Most people have two really good reasons for making their own livestock feed: it’s much less expensive than purchasing commercial feeds, and you can control the quality and ingredients. As fantastic as those two reasons are, there is one final reason that anyone wanting to be self-sufficient should do as much as they can to produce their own food for the animals they raise: as long as you are buying feed from outside sources, you aren’t able to be truly self-sufficient. You are relying on outside sources that may not always be available, and you are at the mercy of the prices they charge for sustaining your lifestyle.
Thankfully, it is not really that hard to mix your own feeds. Of course, the larger the animal you are feeding is, the more difficult it will be to grow enough to support its needs. Growing your own feed does take space. Since some homesteaders do keep cattle and often keep horses as well, we’ll start with producing feed for the largest of the common homestead livestock animals. However, keep in mind that smaller varieties of livestock such as chickens, goats, and pigs (rather than cattle and horses) require less space for growing the ingredients for their feed.
Growing Feed for Cattle and Horses
The very best feed for cattle and the largest part of a horse’s diet should be free-range grasses. However, grazing large animals takes a lot of space and for optimum management, enough space to rotate pastures is needed. That type of space isn’t always available for small volume homesteaders, so alternative feeds are necessary. Anyone who has ever been at the mercy of the hay market knows that having to hunt down quality hay, especially for horses, can make feeding them a real chore. When weather is not cooperative and hay supplies are in great demand, the cost of purchasing baled hay for livestock can cripple a self-sufficient family.
Growing a supply of hay takes much less space than keeping pasture healthy. Enough grass hay or alfalfa mix for one or two animals can be had on as little as one acre if several cuttings are managed through the growing season. Growing your own grass or alfalfa hay also lets you feed grass that you know is not treated with chemicals and pesticides. Commercial growers need to get every square inch of grass out of their land to get the most value out of their cuttings, but you can afford to lose a little bit of volume in order to feed the highest quality, chemical-free feed.
On average, a well-maintained field can produce between seven and twelve tons of alfalfa per year (half of that weight in timothy or timothy/alfalfa mix since grass is lighter in weight for the volume). The difference in volume/weight depends on the quality of the ground, how often the acreage is seeded, and how many cuttings are possible due to weather conditions. A full three cuttings on a lush field will produce the highest volume.
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Supplemental feeds may be necessary in areas where winter weather does not permit grazing or to provide extra energy for a heavier workload. For cattle, grain feeding for pregnancy, milk production, or faster growth for slaughter helps produce the desired results and healthier animals. For horses, some grains are important in animals that are ridden often or work in front of equipment.
It can be difficult to produce enough grains on a smaller homestead to feed large livestock. If you do not have several acres to dedicate to feed corn, barley, and wheat, or planting those will take away from your family garden and be self-defeating, you can buy organic grains in large quantities. The best way to get organic grain in quantity that is still affordable and makes the most sense for a self-sufficient lifestyle is to find another homesteader or local farmer who grows organic grains and barter with them to exchange produce from your land in return for the grain.
Feeding Pigs on a Homestead
The great thing about pigs is that they can make the best use of a lot of the things you naturally throw away. The skins, tops, and bruised areas of fruits and vegetables; meat cuttings; and even milk that is soiled or more than needed for your family can be used to feed your pigs. However, for optimal growth, a good hog mix is an important element to provide the base of their feed. The difficulty with mixing your own pig feed is the need to grind it into a small particle. Barley, wheat, soybeans, barley, fishmeal, and minerals are the main ingredients for hog feed. The challenge is in knowing how much of each at what stage of growth is appropriate.
Protein and carbohydrate rations need to be regulated for each stage of growth. For full-grown swine, corn can be used for 100 percent of the carbohydrate/energy requirements. Wheat, oats, or barley can also be used to cut back on the high energy levels of corn. Protein is harder to mix because every stage of growth requires a different level. Piglets only require a maximum of 20 percent protein; growing shoats from 50 to 125 pounds need a little less at 16 percent maximum; finishing slaughter hogs between 125 and 240 pounds need even less at 14 percent maximum. Gilts and boars should have 16 percent protein, and older sows only 14 percent at the maximum. Protein is provided in the form of soybean, fish meal, and meat scraps.
Once you have your mixture at the appropriate level of protein vs. carbohydrates, the next most important thing to do is make sure that the particles are small. When grinding the mix, keep an eye out for big pieces. Whole grains, ½ grains and even ¼ grain sizes can be too rough for pigs.
Large commercial feed producers use heavy-duty mills to grind the feed. You can use a meat grinder or a food processor as long as you pay careful attention to the end result.
Making Chicken Feed
Most people starting out do not realize how complex chicken feed is. It isn’t as simple as throwing out some corn or other grains and hoping for the best. A good chicken feed will have a thorough mix of corn, wheat, sunflower seeds, oats, and even lentils, sesame seeds, flax, kelp, and brewer’s yeast.
Remember your chicken do not have teeth. Like hogs, they need a very fine grain to even get the feed down. Chickens have an extra requirement though. They have to have something in their feed that allows them to grind the remaining feed in their crop. If left out in fields to free-range, chickens pick up little rocks, gritty dirt, and even pieces of shells to provide them with the required grinding materials they store in their crops. In confines, this must be provided either in a separate area or in their food in the form of grit. Calcium is also very important, especially when you need your chickens to produce strong, healthy eggs either for your own consumption or to reproduce and replenish your flock. Adding oyster shells or very finely ground egg shells to the feed will boost their calcium levels to the proper degree.
While it is important to keep protein levels at the right level in chicken feed, a good even balance of all of the ingredients will usually produce a well-rounded diet that will give your chickens what they need.
Letting your chickens run free on a large pasture area is one of the best and healthiest ways to make sure they are getting a well-rounded diet. However, even chickens left to graze on a wide variety of plant life should still be supplemented with a good mix of grains for the best possible results.
Homegrown Goat Feed
Like horses and cattle, the primary food source for goats, both dairy and meat varieties, is hay. Grass hay such as timothy is fine for animals being raise for slaughter, but dairy goats milked on a regular schedule or pregnant or nursing goats should get a good quality alfalfa or alfalfa mix. Growing requirements for goat hay is the same as that for cows and horses, but the amount needed to keep each animal is far less, making less land necessary.
If you have enough pasture or available hay, extra grain isn’t as much of a requirement for meat goats. However, during leaner winter months, even those animals being raised for meat will benefit from a good mixture of grains and legumes.
Goats are quite passionate about the sweet feeds found in commercial horse feed. You can create the same mix by producing the horse grain mix and adding a few cups of molasses to the mix. One thing you should always make sure you provide your goats is free-choice bicarbonate soda. You don’t have to buy the expensive human-grade baking soda. You can find animal grade in feed stores in large quantities and it keeps well for long periods of time as long as it is dry.
The No-Space Alternative
For the truly space-limited homesteader, growing feed for even small animals such as chickens can be difficult. In order to be as self-sufficient as possible, try to find neighbors with similar objectives and enough space to produce grain products. If they do not need animal feed for themselves, see if you can work out an agreement to use some of their land in exchange for some of your produce. Another possible way to remain as self-sufficient as possible is to find a local farmer who produces organic grains and barter the swap of grains for produce.