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Autumn Olive – Friend or Foe?

By   /  April 3, 2017  /  2 Comments

Here’s how Greg Judy manages Autumn Olive in his pastures to take advantage of it for nitrogen fixation and soil building as well as forage. Check the map in the article to see if it’s in your area, and if not, consider these techniques for managing other brushy species.

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If you’re in one of the places highlighted in green, you’ve got Autumn Olive.

One of the topics that come up when discussing our pastures is how do we control the invasive species? I want to discuss the pros and cons of dealing with these invasives. With no management to put pressure on them, they seem to take over our pastures. If you are in the livestock grazing business, this is not something graziers get excited about. It is a very labor intensive job keeping them out of pastures, not to mention the cost.

There are an assortment of invasive species. We will be discussing autumn olive in this article. Where did it come from? Autumn Olive is native to Asia. It was brought into the Unites States for stopping erosion, making living road screens and used as ornamentals. I never saw autumn olive trees until the mid 70’s. They were not in my area. The autumn olive trees were brought into our area in Missouri by the conservation department for wildlife habitat. They have a juicy red berry that birds eat and spread everywhere they poop. The conservation department used to sell tree wildlife bundles, part of that bundle was autumn olive trees. Once they saw how invasive these trees were, they stopped selling them. It was too late, the autumn olives were here to stay.

To the novice, at a distance they look like an apple tree. They don’t have thorns like a Russian olive tree, but the stiff hard spikes can still gouge through a leather glove if you are not careful. They are a soft wood that are easily cut. In good growing conditions they can reach thirty feet in height. Average size for the species is twelve feet. They are prolific at reproducing and making exponential growth in one year.

This invasive species is actually beneficial to the soil life. Don’t shoot me for this statement. The roots from these invasive species are feeding exudates from the roots into the surrounding soil, healing it slowly. Over time the soil will be able to support more beneficial grasses and forbs.

When leasing land from landowners this invasive may put you out of business if you do not control them somewhat. Most landowners want their property taken care of. This means neat looking, well kept pastures. We have numerous leased farms, so that is a vital concern to us. So what do we do with these invasives that want to live in our pastures? Maybe we need to change our way of looking at this invasive species. Instead of waking up in the morning with the outlook of how many invasives can I kill today, maybe we need to look at how we can make some money with them.

The other day I was walking a pasture that had previously been hayed to death before we leased the farm. The entire field was broomsedge scattered with numerous autumn olive trees. Broomsedge grass is a grim indicator of dead bankrupted soil that seems to enjoy growing in a monoculture. In other words all the years of the previous haying exercise with nothing put back basically bankrupted the soil on this field. These are the conditions that broomsedge thrive in.

I’m sorry but if all you have is broomsedge, you are not going to get along very well grazing livestock on it. I will add though, the first three weeks that broomsedge begins putting up leaves, livestock will eat it and do fairly well. After that forget it, livestock would rather eat straw than mature broomsedge.

Now back to the autumn olive trees growing amongst the broomsedge. Every tree that I inspected was growing like gang busters, very healthy specimens. The amazing part was that under every tree was a very dark lush stand of fescue, orchard grass and legumes. What the heck was going on? If you looked outside the drip line of the tree, this area was 100% broomsedge.

Those darn autumn olives had healed the soil under each tree where it was now supporting beneficial grasses. When we turned livestock into this pasture, under every tree drip line, the ground forage was neatly trimmed by the livestock. The other areas were not touched. If we take out the invasive autumn olive, then all natural soil building is stopped dead in its tracks. Yet we don’t want our pastures to be choked solid with invasive species. I’m not advocating planting autumn olive trees in rows like corn through out your broomsedge to heal your bankrupt field. But I bet it would work if you could keep enough pressure on the autumn olive trees from taking over the whole field. It finally hit me the other day why our pastured pigs go nuts under autumn olive trees. The soil litter from the tree along with the improved forage species growing there is like giving the pigs a royal treat. The pigs go after the lower limbs of autumn olive quite aggressively after cleaning up the leaf litter. The leaves and bark are real treats for the pigs.  Even in the winter they chew off the limbs and munch on them. Must be some sugar in the limb as well.

