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

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

Image source: Pixabay.com

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.

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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.

How do you keep your animal feed prices low? Share your tips in the section below:

Discover The Secret To Saving Thousands At The Grocery Store. Read More Here.

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.

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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:

Discover The Secret To Saving Thousands At The Grocery Store. Read More Here.