I homestead on a really tight budget. I am always looking for ways to keep my animals healthy and cut my feed costs.
Over the last few years, I’ve explored all kinds of methods for cutting feed costs. Tricks, like fermenting scratch grains, sprouting fodder, and collecting leftovers from friends, are some of the easier methods I use to save money.
Truth be told, though, I don’t always have the time to keep up with even those simple tricks. This is why I love growing duckweed and water hyacinth as a feed supplement for my livestock.
You can do it for free, from the convenience of your homestead, with almost no work beyond regular harvesting.
Using Duckweed and Water Hyacinth as Cheap Livestock Fodder
Both duckweed and water hyacinth contain about 95% water. This is similar to wheatgrass grown in water with no soil (e.g. as fodder) or high water content foods like watermelon, zucchini, radish, and cabbage.
Unlike watermelon and cabbage which take months to grow to size, these aquatic plants can literally double in size every 1-6 days in the right conditions. This is why they are sometimes considered invasive weeds in many high-nitrogen, stagnant waterways worldwide.
Due to the high water content in these plants, livestock must consume large quantities of the fresh plants for them to be used as a primary feed source. Most animals will become full from the water content, before ingesting sufficient quantities to meet their daily nutritional needs.
For use as feed staple, you need to dry these plants first. When dried they have a protein content similar to soybeans (or more). However, this takes a lot more work and space.
Instead, similar to giving your livestock cabbage and wheat grass fodder, fresh duckweed, and water hyacinth make a great supplemental feed source as part of a balanced diet. Like those other healthy, tasty treats – your livestock will love you (even more) if you add these easy-to-grow plants to their feed line-up!
Getting Started Growing Duckweed and Water Hyacinth
You only need a few things to start growing these plants at home.
- Water containers
- A source of natural fertilizer (e.g. animal manure, pond water from ducks, worm castings, etc.)
- Tools for harvesting
- Duckweed and water hyacinth plants to start
I am being intentionally vague on the kinds of equipment you need. This is because once you get going, you’ll realize that you can grow these plants in pretty much any container you can get your hands on, to keep increasing your production.
There are a couple of key things to keep in mind as you choose your production equipment.
First, both of these plants grow on the water surface. The more surface area your container has, the more growing space you have.
This also means they draw oxygen from the air, rather than the water. So, you don’t need to worry about water circulation or oxygenation. In fact, they do much better in still, basically stagnant, water. Even wind can slow production.
Containers that are shallow and wide work best. However, you can also just use what you have. Trash cans, buckets, pots, bulk food containers, old coolers, refrigerator drawers, and more can all work well to get you started.
Next, these plants are natural water purifiers. They tend to grow like crazy in places such as human waste processing plants, or rain run-off areas near over-fertilized lawns because they thrive in conditions where most other aquatic plants would suffer from nitrogen and phosphorous overload.
Finally, these plants like warm temperatures. Water hyacinth will die below about 40°F. Duckweed can overwinter in colder climates, but it is not productive until the weather and external temperatures heat back up. Productivity is highly impacted by the level of warmth in the air and water for these plants.
Setting Up Your Production System
1. Choose your location
If you have a greenhouse that you keep above freezing, that will work perfectly. Otherwise, you can use sunny areas in your house or another area that stays warm.
You can also grow these using the same heat and lighting systems you use to grow sprouted grass fodder or start seeds. Note: You need different containers though as seed starting and fodder containers are designed to drain rather than hold water.
2. Choose your containers
The possibilities for containers are almost endless.
I have black drums and trash cans filled with water that I use as heat sinks to help regulate temperatures in my greenhouse. These work great for winter-growing.
As soon as it warms up in my area, I set up $8 kiddie pools in my garden and other fenced areas (to keep my livestock from getting to it). I let my ducks play and mess in the pool below before I shut them out of the area and add plants. These shallow and wide containers give you a whole lot of growing area for just a few bucks.
I like to grow these in every nook and cranny of warm, well-lit space using juice and cat litter containers. Lay those empty containers on their side with the lid in place. Use a sharp box cutter to cut a large opening to use as your growing space and you are ready to grow!
If you don’t have containers, check with your local recycling center. Many of them are actually having difficulty finding outlets for plastic processing right now and might be happy to load you up with free containers.
