Grow Your Own Livestock Feed With These Garden Crops!

Raising livestock is satisfying, but the feed bill can be jarring, so use your garden space to grow these powerful crops and save some green.

by Shawn and Beth Dougherty
PHOTO: Stanislav Akimkin/Shutterstock

Home-produced milk, eggs and bacon are wonderful things. But when you total up the feed bills at the end of the month, are you ever discouraged at the cost of keeping livestock?

Sacks of feed—especially organic—and bales of hay come with a price tag that can make “living the simple life” pretty expensive. But traditional garden crops can reduce or eliminate your dependence on purchased livestock feed. Many are easy to grow and store as well. 

Money-Savers, Not Time-Wasters

But wait, you think. If growing crops to feed animals means a whole lot more work, haven’t we just traded one problem for another? Well, the heirloom crops profiled in this article have all the traits to make them fit right into your busy homestead schedule:

  1. They’re easy to grow, because they don’t require a lot of TLC. And as heirlooms, they’re resistant to most pests and diseases.
  2. They really produce!—like literally tons of vegetable mass in a medium-sized plot.
  3. They can all be stored passively in the cellar, shed or porch, or just in the garden.

In addition to all this, the crops you don’t feed to the livestock, you can eat yourself. And many of these crops fit into spaces in the garden plot or planting calendar where you don’t already have a crop. So they don’t require a lot of dedicated garden space. 

Returning to Our Roots: Mangel-Wurzel

The name may sound unbelievable, but the mangel-wurzel—also called “mangel-beet” or “fodder beet”—is an extra-large beet. It can weigh up to 20 pounds, under favorable conditions, and has been grown in England since at least the 16th century. 

Its lovely, dark-green leaves touched with red and its enormous size make this plant a real eye-catcher. Like other beets, it makes terrific food for your own plate (and is the basis for some great beer and wine). But the mangel crops really came into their own in the 18th century when farmers began to cultivate the beet on a large scale for livestock.

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It’s a first-class, all-around animal feed for weight gain and milk production. In addition, it readily produces 500 pounds or more in just a 100-foot row! 

How to Grow

And as we promised, mangels are one of the easiest crops to grow. This long-season crop does require a dedicated space in the garden. But the big tap root punctures subsoil, breaking up hardpan and improving tilth.

And its large leaf-canopy shades out most weeds. It keeps the soil cool and biologically active even in high summer. Mangels are really an extra-duty crop: food, feed and soil improvement all in one!

Despite what you might think, this very large root is easy to harvest. Because it grows mostly above the soil, pulling it is simple: Just rock and lift. Cut off the tops leaving a couple of inches of stem, and stow the roots in the root cellar or cool basement.

Don’t let them freeze, though. 

Any class of livestock will relish the leaves, or, as with many crops, you and your family can eat them yourselves! Mangels will keep well into the next spring. Even when they begin to soften, they’re still acceptable food in the pigpen.

How to Feed

Feeding couldn’t be simpler. Give raw roots whole to chickens and adult pigs, or chop for piglets, cows and sheep. Mangels’ high sugar content makes them great energy food. And the generous vitamin and fiber content ensures balanced micro-nutrients and healthy guts. 

Cooking can even increase the available food value. Use the water from boiled mangels as a sovereign remedy for scours in calves.

(Note: While a few mangels can be offered as a treat at any time, tradition tells us to wait until January to offer the roots in large quantity. Too early feeding has been associated with scours.)

Read more: Why should market farmers grow beets? Here are 5 reasons.

Tromboncino: Prince of Pumpkins

Meet tromboncino, our favorite heritage squash. These big boys often reach over 4 feet long! Sometimes known as “crookneck pumpkin,” this vining moschata is resistant to all the troubles that take out other cucurbitae, such as squash vine borers, squash bugs and even bacterial wilt and powdery mildew. So it’s really easy to grow. 

Tromboncino likes to climb, so you can minimize the space it occupies in the garden by growing it along fences, trellises or hedges. Give it lots of room because it will keep growing all summer long! 

livestock feed crops garden
Corri Seizinger/Shutterstock

The young green fruits are delicious steamed, sautéed or in a salad. Mature, this is a long-storing winter squash often compared to butternut. In a cool, dry cellar, it can store all winter. We’ve had it last into the next June.

Best of all, a single plant can produce as many as 50 or more fruits, many weighing 5 pounds or more. Now that’s real productivity!

How to Grow

Tromboncino is easy to cultivate, too. It can be started indoors before the last frost date or direct-sown in the garden, which is our preferred method. To get tromboncino going on a good footing, put down some rough compost, mound dirt over it and push in three or four seeds, points down. Then water and wait for it to pop up!

As soon as the plants appear, mulch around them to hold moisture and control weeds. 

Give tromboncino something to climb, and that’s all there is to it! Pick any young fruits you want for summer cooking, and let the rest mature. You’ll be amazed at the harvest!

How to Feed

And this squash couldn’t be easier to feed out. Cut in large chunks for pigs and ruminants (cows, sheep, goats). For chickens, split the fat, round body of the squash and let the birds peck the high-protein, vitamin-rich seeds right out of the cavity.

They’ll eat it down to the rind—seeds, flesh and all. 

All Hail the King: Kale

As if we needed another reason to grow kale, here’s a new benefit: It’s terrific animal food! All the qualities that make kale a superfood for humans make it a great animal feed crop as well.

With off-the-charts vitamin and mineral content, kale is a prime source of calcium and magnesium—minerals especially important in winter, which is just when it’s most available. Like mangels, kale boosts milk production in dairy animals and mother pigs, too.

Its dark-green leaves provide lots of beta-carotene, for rich orange egg-yolks and butterfat, even in winter. Your livestock will love you!

