This post originally appeared on my short lived homesteading blog in the summer of 2013. I’m bringing several of the posts from there over to this blog.
Something that we’re experimenting with is animal feed. When we first started raising chickens about seven years ago we didn’t know that there were any options other than keeping them in an enclosed pen and feeding them commercial feed.
When we moved to Wyoming, four years ago, we had learned a little bit more (not much) about raising chickens and decided to free range them during the day. I’ve read that a chicken will eat about 20% of what it needs when offered green grass. Add in the bugs (worms and grasshoppers) that they get and I imagine that number jumps up quite a bit. Historically chickens were not bought special feed. They were essentially left on their own to forage for grass, seeds and bugs while also existing on the feed that was dropped by the cows and horses. Not to mention that they would go through the cow and horse droppings also.
Free ranging not only helps our feed bill but also lets our chickens be chickens. Until recently we let our chickens and ducks out first thing in the morning and then locked them in the coop at night. This worked well.
And then it stopped working well.
I kept finding the chickens in the field next door and would have to call them home. Then the ducks decided that it would be a good idea to lay their eggs in the lot across the road. We determined new fencing was in order. Our two acres is fenced on three sides in large woven wire (the kind that is to keep out a cow) and on one side in barbed wire. They didn’t go to the yard on the other side of the barbed wire but going through the cattle fencing was no problem (except for one chubby duck who kept getting hung up). We decided to make a nice big area just for the chickens and ducks.
We put in about 300 feet of fencing surrounding the chicken coop and the duck house. So far it has been working very well. They seem to like their space and I like not having chicken poo on the front porch. We do open the gate for a couple of hours in the evening to let them roam the rest of the yard thinking they can’t get in too much trouble in that short amount of time.
The downside to not free ranging all day is the concern that they need more feed. A couple of months ago we started mixing our own feed instead of using commercial feed. We’re combining wheat and legumes (usually peas), then soaking that and sprouting it. The wheat and legumes stretch further when soaked and sprouted and they seem to really like it. We also have free choice oyster shell and about once a week I add kelp into their wheat/bean mixture. They also get all of our vegetable scraps. During hunting season they get the deer and antelope carcass when my husband is cutting up the meat. In the fall my husband brings carved pumpkins home that would otherwise be tossed out from where he works.
This year we decided to try to plant some crops specifically for the chickens and ducks. I did a little research and found that many of the things that work well for poultry are things we’ve had success growing. Plus most are foods that can be eaten by either poultry or humans. We currently have in the ground mangle beets, pumpkins, sunflowers, carrots, turnips, dent corn and cow peas plus a small patch of alfalfa and an even smaller patch of millet. I’m not sure how successful any of the crops turn out. So far the corn is looking great (update: ears did not form on the corn), the beets and turnips are just coming up, the sunflower seeds don’t look very good (I think I’m going to replant) and the carrots and pumpkins have yet to appear. I just put the cow peas, alfalfa and millet in so too soon to tell on those (update = failed).
As hopeful as I am that these crops will grow and help feed our poultry, I’d like to do something different in the future. I’ve been reading about permaculture and as a part of that using perennial crops for livestock feeding. We have been working on improving our soil and grass here but still have bare patches that we are working on. Using chicken tractors really did a lot to help improve our grass twelve feet by twelve feet at a time. The chicken tractors are bottomless chicken pens that the birds live in. They are moved daily to fresh grass. The chickens have many of the benefits of free ranging (they are usually referred to as pastured poultry when raised in tractors) and the soil/grass benefits from the chickens working the ground and leaving their droppings (fertilizer). I am absolutely amazed at the difference where we’ve had tractors compared to where we did not have tractors.
When we moved to this land it had been over grazed by horses. We did not have any grass on it. There was some sage brush and lots of cactus. Now we have very little cactus, lots of grass and the back section has lots of sage brush. We’re filling in the remaining bare spots this year with grass seed, clover and the alfalfa patch (the millet we are growing in the garden) along with wood chimps and we’ll add composted cow manure. We’ve decided that our land is actually good enough that we’re going to be adding goats in the very near future (like next week).
Using rotational grazing we are hopeful that we can give them a good portion of their feed just from our land. We will still be buying hay (which I’ve found out is not an easy task) and we’re looking at other things to grow to feed the goats. While we would really like to move to a more in-depth perennial feeding system- like discussed in this article– we plan to move from here in a couple of years so are not really sure how much money we want to invest in a long term system. At the moment the plan is to plan more cover crops that can be used for feed. And also plant more annuals that can be stored for winter feed. Many of the things we are growing for the ducks and chickens will also work for the goats.
We’re also exploring growing fodder as shown in this video but with a homemade system (the one in the video is several thousand dollars).
Stay tuned for a second installment of this article in the future.
Do you grow your own animal feed?
Shared at Simple Lives Thursday