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Why You Should Grow Feed For Your Animals on The Homestead

Sarah Hamelman

I fell in love with homesteading because I feel the most secure when I intentionally put myself in control and plan ahead. I like the security that my extra hard work earns me. Cloth diapers mean I’ll never run out of clean diapers for my kids. Knowing how to cook means I don’t rely on a person or business to keep me fed. Raising animals means I’ll never run out of food or compost. I enjoy this control so much that I’m a freelancer, too– I don’t rely on an employer for money, and I even have my income spread across multiple clients, different platforms, and even different mediums.  

But what about my animals? Am I really in control of their food security? As of right now, in February 2024, the answer is a resounding no. If our supply chain failed indefinitely, several of them would go hungry, and I would have to cull them to prevent their starvation.

Most people think that if something catastrophic happened, they would get a lot of animals and start “living off the land.” In reality, many would have to put our animals down out of mercy so they didn’t go hungry. 

I don’t really like that, so let’s talk about our options and what I plan on changing over the next few years on our homestead. Right now, I am meeting 45% of my chickens’ feed with homemade solutions. Those numbers are closer to 65% for the rabbits and 25% for my goats. So let’s talk about that, and what I need to change to make these numbers closer to 100%.

What Is A Closed Loop Food System?

A closed-loop food system refers to a sustainable and regenerative approach to food production that minimizes waste and maximizes efficiency by integrating various elements of agriculture and food production in a cyclical manner. The system aims to create a self-sustaining ecosystem where the waste generated by one component becomes a resource for another. 

This concept is often applied to homesteading. Basically, manure generates compost, which feeds gardens. Gardens then feed livestock, which creates more compost, and the cycle continues. 

In a closed-loop food system, the goal is to minimize external inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while maximizing the internal cycling of nutrients and resources. This approach promotes sustainability, reduces environmental impact, and enhances the overall resilience of the agricultural system. It aligns with circular economy principles and regenerative agriculture, emphasizing the interconnectedness of different components in the food production process.

The Livestock Role in Closed Loop Food Systems

Livestock can be integrated into the system to provide several benefits. Animals can graze on cover crops or crop residues, helping to manage weeds and pests.

Animal manure serves as a valuable fertilizer for crops, closing the nutrient loop. The manure contributes organic matter to the soil and enhances soil fertility.

Split-hoof animals, like goats, cattle, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, will break up the topsoil slightly with their hooves. This moves seeds around, slightly disrupts the soil, and pushes seeds down into the ground for better germination rates. They also flatten, crimp, and trample tall grasses, which ends up acting as a natural mulch. This natural mulch makes it easier for the ground to retain moisture and encourages microbial growth and diversity, leading to better soil and better vegetation growing from that soil. 

The Plant and Forage Role in Closed Loop Food Systems 

Gardens within a closed-loop system can include a mix of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Companion planting, where certain plants are grown together to benefit each other, is often employed to improve overall productivity and health.

For instance, clover, beans, peas, alfalfa, lupine, peanuts, and vetch add nitrogen to the soil. 

Nitrogen-hungry plants include brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower) and leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, and kale. 

Plant residues and kitchen scraps can be used as inputs for composting, providing a source of organic matter for soil enrichment.

Compost’s Role in Closed Food Systems

Composting is a key component of closed-loop systems that turns plant and animal waste into food for crops, hay fields, or gardens. Organic waste from the kitchen, garden, and livestock bedding can be composted to create nutrient-rich humus.

The compost, in turn, is used to fertilize crops and enhance soil structure, closing the loop by returning nutrients to the system.

Permaculture

Permanent + Agriculture = Permaculture 

First, permaculture is heavily inspired by (if not completely ripped off from) indigenous practices, also called TEK (traditional ecological knowledge). I highly recommend these pieces for further reading. 

Permaculture is an approach to designing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems. It involves creating polycultures, incorporating perennial plants, and designing landscapes to maximize biodiversity and ecological interactions.

By integrating different plant species and using companion planting techniques, permaculture systems can enhance nutrient cycling, pest control, and overall system resilience.

