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Cover crops to feed chickens

 
dan long
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I volunteered a few times at an organic farm here in Taiwan. Their weed control methods varied quite a bit depending on how many volunteers they had for the day. It varied from occasional hoeing to cutting the weeds off at the soil line with curved knives. The later strikes me as a great way to grow/harvest perennial chicken feed.

In my fanciful "perfect world" I imagine going out to my garden in the morning, tossing todays salad in a bag, perhaps picking up a few slugs, cutting some volunteers (thats "weeds" in common speak) for the chickens then calling it a day.

In the real world, grasses are not only the most aggressive, but they do little to improve the soil and they are unpalatable to the chickens. Rather than wait to see what volunteers, lets casually some low-growing, tap rooted "weeds" that don't winter kill. Clover, dandelion and plantain immediately come to mind. Chickweed, miners lettuce and wild brassica readily re-seeds. Daikon radish makes great people AND chicken food and it does wonders for compacted soil. the list goes on and on.

Of course, we may have to pull up some grass during the slow part of the year. It isn't as tedious a project as one might think. With a heavy cover crop, it probably only needs to be done once anyways.

This chicken feed cover crop can be done in conjunction with a traditional, annual garden. Think of it as a living mulch. Cutting the chicken feed off at soil line as opposed to pulling it means that your main "people crop" roots don't get disturbed in the process and it also ensures that the roots of the chicken feed stay in the ground to add OM and aerate soil. Using "weeds" that readily overwinter means that you wouldn't have to buy or store chicken feed for the "off season"

Besides. you have to weed the garden anyways, right?
 
Su Ba
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Dan, I don't quite follow you, though I think I get some of the gist of where you're going with this. I guess you're talking about intercropping where the one crop is destined for human consumption and the other acts like a living mulch until it is cut for the chickens. Perhaps like growing daikon around the base of pole beans?

I've used radishes, short rooted daikon, bok choy, carrots, and turnips in this fashion, though most of these crops go to human food rather than the chickens. I will grow them around plants that won't object to them being pulled, such as pole beans, broccoli, tomatoes. I will also plant them around slower growing crops so that they get harvested off early, allowing the main crop to slowly get established. The only problem I find when using these as living mulches is that it makes it more difficult to get the nutrients to the main crop. My gardens rely upon compost and decomposing mulch for most of its nutrients/fertilizer, so without the surface compost/mulch being there during the growing period, I have to use some other method to feed the main crop without disturbing the roots. I've used nutrient teas with some success, but they don't give me the outstanding results that I've come accustomed to with using my compost mulching system. Plus it takes extra time for me to make and use the teas. I've also used foliar sprays, which again take extra time to prepare and use.

As for longer termed living mulches, I've only so far found that sweet potatoes fit the bill. I've tried some others but they seem to compete too strongly with the companion crop. Unless you can really apply adequate water to the garden, some of those perennial living mulches will prevent the main crop from getting adequate moisture, in addition to robbing nutrients from the main crop. I've found that most vegetables don't compete well against grass, clover, and other aggressive weeds. But my sugar cane, taro, and bananas can do well when cropped with sweet potatoes. This year I plan to try using cucumbers as a living mulch. It might work. By the way, I apply a thick layer of compost/mulch before I plant the sweet potatoes, so the sweet potatoes vine over to cover that mulch eventually. That way the ground doesn't stand bare at anytime and the mulch continues to decompose.

Depending upon the grass variety, the chickens may or may not eat it. I offer my chickens grass clippings daily and they consume anywhere from 50% to 75% of it. The rest ends up as litter. So the hens seem to like most of the grasses growing on my place. I don't tolerate grass in the gardens because tropical grasses quickly takeover here. So grass that gets pulled either gets thrown to the chickens, rabbits, or pigs. Somebody eats most if it. By using constant mulch, I have little weed problems to deal with most of the time.

I find that my chickens eat a LOT of food. So dreaming of just tossing the some weeds each day is just that, a dream. If I expect to get eggs from them, then I had better keep food in front of them 24 hours every day. And that had better be nutritious food that they like to eat, not just weeds. And since root crops have considerable nutrition in the roots, I'm loathe to cutting the tops for the chickens and leaving the nutritious root in the ground. Chickens need more than just greenery.

