High nutritional density fodder for livestock

My biggest challenge, is to grow enough feed to meet our livestock’s nutritional needs. Our pasture is in very poor condition. We are working to improve it, but it will take time. Meanwhile, it is my goal to raise more and more nutrient dense vegetation that will meet both the mineral and nutritional needs of our livestock.

I tried to grow tree lucerne this year. It sprouted beautifully, but did not make it through the summer. I will try again next year. Good stands of tree lucerne would easily serve as an alfalfa replacement most of the year (it is an evergreen tree).

Tree lucerne seedlings

Tree lucerne seedlings

Last year, I was able to gather large piles of wood compost from where a new power line went through. I threw my own organic waste and compost on some of it, including composting squash from last year. I was surprised to discover volunteer squash growing wildly in this mulch without any watering or care on my part, producing an abundance of large fruit. The sheep loved it, and I have since learned that winter squash actually have anti-parasitic qualities. So I hope to plant a lot more next year.

Wild volunteer squash growing in wood mulch.

Wild volunteer squash growing in wood mulch.

The sweet potatoes I planted this year thrived in the shade house garden. I am now cutting vines to feed the sheep and rabbits every day. They absolutely love it. And they like the tubers too. I hope to grow a lot more sweet potatoes next year, on trellises to encourage vine growth that I can easily cut for feed.

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Lambsquarters is a nutritionally dense wild green that grew abundantly in my former goat pen. It is a balanced, high protein green, drought hardy, and the sheep love it. I hope to grow a lot more as well as wild sunflower, which they will happily eat (and is also drought tolerant, thriving in poor soils).

I have also learned, that if you inoculate your plants with this fungi: http://www.fungi.com/shop/fungi-for-healthy-gardens-and-garden-supplies.html , It will dramatically increase the uptake of phosphorus and other minerals. Most fodder plants need increased phosphorus availability. To use fungi to sustainably offer it is awesome! Rodale Institute, apparently, has done a lot of testing with this particular fungi.

natural building

 

 

First building using natural building techniques on property (straw bale and earth plaster)

First dwelling using natural building techniques on property: straw bale and earth plaster, built three years ago.

I have an obsessive love for natural building. Our first structure, which we completed three or so years ago, included strawbale walls covered with earth plaster. This summer, we have been very busy building a much larger three bedroom structure, using straw-clay infill interior walls and earth plaster (with some cob around the wood stove). In the future, it is my hope to construct guest cottages using primarily cob and possibly native timber.

For those not familiar with straw-clay, I wanted to share the technique of this natural building method. Straw-clay is easier to work with than cob. It offers some thermal mass if well compressed, but no where near as much as cob (my preferred material for our climate). But because it is quicker to work with, much lighter weight (this particular building has a raised foundation), it is the most practical choice for our current project.

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This is the trough where I add red clay, water and then straw.

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We do have a clay subsoil about two to three feet under our sandy topsoil. But to save time, we are collecting clay from a nearby cemetery where it is left in a pile by the road.

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I mix the clay with a little bit of water, too much water causes the clay to settle and not make a thick enough clay slip. I then stir the wheat straw in the clay slip water, coating all the strands.

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This is well coated straw ready to be tamped down into the wall forms.

Pounding Straw Clay

We used 2″x6″ lumber for our walls. I placed scrap plywood on each side of the wall that serves as a temporary form. I then put in the straw clay and tamp it down with a wooden board. I don’t like to remove the plywood right away, but prefer to wait until the next morning, because it leaves a neater, flatter wall.

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The straw clay walls do need to be stabilized, either with slats that can be plastered over or pins slid inside the walls. I plan to plaster with earth plaster, also using native clay, sand and straw. I will photograph and share as we make progress.

Natural building is beautiful, but it is labor intensive. And it caused me to be quite neglectful of my garden. But this is why I am so excited about hugelkulture and wood mulch. My garden survived a hot dry August without watering or care. In years past, I would have to water twice a day and it would still die by mid summer. Permaculture works!

Organic bug control in the garden

Duck pen attached to the shade house. The blue barrel is a diy soldier fly composter.

Duck pen attached to the shade house. The blue barrel is a diy soldier fly composter that automatically feeds poultry.

One thing about the shadehouse framing is that it allows me to attach useful structures to it, which follows the permaculture principle of stacking functions. One such structure is a duck pen filled with Welch harlequine ducks. It is my plan to extend this pen (in a simpler form) around the shade house perimeter to serve as a ‘duck mote’. In summertime, we have a horrible grasshopper situation with thousands of large and very destructive grasshoppers everywhere. Grasshoppers combined with the heat and drought generally make summer gardening extremely difficult. But ducks love grasshoppers and it is a joy to watch them chase after them. Last summer I allowed the ducks into the shade house garden and that definitely worked. They don’t scratch the garden like chickens do. But their big webbed feet certainly trample over anything small as they go on the relentless chase for grasshoppers. So my preference is to have them outside the shadehouse, preventing the grasshoppers from coming in, in the first place. And then only occasionally let them into the garden once the plants are mature to clean up any hoppers that get through the perimeter ‘duck mote’.

