May 4 – 10, 2015
Introduction by Harvey Ussery
It has been estimated that the average bite of food on the American plate has been moved 1500 miles from field to fork. Livestock feeds are perhaps not moved such distances, but typically they do come from widely dispersed sources, in some cases quite distant from the point of final use. As fuel from such extravagant transports of materials becomes more scarce, it will be essential to find sources of feedstocks more locally. Most local of all, of course, are those feeds we are able to supply on the homestead itself.
If there are farmers in your neighborhood willing to grow for your feed needs, encourage them to do so. Perhaps you can form a buying group with other flock owners in your area, guaranteeing the grower an assured market close to home, and perhaps sharing in the required transportation, distribution, and storage.
As for what we can provide on the homestead, I remember that my grandmother gave her flock almost no purchased feeds — just a couple of handfuls of scratch grains each day to keep them fixed on the coop as “home” — and they virtually fed themselves, free-ranging over her small farm. That memory convinces me that, if we choose the sturdier, more self-reliant breeds, and can give them the space to forage their own foods, poultry keeping can become a low-input enterprise indeed.
Quotations excerpted from The Modern Homestead. Click here for the full piece.
Harvey Ussery has been developing his whole-systems poultry husbandry for decades and has been writing about chickens and other fowl for Backyard Poultry since the inception of the magazine in early 2006. In 2011, he published The Small Scale Poultry Flock, a comprehensive guide exploring an all-natural approach to raising chickens and other fowls. He has also written numerous articles for Mother Earth News and Countryside & Small Stock Journal, and has published in American Pastured Poultry Producers Association’s newsletter, Grit!, over the years. Ussery has presented at national and local events on poultry, homesteading, and energy and sustainability issues, and maintains a highly informative website, TheModernHomestead.US. He lives with his wife, Ellen, in Virginia.
Animal feed accounts for a massive portion of farming expenditures. Traditional animal feed, in the form of corn and soy, are not only taxing on the wallet of the farmer, but also on the quality of life of the animals, the integrity of the land used, and the nutritional wellbeing of those consuming animal products. In this week’s Food List, we explore many different approaches farmers are taking to feeding their animals in a sustainable, ethical, and holistic manner.
We begin with the question from California of animal husbandry. What kind of philosophy is being applied when raising livestock? Some farmers in Texas base their farming practices off of nurturing all life, both below and above the surface. Another farmer in Virginia reflects on what’s known about the animal — their habits, personalities, and characteristics.
We are shown the importance of really understanding where your food comes from, and this includes what is being fed to your food. Farmers in Washington mimic what nature provides to the animals by producing their own organic feed, including sprouted grains, seaweed, and minerals.
Our animal feed industry is lopsided — it relies heavily on the corn and soy farmers. Not only is a resource intensive process, involving harvesting of the grains, processing of the grains to feed, and shipping to various locations around the country — but it is also very environmentally unfriendly. To address this issue, a feed group based out of Illinois is turning trash into treasure. Another farmer in Hawaii can’t rationalize the costs of local beef production and comes up with grass cubes as an innovative solution.
There’s a plethora of solutions waiting to be discovered to address farmers’ struggles with raising livestock. In the face of a dilemma, we are forced to think critically. Sometimes the answers are waiting for us down the food chain.
Ask yourself, what’s the healthiest option? Remind yourself that you are what you eat. Healthy feed = healthy animals, and healthy animals = a healthy community. How can you help grow a healthy community?
Hatcheries and Feed: where do I get my chicks and what do I feed them? This is the Chicken Farmers Dilemma.
Who would have thought that choosing a hatchery would be such a dilemma? For chick farmers in the business of humane treatment, low to no stress and little to no intervention (i.e. antibiotics, beak lasering, sexing), it becomes a huge dilemma — potentially a show stopper. Moving to local small hatcheries can be cost prohibitive and hatching your own is adding a new business. Vertical marketing got us into this dilemma, but what can get us out?
Feeding our chickens is another dilemma, much like the hatchery decision. What to feed a bird that we wish to be healthy for us to eat, spreading healthy manure on fields to feed microbial life that in turn feeds the grass and tastes good! Corn/soy feed, without pasture for meat (bugs, worms, small rodents) is not a healthy diet for a chicken. Utilizing local glean and pasture raising is less expensive and, in the long run, better for every aspect — this is only one solution.
