Drying forage for herbivores using a Dehydrator
Why use a Dehydrator?
When you remove the moisture from foods they keep for longer, and you don’t need to use any preservatives in the process. A dehydrator costs around £1 for 24 hours to run but most foods can be dried in 4-6 hours, equivalent to 25p per batch.
By dehydrating herbs, vegetables, grasses and fruit when there is a glut, you should have plenty for the winter months. Drying your own also means you’ll have dried forage that you could not buy in the shops.
My advice is to cut the vegetables into pieces that will dry evenly. I remove the leaves from the stalk of green vegetables and shave strips off of root vegetables. If you try to dry the entire leaf, either the leaf part will dry and shatter, or the stalk will be too damp.
I’d recommend quartering broccoli stems length-ways and then into thinner sticks. The instruction manual will tell you to blanch vegetables but you don’t need to do that when drying for forage.
Herbs, Leaves and Grasses
As these are most abundant during the summer months you can dry them in the sun. Most people won’t need to use the dehydrator during the summer. I only use the dehydrator for leaves when I want them to dry flat (most leaves will curl up when dried naturally).
Dandelion flowers are best dried in a dehydrator as they go to seed rapidly once picked.
You can make a soft green grass forage in the dehydrator that you pets will love you for. Your pets will benefit from the higher vitamin C and chlorophyll levels. Rabbits fed on a mainly grass diet miss out on these in the winter months.
Shop on Amazon for VonShef Dehydrators
You can also buy VonShef dehydrators on Ebay
Kale, carrot, apple & celery dried in the VonShef dehydrator.
Average price around £40
Drying vegetables and herbs reduces them from 90% moisture to 10% moisture. Vegetables with a high initial moisture content can be particularly disappointing. Cucumber, lettuce and celery, for example, will shrink to a tiny percentage of their original size.
Herb drying is the easiest and cheapest way to provide a variety of forage for the winter months when fresh herbs are not available.
I am fortunate that we have a local community allotment which I volunteer at. In exchange for weeding I get to take home the weeds which I dry for use in the gift baskets I make for charities.
When the weather is good I dry in a hanging mesh rack which has several layers and allows good air flow. For bunches of herbs, especially if you’re drying indoors, hanging racks for utensils such as the one made by Kitchencraft, make good herb dryers. Stackable mesh racks used to dry cloths also make good indoor herb dryers as they can dry a lot of herbs in a small space. They are all pretty easy to find on Ebay or Amazon
Useful herb drying kit on Ebay
Hanging Mesh Dryers
Flower & Herb Dryers
Square Mesh Stackable Racks
SaveHerb drying is pretty easy to do but you need to remember a few golden rules:
- Dry pieces of the same thickness together – separate thick stems from thin leaves
- Make sure the material is clean before drying
- Make sure all herbs are completely dry before storing.
Herbs will shrink when dried, to around 10% of their original weight. Roots will have to be washed and dried before drying in a low oven.
Storing Dried Herbs
Keep dried herbs in a cool, dry place. If they sweat in a plastic container or get damp in any way they will quickly develop mould. You can safely store herbs for a year after drying.
Good plants to grow for drying
The best plants to grow are those which produce more forage than your furry family can eat fresh. Alfalfa grows very vigorously but it can only be fed in small amounts or as a balancer for cereals as it is high in calcium.
If you have Cleavers growing locally you should dry as much of the young plant as possible. It will grow back the following season if you allow some to seed. It a seasonal plant, growing only for a few months. Once it seeds you would not want to feed it.
Golden Rod is a great herb for animals that are off colour. It will grow back even bushier if you take out the top shoots.
Harvest willow herb and groundsel young too. They can get diseases (characterised by orange or white marks) as they get older. Apart from that they will seed everywhere if left.
What makes Alpine Hay so Special?
Alpine hay is grown in relatively remote regions at high altitude. The permanent pasture of the Alpine slopes not only benefits from the purity of the mountain air. The pastures are also rich in wild plants making the hay very nutritious.
Running through a number of European countries including Germany, Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland, the Alps and its neighbouring ranges provide some of the best hay in Europe.
Hand Cutting Alpine Hay
The steep slopes make mechanical hay making extremely difficult so some of the best hay in the Alps is cut by teams of hay-makers using a traditional scythe.
You can find out more about using a scythe to cut hay from the Scythe Association of Britain & Ireland in the UK or One Scythe Revolution in the US
The Importance of Alpine Hay
The Germans & Austrians take the quality of their hay and hay meadows seriously. They call milk from pasture fed cows ‘heumilch’ or haymilk and value it for cheesemaking. They also use it in therapeutic baths and many tourists visit hay hotels where they can sleep in a bed of hay.
Image is from Suedtirolerland.it
People of the Alpine regions even cook with it. For example Hay Soup served in bread baked in hay…
From an article in Modern Farmer -image by photographer David de Vleeschauwer
How to get Alpine hay off the side of a mountain!
The haymakers often cut hay by hand using traditional scythes. The steep slopes of the mountain make mechanical harvesting impossible. They then gather the hay and have to move it down the mountain slopes. This is only possible using man-power, but the hay cutters do this in a rather novel way.
The ‘hay avalanche’ that they create saves a lot of time when they are moving hay down from the upper Alpine mountain slopes. Then the haymakers send it on a rope slide down the mountain to the valley below.
Pets love munching away on mountain hay
Pet owners feed this hay to their rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus not just because their pets find they hay delicious. Their owners enjoy the smell of it, its softness and green colour.
The hay tempts fussy eater, it appeals to their foraging instincts and their tastebuds. The animals eat the hay which is so important for their digestive system with little or no waste. Guinea pigs especially enjoy burrowing into mounds of the stuff.
Chefs cook with it, you can bath with it or put it under your pillow for a good night’s sleep. You don’t have to eat it to enjoy it.
German hay is an important part of the cultural heritage of the Alpine and Pre Alpine regions. The Germans take their hay very seriously! Their ancient meadows are protected by law. They harvest, dry and bale the grasses and wild plants with great care.
Many German pet food companies focused on healthy forages for small pets when UK companies were still peddling ‘pretty coloured bits’, and they’re still ahead of the game in many ways.
Zooplus, a German pet product retailer, also operates in the UK and is a reliable source of German hay and forages.
German Hay from ZooPlus UK
Click on any of the images below to purchase (affiliate links)
Mühldorfer Country Meadow Hay 15kg
JR Farm Mountain Meadow Hay 2.5kg
Country meadow hay from the mountains of Bavaria. You’ll find this in the equine section so it is better value for money than pet hay.
Mühldorfer Country Meadow Hay is excellent value for money and compressed into a handy small bale.
Price as of 05/02/2017 ( £1.13 – £1.20 / kg)JR Farm are long standing producers of hay and herbs. From the reviews, there seem to be seasonal fluctuations in quality so maybe try a single bag in the first instance and check the reviews.
Price as of 05/02/2017 ( £2.80 / kg)
Bunny Fresh Grass Hay 3kg
Mucki Mountain Meadow Hay 1.6kg
Bunny Fresh Grass Hay is a hand-picked mixture of the first and second crop of untreated meadows from the southern German Allgäu.
My favourite German hay by far. The 3kg bag is larger than the image suggests.
Price as of 05/02/2017 ( £5.00 / kg)Harvested from the Bavarian mountains where the old mountain meadows contain a variety of plants.
The hay contains twenty plant species which adds variety and taste.
Price as of 05/02/2017 ( £4.37 / kg)
Bunny Hay from Protected Meadows 2.7kg
Bunny Fresh Grass Hay Special Editions 3 x 2kg
Grown in untreated meadows in a conservation area where it is harvested late in the season to prevent disturbance to nesting wildlife. Regular mowing helps create a wide variety of plants. Dried in warm air to preserve colour and flavour.