Our previous management practices with the invasive was to cut them off at ground level and paint the stump with herbicide. This usually kills them, not always. But it costs money and labor, plus I hate everything about putting down chemicals on our farms. It is a tool that has a place though in certain situations to get you out of trouble with a disgruntled landowner. It still tugs at my heart to paint chemical on a live stump.

After seeing first hand the beneficial acts of soil building these guys are performing for us it really started to bother me that I was killing them. They’re performing an economical service for me and I was killing them! Every time I painted a stump, I could imagine the screaming going on by the billions of soil microbe critters living on the root exudates of the tree.

Not only was I killing stumps, I was killing the soil. It’s never ending, another new crop is always coming up. There had to be a profitable environmentally friendly solution. We decided that we were going to make some money with these invasive species that love growing on our farms and heal the soil at the same time. We have animals, they eat green leaves. The problem was the animals could not reach the upper limbs of these trees.

After educating our landowners to the benefits of using autumn olive to promote soil health, some of the landowners were on board to let us try it. We have started coppicing trees. Coppicing has been practiced since the Roman Empire days. What we’re doing is cutting the tree off flush with the ground and not painting the stump with any chemical treatment. This allows the tree stump to sprout back numerous sprouts with succulent green leaves that make excellent livestock and wildlife forage.

Here’s a coppiced tree in one of our pastures:

Here’s what a coppiced tree looks like after the cattle mob was in the pasture. Every tree in the paddock looked like this.

Ideally it would be nice to rent a chipper and chip the limbs back onto the drip line of the tree. We are seriously looking at renting a chipper for that option. Its carbon and we need more carbon on the land. Our first group of autumn olive that we coppiced grew back like an ornamental bush in 3 months. It was 4 feet tall and completely leafed out. The sheep flock went nuts gorging on the new juicy leaves. Goats worship them more than any other sprout that I know of. I’ve never seen any other tree species grow back as quickly as an autumn olive tree that was coppiced. They get plumb mad about being chopped off. You may have ten to twenty stems coming back from one coppiced stump.

We have found that once the trees reach six to seven feet, the animals do not graze them as aggressively. The tree leaves are not as succulent as from a young tender tree. Winter is great time to go out and coppice the old growth off the stump for the coming new spring growth. Depending on how big of an area you have to coppice, will determine what tool you will need. On smaller projects we like using a Stihl weed eater with the saw blade. Be careful and do not use the four star blades to coppice with. It will bust the driveshaft on your weed eater. Learned that the hard way!

The blade that works the best is the one that looks like you took it out of your power saw. You can easily sharpen them with a chainsaw file. On very small projects, an ax or hand saw works fine for removing the older tree growth. On large projects, mow them off with a brush hog. When you first cut off the virgin tree, make sure that the stump is at ground level. This will protect any implement or ATV from hitting the stumps and causing damage.

Every time you coppice a tree, you get some root die back which releases organic matter into the soil as well. The invasive species are still growing, we are just controlling how they grow. Does it take management and labor to do this? Yep, but so does killing them with herbicide. At least with this labor we are getting a good return in the form of succulent animal feed and building healthier soil from the tree root exudates.

I no longer envision the screaming dying sound of microbes that are living on the root hair tips getting nuked by the herbicide traveling down the root when I painted a stump. I now sleep better with a clear conscience knowing that I am not killing our farm microbes. Autumn olive has nitrogen-fixing root nodules allowing it to thrive in problem soils and drought conditions.

Not only do these new tree sprouts provide forage, they also provide valuable habitat for the animals and birds. The deer really go after the coppiced stump regrowth sprouts. The tip of every sprout is plucked off before we get a chance to graze it with domestic animals. We have one ridge that is surrounded by broomsedge with hundreds of autumn olive trees growing in it. We coppiced every tree and named the ridge “Coppiced Ridge” Guess where the biggest buck was harvested last deer season? We may rename the ridge “Deer Ridge”.

