Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers


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Maximizing the nutrition from your pasture

Milk goat rationOne of the trickiest parts of raising animals on pasture is trying to minimize your dependence on purchased feed.  Granted, with non-ruminants like chickens and pigs, a traditional pasture of grasses and legumes can only provide a portion of the animals' diets, but I still enjoyed Small-Scale Livestock Farming's explanation of how to maximize the value of your pasture by understanding the biology of both pasture and animal.

The first factor to understand is that working animals need more food at certain times of the year.  Maintenance rations are the baseline for an animal who is all grown up and not producing eggs or milk.  Farmers need to add supplemental nutrition on top of the maintenance ration when animals are expending extra energy growing, nursing, or laying.  For livestock other than pigs and poultry, the maintenance ration can usually be hay and/or grass, but the supplemental feed is usually grain for all of the above unless you time your grazing year very carefully.

Pasture growth through the yearIf you're careful, you plan your annual cycle so your livestock only need maintenance rations when the grass is growing slowly, then they can enjoy excess forage when they need supplemental rations.  Making a diagram like the one shown here is a fun way of working out your annual schedule.  I was planning three rounds of broilers, trying to make their feed needs (red shapes) fit on top of the peak pasture growth (green blob).  (As a side note, my current schedule matches this chart pretty well, except that I raise our last round of broilers later than the chart depicts so my chickens can eat up excess garden scraps, which peak in late summer and early fall.)

Another factor to consider is how high quality that pasture is, meaning how much energy your animals get from every bite.  You'd think that an animal could just eat twice as much woody grass to meet their nutritional needs, but the excess fiber slows down digestion, so there's usually not room in an animal's stomach for additional low-quality forage.  The result is that the animal actually eats less pasture when quality is low, and you're forced to fill the slack with grain or other purchased feeds.

Forage quality

Time of year makes a big difference in forage quality (with the first spring flush being the Crabgrasshighest quality), but so does species.  In the past, I've considered growing warm season grasses to fill in the midsummer slump, but Ekarius's book explained why our chickens ignored the warm season grasses we do have --- warm season grasses produce a thickened sheath to prevent drying out in hot weather, which results in a higher fiber content in most cases, and chickens can't handle lots of fiber.  In contrast, cool season grasses seem to lead the way in providing the most calories per pound of leaves, while legumes (of course) are highest in protein.  The table below sums up nutritional information for many of the common pasture grasses and legumes:

Species
% dry matter
Protein (as % of dry matter)
Fiber (as % of dry matter)
Total digestible nutrients (as % of dry matter)
Digestible energy, Mcal/lb
Alfalfa
21
20.0
23
57-61
1.01-1.22
Bermuda grass
34
12.0
26
50-60
0.82-1.32
Bird's-foot trefoil
24
21.0
25
63-66
0.99-1.1
Bluegrass
31
17.4
25
56-72
0.92-1.4
Brome
34
18.0
24
68-80
0.90-1.40
Clover, red
20
19.4
23
57-69
0.92-1.39
Clover, ladino
19
27.2
14
58-68
1.13-1.57
Fescue
28
22.1
21
70-73
0.79-1.24
Orchard grass
23
18.4
25
55-72
0.93-1.34
Redtop
29
11.6
27
60-65
0.84-1.24
Reed canary
23
17.0
24
47-75
0.91-1.10
Ryegrass, annual
25
14.5
24
50-60
0.79-1.24
Ryegrass, perennial
27
10.4
23
60-68
0.80-1.35
Sudan grass
18
16.8
23
63-70
0.83-1.40
Timothy
26
18.0
32
61-72
0.76-1.34
Vetch
22
20.8
28
55-57
0.91-1.1
Wheatgrass, crested
28
21.5
22
70-75
0.95-1.26

I know that was a lot of in-depth information, but hopefully it'll help you tweak your pasture cycle to get the most out of the grass you have.  Good luck!

Our chicken waterer simplifies daily care of your flock so you can focus on improving your pasture.



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