Since I don't have to worry about overwintering anything, perhaps the idea of growing things that can stay in the garden overwinter might be a good idea as a means of storing chicken food for those who get winter. Perhaps mangels? I don't know. Another blogger that I follow takes her excess summer crops, shreds them, dehydrates them, and stores the dried veggies for winter fodder. Not a bad idea.
 
dan long
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Definitely not talking intercropping. I mean cultivating "weeds" and letting some traditionally cultivated vegetables get "weedy". These would never be allowed to get taller than the "people vegetables". The only difference here is instead of hoeing, your managing weeds with a knife, and tossing the cuttings to the chickens. Grass is an exception; pull that up by the root.

As for the concern regarding chickens not getting a balanced diet, I think i read somewhere that the ideal chicken diet is 80% greens. Could be wrong. I also have read that tilapia that are few on cheap grains have an undesirable omega6:3 ratio just like cows. I assume that is the same for chickens. This might mean that weed and bug eating chickens give more nutritious eggs than chicken feed eating chickens.

The green cover crop would also eliminate a lot of the need for compost. Cutting off annuals at the dirt would leave the roots in the soil. Not just on the surface but down deep. This would also give the benefits of tilling without the negatives. The perennials and biennials would make up most of the chickens winter feed. what they don't eat becomes litter then compost that bugs hide in (the other 20% of their diet).

Regarding your concern that the living mulch would compete for water, I can't argue with your experience. I can only offer my own. Up until the typhoon 2 days ago, there hasn't been any rain for awhile. (im in Taiwan now, but I will move to PNW Washington. Hence the need for winter feed). I have a couple different gardens tucked away in the corners of a park near my house. Since I didn't water any of them, the vegetables were all highly stressed and most died. All except for one. This one didn't show much moisture stress at all but the funny thing is that I had mostly abandoned it and it was overgrown with weeds (I don't know the name. Sorry). The weeds are easily twice as tall as the water spinach and as tall as the corn. What I happen to know from observing other specimens of this type of weed is that it has a really tough tap root that punches through the compacted soil that I have to work with. I highly suspect that the water spinach and corn roots followed these tap roots down to where they could get sufficient ground water. Upon replanting my gardens, I've tossed in a few pig weed seeds hoping to get the same effect.

I suspect that if one kept their living mulch trimmed so that it never got higher than say 6 inches, there wouldn't be any significant water competition and there would be a net benefit in regards to drought resistance.

I appreciate your response. If nobody challenges my gardening fantasies then i'm probably in or some really poor seasons.

As far as liquid fertilizers, do you get enough rain in your garden (I know that Hawaii can vary wildly) to negate the excess sodium from using urine? It's free and takes less effort to apply than compost.
 
Su Ba
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I suspect some of the effect you are seeing on the one thriving garden is due to the weeds shading the soil plus the higher humidity trapped among the leafy layer of live plants. Let me explain better.

When the soil surface is bare or mostly bare, I find that my soil dries out very fast from the action of the wind and the sun. When the soil surface is covered (either shaded heavily by the crop, by weeds, or by mulch of some kind), the soil retains its moisture. So if my soil is too wet (like right now because we have been getting rain every day), I can remove the mulch in order to help dry the soil. But during drought times I apply mulch to help keep the water that I applied via irrigation. But a thick mulch can prevent a light rain from getting through, so that is something to keep in mind too.

When plants are growing closely, they benefit from the increased air humidity around themselves. Plant leaves emit moisture due to normal plant expiration. When leaves are close, they block the moving air and the sunshine. Thus the moisture tends to stay around the plants. Plant leaves can take up that moisture from the air via their leaves, re trapping the expired moisture. Plants that are close like this also block the sunshine from getting to the soil, thus preventing soil moisture from being driven off too. This is basically the mechanism that causes closely mowed lawns to go dormant during the summer while an unmown lawn next door stays greener.

Keeping your cover of weeds lower in height than your growing crop can help your crop retain moisture. But I suspect the weeds should be those that don't compete heavily for nutrients....and at the same time have root systems that don't hog all the moisture. I have found that heavily rooted (lots of tiny rootlets and root hairs) type plants, like grasses and clovers, prevent light rains from wetting the soil much beyond their own roots. We have a tree here in Hawaii called the ohia. It's root system is a tight mat of roots. Thus other plants cannot thrive growing under the ohia, except for grasses. Grasses are just as water aggressive as the ohia for shallow surface water.

I often tell people that a somewhat weedy unwatered garden can be more productive than a weed free unwatered garden. I don't think people believe me, but I've seen it to be true, but I think it depends upon the type of weeds and type of crop. If you figured out which weeds and which crops to use, then I see no reason why it couldn't work. Would your garden be as productive as one being well tended? No. But it would produce something edible at least.

