Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Using What the Land Provides

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?


Chile said...

This is great and an example of what I think too few people consider in the big scheme of things. We do not have any livestock at this time (unless you count worms) but I have thought a little about the chicken question.

As vegans, it might seem odd for us to consider having chickens but the possibility exists as a result of a similar thought process to yours: how would we feed our dogs without commercial food? With grains and eggs, and the occasional chicken, we could probably swing it.

But then, how do we feed the chickens? Trying to be self-sufficient is indeed complicated! I don't think I would have thought of the acorns but it's a great idea. There are some oaks in local landscaping with acorns that could be harvested (and by bike if gas is prohibitively expensive). We can also have free-range chickens in our yard but we'd have to coop them at night due to urban coyotes.

Next question is what to feed the fish if we do aquaponics.

Wendy said...

We're saving acorns, too, but as food for us. We're going to be experimenting with making acorn flour this year :).

I haven't thought enough about what I'd do for feed if I didn't have access to the commercial feed, especially during the winter. I imagine, though, that I would devote a little more room to things like sunflowers so that I could save the seed heads, and I'd make a point of gathering up things like the cattails that grow in the marshes around here. I live close enough to the ocean that I'd be able to gather seaweed for the chickens ... which I ought to be doing now, as it's probably better than the commercial feed ;).

If my supply lines were more limited, I'd probably be getting more milk from my local farmer, and I'd be making a lot more of my own cheese, which means I'd have whey to deal with. I'd feed that to the chickens.

Assuming that I had access to seeds, I'd also consider sprouts for them.

I don't know how I feel about the maggot idea. It would be okay during the summer, but up here, we don't have flies in the winter, and so there wouldn't be any maggots, which would still leave me with the question of what to do during the winter.

How about earthworms? A vemiculture set-up in the kitchen might provide some extra nutrients for the chickens during the winter.

Can chickens eat fallen leaves? We have lots of those in the winter ;).

Joel said...

Carrion isn't the only way to breed maggots. Manure would work, too. Also, I'd consider feeding them mice whole, if you know they're fresh.

Do Jerusalem artichokes grow where you live? They produce fairly abundantly, and are fresh until you dig them up. That would be a good winter food.

If you have alder growing near you, you might try feeding them the male catkins. I hear they start to sprout late in the winter, which might be the leanest time.

I hear they love termites, although I'm not sure people in your neighborhood would be pleased to hear that you cultivate them...

Do you already feed them the pits of your stone fruit (especially olives)? That's an often un-recognized source of calories, and AFAIK they store well once the fruit is gone. Probably more convenient to get fruit that's small enough for them to swallow the pit whole.

I've heard a wide plank or sheet of plywood can cultivate insects in the chicken run. Every several days, the plank can be lifted to reveal insects, then replaced upside down to feed the insects chicken manure.

You might try growing a small plot of pearl millet, or maybe broomcorn sorghum.

In line with the zucchini notion, how about winter squash, turnips, and beets? They can be stored as chicken feed, or just used to supplement the amount of fresh veggies for you, and scraps for them...I like toasted squash seeds, but I can't eat as many as a chicken could.

I've heard of growing their favorite greens in a cage in the run, where they can eat it as it grows through the cage but can't reach enough to kill it.

It might be worth looking up home-brewers in your neighborhood to ask about their waste. It should be very high in yeast protein...plus, I'd want to imbibe a little if laws required me to be cooped up. :)

I think chickens might enjoy wine marc, too, although it's a lot more seasonal.

I could probably think of more, but you get the idea.

Elsie said...

I am thinking about looking into dealing with a local restaurant for kitchen scraps. There are a couple places nearby that do a lot of organic and local foods and I think that would be a good place to start. Don't know if I would produce enough eggs to entice them into it, but they wouldn't have to pay for the garbage removal... I would think a restaurant could produce 2-5 five gallon buckets of scrap a day and that is way more than I would be able to use for my handful of chickens so I would have to bring some other dependable folks in to pick up on other days...

Joel said...

One more quick note:

I hope the hammer is working well. If it isn't, I have a couple other ideas:

I've found a stand-up giant mortar & pestle is pretty ergonomic. I use the trunk of a Christmas tree and my patio pavement. The end gets chewed up, so a harder, denser wood might be appropriate, but it's the perfect size, and the balance is great.

A more engineered option is a rolling mill. It's a lot more energy efficient than cracking them with impact, so even hand-cranking should be less tiring.

Kate said...

Chile, it does become a bit recursive, doesn't it? I think beginning to ask the questions is the first step, and it can seem quite daunting at first. But I think it's necessary to look at these things.

Wendy, I look forward to hearing of your acorn consumption. I had thought of the lack of flies in winter, but then wondered if a small population might survive in a barn or shed. Probably not in our zones, but perhaps in some warmer ones. Earthworms are a good idea, and one that Harvey Ussery has pursued. I'm not yet at the stage where I have a sufficient population of earthworms to even supplement the diet of a few layers. But it's a thought in the back of my mind.