Price as of 05/02/2017 ( £5.55 – £7.40 / kg)Hay which has seasonal herbs, flowers and vegetables added.
Available as Winter Pack or Summer Pack
Price as of 05/02/2017 ( £4.50 / kg)JTNDc2NyaXB0JTIwc3JjJTNEJTIyaHR0cHMlM0ElMkYlMkZ3d3cuZHdpbjIuY29tJTJGcHViLjE3OTcyMS5taW4uanMlMjIlM0UlM0MlMkZzY3JpcHQlM0U=JTNDcCUzRSUzQ2ElMjBocmVmJTNEJTIyaHR0cCUzQSUyRiUyRmNvbnZlcnRhbGlua3Rlc3QuYXdpbi5jb20lMjIlM0VUZXN0JTNDJTJGYSUzRSUzQyUyRnAlM0U=
Rabbits and guinea pigs create a lot of waste litter! Some councils force owners to take rabbit waste to the dump.
Allotment holders welcome rabbit and guinea pig waste so you can dump it on them instead! They will use it to make great compost and grew food even more cheaply.
Using a natural bedding like straw or hemp is what I would recommend. It means you can compost it and use the compost to grow more food for your pet.
I hope you are lucky enough to have a local farm, stables, farm or equine supplier within reasonable traveling distance. Transport permitting, you can simply buy large bales of bedding direct. Otherwise you’ll have to bite the bullet on the carriage cost. These heavy and bulky bales weighing up to 20kg.
On the plus side, buying in bulk means you don’t have to buy very often. It is way cheaper than picking up small bags at the local pet shop or supermarket.
Wood shavings, although a natural bedding, are not the best litter for rabbits and guinea pigs. Some shavings and sawdust can contain volatile oils and are slow to rot down.
Straw pellets, chopped straw and cellulose litters on the other hand are ideal, and make good compost.
Natural Bedding but has it been treated?
Some litter and bedding for horses is sprayed with disinfectant or essential oils to deter horses from eating the bedding. Is this a good thing for rabbits or guinea pigs?
I feel that plain, untreated litter is preferable. Both rabbits and guinea pigs have close contact with their litter or bedding and groom themselves frequently.
Anti-microbial sprays may also interfere with the composting process by harming the beneficial organisms involved in the process. On the other hand, medicated bedding offers a level of protection, especially in warmer weather and may help deter flies.
Rabbits and guinea pigs usually don’t eat their bedding if you give them ad lib, good quality, hay. I only use a medicated bedding if eating floor litter or straw is a problem.
Floor and tray litter
Floor and tray litter absorbs urine but must also feel comfortable underfoot. Guinea pigs can get sore feet when housed on hemp straw without a softer layer of bedding on top of it. I recommend you use more than one layer on the floor of the housing. The urine can then drain away into the base layer whilst remaining dry. You may prefer to use another bedding, for example cellulose bedding like Megazorb, either as a top layer or instead.
Straw Pellets and Chopped Straw Bedding
|Cavianthus ||Miscanthus Straw ||Chopped ||No |
|Dengie Medibed ||Wheat Straw ||Chopped ||Disinfectant |
|Equinola ||Rape Straw ||Chopped ||Essential Oils |
|Megazorb ||Cellulose – Wood Pulp ||Flakes ||No |
|Porta Pellis ||Wheat Straw ||Pellets ||No |
|Nedz Bed Advanced ||Wheat Straw ||Pellets ||Yes* |
|Nedz Bed Original ||Soft Wheat Straw ||Chopped ||Yes* |
|Nedz Bed Pro ||Oil Seed Rape Straw ||Chopped ||Yes* |
|Raviera ||Rape Straw ||Chopped ||No |
|Raviera Pro ||Rape Straw ||Chopped ||Sterilised |
Porta Pellis wheat straw pellets are a completely natural bedding or litter available from Zoo Plus. I’ve used them to make excellent compost and added soaked pellets to the soil where they rotted down nicely.