The system you are proposing may work but won't produce much food. I suppose one would have to decide if low food production combined with low labor input was what was acceptable. In my case, it would not. I need to produce almost all of my own food and livestock fedd plus have some extra for income. A "no labor" garden simply could not do that.

On another note, I totally agree with you about chickens being fed on commercial chicken feed. My own chickens get very little commercial feed. They are fed grass clippings, garden waste, foraged fruits, seeds and vegetables that I grow for them, meat waste, plus what they forage on their own 3-4 hours a day (bugs, lizards, and whatever else they like). As a result their eggs and meat tastes and smells superior to store bought chickens.

As for using urine........ I usually get plenty of rain where I farm. Salt build up is not a problem. Besides, I do not have lots of urine to use. I only use what I collect from ourselves.
 
dan long
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Su Ba wrote:I suspect some of the effect you are seeing on the one thriving garden is due to the weeds shading the soil plus the higher humidity trapped among the leafy layer of live plants. Let me explain better.

When the soil surface is bare or mostly bare, I find that my soil dries out very fast from the action of the wind and the sun. When the soil surface is covered (either shaded heavily by the crop, by weeds, or by mulch of some kind), the soil retains its moisture. So if my soil is too wet (like right now because we have been getting rain every day), I can remove the mulch in order to help dry the soil. But during drought times I apply mulch to help keep the water that I applied via irrigation. But a thick mulch can prevent a light rain from getting through, so that is something to keep in mind too.

When plants are growing closely, they benefit from the increased air humidity around themselves. Plant leaves emit moisture due to normal plant expiration. When leaves are close, they block the moving air and the sunshine. Thus the moisture tends to stay around the plants. Plant leaves can take up that moisture from the air via their leaves, re trapping the expired moisture. Plants that are close like this also block the sunshine from getting to the soil, thus preventing soil moisture from being driven off too. This is basically the mechanism that causes closely mowed lawns to go dormant during the summer while an unmown lawn next door stays greener.

Keeping your cover of weeds lower in height than your growing crop can help your crop retain moisture. But I suspect the weeds should be those that don't compete heavily for nutrients....and at the same time have root systems that don't hog all the moisture. I have found that heavily rooted (lots of tiny rootlets and root hairs) type plants, like grasses and clovers, prevent light rains from wetting the soil much beyond their own roots. We have a tree here in Hawaii called the ohia. It's root system is a tight mat of roots. Thus other plants cannot thrive growing under the ohia, except for grasses. Grasses are just as water aggressive as the ohia for shallow surface water.

I often tell people that a somewhat weedy unwatered garden can be more productive than a weed free unwatered garden. I don't think people believe me, but I've seen it to be true, but I think it depends upon the type of weeds and type of crop. If you figured out which weeds and which crops to use, then I see no reason why it couldn't work. Would your garden be as productive as one being well tended? No. But it would produce something edible at least.

The system you are proposing may work but won't produce much food. I suppose one would have to decide if low food production combined with low labor input was what was acceptable. In my case, it would not. I need to produce almost all of my own food and livestock fedd plus have some extra for income. A "no labor" garden simply could not do that.

On another note, I totally agree with you about chickens being fed on commercial chicken feed. My own chickens get very little commercial feed. They are fed grass clippings, garden waste, foraged fruits, seeds and vegetables that I grow for them, meat waste, plus what they forage on their own 3-4 hours a day (bugs, lizards, and whatever else they like). As a result their eggs and meat tastes and smells superior to store bought chickens.

As for using urine........ I usually get plenty of rain where I farm. Salt build up is not a problem. Besides, I do not have lots of urine to use. I only use what I collect from ourselves.


That was an amazingly practical explanation. I did not know about the water competition from dense root systems but it makes a lot of sense the way you described it.
 
Pamela Smith
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Dan if given the opportunity chickens would eat mostly bugs and then seeds. I finally have a nice fenced area around my forest for them to get out and find bugs. Bugs is what gives them what they need for nice orange eggs and plenty of protein. Find some rotting logs and put them down somewhere and soon ants and bugs will find their way and the chickens will love it. I have an open area in this area for them that I will be planting grasses and weeds for me and the chickens. 1 crop they love and makes for a good green mulch and for us if the chickens do not eat all the seeds is buckwheat. Buckwheat is a good crop for bees too . Allow some weeds to grow like dandelion, purslane, chickweed, lambs quarter just to name a few that the chickens will love and we can use as well. Anyway, I am sorry not sure what you are asking but hope this helps.
 
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