Why Small Farms Should Care About Animal Nutrition

For healthy animals that produce the eggs, milk and meat you love, proper nutrition is key.

by Alli Kelley
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

As an animal nutritionist and small-farm consultant, one of the biggest issues I see on small farms is the lack of attention paid to nutrition. The mindset is often one of complacency towards nutrition, thinking that because high production isn’t an end goal, it’s OK to feed whatever you want, and if your animals seem outwardly fine, all is well.

Certain misconceptions about animal nutrition can often be critically dangerous to your animals’ health. Animal nutrition should be just as important to small farmers as farm hygiene and appropriate animal husbandry.

How Can Animal Nutrition Benefit My Small Farm?

Usually when people think about animal nutrition, they’re using it as a tool to increase production. This is a major way that nutritional information can be used, but in many cases, I see this as a positive side effect for small farmers after they use nutrition to appropriately address a separate concern.

Help With Breeding

I see classified ads all the time for cows or nannies or ewes that all say the same thing: selling because she doesn’t breed back. Did you know this can be fixed via proper nutrition? If you aren’t meeting your animals’ basic needs for maintaining their own bodies, there is no way they’re going to catch. Before selling, reevaluate your nutrition plan for your breeding stock.

Increase Egg Production

Another common issue I run into is hens that aren’t laying. If all other farm conditions are right and the hen is healthy, nutrition is usually the answer.

Other Animal Benefits

Nutrition can also be a major factor in maintaining your animals’ overall health, thriftiness, condition and even temperaments. Poor-tempered animals are sometimes like that due to underlying health issues, some of which can be addressed with proper nutrition.

Subscribe now

So, what is proper nutrition? I will go through some basics of animal nutrition and use examples for how it can be applied to your farm. Because these topics go hand in hand, I’ll also address different labels for animal products and how you need to manage your animals’ nutrition appropriately, even if it isn’t in line with your personal beliefs about certain feedstuffs.

Feed A Balanced Diet

When you feed what nutritionists like to call a “balanced” diet, that means you’re meeting all the needs of your animals for the maintenance of their own body functions, plus whatever they’re producing (meat, milk, eggs, offspring, etc.). A balanced diet is going to provide them with the appropriate amount of energy they need, along with all the macro- and micro-nutrients they require.

If you own a dairy cow, for example, its diet is going to change throughout its dry period, pregnancy and different stages of lactation. During the dry period, you need to manage energy and calcium intake carefully to prepare for calving. A diet that is too energy- and calcium-rich is going to make the cow much more susceptible to milk fever and ketosis, both of which can be deadly.

As your cow freshens and enters early lactation, it may need more energy than it can take in. If you’re just feeding hay, even if it’s high quality, this probably isn’t going to provide energy. A full belly does not equal enough energy. You would adjust its diet again after freshening to include a higher energy feed source—usually some kind of grain. As the cow continues on throughout lactation, its energy requirements will decrease, and you’ll be able to transition it back down to a lower energy feed.

Now, I know what you’re going to say, “But Alli, I just turn my ol’ Bessy out on the pasture and she milks fine.” Alright, that may be true if your cow isn’t naturally a huge producer—because its body doesn’t require as much energy after freshening. Additionally, though your cow may seem fine, track its body condition to make sure it really is maintaining a healthy weight. Or test its blood levels for BHBA, an indicator of ketosis. For the most part, livestock are tough and don’t complain much, but if you aren’t familiar with what can go wrong, you won’t know what to look for so you can prevent it.

Use extreme caution when mixing your own feeds for animals you’re using for production. I see this most commonly with laying hens. The reason commercially available feeds often have more than three ingredients is because meeting a production animal’s needs requires many varied nutrients. This is something that is possible to achieve on your own, but it’s going to be expensive and difficult to gauge if you got it right without getting your mix analyzed a few times. I always recommend reviewing homemade mixes with a professional nutritionist if that is a route you’d like to take.

Pay Attention To Micronutrients

Another area of nutrition greatly ignored on the small farm is micronutrients—i.e., vitamins and minerals—which are essential for health and production. Now, these aren’t going to be cheap, and they aren’t going to be something you can just throw down on top of some hay and have your animals gobble up, but they are important enough that you should be willing to pay for them if needed.

Vitamins and minerals can be difficult to feed because they often come in a powdered form—something that animals don’t readily want to lick up—so I like to mix them into a feed the animal enjoys and the powder can stick to, like sweet grain or some soaked alfalfa cubes. I sometimes hear of people leaving out seven buckets of different powdered vitamins and minerals, thinking their animal will instinctively know what to eat. There are a few issues with this:

  • First, no animal is going to want to go lick up some bitter powder, no matter how badly they need that nutrients.
  • Second, you’re going to have so much waste. Buckets will be knocked over, the powders will be soiled, and it will just be a huge disaster.
  • Third, you have no clue how much of it, if any, your animal is eating. If you opt for powdered micronutrients, mix them into some type of feed you can monitor, saving yourself headache and money.

You can also purchase vitamin and mineral blocks. (Note: These are not the same as a salt block.) They’re great because they’re usually more affordable and convenient, already properly balanced and good-tasting to your animals. But remember, you still have no idea how much of the block your animals are actually eating. If you do opt for blocks, avoid putting them in pastures with a lot of animals—this makes it even more difficult to tell what is being consumed, and the weather can also degrade your block, leading to wasted money for you.

Avoiding Certain Feedstuffs

If you want your animals to be “grassfed” or “grain-free” or any other type of label, that is totally fine, but you need to adjust your production goals and time frame accordingly. Grass is a lower energy feed and will take longer to make any animal product (eggs, milk, meat).

Sometimes, longer isn’t better from a sustainability standpoint. Farming is looking at the big picture and what is going to work best for your land and animals on your farm. There is nothing wrong with feeding a high-energy feed source, like corn or some other grain, according to your animals’ nutritional requirements. For example, you could supplement grains only at critical times, like during pregnancy or lactation. Contrary to all the misinformation out there, livestock, especially ruminants, are able to digest and eat a wide variety of feedstuffs. This is possible because the main way they digest their feed is via fermentation by microbes.

Make The Right Diet Decisions For Your Animals

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen good animals not make it because of poor nutrition management. Not only is it completely heartbreaking, most of the time it is totally preventable. Management is everything, so do it right and don’t mess around.

Different feedstuffs are simply vehicles for certain nutrients. If your animal needs certain nutrients, find an appropriate vehicle for those nutrients. Sometimes this will be a feedstuff you don’t mind feeding, and other times it may be a feedstuff you’re not as comfortable with. Your animals lives depend on your willingness to manage their nutrition appropriately. Please don’t bet your pride on them. At the end of they day, they don’t have the same needs desires, and feelings we do. Especially about feed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *