Autumn Olive is just one of many species that graziers worry about in their pastures. Native to Asia, it was brought to the United States to help prevent erosion and to improve highway safety by creating living road screens. Birds love the juicy berries it produces, so the Missouri Department of Conservation sold bundles of the trees for planting for wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, after eating the berries, birds pooped out the seeds everywhere, and Autumn Olive became an invasive species.
When leasing land from landowners this invasive may put you out of business if you do not control them somewhat. In addition, we have numerous leased farms, and most landowners want their property taken care of. This means neat looking, well kept pastures. 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 thinking, “how many invasives can I kill today?” maybe we need to consider how we can make some money with them. Let me show you how I’ve done that with Autumn Olive after seeing how it was benefiting my pastures.
One 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. Years of haying and putting nothing back bankrupted the soilcreating the conditions that broomsedge thrives in.
But the Autumn olive trees growing amongst the broomsedge told an important story. Every tree that I inspected was healthy and growing like gang busters. 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. It finally hit me 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.
This invasive species is actually beneficial to the soil life. Autumn olive is a nitrogen fixer, and the roots feed microbes living in the surrounding soil, healing it slowly. Over time the soil is more able to support beneficial grasses and forbs. If we take out the 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.
What’s a better approach?
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.
Our previous management practices was to cut trees 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 using chemicals on our farms. In addition, they’re performing an economically important service for me. Once I knew this, 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.
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. Our idea was this: We have animals, they eat green leaves. The problem was the animals could not reach the upper limbs of these trees. To make the leaves available to them, we started coppicing trees.
Coppicing has been practiced since the Roman Empire days. Our version involves 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.
I’ve never seen any other tree species grow back as quickly as an autumn olive tree that was coppiced. 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.
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. So we use winter to go out and coppice the old growth off the stump for the coming new spring growth.
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.
Wildlife Habitat Benefits
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”.
Shade for Livestock
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.
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.