Made from wood pulp or cellulose fibres, cellulose bedding is hygienic, compostable and mainly dust free*.
Megazorb, a natural bedding used for horses, is also suitable for rabbits and guinea pigs. It is available in 85 litre sacks from around £15 delivered or less if you collect from your local horse feed merchant.
You can buy similar bedding from pet manufacturers such as Supreme (Tumblefresh), Back 2 Nature and Carefresh (Natural) in smaller packs.
*Dust can occur when the sacks are transported but any dust is removed before leaving the manufacturing facility.
Hemp straw is used as a bottom layer in stables to absorb moisture, leaving the top layer of bedding dry. I’ve used it successfully as an under-bedding for rabbits and guinea pigs in the past.
Chopped hemp straw absorbs ammonia, which it then releases to the plants grown in that compost.
The main brands of hemp bedding I know of in the UK include Aubiose (French) and Hemcore (UK grown). Although they are fine as under-litter, I prefer Hemparade (Siccofloor) (Dutch) available from ZooPlus which is softer than the others. You can also buy small packets for the pet market (from Friendship Estates) as Hutch Hemp and Hugro (German)I like using hemp which is softer underfoot, especially for guinea pigs. You can buy Hemp pellets (Aktiv Streu) and hemp felt matting (Nager Floor) from ZooPlus. You’ll find that hemp products in general compost pretty well. You can also use the hemp mats to grow your own turf rugs for easy grazing indoors.
Fresh grass is the prefect food for rabbits and guinea pigs. Dried grass therefore provides a handy and nutritious forage as part of a balanced diet. It is also great combined with our herb mixes, single herbs, cereal grasses or flowers.
If you have the storage space, and plenty of small furry pets, it pays to buy the bulk bales.
For those without a local feed or equine merchant, you can still buy large bales of dried grass from some online stores. That way you can also have them delivered directly to your door.
Graze-On and Readigrass come in 15kg bales, much cheaper that buying 1kg bags even with delivery.
Readigrass is available in large bales for horses and smaller bags under the Friendly label for rabbits, guinea pigs and other small pet herbivores. Graze-On is only available in 15kg bales.
Nutritional Value of Dried Grass
The horse and rabbit products, Readigrass and Friendly Forage, have different nutritional breakdowns. The small animal version is higher in fibre 28% and lower in protein 12% than the horse one. The horse product has 21% fibre and 15% protein.
Readigrass and Friendly Forage dried grass are only 3% moisture, making them prone to leaf-break. This is not dust, just broken dried grass powder. This is useful for making cookies or syringe feeds so don’t waste it.
Graze-On has a dry matter of 90% which is similar to hay. It has 14% protein and 25% fibre, almost in-between the other two.
Like fresh grass, dried grass has the perfect balance of nutrients for small furries. The calcium to phosphorous ratio is around 2:1 and it is also a good source of Vitamin E, Beta Carotene and Vitamin C.
The grass is mechnically dried which preserves the green colour, aroma as well as the chlorophyll content.
Raw Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is a complex naturally fermented food. It has been used since antiquity for its healing properties.
Cider Vinegar – Beneficial or Old Wive’s Tale?
Vinegar is an old condiment. According to The Journal of Food Science “The earliest known use of vinegar dates to more than 10000 years ago”. Vinegar has been used throughout history for preserving fruits and vegetables. Many housekeepers today still swear by vinegar and bicarbonate of soda.
Reader’s Digest have an article on the many and various uses of vinegar in general.
What is the Vinegar Mother?
The vinegar ‘Mother’ shows the vinegar is ‘alive’ and not pasteurised.
Dilution for rabbit drinking water
Dilute by adding 1-2 teaspoons per litre of drinking water. Offer the resulting ‘bunnyade’ several times per week in a separate water bottle. This makes sure the rabbit likes the taste and can choose to drink it or not.