Just a couple of weeks ago I discovered a copperhead snake in the sweet potato greens in the shadehouse. Ducks fear snakes and won’t keep them out, but if I add guineas, they may eat the little ones and chase out the big ones (also protecting the duck eggs). So I have some baby guineas in the brooder now for this very purpose.

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duckchase1   duckchase2   duckchase3

 

Building Greenhouses within the Shade House

Ducks on grasshopper patrol in shade house.

Ducks on grasshopper patrol in shade house.

Years past, it was possible to keep a cool season garden alive in winter without too much difficulty here in north Texas. But our winters have been getting colder, and the prediction for this year is no different. Last winter we had several bouts of single digit lows and even highs in the teens which is very exceptional here. Temps like that require a lot of protection if I hope to keep a winter garden alive.

This year I plan to fabricate a greenhouse structure within each of the four quadrants of the shade house. My goal is to build greenhouses that can easily be put together, or taken apart and are very durable. My plan is to purchase transparent heavy-duty tarps designed specifically for this purpose. I can hang them up within the frame work of the shade house, making tents.

I also plan to put together black plastic 55 gallon barrels attached to a thermo-siphon powered solar water heating system that I will build. And I will surround these with a woven wire trellis to support peas and maybe even beans if the temps stay warm enough next to them. And I want to create “hot beds” that will naturally keep the plants warm: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/readers-solutions/making-hotbed-your-polytunnel

If everything works out as I hope, I won’t need to purchase transplants next year but will be able to grow my own tomato, pepper and other warm season seedlings. And I should be able to grow potatoes during the winter months when they actually will do much better (too hot in summer for them). It is my hope that the whole system will be low maintenance and passively heated. I plan to share pictures as I get this together.

The company I ordered the transparent heavy-duty tarps from:

http://www.a1tarps.com/clear-tarps.html

Hugelkulture Beds in the Shade House Garden

This spring, I decided to add hugelkulture beds in the shade house, cover with aged manure, biochar, compost and then top off with a thick layer of wood mulch.

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This summer was extraordinarily busy in that I was caught up in a high priority labor intensive building project (including natural building techniques such as straw-clay, earth plaster, and cob,–another post). June and July were exceptionally wet. But August was hot and dry like most Texas summers. I did not have time to water at all, and the hugelkulture worked! The garden survived the worst of a Texas summer without care on my part and now I am still harvesting sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, cow peas, basil, etc. The only thing that didn’t make it to the fall was the squash. The exceptional rain of the early summer led to a horrible infestation of squash bugs which I was not able to deal with. But still, I got a good harvest of squash that is still in storage, even now.

Last year I piled wood mulch in various areas of the property, and in one area, I threw on compost including rotting squash from last year. The seeds from that sprouted this year and the squash plants grew vigorously without watering or care and produced additional fruit for us and the livestock. I am totally sold on the value of hugelkulture in an extreme wet/dry climate like north Texas.

Volunteer squash growing wild in the compost/wood mulch without care.

Volunteer squash growing wild in the compost/wood mulch without care.

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Wild volunteer squash growing in wood mulch.

Wild volunteer squash growing in wood mulch.

Pictures of this year’s shade house garden:

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Growing Sweet Potatoes From Tubers Verses Slips

This year I planted sweet potato tubers (organic from a local store) in April and slips from a local nursery in late May. There was quite a difference in progress by the first week of June.

First week of June: Tuber slips planted as soon as they were available in late May.

First week of June: Sweet potato slips planted as soon as they were available in late May.

First week of June: Tubers planted in April.

First week of June: Tubers planted in April.

Now that I am harvesting, the sweet potatoes I planted from tubers are much more developed than the ones I planted from slips. I have successfully over-wintered sweet potatoes before. I plan to leave some in the ground, mulch heavily, and let them sprout when they are ready in the spring, well before when the “experts” think they should be planted, They seem to know best when to come up and grow on their own.

Here is a good article on over-wintering English potatoes. I plan to do that as well.

http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles/williams48.html

 

 

Our New Mealworm Farm

When I expanded the livestock barn to include a new poultry house, I also decided to build a mealworm farm.

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This summer I experimented with growing mealworms in a variety of grain as well as dried sheep/goat manure. The only example of another person attempting to grow meal worms in manure online that I could find was in Florida. In that case, the experiment took place in plastic bins, inside a garage in a very humid climate and it failed due to mold killing the worms. North Texas is generally drier, my farm was in an open-sided barn where summer breezes regularly cross-ventilated the worm beds.

You cannot see the meal worms but I can feel them crawling!

You cannot see the meal worms but I can feel them crawling!

I am very happy to say, that in my case, the manure beds were by far, the most successful in raising the worms. I was extraordinarily busy this summer and had no time at all to feed the worms fruit or vegetables. Whatever moisture they got came from the air and their nourishment came completely from the bedding. So in my case, I believe the manure provided the best balance of moisture and nourishment, in the case of complete neglect on my part, while not leading to mold because of the good cross ventilation. The grain attracted moths and grain beetles so I really want to transition away from that. The only negative with the set-up is that it did attract spiders, including a black widow or two (I think the moths encouraged them). But I hadn’t had time to screen the side either (the doors are completely screened). Hopefully next year, with it finished, I will be better able to keep the spiders out.

I will be able to use the meal worms to feed the bullhead catfish in the aquaponics systems as well as supplement the poultry for an added treat.