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Of course, the homesteader can grow corn and conventional small grains as well as anybody. Growing and storing them on a small scale can be labor-intensive, however. A labor-saving strategy with the small grains is to grow to maturity, then turn the flock in to self-harvest the seed heads.
I grow amaranth and sunflowers, both for their beauty and for their support of beneficial insects, and continue to experiment with using the seed heads as poultry feed. The challenge with the sunflowers, I find, is catching them at the point at which the seeds have ripened, but before wild birds have stripped the heads. Heads can be cut and tied together in bunches, then hung from rafters under shelter for use in the winter. The same can be done with amaranth, an extremely nutritious (and high-protein) seed that was an important food source for the Aztecs. The seeds are extremely tiny, and it’s been hard to determine how well the birds utilize them when I just cut the heads and throw them to the flock. I plan experiments with threshing and feeding them straight to get a measure of how much the birds like them. I also plan to soak whole heads, sprout the seeds, then throw the whole sprouting head to the birds. It may be they will eat the sprouts better (more visible) than the tiny black seeds.
For the first time, I am experimenting with growing sorghum. I grow this extremely tall plant as additional pollen source for beneficials, and to screen other crops needing shade, but I plan to harvest the seed heads, tie in bunches, and experiment with feeding (whole heads) in the winter.
Double duty cover crops
I use buckwheat and cowpeas as cover crops that are easy to start in the summer when many of the cool weather covers will not establish. Buckwheat is the “instant cover crop”—from seed to flower in as little as thirty days. Cowpeas are legumes, and set atmospheric nitrogen in the soil in forms plants can use. If you can leave these crops long enough to mature their seeds, they do double duty as cover crop and feed for the birds. Indeed, it’s possible to net the area with electronet, and allow the flock to self-harvest the seeds while tilling in the cover crop. That’s a homestead version of “multi-tasking.”
Potatoes and sweet pototoes can be tremendously productive crops. In times of war, when people in England and other European countries had to grow more of their own feeds, potatoes have satisfactorily replaced grain feeds, in whole or in part. When I harvest these crops, I save for the flock the smallest tubers and those badly damaged by the spading fork. In an economic crisis, potatoes would be one of the first alternatives to grain I would turn to. Ducks will make good use of potatoes, as well as chickens. (It is generally recommended that potatoes be lightly cooked before feeding to the flock.)
Pumpkins are usually easier to grow than other members of the cucurbit tribe. If you have the space for the big, sprawling vines, you can grow and easily store large numbers of pumpkins. To feed, just “bust ’em open” and let the flock have at them. The seeds are a good source of protein.
Mangels or fodder beets are also easy to grow, producing roots up to ten pounds or even more which store well. (I store them in a “clamp,” a simple 24-inch hole in the ground protected by a sheet of plastic and a couple bales of straw.) I feed one at a time, raw. In the winter house, the entertainment value is probably as high as the feed value—the chickens really get into pecking away at them. When one has been consumed, I throw in another.
Another tremendously productive carbohydrate source is Jerusalem artichoke. This is a crop to be careful with, as it can easily get out of hand, and be difficult to eradicate. I recently read of a Vermont farmer who lets his large layer flock forage in big plantings of Jerusalem artichokes. The birds eat some of the foliage, and feed on the enhanced earthworm populations at the base of the plants. There was no mention of digging the tubers to feed the flock. However, Jersulam artichoke tubers are good food for humans, and I expect they would be a good carbohydrate source for poultry as well. I plan experiments with feeding them, raw and cooked, when they are ready to harvest this fall.