To move past these dilemmas, it’s imperative for us, as local farmers, to work together, in discussion, to find viable solutions for the future survival of our healthy, happy animals that we so enjoy at the community table.
Tara Smith and her family own a beyond organic farm founded by Tara and her husband, Craig Smith, in 2009. On Tara Firma Farms, they raise and grow vegetables bio-intensively and livestock on pasture. The goals of of Tara Firma are to educate their community regarding real food by providing CSA baskets and an open door policy to community members to come explore the 300 acres of the farm.
Coyote Creek Farm prizes their methods of animal husbandry and land stewardship. Based on a philosophy of nurturing all life, even the “micro-herds” found in the soil, Jeremiah Cunningham of Coyote Creek Farm explains that by allowing nature to take its course, healthy birds will be raised and eggs produced. Key ingredients to Coyote Creek Farm’s success include plenty of sunlight, lots of protein found in the soil life, and freshly ground organic grains.
By Harvey Ussery
The most revolutionary change in my own perspective on feeding my flocks came when I started thinking about my old grandmother’s management of her flock of chickens. Contrary to all advice from the ag college crow, the lab-coated poultry nutritionists, and all other recognized experts in the field, she simply threw a little scratch grains to her birds once a day (more to keep them fixated on the coop as the place to return home than for nutrition, I suspect) — and allowed them to free-range over a 100-acre farm. This apparently haphazard approach allowed the chickens to mostly feed themselves — the way Chicken would have fed herself before Homo sapiens and Gallus gallus first cosied up to each other, striving for a more perfect union.
So what were Granny’s chickens eating?
Green plants: we do not think of chickens as grazers, but actually, if they had access to them, a significant portion of their diet will be grasses, clovers, and broadleaved weeds.
Seeds: wild seeds of all sorts
Animal foods: earthworms, insects, slugs, etc.
And what are the defining characteristics of these self-gathered feeds? They are alive. And they are raw. In other words, they are the polar opposite of scientifically formulated feeds the experts tell us we should be feeding our birds — made from excessively heat-treated ingredients, some of which are already stale (rancid) at the time of processing, to say nothing of when they are sold, perhaps months later, to the hapless homesteader.
While my grandmother’s chickens didn’t produce as many eggs as a modern egg-factory hen, the eggs had viscous whites and deep yellow-orange yolks that would stand up and salute. While her birds were not ready for slaughter after a 44-day grow-out, her chicken n’ dumplings were not to be believed. Her birds maintained the best of health without benefit of a daily dollop of antibiotics. And they reproduced their kind easily and naturally.
Do I feed my flocks the way my grandmother fed hers? I do not. I homestead two-and-a-half acres, with close neighbors all around. Letting my flocks totally free-range the way hers did is not an option for me. So I try to get as close as I can to the feeding paradigm in Granny’s flock. That is, as much as possible, I try to make sure that most of what my birds eat is alive, and that is is raw. I pasture the birds the entire green season, using electronet fencing. I constantly seek ways to give my birds more feeds produced here on the homestead, both to achieve more feed independence, and to afford them an ever-greater proportion of live foods in their diets.
Title: Organic Feed
Location: Skagit River Ranch, Sedro Woolley, WA
Featuring: George and Eiko Vojkovich
Found on Page 187 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
When George and Eiko discovered that they “organic” chicken feed they bought contained unverified “organic” soy meal from China, they decided to make their own. George says “Only 1-2% of Chinese grain gets inspected by the USDA, and still a half of them gets rejected for contamination. So, I really don’t trust their grain. There must be a reason Chinese grain is so much cheaper. I want to provide my customers truly wholesome, nutritious, and safe food. I want to create a healthy bird that produces a healthy egg — I don’t think it’s enough to simply be certified organic.”
George and Eiko raise pastured poultry on an outdoor diet rich in bugs, worms, and grass, lots of grass. To mimic what nature provides and argument this feed regimen, the Vojkoviches created a device that produces one hundred pounds of sprouted wheat, barley, and oats a day. To that they add trace minerals, seaweed, rock powders, and carbon in the form of humates. They also include diverse grains like spelt and amaranth. Two things you won’t find? Chinese soy or corn.