Joel, we do have Jerusalem artichokes here. In fact I planted them for the first time last year. Had not thought of them for chook feed. Thanks for the suggestion - I'll try that this winter. We have no run for the hens as they get moved every day, so the plank and protected sprout area ideas won't apply for us, though they're good ones.

Also, the hand sledge is working well for me with the acorns in a burlap bag. But a large mortar and pestle is a lovely idea for so many things.

Elsie, cadging free food wherever possible is a good idea. We have no restaurants within walking distance however. I also think there would be stiff competition for such "waste" if it came to the day when gasoline would be too scarce for me to drive for chicken feed. That day may be very remote, but I still wanted to focus on what I could do on my own patch of property.

Bryan said...


I thought I'd join this discussion to share my thoughts on feeding chickens. Unless we are going away and need other people to look after our flock, we don't purchase any food at all.

The hen house is in the garden, and moves over the garden beds every few months or so. I find that they get enough to eat from the combination of the household food scraps (including the occasional bit of meat), weeds from the garden, spoiled produce also from the garden, and always keeping a good few inches of rough litter on the bottom of their house (eg, just leaves that I rake up from anywhere they might happen to be in the yard, a few sticks, newspaper shreddings ...). Every now and then, I will water the litter a bit, so it will become a home for more critters for the chickens to find as they scratch.

We also let a lot of stuff go to seed in the garden. I chuck a lot of this to the chickens instead of collecting it myself. I usually find that about a week after I have moved the chickens on, I have a bounty of new seedlings that are ready to be thinned for other places in the garden, back to the chickens for more food, or to be shared with other folk in exchange for their surplus.

We get an egg a day from each girl almost every day, and lots of deep composted garden beds, and lots of easy to grow locally adapted seedlings.

Maybe this might help with the question of what to do if you cannot get to the produce shop?


Kate said...

Bryan, I hope you've set alerts to get my response to your helpful post, because I have a few follow up questions. I'm very excited to hear that you purchase almost no feed for your chickens. I want to know more!

How many people are in your household? I'm wondering how your volume of kitchen scraps compares to ours.

How big is your hen house and how many chickens do you have in it? My four chickens only get 30 square feet per day, so they really seem to need more than they can find on that small space.

What about winters? How harsh are they where you live? Ours are long enough and severe enough that insect life suspends and no green things grow.

I don't mean to sound skeptical. What you have accomplished is worth sharing. If you have posted about this already, please share a link with us! And thanks!

Bryan said...

Hi Kate

I am happy to answer your questions - sharing ideas and experiences is something I find valuable.

I think the greatest advantage that we have is our climate - we are in northern Australia, the so called "dry tropics". Our insects never stop, and instead of winter cold challenging crops, it is our summer sun that is just too much.

But, onto the poultry. We currently have 4 ladies, in a house about 2m x 2m. I let them out occasionally in the evening, but they seem to prefer being in.

There are 2 grown-ups and 2 kids under 5 in our house. Our volume of scraps isn't huge, but I have noticed that the better we eat, then the better the chooks will eat as well. A couple of years ago I wrote a post about that: http://www.myfairshare.org/?p=75.

But, while the kitchen scraps are appreciated by the chickens, it is by no means their main food source.

The main food seems to be what they find while the scratch about the couple of inches of litter that I keep at the bottom of their pen - adding more to it every week or so, and never taking any of it out (because if I do, then they just eat the worms that seem to inhabit the lower levels, and I would prefer them to be working on building soil instead). I find that they seem to scratch longer if I mix up what I give them for litter. I guess the greater the variety of litter, the greater variety of insects, etc?? So, rotten fruit, infested vegetables, anything and everything that has (or still does) live, gets added. the chooks do the rest, and when I move them on in a few months, the garden is ready to grow.

When we had a larger flock of 18, we had the same approach and they always seemed to be laying eggs and never getting sick and having a generally good time without the need for extra food from us (just a bigger coop).



Kate said...

Bryan, many thanks for your answers. The only thing I didn't think to ask is what breed(s) you keep. It seems that the biggest differences between our situations are your milder climate, and that you apparently practice a much slower rotation than we do. Our stocking density is not much different, and probably our kitchen scraps likewise. But we move our hens every day and are forbidden from allowing them to truly free range. However, I'm intrigued by your idea of situating what sounds like a semi-mobile pen over deep and frequently replenished litter. This is similar to an experiment that I plan to make this winter with regards to housing the girls. Your practice gives me food for thought. Thank you! If you want to share your practices more widely, may I suggest you tell Harvey Ussery how you manage to feed your chooks? He is actively looking for accounts of people feeding their flocks from the household's own resources.