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The Day to Day Reality of Natural Livestock Feeding
"Let's go forage." Kevin said as he put on his gloves, and we grabbed the baskets and headed out to the blackberry hedge. The larger basket contained a pair of sturdy scissors, and we sometimes carried a trowel or pruners. But scissors usually did the job. The basket also contained a can of mixed grains, and any scraps from the kitchen which we had saved - lettuce leaves, carrot ends, cucumber peels, potato peels, apple cores, whatever we had from meal prep during the past 12 hours.
We dropped the grain can and the kitchen scraps off at the bunny hutches, and walked off down the road toward the woods, where the best blackberry hedges were hiding. Usually we'd look for mushrooms, often taking different paths through the woods from day to day, combining the foraging with other tasks and interests.
On the way out we swung down through the orchard for apple branches, and cut some tips full of leaves - about three per rabbit - and we added in one small apple for each, and a few for the chickens. We passed some plantain and added a bunch of that. Dandelions and parsley, or scrap from the garden often made their way into the basket as well.
We reached the blackberry hedge and cut the tender shoots from the ends of the vines. Several for each bunny - we had five bunnies to feed. On the way back, grasses (they loved the fall seed plumes, as well as soft green grass), other branch tips, clover blossoms (rabbit candy), and some bamboo from a patch by the stream topped the basket to a bouncy fullness. The contents of the basket would feed both the rabbits and the dozen or so chickens that we had never fed commercial pellets or crumbles.
Once we got back, Kevin would toss some of the grain in to the chickens, along with the rougher kitchen scrap and some grass or other wild forage. Then he'd divide the other forage into five piles - four large ones, and one small one, according to the needs of the rabbits.
Pulling the blackberry vines apart is a bit tricky, as is getting them into the hutches without scratching your arms. But once in, the rabbits devour them, leaves, vines, thorns and all. They eat branch tips with equal relish, and there is never a bit of branch leftover to indicate that they were not pleased to chomp it down.
The most common leftover in their hutches is grass. They'll eat everything else first - well, sometimes they'll leave some grape vine, and the fig leaves and maple leaves were not a great favorite, but pretty much everything else we give them, they tear into. Oh. Squash, not so much either.
The bunnies also have a grain dish in their hutches, which we top off with grain once each day. They typically will use about half a cup a day per rabbit. The grain mix may include any kind of grain, bean, pea, nut, or seed. They love them all.
The chickens eat everything once they get the hang of it also. Wild food for brooded chicks is an unfamiliar thing. It takes them several exposures to decide to eat it. They'll eat it best at first if it is chopped up, but pretty soon they'll peck it to death and all manner of food will vanish under their feet and beaks.
This was our afternoon forage. We feed animals fresh food twice daily, so the food is fresh, and so they have time to eat it while it is still fresh. When feeding fresh food to your animals, rather than relying on pelleted or pre-mixed feed, you have to think ahead, and you have to allot time for gathering either wild food, or garden food, or for tending forage trays.
Morning forage often involves the garden. Down to the garden in the morning to see what was ready to harvest, pull some larger weeds which go into a bucket for the larger animals, toss overblown squash and cukes over the fence to the poultry, and see what else needed doing that day. The garden is the easiest place to forage, and it is far easier to feed animals from the time the earliest radish and lettuces appear (and the first weeds), to the fall plants gone to seed, the surplus, damaged plants, bugs, grubs, weeds, and foods planted just for the animals all combine to keep the feed bills very low.
"Non-commercial feed" does not mean no grain. We do purchase some grain mixes for our animals, but we do not purchase poultry scratch grains. They are one of the poorer nutritional sources (poor grain blends, and it has been heat treated which destroys much of the nutritional value). We tend to buy bags of barley, oats, wild bird seed, chipmunk or squirrel feed, or other widely varied seed mixes. We either buy Black Oil Sunflower Seed, or we buy mixes which contain it, and also flax seed, which is added in small amounts to the mix (especially helpful for laying hens and kindling or nursing rabbits). This feed is nutritionally complex, as well as being sproutable.