Imagine if you could turn your trash into food. Imagine you can do this in just 2 weeks. This is the beautiful reality of black soldier fly larvae. These are potentially one of the greatest economical and sustainable replacements for traditional fishmeal, poultry meal, and soybean meal being fed to our livestock.
What makes black soldier fly larvae so unusual? The adults don’t eat. For that reason, the larvae are very large, containing over 80% protein and oils to support the life cycle of the adult fly (which lasts about 7 days).
At Enterra, they operate according to the philosophy of “renewable food for animals and plants.” They maintain a sustainable production process by feeding the larvae of the black soldier fly food waste — vegetables, fruits, and grain — that would otherwise wind up in landfills and waste facilities. Sourcing from local food processors, food packagers, grocery chains, farms, public markets, and microbreweries, Enterra has devised a method of production where nothing is wasted: all incoming food stuff is mashed into a slurry for the larvae to feed on; once the larvae have reached maturation (a short 14 days later), the larvae and larvae “poop” is separated. The larvae is washed, cooked and dried, and the residual byproduct of the feed is sold as a soil amendment. Better yet, the dried larvae are made up of 40% protein, 40% fat, and the rest carbohydrates and chitin. This makes black soldier fly larvae a great substitute for more resource-intensive livestock feeds traditionally used.
Title: Grass Cubes
Location: Hawaiian Mahogany Farm, Lawai, Hawaii
Featuring: Bill Cowern, founder of Hawaiian Mahogany
Found on Page 189 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
90% of Hawaiian cattle are shipped to the mainland and finished on feedlots. Bill Cowern may have another solution.
Do the math: it’s cheaper to ship a 400 pounds cow to a Colorado feedlot than to ship 4 tons of feed to Hawaii. Why? It takes 8 pounds of grain to grow 1 pound of beef. To ship 8 pounds of beef costs $1.40 a pound. 1 pound of beef grown from the same grains that produces fetch $1.20 per pound. For beef to be local to Hawaii, it’s critical that they develop local food supplies like grass cubes.
Grass cubes come from wild guinea grass that is harvested, chopped to 1 ½ inch lengths, dried to 15% moisture, then fed through a cuber. It can be used as local feed replacement for cows and horses.
Bill converted a 100 year old sugar cane plantation into a grove of Albizia and Rainbow gums. Then he discovered the grass growing beneath it. Better yet, he found shade-grown grass has more protein. Lower light levels beneath the forest canopy cause shade grown guinea grass to produce more phytoplasts. More phytoplasts mean more protein than that produced by open grown guinea grasses (15% vs 8%).
Animal feed is a multi-billion dollar industry. The animal feed industry is the largest purchaser of our corn crops. It’s no secret today that to produce protein is a very resource intensive operation. This reason alone has encouraged many to turn to the vegetarian lifestyle. In this article, Claire Thompson explores an unconventional solution to address corn and soy use in animal feed: algae!
As Jim Astwood of Aurora Algae explains, “Algae is really the premiere sustainable source of raw materials for food and feed. The water and land footprint is small and compared to traditional agriculture and there’s a high productivity.”
The recipe for cultivating algae is simple: sunlight and seawater. Its estimated to be about 30 times more productive than soy and 50 times more productive than corn — while using about 1 percent as much fresh water! In addition to the ecological benefits of this algae solution, the protein and omega 3 fatty acids found in algae are nutritionally important, both to animals and humans. An interesting fact that Astwood points out is that the omega 3s found in fish meal don’t come from the fish themselves, but from the algae that these fish consumer.
Title: Grassfed vs Cornfed
Location: Skagit River Ranch, Sedro Woolley, WA
Featuring: George and Eiko Vojkovich
Found on Page 181 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
According to George and Eiko, when profit is the only motive, food is mass produced without concern for animal welfare, food nutritional values, and the environment.
Grassfed relates to the food sources produced by Nature’s design.
Cornfed relates to the food mass produced for profit.
The main difference between grassfed and cornfed beef has to do with physiology, or how a cow’s gut works. Cattle are ruminants. Their stomachs have multiple chambers. With grassfed cattle, each chamber plays a role in allow cows to digest the cellulose in grass. Grassfed beef is lowered in saturated fats, and higher in omega 2s and vitamin E.
For George and Eiko, “sustainable” means a farm is producing quality livestock or crops year after year without chemical fertilizer or pesticide inputs of any kind. Such a process financially sustains both a farm’s operations and the family whose lives depend upon it. The biggest threat they face is a shortage of unadulterated agricultural land to lease (to grow their business) and the increasingly restrictive government regulations directed at small farmers.
