When to Plant Winter Wheat to Harvest Your Own Chicken Feed
How to Raise Backyard Chickens by Feeding Them Homegrown Winter Wheat
One way to reduce your chicken feed costs is to grow as much food for them as possible. Winter wheat is one option and hens love it. Although when to plant winter wheat varies by location, planting it in the fall ensures an early summer harvest.
So, what is winter wheat? When it comes to wheat, the seeds, also called berries, fall into two major categories: winter wheat and spring wheat.
What’s the difference? Winter wheat is planted in the fall and allowed to overwinter for a summer harvest. In our area, it’s harvested late May and into June. It requires a freezing period of 30 to 60 days in order to create berries which is what you actually harvest, and what flour is made from.
If you’re wondering how to make whole wheat bread; it starts with some winter wheat berries. Winter wheat is high in gluten so it’s used to make flour.
Spring wheat, by contrast, does not need the freezing period to set berries so it is planted in spring for a late summer harvest. Winter wheat is higher in gluten than spring wheat, so to make all-purpose flour, the winter wheat is combined with spring.
Although wheat berries should not comprise all of your flock’s diet, offering some in addition to other ingredients will provide a nice basic diet for your flock. Wheat also reduces the cost of your chicken feed, since it can be sprouted into fodder.
For chicken feed, in my experience, both spring and winter wheat will do. We prefer to feed winter wheat in part because the seeds are easy to come by in our area and because we like to have something to grow over the winter. One advantage to wheat is that it will remain green and lush, even in the coldest months. Growing it provides a nice green pop when the world otherwise looks pretty dreary.
On a 20 foot by 50-foot plot, you can harvest at least a bushel of wheat, or approximately 60 pounds (wheat is harvested at approximately 40 bushels per acre in our area). We’ve grown our family’s wheat for a couple of years now, and my husband has spent his life planting and harvesting the crop. For us, it was a natural step to begin growing it for our own consumption.
Winter wheat is also a nice winter cover crop for any garden, and it will prevent winter winds from whisking your topsoil away. On our homestead, the north winds blow fiercely during the winter (so much that every winter I want to put up a wind turbine). Last winter, a neighboring farmer did not plant wheat as a cover crop, and on more than one occasion, there was a fine layer of topsoil all over our cars and farm equipment.
When looking for seeds to plant, your best bet is to purchase them from a dealer who regularly tests the germination quality of the seeds. You can try growing winter wheat from untested seeds, and in my experience, they will sprout well. However, you can’t be guaranteed germination unless you buy tested seeds, and you’ll be guessing at the amount to plant and might over or under seed your patch.
Some other great cover crops include Austrian winter peas, which are a great nitrogen fixer, and forage radishes and turnips, which, like winter wheat, are useful crop you can harvest for livestock fodder.
If you’re wondering when to plant winter wheat, the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) website indicates that in Zones three to seven, late spring and early fall are the best times. In our area (Zone 7), winter wheat is planted in late October. By November, the seeds have started to sprout, and by December, it’s full-fledged grass.
If you wait longer than early autumn to plant your wheat seeds, they might not grow enough to defend themselves from frost. Planting according to a schedule like the one SARE provides is advised.
If you’re wondering what can chickens eat, then fodder will partially answer your question. If you want to use winter wheat for chicken fodder, then here’s a tutorial to get you started sprouting. The freezing period isn’t necessary since you’re not going to harvest the berries and only sprout the seeds for a short time. You can sprout the fodder anywhere, and I’ve gotten some of the best fodder in my bathroom, believe it or not.
Growing wheat into fodder is a great way to offer your chickens a high-quality feed full of protein and nutrients, and it will save you a bit of money. My chickens love diving into a fresh mat and tearing it apart.
If you plan to grow wheat for you and your family, you will want to keep your chickens out of the patch. Chickens love to dig for the berries and will happily spend an afternoon scratching up all your seedlings. You might inadvertently feed your flock for the day and you will have to start over or wait a year if they get in there during the coldest months.
We grow our wheat in a greenhouse not because the wheat needs it to grow, but because the greenhouse protects our garden from our flock. When summer arrives and the heads begin to droop over, you know it’s time to harvest.
Growing grains for your farm is easy, as long as you know when to plant winter wheat. You don’t need much space, and you can easily grow a year’s worth of wheat berries for yourself or for your chicken flock.
Do you plant winter wheat for your backyard chickens or your family? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.