When I was at university I took a number of anthropology courses. I liked cultural anthropology best, because each culture has a different way of looking at the world, understanding people, and moving through life. I found this utterly fascinating, and real cultures were far more interesting to me than science fiction or fantasy fiction. One thing that I learned in case study after case study is that people who live in technologically limited cultures have a vastly superior knowledge of the natural environment they live in, compared to those in "modern" societies. They know every plant and animal in their area, what useful function it serves, and when and how it grows.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. We have a number of trees along and mostly just beyond our back fence line. We don't do much (yet) with that area because it's pretty shady, and farthest from the house. But I noticed last week that the oak was beginning to drop its acorns. There's also a smaller tree that I had never bothered to identify growing halfway in the shade of that oak tree. I have noticed over the three winters we've lived through on this property that that tree retains its leaves, still green, until long after the other trees have shown their colors and dropped their leaves.
This year I'm seeing both of these trees in a new light. I'm just chagrined to think it took me this long. The smaller tree has thick clusters of dark berries all over it, and oval-round leaves with the tiniest serration along the edges. With the help of a tree field guide, I identified it as a European buckthorn. The berries aren't very tasty; they're at least as astringent as they are sweet. But they're not poisonous, and the chickens will eat them if I throw in a handful of them, especially when mixed with the nearly identical looking Eastern black nightshade berries.
The acorns likewise I have taken an interest in. Here is free food literally falling out of the tree. I am, admittedly, lukewarm on the idea of eating acorns myself. The processing for palatability is rather involved; reports I've heard on taste are rather unenthusiastic; and then there's the fact that most acorns contain weevils. But there is no denying the nutritional and caloric value of these nuts. The hens' culture, unlike my own, has no objection to consuming weevils. I know that acorns were a staple crop for American Indian tribes in California, to such an extent that there was a system of laws governing who had rights to gather acorns from which trees. I've also seen the pata negra pigs grazing on acorns in southern Spain, where a ham is graded higher the more acorns contributed to the pig's diet.
A post by Sharon the other day got me to thinking again about the sustainability of even my tiny backyard laying flock. I buy organic locally milled feed for the girls, from a mill that re-uses the woven plastic feed bags, and I use less than a pound of this feed each day. But it constitutes the majority of their diet. If I couldn't make the drive to buy this feed, could I maintain even a few layers? I can't stockpile large quantities of the feed as it will go rancid within months unless the temperatures outside are near freezing. My township does not permit free-ranging birds, which severely limits the girls' ability to forage and find their own food. We're a two-person family, which also limits how much we'll generate each day in the way of kitchen scraps, particularly in the winter when we eat foods I canned during the summer. Right now the answer to the question of how we would feed the chickens without easy transportation seems to be: I have no idea. But I've felt compelled to at least start exploring this question lately. What do we have on hand on our little patch of property that we could use to feed the hens without purchased feed? The answers must lie in getting to know my land better than I do right now, and/or possibly getting the zoning laws that forbid free-range poultry changed.
About one-third of my acorn haul thus far, drying on window screens, with the implement of destruction,...erm, I mean, cracking.
I laid a tarp out under a portion of the oak tree and have begun collecting acorns every other day or so. The windy fall weather, a couple of salvaged window screens, and the black surface of our driveway have helped me dry them for storage. Apparently acorns can provide up to 50% of a hen's daily feed. I need only find the motivation to crack open the nuts to feed our girls. I can't do it all in one session as the acorn meats will turn rancid rather quickly once exposed to air. So it'll be a semi-weekly chore, at least.
I've written at the co-op about the weeds that my chickens will eat during the growing season, and here recently about feeding them ripe eastern black nightshade berries. Feeding the hens during the summer months would be fairly easy. They eat so many weeds, and the Japanese beetles are abundant, not to mention zucchini. Even fall wouldn't be too difficult with the apples coming in, and acorns in most years, not to mention the seeds from the pumpkins and winter squashes. But winter and early spring would be real challenges. I could plant more sunflowers and be more careful to save the seed for the lean months. But my intuition is that I would still come up short.
Then there's always the unsavory option of maggot feeding the chooks. Intellectually, I see the value in this, and I'm a little annoyed at my own squeamish reaction. I'm pretty sure the woman who regularly asks for a dozen eggs from me would completely freak if I were to use this method of feeding and she knew about it. I recognize that this is free, natural food, with very low risk of disease to the livestock if handled carefully, and that it would actually cut down on the local fly population. Still, I find it a little difficult. If things got bad enough, I would have to consider it. I just wonder how much roadkill there would be if gasoline became too scarce for me to make the drive to pick up the feed. I suppose confiscating any rodents killed by the cat would supply some material. But then, the cat would need to eat as well...
So how about you? What do you produce or use for animal feed that's close to hand? I'd be particularly interested in hearing how some of you use the limited resources of a small residential property. What other uses do you find for the things your patch of earth provides?