Special Consideration for Closed Loop Systems  

Closed food systems are usually easier to maintain for smaller livestock. 

For instance, I can walk out my door, yank up herbaceous perennials (what the rest of the world calls weeds) from my yard, and toss those in with my rabbits. That is easy. It is also easy for me to toss some of these into small piles, allow them to dry, and then feed them over the winter months. 

If I am growing feed for my animals in this way to avoid catastrophe from supply chain disruption, this is a really safe option. If my tractor breaks down, I do not rely on it, the manufactured replacement parts, or fuel for it to feed the rabbits. Most gas stations only keep six hours to six days worth of fuel in their tanks. If even a day of fuel is not trucked in, we are out of luck. 

Photo by Magda Ehlers: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-flat-tire-on-a-heavy-equipment-9349144/

It’s easy to forage for rabbits for the summer and winter. It’s also pretty easy to let goats and cattle forage for themselves in the summer. But it is objectively more difficult to build up a winter feed supply for goats and cattle through the winter months without using machinery. 

Yes, beaverslides and loose hay storage exist. And yes, you can use horse-drawn machinery to bale hay and put it away for the winter. It’s not as common, but it is a very cool and viable option for some homesteads. 

Why Should You Grow Feed at Home for Your Animals? 

Supply Chain Disruptions

Growing feed at home provides a level of resilience against supply chain disruptions.

This is not necessarily preparation for cataclysmic disasters or the apocalypse. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Sometimes, the feed store may run out and can’t restock your feed for a month. Or your favorite local grower will have bad luck– a sick crop, flooding, or a fire– and you have to find someone else with enough to supply your homestead. 

Providing your own feed also keeps you safe from feed disruptions like the loss of your own income source. If you have a day job to support the homestead, you may temporarily lose your job and not be able to buy the feed you need. 

By producing feed on your own property, you are less dependent on external markets and can ensure a more consistent and reliable food supply for your animals.

Complete Control of the Feed Quality 

When you grow feed at home, you have direct control over the quality of the feed. This includes choosing the types of crops, ensuring they are free from contaminants, and managing the overall nutritional content of the feed. 

You know how pests were managed. You know where the water that supplied the crops came from. You know that the crops weren’t sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. 

It’s a peace of mind that is invaluable and incredibly rewarding. 

Reduced or Eliminated Feed Bills 

Producing your own animal feed can significantly reduce or even eliminate the need to purchase commercial feed. This can lead to substantial cost savings over time.

You may be able to seed-save and never pay for seeds again. Or harvest by hand or horse, reducing or eliminating your fuel reliance. 

Remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Any efforts made towards self-sufficiency are helpful. Even if you just grow a small plot of feed for your animals and reduce your feed usage from 50 bags of feed a year to 49– that’s a win. 

By growing crops that are well-suited to your local climate and soil conditions, you can potentially produce feed more efficiently and economically compared to buying pre-packaged feed from external suppliers.

Permaculture and Eco-Friendly Benefits

Utilizing regenerative agriculture practices in feed production, such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and agroforestry, can contribute to soil health, reduce the need for synthetic inputs, and support overall ecosystem resilience.

Using the supply chain less also reduces carbon emissions that way. Fewer feed sacks are produced. Fewer trucks are driven cross-country. Fewer monoculture crops, pesticides, and herbicides are used too. 

How to Grow Feed for Your Animals on the Homestead

In the next few posts, I’ll cover different animals, from chickens, rabbits, goats, cattle, and even horses. Each post will discuss their dietary needs, how much feed they need, and how much space their crops require. I’ll also share other tips and tricks you can use to become more self-sufficient without having to do it 100% on your own. 

How to Grow Feed for 100% of the Chickens On Your Homestead

Coming soon:

How to Grow Feed For Your Rabbits

How to Grow Feed For Your Goats

How to Grow Feed For Your Cattle

How to Grow Feed For Your Equine

Final Thoughts

Kayla and I are working on making this site accessible and genuinely helpful, and we promise it will always be 100% AI-free. We want to share more recipes we have extensively tested and regularly share with our families. Alongside that, we will also add more homesteading content.

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