We have several farms where the only shade in the pasture is autumn olive trees. Our cows love hanging out around these trees for shade and brushing flies off. On a 100 degree day, these trees are priceless for livestock comfort. I have read that animals don’t need shade. Okay you stand out in a Missouri July day with 95 F and 100% humidity and tell me you don’t need shade. I bet you find a tree!

It is just brutal to expect any cow to be exposed to this day after day. Where you really get in trouble is when the nights never cool down. The cow’s internal organs never get a break from the heat and real animal performance issues can hit. Heat stress, weight loss, reduced forage intake, abortion, etc. I want my animals to be comfortable, because I feel that is my responsibility as a conscientious stockman.

The education portion with some of our current landowners is progressing quite well. After explaining what we were doing by coppicing the trees to control them and make them more desirable for livestock and wildlife they are letting us move forward. We also explained the soil building process that the invasive species were performing on their land. Folks these invasive species are the most prolific growers that we have. No droughts that I have seen ever effected them at all. All of our idle farms that we have leased in the past have been covered with them. Might as well make some money with them instead of possibly going broke trying to kill them.

It’s Good For People Too!

Now for the health benefits of autumn olive berries. It is a very healthy fruit to consume. The ripe berries from mature trees make awesome jelly for the pantry. Autumn olive berries have 17 times more lycopene than tomatoes! Lycopene has been associated with prevention of some chronic diseases, including prostate cancer. The berries could be a potential cash crop to market at health food stores. No fertilizer, no planting, just pick-em. Maybe setup a U-pick? You can eat them fresh or make sauces, jams or jellies with them. The jellies from autumn olive berries tastes almost identical to plum jelly. The closer to frost that you pick them, the sweeter they are. One danger is the birds may beat you to them by frost. Jacob our ranch manager, picked bags full of them and froze them. When he makes his smoothies in the morning, he dumps a hand full of autumn olive berries in the blender. That might have something to do with why he is so healthy.

Click for an Autumn Olive Jam recipe from Invasivore.com

In wrapping up I would challenge folks that may be bothered by autumn olive bushes to manage them instead of killing them. Coppice the trees or bushes and watch your animals start harvesting the tender leaves from the new regrowth. Your animals will enjoy the constant salad bar of new green leaves with each paddock move. You are healing the soil with root exudates, growing healthy animals and providing nutritious food for your family. The icing on the cake is that you are now making money, improving your health and managing autumn olive instead of spending money trying to kill it.

Since you’re here …

We need your help to meet the $15,000 annual match for our Conservation Innovation Grant. The grant keeps On Pasture going for the next 3 years, but only if we can meet the cash match. If we meet our goal this Spring, we won’t ask again in the fall. (And it’s our fourth birthday, so when you give we’ll send you a party favor as a thank you!)

We’ve made it to $1,000 in our first 2 weeks of the fund drive. Your help will mean so much!

Please help!

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About the author

contributor

Greg and Jan Judy of Clark, Missouri run a grazing operation on 1400 acres of leased land that includes 11 farms. Their successful custom grazing business is founded on holistic, high-density, planned grazing. They run cows, cow/calf pairs, bred heifers, stockers, a hair sheep flock, a goat herd, and Tamworth pigs. They also direct market grass-fed beef, lamb and pork. Greg's popularity as a speaker and author comes from his willingness to describe how anyone can use his grazing techniques to create lush forage, a sustainable environment and a successful business.

2 Comments

  1. A. Byars says:

    Great article, very helpful. I’ve heard some folks mention using it around fruit trees but this is a new way and I think a great way to use them.

  2. Anthony says:

    This is an outstanding article. I never knew so many good things about Autumn Olive.

    I’ve started working with Osage Orange and Mulberry in a similar manner, but neither of these trees are nitrogen fixing.

    Another thought came to my mind: Autumn Olive may be an ideal tree for agroforestry systems where you flank rows of high value trees (black walnuts, pecans) with Autumn olive a few years after the high value tree is planted and will stay above the Autumn olive. The Autumn Olive if grown thick will provide a screen during the years when the high value tree is venerable to browsing.

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