2013-08-13 08.57.30-1

Livestock Feed From Your Backyard

Keeping livestock in your own backyard is being heralded as the new sustainability.  I mean really, how much more local could your eggs get?  It is a great idea, but one that needs some fine tuning.  Keeping livestock in your backyard, livestock that is dependent on commercial, grain based feed, is not sustainable.  I call this the longer tail-pipe phenomenon.  Electric cars are no more sustainable than gasoline powered cars, if the electric car is recharged on a grid that has power supplied to it by a fossil fuel based plant (think coal).  If you drive an electric car in Colorado Springs, and it is not charged with a solar panel, what you actually have is a longer tail-pipe.  The same holds true for keeping backyard livestock.  If you have to import their feed, feed that was produced and transported with fossil fuel, you have a little more to do in the name of sustainability.

Chickens are omnivores and will eat just about anything.  Chickens require a diet of roughly 1/5 protein, the rest should be carbohydrates and fat.  Chickens are one of the easiest backyard animals to provide appropriate food; the only problem is generating enough quantity to keep the chickens fat and sassy through the winter.  I plant a “Three Sisters” garden of corn, bean, and squash for my birds.  I also planted ten Siberian Pea Shrubs on my property.  Siberian Pea Shrubs produce lentils in a pod, and these lentils make excellent poultry food.  As a bonus, Siberian Pea Shrubs fix nitrogen into your soil, a plus here in Colorado.

Bees can be left to their own devices, which means on dry years there won’t be any honey for you.  On wet years the bees will store enough honey on their own that you can skim some; dry years, not so much.  Many bee keepers feed their bees mixtures of sugar and water, as well as pollen patties in the late winter.  If the bees were able to store enough honey and pollen the previous year, feeding your bees is unnecessary.  The best thing you can do for your bees is to plant flowers everywhere in your yard and beyond.  Plant flowers that bloom early in the spring (dandelions are best), flowers that bloom in the summer, and flowers that will hold their blooms well into fall.  These flowers are the food source for your bees (your livestock), so go all out.  It doesn’t hurt that they look nice as well.

If you keep fish in an aquaponics system, you have a couple of options for feeding your fish from your backyard.  Fish can be trained on composting worms, so if you have a vermiculture system you can pull a few worms a day to feed to your fish.  Fish can also be fed vegetable scraps (depending on the type of fish), and some aquapons (person who practices aquaponics) even grow duck week in shallow pools to feed to their fish.

If you keep rabbits, plant Jerusalem artichokes and comfrey.  Both plants are adored by rabbits, and comfrey is well known as a tonic for just about anything that ails a rabbit.  Rabbits can eat the leaves and stalks of both plants, as well as the roots of the Jerusalem artichoke (see picture above).  Feed the roots sparingly, as they can sometimes upset a rabbit’s stomach.  The leaves of both Jerusalem artichoke and comfrey can be fed fresh or dried, allowing you to put up some winter feed.  You can also grow sunflowers for your rabbits, but limit the amount you feed as the oily nature of sunflower seeds can give rabbits diarrhea when feed in large quantities.  Meat rabbits require a diet fairly high in protein; without high protein they will not gain adequate muscle mass.

Goats can be more difficult to feed from your backyard – in our arid conditions a pair of goats will almost always overrun a backyard.  In urban and suburban situations, goats are sometimes best owned jointly, allowing the goats to be moved from yard to yard.  Goats can also be used for fire mitigation in sloped neighborhoods, allowing the goats to browse while they reduce the hazardous fuel load on the landscape.

Remember to never throw away fruit or vegetables from your gardens, mini-orchards, or mini-vineyards.  This produce can often be fed to your livestock animals (do a quick internet search to double check each plant), and can round out an animal’s diet.  Currently, in my greenhouse, I have many cool season plants growing (and overgrowing), that I pick and feed to my chickens.  The birds love the fresh treats, and the nutrient density of the greens is quite high.

The act of feeding your livestock from you own backyard mandates that the landscape be balanced.  It is no longer possible to overburden your property, if you expect to feed your livestock from your property.  If you keep urban livestock, give some thought to how you can feed them from your own backyard.  Sustainable is a condition that is not tied to commodity crops or fossil fuel, so the more you can do to sever that tie, the better off you will be.  If you add in livestock feeding systems to your backyard farm, you will no longer be concerned with rising fuel costs, GMO grains, or supply problems.  Your animals will be healthier, and you will have greater peace of mind.

