repeat the process until no more dust and chaff blow out.

Soaking and Rinsing

How To Grow Livestock Grass During Winter -- Quickly & Easily

Joanna Hoyt

Soak one day’s worth of grain in room-temperature water inside one of your solid cans. Let it stand for about 12 hours. Then pour it into one of the slotted cans, and set atop a solid can to catch the drips. Start soaking another batch in your solid can. Keep all cans loosely lidded.

Rinse the seeds in your slotted cans twice daily with room-temperature water. In two or three days, when seeds have visibly sprouted, they’ll be ready for spreading.

Spreading and Watering

Gently pour the sprouts out into trays and spread them evenly. (Three cups of dry seed will make enough sprouts to nicely fill a 10-inch-x-20-inch tray.) Set them under grow lights or in a sunny window to encourage quicker growth. Water gently with room-temperature water twice daily until you decide your fodder is grown enough to harvest. We usually feed wheatgrass to our rabbits at day seven or eight. The chickens will eat it at this stage, but they’re also are happy with less-developed fodder that still looks more like sprouted grain than grass.

How To Grow Livestock Grass During Winter -- Quickly & Easily

Joanna Hoyt

Feed the whole plant — root, shoot and seed.

Troubleshooting

Mold is the main threat to fodder systems. Scrub all cans and trays with soap, hot water and bleach between batches of fodder. You also can add a very small splash of bleach to the water in which you soak your seeds for their first 12 hours. Temperature is important. We don’t try to grow fodder during the warm season, and we don’t rinse or water seed with warm water.

We still check each batch before feeding it, looking at the tops and the roots and smelling the whole thing. I’ve read that moldy feed can be fatal to livestock, so be careful.

Have you ever grown fodder? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:  

No, You Don’t Have To Raise Chicks Under Heat Lamps

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Image source: Pixabay.com

Image source: Pixabay.com

The standard advice about raising chicks is to keep them under heat lamps, feed them chick starter, and give them coccidiostats. The first time my family bought hatchery chicks we followed this advice and ended up with healthy birds. But this approach was completely dependent on purchased inputs, and it may not have been the best start in life for what would later be pastured poultry.

There is another approach to chick raising for homesteaders, one that doesn’t require a power source or constant feed-store inputs. We tried this approach the second time we bought hatchery chicks. The result: hardy and precocious birds who foraged efficiently, started laying early, and weathered temperature extremes well.

Housing

Housing for chicks is fairly similar whether you’re using the commercial model or the alternative one. For their first 3 weeks or so, before their feathers grow in, chicks need protection from drafts and chill. Homesteaders in the cold North should keep their chicks’ brooder boxes inside. Make the box sides at least 12 inches high, and cover the top with a wire lid that will keep chicks in and rodents out while allowing air to circulate. We bedded the floor with wood shavings from our planer. Shavings, grass clippings, chopped leaves and straw are all acceptable bedding materials. Don’t use cedar shavings—some sources report that the essential oils in cedar are harmful to chicks.

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Standard advice says that young chicks can be raised with as little as half a square foot of floor space per bird, but if you want to raise pastured chickens it’s wise to start with a larger box. This gives chicks more room to explore, and allows you to add branches on which they can practice climbing and roosting. Less-crowded birds with more to explore are less likely to peck at each other. A larger box also allows you to add hot water bottles and sod chunks, as described below.

Heating

No, You Don’t Have To Raise Chicks Under Heat Lamps

Image source: Pixabay.com

Young chicks don’t need a heat lamp, which tends to keep the whole box very warm. Instead, offer them hot-water bottles to snuggle against when they’re cold. During the day we filled a gallon milk jug with hot tap water and draped it with loose flaps of polar fleece. The chicks crept under the flaps to warm up at intervals and then ran off to explore the cooler portions of their box. At night we put a smaller cardboard box, lined with Mylar and fleece, into the starter box. In the middle of this box was a syrup tin, which we filled with boiling water just before we went to bed. The tin was wrapped in fleece and set in a cardboard compartment so the chicks couldn’t scald themselves against it. Most of the chicks would run into the warm box at night; we shooed the stragglers in and shut the door. It’s important to round off the corners of the night box. We lost two chicks who got wedged too tightly into square corners.

Once the chicks are basically covered with feathers instead of fluff they’re ready to be put outside unless you’re still in the dead of winter. (Chicks raised in cooler temperatures tend to feather out faster; this is another advantage of not using a heat lamp.) In late April, when the weather was still unsettled, we put our three-week-old chicks outside in a small well-insulated coop with access to a pasture run and a compost pile. We continued to offer them a hot-water bottle at night. In their fourth week the highs dropped to the 30s and the lows to below freezing. The chicks thrived.

