08 December 2008

The value of quality: thriving on winter feeds

The next four months, December through March, bring our harshest temperatures and stinging wind. The average overnight temperature for January and February of 2008 was -10C, but we usually get a week-long cold snap or two, dropping to -30C overnight. And we also get a good January rain, melting the top 3 or 4 feet of snow accumulation. Winter can be harsh, and it can be a hardship to survive, but with preparation, including food storage and sheltered buildings, winter can also be a welcomed time of quiet, rest and reflection. It is a counterpoint to the almost frantic pace of a short summer.

Winter can be difficult for our animals as well, after all, chickens were originally jungle-fowl, and goats and horses were originally desert dwellers. Breeding can encourage hardy characteristics like fat coverage, thick fur or down, and high-metabolism, but encouraging these characteristics to develop requires a higher quality of feed. And even hardy animals need a well-sheltered spot in order to thrive. We have designed the barns to shelter the animals from the prevailing wind, as well as taking advantage of the warming winter sun. The hay and grain is stored in the north-west end of the barn to insulate from the wind, and the animals are on the south-east, allowing direct sunlight to warm the pens at first light, dawn being the coldest time of the night. Along with this, the goats and chickens have a low-roofed and well bedded box, inside their pens, in which to sleep. This keeps draughts off of them at night, and takes advantage of the body heat they produce, radiating it back to them.

From here, their ability to thrive is dependent on a high quality diet. Animals, like us, can only eat so much bulk in a day. North American children, who survive mostly on junk-food, have become malnourished, a term we usually only connect with starving children in Sudan and elsewhere. Likewise, if offered only low-quality feed, an animal will become malnourished, fail to thrive, and if still required to produce eggs or milk, will either quit, or do so at the cost of their lifespan.

A quality diet consists of adequate protein, rich in minerals and vitamins, and contains a source of fat as well. Most of us can tell the difference between poor and high quality foods when looking at the raw materials. Whether it is carrots, green beans or hay and grain, common senses can tell us a lot about the quality of a food: color, taste, smell, texture, crispness, etc. Green leafy hay that smells like a summer pasture is obviously better than stalky bleached dusty "hay". The green hay will not only be more appetizing, but will contain all of the essential ingredients of quality feed. A good quality wheat kernel can be distinguished from a poor one by a plump large size, golden color, and a sticky gluten center when chewed between the teeth. Those who purchase their feed, rarely have the opportunity to choose, but rather must rely upon the feed mill to make those choices. In a good grain growing season, the grain market for human consumption can become flooded, and often, high quality grains can overflow to the feed mills. But in not-so-good or even average years, all of the high-quality grains will be used for human consumption, and the leftover, low-protein, low-quality grains trickle down to the feed mills, sometimes at a high price because of a lack of supply due to failed crops.

This situation describes a portion of our motivation to grow our own grains, along with strong concerns regarding food security and the environmental and ecological costs of industrial farming and transportation of the crops. We rented a tractor to cultivate the two acres for our grain in the fall of 2007. But we planted and harvested it by hand. Most of the grain was seeded by broadcasting, but we planted a quarter-acre with a garden seeder to compare yields and coverage between these two methods. Mr. Fritillary harrowed the broadcast seed under with our horse, Pilgrim. The grains eventually started to ripen by late August. I will write more about our grain growing and harvesting, it was a difficult season for grains, with so much rain, we were both lucky and worked hard to bring in a crop at all this year.

We harvested using a combination of techniques, but mostly we harvested with a scythe. In this way, we harvested grain, straw and weeds together. These grain fields being organic, and turned from pasture the year before, the predominance of weeds were vetch and red clover, both valuable high-protein legumes. Too many of these "weeds" make it impossible for a harvester to move through the field and thresh the grain properly, but they presented no problems for our scythes, and they dried out in a matter of hours under a hot sun. The scythed wheat is stored loose in the barn, off the ground, and is almost entirely dust free.

The cured vetch and red clover add food value to the bundles of grain we feed to the chickens, they eat the greens as readily as the grain, and the mixture of greens helps to balance the calcium/phosphorous content of their feed and provides much needed Vitamin A, which can be seen by the deep yellow of their egg yolks. The chickens make quick work of the grain, served in bundles with a box underneath to catch fallen grains and heads. When they have cleaned off all of the heads, the remaining straw is put down as bedding or nesting material, and turned into compost for the garden. The wheat we grew this year is of a higher quality than I can buy from the local bulk store, or the local organic grain mill, which means that it is above 14% protein, perhaps up to 16% protein. Typical feed wheat is between 10-12%. Our high-quality grains mean that we do not need any protein supplements like soya meal (which causes thyroid problems) or linseed meal (which usually contains rancid oil residue).

These are our young pullets, hatched out this summer, from our Isa Brown hens (a common industrial laying hen from a Rhode Island Red crossed with Rhode Island White) and a Plymouth Barred Rock rooster. There are four distinct colorings: black barred, white with grey bars, white with red wing coloring, and red with white feather tips.

The oats are fed mostly to the horse, who eats them straw, chaff and all, and the goats who nibble off the grain heads, leaving the coarse straw behind. Feeding the oats with the chaff or hulls pretty much eliminates the chances of colic in either the horse or the goats. These oats are about 12% protein, but they also contain more sugars and oils than the wheat, which are necessary for the goats who are producing kids as well as keeping warm.

The winter rye was ready to harvest in early August. We planted only 1/4 acre of rye, so we harvested it with a hand sickle, and stuffed it into feed bags, stacked in the barn. The straw of rye is a high quality bedding, it was used to thatch roofs and make horse collars, etc. meaning that it does not readily break down or absorb moisture. We use the straw to bed down the goats, a foot of this underneath them makes for incredible insulation, and they can nest down into it on cold nights.

The goats also make quick work of picking off the rye heads, their nimble mouths find each and every one, leaving behind the valuable straw. Rye is similar to wheat in protein content.

Another feed crop we grew this summer: mangles or fodder beets. They grow just like beets, but much bigger, and higher in sugars and fiber. The green tops were greedily gobbled down by the goats after harvesting the roots. And the roots are stored in our cold room with the carrots and other root crops. The mangles contain some protein, but are primarily a source of energy or sugars, as well as a treat that definitely gets their appetite and digestion working.

We feed the two of them 3-4 lbs a day, chopped and lightly cooked with a tablespoon of molasses. Served warm this way, around 10 am, it provides energy in the morning after a cold night. We do not serve them the mangles first thing in the morning because the goat's ability to produce body heat comes from the digestion of fibers (ie. hay), not sugars. Goats can easily get a chill by eating concentrates (ie. grain or fodder/roots) on an empty stomach. So we give them a chance to get a good belly full of fresh leafy hay in the morning before the mangles and molasses. Pilgrim likes a bite of this too. The molasses also works as a preventive for Ketosis, a metabolic disorder of pregnant or recently kidded goats in which they do not have enough metabolized energy to cover the demands placed on their body. This is just a general definition, for more specific information about ketosis, please read about it from a credible book or website.

Here they are nose-first in the mangles, notice how Penelope's tail (the one in the front) is held straight up, showing her pleasure and appetite. You can also see in the picture the bulges they are growing, late in their pregnancy. Juniper, the little one, is growing well. She especially needs a high-quality diet since she is not only producing a kid or two, but is still growing to full maturity. She is coming along well, both of them have put on thick downy coats, are bright-eyed and have a ready appetite, and have laid down some condition, which they will need to draw upon in the first month of lactation.

Molasses mouth, licking off every last drop.

No comments: