Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture

Some time ago I sat down and did the math. If we don’t get any more birds and they stop growing (some of them are four inches tall), they will consume roughly 2,000 pounds of prepared chicken food in a 12 month period. That’s 40 50lb bags at roughly $13 each for a total of $650.

Honestly, that’s not terrible considering the number of eggs, chicks, and meat we get both for ourselves and (eggs and chicks only at this point. Talking to you, USDA!) others. But I’m convinced we can do better. 

Initially I thought the best way would simply be to grow our own in the form of wheat, buckwheat, barley, corn, sunflowers, and peas. And I am doing that, but there’s a substantial space requirement and length of time before any gains are made, so it’s not perfect. So far I’ve just got those tiny patches next to the rabbit run. 

While the grains grow, what can I do? If only there was a way to make the birds feed themselves… 

Oh wait, there is! While chickens lack the ability to digest grass, they do love the bugs that live in and around it. They do love tender young leaves. And the geese will gladly mow the grass,  as evidenced by the back yard (pictured above post geese). So I should plant a new lawn! Not just any lawn, but a mix that will meet most of their nutritional requirements!

Hmm. There are seed loving birds all over the lawn. Cross fencing it is!

To be clear, I am not doing this in the most ideal way. So if you are starting out, plan ahead and do everything I did, but before you got the birds and not in the summer heat!

Followers may recall that when we moved in here almost exactly one year ago, the entire front yard was rock hard, dry, dusty, and all around useless. Couple straggly bits of grass and a few dandelions. Other than that, it was tougher than some roads I’ve driven. If that’s your starting point, you’ve got to improve the soil. 

In Earn your keep, animals, I talked about using straw mulch in the chicken yard. Short recap. They scratch it up into tiny pieces, which adds moisture retaining organic matter, and poop all over it to add nitrogen. Well, after a few heavy rains and quite a few bales of straw, they did an admirable job. There is now a nearly one foot thick layer of rich topsoil. Plus a bunch of straw. 

Raking it back to expose the topsoil left me with quite a pile of straw/soil mix. Basically it was mostly soil but about 1/3 of it was very finely chopped straw.  Just gonna call it mulch from here on. I initially purchased two bags of seed. A forage blend and a pasture grass blend. 

I sprinkled the forage blend at probably 1/4 the recommended seeding rate and lightly covered with the mulch. That was followed by a generous sprinkling of the pasture seed followed by another layer of mulch. 

The layering put the first seeds at their recommended planting depth without having the grass seed too deep. It also protects it from birds. Songbirds. Chickens can still get it if you don’t keep them out. Ask me how I know. 

If you’re doing this at the right time of year, you won’t need to water it often. I’m doing it in the summer so I water it every day. Well planned, McFarmFace. But it only took a week for the forage blend to sprout!

Rye came up first, followed by vetch. Then the pasture grasses and the forage peas started in. But no clover. The bag said clover. What do clover seeds look like anyway? Hint. They’re the super tiny ones that fall to the bottom of the bag so you don’t get any if you grab from the top. 

Yeah, so added clover afterwards. And while I was at it, got a whole bag of a different kind of clover because biodiversity is awesome. Also cool, this company inoculates the seeds for you so  nitrogen fixing is taken care of!

I also fenced off a section of the back yard and basically did the same thing there, just working around the tufts of grass that hadn’t been eaten. In hindsight, probably should have pulled those if the birds didn’t like them. Ugh. Next time. 

It’s been a few weeks now and the front yard is starting to look almost like a yard! The back section has clover (I grabbed from the bottom of the bag that time) and rye coming in. 

While all this gets established enough to tolerate grazing, just gotta keep on buying commercial food. I also plan on setting up more temporary cross fencing and starting other sections. One piece at a time, I’ll transform this into pasture. I’ll keep you updated along the way!

Of note: with the exception of a few vitamins, we estimate that a combination of wheat, barley, peas, black oil sunflower seeds, and buckwheat will meet all the nutritional requirements for the poultry. We will be growing those for actual feed. The yard will contain ryegrain, Austrian winter peas, common vetch, buckwheat, Dutch white clover, medium red clover, pennlate orchardgrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass. With any luck, this will mean a lot less prepared feed, and no lawnmower. I’ll post updates to this periodically. I was quite perplexed at how very little information there was on this topic online. 

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