An Interview with George Vojkovich
Conventional feeding of cows and chickens is often focused on the cheapest options and consequently doesn’t embrace the healthiest choices for the animals. Vojkovich explains some of the downsides of corn-based diets for these animals and describes his methods of raising livestock in order to create the highest quality of food for the consumer.
Douglas Gayeton: Can you talk a little bit about the principles that define grass farming?
George Vojkovich: We rotate on a regular basis and keep the animals eating the top 50 percent of the grass. The top 50 percent ha up to 30 percent protein in it.
Then we move them and rotate to another field. The residual we left behind is still 4 to 5 inches tall and it’s a solar cell. It starts collecting the sun’s rays right away and it starts producing more roots, more grass. When we graze grass all the way to the roots, to the ground level, it has to use the battery of energy it stored. By rotational grazing and keeping the residual taller, you keep the roots deeper; you get an extra cutting of grass a year. It’s an efficient way to run grass and it also gives grass time to regenerate itself.
On a rotational grazing system, it’s variable. You have to be observant: pay attention to the weather, the elements, the water, the soil, the amount of animals you’re grazing and the age of those animals. All those factors affect the grazing.
Douglas Gayeton: Why is corn the dominant food supply given to cows in this country?
George Vojkovich: Corn is supported by the Federal Government. The Farm Bill allows a farmer to feed corn to a cow cheaper than a farmer can grow corn. Corn is government subsidized. It’s a cheap, high-carbohydrate food that puts fat on an animal.
The more fat you put on an animal, the sweeter the meat. What would take us six months to put fat on a cow, they can do in two months with corn. It creates efficiency in the system that gets animals in, gets them fed cheap, and gets them out in a hurry.
Douglas Gayeton: Are cows naturally predisposed to be able to easily digest corn?
George Vojkovich: Oh no; it creates a problem. They’re feeding soy with that too, which is a protein. The soy and corn combination creates acidity in the animals. A cow is designed to eat grass which keeps is physical pH very basic. When we increase the acidity in that cow, it causes complications in the liver called acidosis.
Dairy cows getting a corn fed diet, like beef cows, don’t rebreed. That acidosis will eventually kill them; it ruins the liver. In an animal in the feedlot, they’re only there three or four months and then they get butchered before they really get sick.
Douglas Gayeton: What’s in most chicken feed in the conventional poultry industry and what’s in yours?
George Vojkovich: Conventional grain for poultry is corn-soy based. The industry is not trying to treat this animal as healthy as possible. They’re trying to get production at the lowest input cost to compete with the other guys.
Americans mostly want to buy cheap food, but will pay a fortune for an iPhone. We cater to people who are willing to pay for quality in food. Some people want the best they can possibly have and we try to produce a product on our farm that’s the best.
In Skagit River Ranch, we make our own feed. We try to put all the juju in there that these animals need: from trace minerals, to seaweed, to diverse grains, spelt, and amaranth. We use wheat, we refuse to use corn. We use American grains. We put rock powders in and we put carbon hamates in the food.
We also have a sprouting device where we produce close to 100 pounds sprouts a day. We can sprout wheat, barley, or oats and give those to the animals on a daily basis. Birds love sprouts and it’s a way to get nutrients. We try to mimic nature and create a healthy bird that produces a healthy egg that people can taste. It tastes good.
The beta carotene levels in birds are primarily from eating grass. They’re getting that from live food. The beta carotene seems to go up with grass and sprouts and the Vitamin A and Vitamin E go up as well.
George Vojkovich’s early career was in commercial fishing. He began farming full time 18 years ago at Skagit River Ranch, and the farm became “certified organic” in 1998. He now farms over 800 acres organically, biodynamically, and sustainably. His passion is nutrient-rich soil that benefits all of the animals on the farm.
Eiko Vojkovich was a marketing executive for a large fishing company. She holds an MBA degree from University of Washington. In 1995 she left the seafood brokerage company she owned to farm full time with George. She does most of the farm’s marketing and financing.
What kind of impact do your food choices have on the wellbeing of the animal, the landscape, yourself and your community? Can you imagine what the future of our food system were to look like if we were not asking ourselves these questions?
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