Got a favorite backyard plant that you grow for your urban livestock?  I’m always wanting to learn more on this topic, so leave a comment and let us know what works for you.

14 Responses to Livestock Feed From Your Backyard

  1. Chris December 13, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Great post, as always Christine! I really enjoyed hearing you on The Survival Podcast as well. Both you and Jack put out such great information that has helped a lot for my family trying to reach our goals of living a more sustainable lifestyle!

    • Christine December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

      That is so wonderful to hear! I also think pretty highly of Jack and his show – first rate operation. 🙂

  2. Robin December 13, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Hi Christine, great post. So just out of curiosity, since I don’t have chickens yet and don’t know exactly how much they eat, do you have to buy feed for your chickens? Or can they live off what you grow for them? Do you just have to buy in the winter when things are not growing here? Thanks for your get site. I am learning so much.

    • Christine December 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

      Hey Robin! Welcome to RTT. 🙂 Yes, at this point I still have to feed my birds, especially in the winter. The Siberian Pea Shrubs take many years to mature, and as such they aren’t producing enough yet to support our little flock. In time they should. As for how much does an average hen eat, actually, quite a lot. One laying hen eats about 100 lbs. of feed per year.

  3. Diana December 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Good info. I saw the Siberian Pea Shrubs at your house and plan to get some of them started in my yard next season.

    I have lots of weeds in my yard and my hens wait for me every morning in the summer to come out and pick some “salad” for them.

    • Christine December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

      My girls are the same way – they see me coming with Lamb’s Quarter and it’s game on! 😉

  4. Sarah December 15, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Thank you for all of your work! One thing my urban goats really enjoy is leaves- in my Westside neighborhood we have an abundance of elm and cottonwood trees, amongst others. We unwittingly created a “coppice” system by felling a line of volunteer seedlings to provide sunshine for the garden- the new branches and leaves those trees produce are abundantly delicious for the girls! During the summer the chickens, ducks, and goats all enjoy “weeds” from the neighborhood kids as well! Not even approaching completely sustainable but a good step!

    • Christine December 15, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

      Really good steps! Wow – that sounds like a heck-of-step in the right direction. I love the idea of a coppice system – letting nature do the lifting for you. 😉

  5. brad December 16, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Nice post… you seem to be(from your other posts) such a duck advocate. I’m surprised to not see more than a mention. or should we expect another post just for them…

    • Christine December 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      I love ducks! Check out this link for some of my reasons.

  6. Mike @ Midwestern Bite December 17, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    We’ve had our 7 laying hens for about three months now and I’m dabbling in growing some of their own food.

    For about a month I’ve been sprouting barley fodder for them and they go nuts for it!

    A couple months ago I started a meal worm colony to provide a little extra protein as well. Since the worms have to mature into darkling beatles and go through a full life cycle, the chicks haven’t eaten anything yet. But my patience is paying off and the eggs are hatching into tiny worms for them now. Hopefully the girls will enjoy the new food!

    • Christine December 17, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

      Fantastic! I’ve been wanting to get into sprouting barley as well. My good friend was growing meal worms, but her cat kept knocking over the container to try to play with them. 😉

  7. Nichole December 23, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    Ahh, what an awesome post! I think we all feel guilty for having to give feed to the birds! I wonder what you grow for your ducks, like Brad. I know they eat about the same as chickens, but anything special? In my experience, they destroy any new green growth (who cares if its grass, sunflowers, or a bush OR fenced off) and don’t eat too many weeds growing naturally in the backyard. I have purslane growing like mad in the warmer season,and it works great for attracting bugs and cushioning the feet, but they don’t really eat that either and its everywhere.

    • Christine December 23, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      Rumor has it that ducks can be “trained” as ducklings to eat certain plants (no, I have never tried this – though I aim to this spring). For instance, if you want your ducks to eat purslane as adults, when they are ducklings cut up purslane and add it to their food and water. Supposedly this training can be done for just about any plant that is edible. Ducks do have higher protein requirements than chickens, so make sure the ducks get an extra helping of meal worms, or red worms. 🙂

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