A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to The Feed Store



Troy Bishopp


Buying grain for livestock has become a scary proposition as the prices seem to climb daily.  This is especially poignant for smaller operations like mine that have a quality over quantity grass-based business and children at home learning about animal husbandry. 


Losing the pasture component to winter really hurts when you’re still growing chickens, pigs, goats and a herd of beef.  Being a mostly seasonal operation and having off-farm employment, we have the luxury of scaling back some of our grain eaters through harvest.  I’m not sure if we’re a typical small farm nowadays or not, but we feed some grain to keep the stock friendly and maintain a little production for our family needs.


I guess this strategy of not fighting winter is bad for feeding our community 24/7, but for our place, wintertime is not much of a money-maker without good pastures to keep costs at a minimum.  It really stimulates you to think about alternatives when a 100 pound bag of laying mash or pig feed is 15 bucks.


Spending some of my youth on the back of a garbage truck conditioned me to all the opportunities of feedstock procurement, while mitigating landfill costs.  Like a scene out of Charlotte’s Web; harvesting donuts, breads, vegetables and taboli made for interesting family conversations and really happy chickens and pigs.  The funny part was as businesses got to know their sanitation specialist as having a farm, they would actually set aside day old products for pickup. 


They appreciated the stories of the critters and enjoyed the homegrown eggs generated by their “refuge”.  A small multi-species farm lends itself well to this kind of recycling.  I even know some restaurants that partner with farms to compost most of their food wastes and use chickens as the turning machine. 


Alas, this idea of reducing our carbon food-print and recycling appropriate leftover food stuffs is frowned upon as a food safety issue, but is OK for alternative energy production.  Ya gotta drive ya know!  It is a mysterious paradigm when you can’t feed corn or wheat in bread form to your single stomach friends that would make nutrients into compost and fertilize your pastures.


The ruminant part of the business is faring very well on just hay and minerals.  The trick for us in accomplishing this is by birthing in sync with nature and avoiding the purchase of high quality feed for just maintenance production.  However, watching our bored (not Boer) Alpine goats take my mom’s Christmas tree down to a bare twig made me think about this as a complimentary feed source to hay. 


After Christmas, most folks put this “green” food out to the curbside for pickup by the town’s highway department.  When I went to town for pig feed, I slid into the nearest cul-de-sac and harvested some day old trees on the return trip.  The deer “wannabes” went crazy for the spruces, firs and pines.  Low and behold, they didn’t eat as much hay with this new grain substitute, therefore saving me money on purchased feed.  A simple concept that worked, I loved it.


The farmer and the black Dodge pickup on the prowl for trees made for interesting looks and even more curious conversations with homeowners.  Most hadn’t talked with a farmer in years, let alone a crazy grazing one.  They were so thrilled by this cool idea that they offered to deliver theirs’ and others’ trees to the farm, while grabbing a few Kodak moments of their friendly herbivores.  Beautiful marketing angle!  I love it when a plan comes together. 


So there it is, a new and improved recycling system: Christmas trees grown and harvested in New York, placed in a home and adored with holiday memories, taken to a farm to feed animals, animals produce milk and meat while providing “pelleted” nutrients, and finally tree is chipped for bedding and compost is fed back to the underground livestock to start the whole process over again.  Brilliant! 


My mindset has changed once again as forces impact a need to survive and prosper.  As the price of doing business continues to rise, I wonder what other innovations will come my way.  These input challenges really make me glad to be a grass farmer with an open mind for the future.  Published in Lancaster Farming and Country Folks