Free Feed

One fun part about having livestock is discovering the various ways you can put to use the various produce that others might simply discard. Goats, chickens, and even sheep are not terribly picky about what they eat. (I’d add that pigs in particular will eat virtually anything, but we have no personal experience raising them.) Especially in the dead of winter, the animals seem to appreciate getting an unexpected bit of variety in their diet. We’ve found a few ways to do this without much — if any — additional cost.

For example, this morning we stopped at Walmart to take advantage of 50% off wrapping paper and Christmas decorations. We discovered an even better deal, however: their leftover, fresh-cut trees were … absolutely free! Most people would scratch their heads and wonder what they could do with an extra tree now that Christmas is past. (Heck, I’m sure a lot of people are already taking their Christmas trees down today.) We didn’t have to wonder for an instant. The three oldest Yeoman Farm Children were with me, and our first thought was: the goats will love feasting on those pine trees. Every year, when the Christmas season is over, we dispose of our tree by tossing it into the goat pen; the animals go right at it, and before long nothing is left but the trunk and larger branches.

Fortunately, we’d taken our full-size van this morning. (It’s an extended Ford E-350, with the rear bench seat removed to give a huge cargo area.) Christmas would be coming early for the goat herd.

The store manager opened up the gate to the tree cage, we backed up the van, and then we loaded as many trees as we could fit. The manager was happy to see them go (he said they’d otherwise have to find a place to dispose of them), we were happy to get some feed for the goats (saving some hay in the process), and I’m sure the goats will be happy for some variety in their monotonous winter diet. A true win-win-win.

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Over the years, we’ve become alert to this kind of deal. Another example that almost always becomes available: surplus pumpkins immediately after Halloween. There’s a big producer about five miles up the road from us, and virtually every year they have a lot of pumpkins go unsold. It’s mostly the blemished and odd-shaped ones, but that doesn’t matter to us. They pile the things up in huge bins by the road, and charge $10 per bin. One bin basically fills the back of a pickup truck. Or, if you don’t have a pickup truck handy, it’ll basically fill the interior of a Dodge Caravan.

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The picture above is from a few years ago; I was so busy with election prep this year, I wasn’t able to get over there for surplus pumpkins. But when we can get them, we stockpile them in the upstairs part of the barn, along with the hay. Over the course of November and mid-December (until it gets so cold that the pumpkins freeze solid), we toss them to the sheep and goats a few at a time. (The Yeoman Farm Children actually have a blast smashing the pumpkins open for the animals.) As a bonus, the pumpkin seeds are a natural anti-wormer for the livestock. And the chickens clean up any scraps the sheep and goats miss.

If you keep your eyes open and learn what to look for, smaller-scale opportunities for free feed abound. For example, my oldest son and I are members of our parish’s Knights of Columbus council, and our whole family volunteers at the fish fry events held every Friday in Lent. As the evening progresses, there’s a fair amount of food waste generated in the kitchen that would otherwise have to be thrown out. Pieces of fish get dropped accidentally, potatoes and green beans get cold and can’t be served, and there’s always a lot of extra breading that doesn’t get used up. My brother Knights collect toss all of these scraps in a large box for me, and then I take that box home. It saves them some space in the dumpster, but above all it’s a nice treat for our chickens — and saves some perfectly good stuff from being wasted. We mix it in with their grain ration, a coffee can or so per day, and “recycle” those scraps into eggs.

And that’s really what all these exercises in frugality are about. The actual dollar savings to us are fairly minimal. The most meaningful, and satisfying, benefit is knowing that you’ve made good use of something that would otherwise have been wasted.

We may have to go back to town later today, to run another errand. I just hope Walmart still has some trees left. Just in case, I think I’ll take the old minivan that’s had all five rear passenger seats removed. We use it mostly for hauling animals and grain (and pumpkins!), but today it will hopefully be hauling Christmas trees.

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