The malic and acetic acid in apple cider vinegar have antimicrobial properties which makes it useful to feed if a rabbit or guinea pig is off colour.
Nutritionally it is good source of minerals, although not much else, and it does not contain sugar.
Cider Vinegar Guinea Pig rinse
You can use the same dilution to rinse your guinea pigs coat after shampooing.
Vinegar for Cleaning
Cider vinegar is too expensive to use as a hutch cleaner, but you can use white vinegar instead. Many people use white vinegar to clean their hutches for its ability to remove calcium deposits. Vinegar is also good at removing odours.
You can use cider vinegar to clean your water bottles to help prevent green algae in the summer months.
You can use it if your house rabbit wees on the carpet. First sponge with plain water, soaking up the excess with a towel. Sprinkle bicarbonate of soda on the stain. Mix one part white wine vinegar with one part water and spray on to the bicarbonate of soda. It will fizz up so let it settle down for a few minutes before soaking up the excess again. Finish with clean water and dry the carpet as before.
A while back I wrote an article for Rabbiting On Magazine about Christmas Gift Ideas which included Christmas Crackers made from safe materials that you can give to your rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla or degu.
It’s always hard to think up new ideas for toys and treats, so for those of you who don’t subscribe, here’s how to make Edible Christmas Crackers for your pets.
The cracker cores are made from Aunt Sally’s Grassy Logs or Loglets. (You could use cardboard tubes instead if you wanted to). Even the ink used to print the paper was made from all natural powder food colouring and the holly decorations were made from our cookie mixes with the same food colouring added. You can also use the cookie mixes to create hanging decorations.
To make the edible ink I added some natural food colouring to water and vegetable glycerine, then poured that over a new ink pad and stamped the design onto food grade paper using a clean stamp.
Saw these cheap Matalan bath racks and thought they’d make useful herb holders for small plant pots.
Given that they’re designed for relatively heavy items like shampoos, I thought they would cope with some living culinary herbs which were on special offer at the local supermarket.
This two tier rack from Matalan cost £6 and holds six standard herb pots. There’s also a slightly wider one takes four herb pots for £4.
They come with clear suckers for attachment to shiny surfaces like glass or tiles. I attached this one to a window to get the most of the sunlight during the shorter days of winter.
Other Herb Holder Ideas
As you might imagine, Pinterest is awash with great ideas for herb holders. One I like is “Weird things to grow plants in” but click on the various links and go down the ‘rabbit hole’ of ideas.
Big bunnies, these Pirate Bunnies are 41cm when standing, a great knitting project to while away the winter hours in readiness for summer fundraising, or even tied in with Talk Like a Pirate day on September 19th!
Debi Birkin designs include a range of knitted rabbits and other animals
The Pirate bunnies pattern is only £2.50 and the website lists all the materials you need to make this pair of pirates “Captain” Jack Rabbit and Jolly Roger.
Please see the notes on Debi Birkin’s site regarding selling and licensing.
Based in the Lake District, Dollytime sell unique knitting patterns for toys including some for rabbits which could be good for fundraising.
The patterns come in PDF format and cost less than £3
Other knitted rabbit patterns also available.
I thought these would look great in natural shades using angora wool from rabbits.
Other Knitted Rabbits
Check out Knitted Rabbits on Pinterest, or Little Cotton Rabbits delightful blog.
I was wondering about fund raising ideas for rabbit and guinea pig rescues when I stumbled across Debi Birkin’s site full of great knitting patterns including this one for a guinea pig knitted in Mohair. The pattern is only £2.50 which is a bargain considering the number of guinea pigs you could knit from it.
The knitted guinea pig is knitted flat on normal needles and sewn together. The fluffy effect is achieved with a teazle brush.
Please read Debi Birkin’s page on selling your work based on her patterns and licensing.