Duckweed plants are tiny and can grow in a teacup. Water hyacinth plants are bigger and will need larger containers.
3. Add water and natural fertilizer
As I mentioned earlier, these plants are nitrogen and phosphorous hogs. This makes livestock manure the perfect source of fertilizer for them.
If you have ducks, you can grow your duckweed and water hyacinth in dirty duck water from your pond or pool.
Or, put at a tablespoon of poultry or worm manure or two tablespoons of ruminant manure in each gallon of water you use. Stir your manure mix and let it meld for a few days until your water is brackish.
Don’t worry about being perfect. These plants have a high tolerance range. You can add more water to dilute or more manure to fertilize later if your plants aren’t growing as fast as they should.
4. Add your duckweed and water hyacinth to your container
Once your water is brackish, add your plants. Because these plants do grow so easily, you can often source free plants from pond owners. Alternatively, you can order these plants online from aquatic plant suppliers. (Note: Some states restrict these plants because it can be invasive.)
For water hyacinth, you need to group at least 3-4 parent plants together for reproduction. In a larger container, like a kiddie pool, using 6-8 plants will get you even faster results.
For duckweed, aim to cover about 1/5th of the space with plants to start.
If you don’t have enough plants to fill all your containers at once, start them in one container. As they reproduce, transfer some of your new plants to your other containers until you have all your containers filled.
My first time growing these, I started with a cup of duckweed. In a few months, I had covered the surface of a 3500-gallon pond with them. (My chickens and ducks ate well that year!)
5. Harvesting and Feeding of Your Livestock
You can harvest using almost any sieve. I like to use the ladle strainers they have at the dollar store. For harvesting from larger containers, sink colanders can make harvesting in a hurry easier.
Just remember to leave at least 3-6 water hyacinth and 1/5th of your duckweed in your container so they can keep reproducing.
For ducks, just toss your harvest into their pond or pool and watch them devour it.
For chickens, dispense as you would other fresh greens. Chickens favor the water hyacinth. Once those are gone, they’ll move on to the duckweed.
For pigs, you can add your harvest to their normal feed mash.
For goats, makes sure to drain off any excess water after harvesting.
Some goats take to these aquatic plants right away. Others take a few tries before they learn to love the flavor of these plants. You can add molasses to encourage goats to try these.
If you want to use these plants as more than 10% of your ruminants’ (cows, goats, sheep) diet, then you need to dry these first, ferment them, and mix them with a bit of molasse for better palatability and easy digestion.
I am not an authority on rabbits, but I have heard they also love both of these aquatic plants.
6. Maintenance and Trouble Shooting
The water in your systems will evaporate and be reduced when you harvest your plants. Periodically, you’ll need to top of your containers with more water mixed with manure. Use the same formula you used initially to establish your system (see point 3).
Three main things impact the reproduction rates of these plants – fertility, heat, and light.
If your plants do not have deep, rich coloring, they are likely lacking in fertilizer. Since the richness of manure varies, if your plants seem pale, add a little more manure to your next round of fertile water.
If your plants are dying, they either need more water to dilute the manure or they are too cold. Add fresh, plain water if cold is not the cause.
Cooler temperatures result in less production. Even at around 40°F, my plants will reproduce. Though, it tends to take nearly a week to get the amount of new production I get in one day at 80°F. To speed things up, add a heat source.
These plants don’t need full sun, but you’ll get better production rates with more light. If fertility and heat are not your issues, then increasing the amount of light may also help raise production rates.
As with any feed changes, start slow and give your animals time to adjust.
There is some data that suggests there may be some toxicity, particularly related to water hyacinth, for horses, cats, and dogs. You will want to do additional research before using these plants as a feed source for these and other animals.
Check your local regulations on the legality of growing these plants as a feed source for animals.
Because of the highly productive nature of these plants, do not introduce them into uncontrolled environments such as public water bodies.
If you decide you no longer want to cultivate these plants, remove them from your water supply, allow them to dry entirely, and add them to your compost bin (rather than sending them to the landfill) or burn them.
By the way, these are edible for humans too. However, you probably want to compost your manure before using it to grow these plants (just as you would for your vegetable garden)!