The larger the animals, the harder it is to feed them fresh food exclusively, unless they have sufficient grazing pasture. You may also still have to give them hay if you lack large pastures.
But with all of the animals, they eat more wild forage and garden produce than they do grain or purchased foods. Goats fed this way need less grain to produce good milk. Cows fed lots of wild food and some garden food do not require grain to finish off, and milk cows need little to none (depending on the variety of food you are giving them).
The hardest thing for people to get their heads around is the nutritional balance. They want a schedule, or a list of four or five things to feed them that will meet all their needs.
It does not work like that.
Just as people eat grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats, animals eat grains, fruits, vegetables, and some eat dairy and meats.
Just as you eat different foods for each meal, and it balances out nutritionally, animals will thrive best on a variety that changes daily or seasonally.
Once you understand that this animal needs about this amount of vegetables, that amount of fruit, and so much in grains, nuts, seeds, etc, then you can meet those needs by what is available and on hand right now. Most poultry and pigs are omnivores. Cats are carnivores (but will eat some plants mixed in with meats). Dogs are omnivores (and handle cooked grains, including wheat, very well). Pretty much everything else is herbivore (geese, pigeons, and a few other fowl are also herbivore). Some fowl eat more seeds and grains than others, but in general, they all pretty much thrive on a variety of greens, grains, plus grubs (or other meat sources) for those that consume meats. If they eat meat, they can generally also consume dairy surplus (whey, skim milk, sour milk, etc).
Just as you go to the store and buy food, or grow food, based on what you enjoy, and what your body needs, and NOT solely on what is cheapest, you don't choose animal feed based only on what is cheapest. Cheapest is usually least nutritionally sound! A variety of food is best, even if it costs a bit more.
If grains are fed to the animals sprouted, or grown out for a few days, they go much further and provide more complete nutrition. Sprouted grains can be easily grown in fodder trays or buckets, and can go a long way toward making feeding more affordable, and easier. Tending them takes a few minutes each day, and the food is right there, ready to be broken up and used. You don't have to go hunting for it, nor do you have to go harvest it from the garden before use.
Food from your garden can also be root cellared, to store for your animals to use in the winter. Cabbages, squash, pumpkins, carrots, turnips, as well as apples or other durable orchard foods, can be stored for the animals to eat in the winter. Along with hay and homegrown fodder, you'll be able to keep them happy all winter.
Part of the trick is learning to SEE the food. To see animal feed rather than compost in your kitchen scraps. To see dogfood instead of garbage in your leftovers from dinner. To see cat food instead of trash in the butchering scraps. To see pig or chicken food instead of waste in the wormy windfall apples. To see rabbit food in the grape vines that got too big and had to be trimmed. To see wild food where it grows - and especially in aggressive growing wild plants that are good animal feed, but which you always fought with a shovel instead of with clippers to gather tasty tidbits for your livestock. And to see food for all your animals instead of trash in the weeds in your garden, or the bug bit food in your garden.
Day to day, it is more work to feed your animals without commercial feed. But it is also more connected to the cycles of nature, and more fun. Foraging is great couple or family time.
If you've ever seen a rabbit stand up to greet you, and shake the cage with impatience, or run back and forth in their hutch to demand that you hurry up, and then see them pull the food in the minute it is close enough, you'll know that fresh food wakes them up. Pellet fed rabbits don't perk up when the next load of pellets come, they just sniff and maybe eat some if their dish was already empty. Fresh fed rabbits react entirely differently within a few meals of being introduced to fresh. When dinner is always changing, always fresh, they are always interested to see what you brought.
Commercial processed feed is comprised mostly of extracted concentrates and industrial waste. It is in no way the "best" feed for any kind of animal, and does not encourage good health in livestock.
Fresh food gives your animals the best possible feed, and is worth the extra time it takes to gather it in, even if you can't do it all the time! Any extra bit you add in, helps your animals in better health, more interest in their life, and in sharpening their inate instincts and senses.
The daily routine is not always easy, but is rewarding, and very worthwhile.