A lot of people know the goodness a garden can offer, but often overlook the possibilities the garden offers their animals on the homestead. In fact, there was a time when much of the produce grown on the homestead was grown to feed the animals living there, and there are still people who grow this way. But a lot of people who keep small amounts of animals for enjoyment and or for food can also make and use their outdoor space and garden area for nutritious and affordable animal feed. Even a small amount of space, when done right, can produce not only lots of food for you, but can put a sizeable dent into animal feed costs in a nutritious way. So…why not grow a garden for animals!
There are now formulated foods that are nutritionally complete available at any feed store. These feeds are various, but they all suit the basic needs of most backyard animal keepers. Layer foods for laying chickens, pelleted hay and other things rabbits need to stay healthy, mixes and pellets for ferrets or guinea pigs, or whatever else you keep. They aren’t terribly expensive either. This is a great foundation food source for any animal and unless you really know what you’re doing, should be the basis of the diet of your animals. But the garden can help bring down the cost of these foods, and give your animals something new and interesting to eat. They can even bolster some parts of your critter’s nutritional needs.
If you have limited space, it’s best to focus on crops that your critters love that can also be stored away for future use. Corn and other grains produced in large quantities are cheap to purchase either from the feed store or from local farmers, so spending your energy elsewhere is time better spent. Think about crops that your animals love that can be frozen, dried, or canned to be used later- either to be given as feed as is after storage, or crops that can be cooked into something else like a bread or cereal additive that becomes a winter morale-boosting treat. Consider crops that also produce in extreme abundance, and consider crops that can be used across several animal species.
Some ideas include summer squash like prolific zucchini, and winter squash like heavy producing acorn squash or pumpkin. These can be chopped and frozen, canned in chunks, frozen in puree or canned as a puree to be fed as is or made into breads or added to warm cereal grains. Some types of winter squash can be stored whole and fresh for months- and chopped in half and offered as is, or tossed in the oven for an hour to cook and soften, they become wonderful treats for birds of all kinds, for pigs, or whatever other animal you have. Pumpkins are treats themselves- but take the seeds, roast them, and feed them to chickens as a great natural wormer.
The Humble Tomato
Gardeners grow tomatoes for themselves more than any other crop- but for birds, especially chickens, tomatoes happen to be a real treat. If you’ve had chickens escape and find the tomato patch, you might know this chicken love for tomatoes first hand. Grow some tomatoes for your birds then! Chickens will delight in tomatoes the same way that people do- fresh, canned, frozen and thawed, and cooked into scrambled eggs or whatever you have, chickens will delight in them. Blanching tomatoes after you pick them to remove the skin, and then simply stored whole in freezer bags tossed in the freezer is a simple method to store tomatoes. If the tomatoes are just for your chickens, you might not even want to remove the skins! Simply blanch and toss into bags to freeze. Grow a prolific type of tomato so that you have lots to offer- like an over-achieving cherry tomato or a hybrid that grows well and is disease resistant.
Amazing Sweet Potatoes
Even if you live up north, you can enjoy the goodness and ease of sweet potatoes- and so can your animals. Sweet potatoes are a tasty and healthy crop that under proper storage, can stay fresh a long time- even longer than a lot of “long-keeping” crops like some types of winter squash or long-keeping onions. Nutritionally packed, tasty, and easy to chop up and puree into mash, sweet potatoes are a must-grow for your animals.
Root Crops are good for everyone
Root crops like carrots and beets are common garden staples, and are enjoyed by everyone too. Add a row or two for your animals, and freeze/can them for later use. Try to avoid feeding your animals onions however, and onion-like crops (leeks, chives etc). Check out sunchokes as a healthy and easy to grow potato-like root crop too!
Herbs can be dried or frozen, and even if you don’t directly feed them to your animals (which you certainly can!) they can be used to freshen up coops and pens, and even laid out to help with their medicinal qualities that they possess. Add sprigs of thyme and rosemary to chicken coop nest box bedding to calm birds as they relax and lay eggs. Lavender and mint can be hung in bunches along the walls of the coop to freshen up the smell, and if hung low enough the birds will peck at the herbs and help release the scents they possess. Brew some tea with stored herbs and add the tea to water buckets with some apple cider vinegar to keep immune systems running at full pace.
So this spring when you plant your garden, think about growing a garden for your animals! Grab the tiller and make a big new bed for squash and herbs, or plant an extra tomato plant or two. You’ll notice a big difference in the health and happiness of your animals, and you’ll also notice some of your food budget loosen as you supplement your animal feed with your garden’s bounty!