Feeding

If you want your chickens to eat a wide variety of natural foods as adults, it makes sense to feed your chicks a natural and diverse diet. For the first few days the chicks need soft or finely ground foods. Offering a variety of foods provides a good mix of vitamins and minerals. It’s important to include high-calorie foods and high-protein foods. We started by offering our chicks mashed potatoes and whole-grain flour (for calories), scrambled eggs (for protein) and dried stinging nettle (for protein and vitamins). As they grew we switched the grain portion from flour to rolled oats. Then we offered whole seeds (oats, wheat, sunflower seed, millet and milo) soaked in water or — for extra protein — whey. Later, they were able to handle dry whole seeds. We also put a sod block into their brooder box as a source of both grit and fresh greens. We continued feeding seeds, eggs, nettle and potato after they moved outside. These chicks were more precocious and enthusiastic foragers than the batch we’d raised on chick starter.

We found some helpful suggestions for natural feeding on Facebook’s Poultry Natural Living and Herbal Care group. The Permies forum also contains many discussions of home-grown and alternative chicken feeds.

The alternative method of chick raising hasn’t been standardized and publicized like the commercial approach, and we’re still learning how to do it better. If you’ve experimented with alternative methods, please share what you’ve learned in the section below:

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Here’s How Smart Homesteaders Avoid Cleaning Out Manure

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Here’s How Smart Homesteaders Avoid Cleaning Out Manure

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Winter is coming, and for those of us who live in snowy climates the task of cleaning our barns and chicken coops is about to get more complicated. One solution is simply to stop cleaning out over the winter and try the deep-litter bedding approach.

You’re probably already covering the floor of your stalls and coops with some kind of high-carbon material like sawdust, shavings, wood chips, leaves, pine needles, hay or straw. Instead of cleaning the bedding out once it’s been covered with manure, just leave everything in place and keep adding a clean layer on top.

The Advantages

Deep litter has several advantages.

First, there’s the convenience. You don’t have to chop through the snow banks between your barn or coop and your compost pile; you don’t have to struggle to pry up frozen-down bedding and break it into manageable shovelfuls or forkfuls.

Then there’s the warmth. As the pile grows deeper, the well-insulated manure and bedding below will begin to compost, creating heat which your animals may welcome on cold nights.

This composting process gives you a head start; in spring you’ll have partially decomposed material instead of raw bedding that has been frozen all winter long.

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Chickens love to scratch, and deep litter will give them more scope to amuse themselves. The composting litter provides a breeding ground for bugs and worms, which can be a valuable protein supplement. Harvey Ussery, backyard chicken raiser and author of many articles which you can find online, says that deep litter also breeds immune-boosting microorganisms.

The Disadvantages

Here’s How Smart Homesteaders Avoid Cleaning Out Manure

Image source: Pixabay.com

Deep litter has drawbacks, of course, although most can be avoided with careful management. There’s the mammoth task of cleaning up in spring, when you have a deep, dense, compacted layer of litter to remove. There’s the issue of air quality. Properly managed deep litter will compost fairly cleanly, but if you have too much nitrogen for your carbon-producing materials to absorb you may end up with excess ammonia. This is more likely to be an issue with chicken droppings, which are highly nitrogenous, than with ruminant droppings. Ventilation is also a factor; a tightly sealed building is much more susceptible to air quality problems than an open or very well-ventilated one. There’s also a need for vertical space. My goats may be on deep litter from November through March, and by then their stall floors are two-feet deep in compacted bedding.  Remember to think about door height as well as overall stall height.

You’ll need to consider all of these factors in deciding whether deep litter works for some or all of your animals. Here’s how that’s works on my farm in upstate NY, where the winters tend to be cold, snowy, windy and long:

How to Make it Work

I leave my two goats on deep-litter bedding through the winter. They’re in roomy open stalls in a shed that’s open to the outdoors on all but the coldest and windiest nights. I’m able to add enough hay to absorb the nitrogen from their manure and urine so the whole mix composts well. I have noticed the increased warmth of the deep-litter floor. I haven’t had trouble with smells and the goats haven’t had respiratory problems.

My chickens are another story. In summer they have a moving yard and also a fixed compost pile to scratch in. In winter they’re closed into a fairly tight winter coop with a lot of south-facing glass. The coop can get fairly warm on sunny days, and there’s not a lot of air circulating. I don’t use deep bedding for our hens in winter. But some folks do manage well with deep litter for chickens, including Ussery, who lives further down the coast where the winters are milder. He uses Joel Salatin’s recommendation of allowing at least five square feet of floor space per bird. Ussery adds that it’s helpful to bed with coarse materials very high in carbon, like leaves or wood chips; he says the coarseness makes the material easier to scratch up while the high carbon ratio allows the material to absorb more nitrogen. Some farmers report that wet straw in chicken coops is easily colonized by toxic molds; others use straw and say they have no problems.

Pay attention to what works and doesn’t work on your farm. Reading about other people’s experiences can be a helpful starting point, but you can learn most from your own experience. Check the bedding daily; cover over areas that are extremely wet or soiled, and monitor if there’s visible mold. If you notice a mild ammonia smell, add more dry high-carbon bedding. If you have a major or persistent ammonia smell or mold, you may need to muck out after all. Watch whether your animals seem comfortable and healthy. Then tell your friends and neighbors, and perhaps also your fellow readers here, what you’ve learned.

What advice would you add on using the deep litter method? Share your tips in the section below:

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