How to Grow

Kale is one of the easiest crops to grow. Plant it to fill garden spaces that come available as you harvest other crops. It can grow unprotected all winter long, and you can harvest as needed. 

A cool-season crop, kale nevertheless germinates readily for us even in the heat. So as your summer crops play out, replace them with kale. We direct sow 8 inches apart in rows. When the plants are a few inches tall, we thin to 16 inches between plants and make salad of the thinnings.

How to Feed

Kale is a crop that requires exactly no processing for feeding out. It’s ready to go, straight from the garden. Harvest leaves as you need them, or just cut the whole plant.

Chickens like kale chopped fine, but if you hang a plant in the hen house, they’ll tear it up themselves and get some exercise in the bargain. Larger animals will happily chow down on the whole plant, stem and all.

Read more: Kale pests? Follow these tips to identify and manage them.

Potato Perfect

Don’t overlook the mighty potato! One of the easier-to-grow crops, this vegetable also makes a great livestock feed. When planning your garden this year, leave plenty of space for your potato crop—after all, a root cellar full of potatoes is terrific food security! Reserve the surplus, damaged and undersized tubers for the animals.

Packed with vitamins, minerals and energy, potatoes are the real staff of life in many countries.

livestock feed crops garden
Masha Dougherty

How to Grow

Potatoes are also one of the easiest crops to grow and—pound for pound—also one of the most productive! Well-composted soil ensures a good start, while mulching keeps roots cool—the best deterrents we know for potato bugs.

In prolonged dry spells, it can be worth watering your potato patch. This is a crop you’re really going to depend upon.

How to Feed

Potatoes can be fed to hogs and ruminants as a significant part of their energy allotment. Smaller tubers can be fed whole, while large roots may be roughly chopped to avoid choking hazard. Or put a pot of potatoes on the wood-burning stove and get double-duty out of your firewood!

Cooked potatoes are a mainstay in hen and hog rations. Mixed with a protein supplement such as sunflower seeds or skim milk, potatoes make a complete feed ration. 

The Superb Sunflower

A long row of sunflowers dresses up any garden. Not only that, as a vertical crop, it produces enormous amounts of vegetable mass for the space it occupies.

The seeds are a favorite with chickens, of course, and provide big boosts of protein and beneficial fats. Grazing animals love the whole plant. Cows, goats and sheep will happily eat the leaves after the heads have been harvested, and pigs enjoy even the stems.

livestock feed crops garden
Doris Oberfrank-List/Shutterstock

Tall varieties are the best sources of seed and produce the greatest volume of plant material as well. Even poor soil will grow sunflowers, but some rough compost will really boost production. Make your first planting in spring, after average last frost date. 

Because sunflowers are a warm-season crop, they’ll sprout even in hot weather, making them a good crop to fill in as you clear the garden of other plants. Once sunflowers are up, they aren’t much bothered by weeds, but some mulch around the base of the plant will keep the roots moist and maximize growth. 

Sunflowers are easy to harvest. Seed heads are ready when the disk flowers—the tiny blooms that cover the center of the flower head—begin to dry up and fall off. Cut mature heads, leaving about 12 inches of stem attached, and tie in small bunches for hanging. 

An enclosed porch, shed or summer kitchen is a good place to store sunflowers. Stringing a length of chain, clothes-line fashion, lets you hang your harvest out of reach of wild birds and rodents. That’s all there is to it!

Offer shucked seeds or whole seed heads to poultry, ruminants and pigs as a protein booster and mineral supplement. Don’t waste the stem and leaves. Your pigs and ruminants will devour them.

You’ll reap benefits in the form of eggs, milk and bacon!

Read more: Get the most from the multi-purpose sunflower plant.

Foil the Feed Bill 

Homesteaders can find a lot of the feed they need straight from their own land. From the start of the growing season, right through the winter, your garden can feed the animals with minimal work on your part. And when you grow it yourself, you know exactly what your animals are getting and not getting. 

Home-produced livestock feed means crops with no pesticides, artificial fertilizers or GMOs. And homegrown feed makes your hobby farm independent of unforeseen interruptions in availability or delivery.

So declare your homestead independent of purchased feeds! Your animals, your soil and your wallet will be glad you did. 

Sidebar: Cultivation

No one wants to spend a lot of time growing crops for livestock, but the feed crops mentioned in this article are vigorous and require relatively little time and energy. And they won’t be your show garden, so don’t worry too much about weeds.

Here are easy steps for growing your own feed crops:

  • Till first to eliminate weeds and make a receptive seed bed.
  • Use the push planter to drill small seeds. Compress the soil over the seeds for good seed-to-soil contact and to mark your line.
  • As soon as weeds germinate, cultivate between the rows.
  • When your crop seeds show true leaves, thin to desired spacing. 
  • Make a second pass with the wheel hoe when new weeds germinate, using an ordinary hoe to draw soil over the weeds in the rows.

That’s it! This isn’t your show garden—when the crop plants are tall enough to compete with weeds, ‘‘lay it by” as the old-
timers say, and let it grow!

Sidebar: Staying in Balance

How do we make sure our homegrown crops provide our livestock with a good, balanced diet? Well, variety is the spice of life, and it’s also the key to a balanced diet.

Commercially compounded animal feeds are usually a total mixed ration (TMR) intended to supply all the necessary nutrients. But in nature, no single plant or animal food supplies everything. So, when growing and feeding homegrown crops, balance the diet of your livestock like you balance your own—with variety!

Just like humans, animals need:

  • carbohydrates, such as potatoes and mangels, for energy
  • proteins & fats, readily available from seed crops such as sunflowers and tromboncinos
  • fiber, present in all these vegetable crops and in pasture plants
  • micronutrients—vitamins and minerals

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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