Using Trees as Forage

Spring and fall are wonderful times to be a grass farmer. The weather is pleasant, the livestock are fat and happy, and the forages are lush. But of course, summer comes right after spring, and the lean, dry times can wipe away the memory of those beautiful lush grasses of spring. It doesn’t take much observation to note that many summers, trees will stay lush and green long after pastures have gone dry and brown. That’s due to a couple factors, including the deep roots of trees, and the fact that groups of trees will create their own cooler, more humid microclimates that conserve water for much longer. If you’re running short on forages and have a patch of trees, there’s always the option of felling the nearest grove of oaks or maples for a one-time influx of feed. This is, however, not a great strategy for the long run. A better approach is to start thinking strategically about using woody species in our grazing systems to systematically see us through

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5 thoughts on “Using Trees as Forage

  1. The information I am getting from Extension, ATTRA, SARE, and other sources says that , in humid warm climates, you need AT LEAST a 60 day rest period to reduce the number of eggs and larvae to a level that lowers the risk of infection, and a whole year of not grazing with the same animal species to create clean pasture. The grazing period also needs to be less than 4 days because that’s about how long it takes newly deposited eggs to hatch.
    So I agree that moving sheep frequently is essential but not that breaking the parasite cycle is easy. You need a lot of land to create that many paddocks and you have to find a way to keep that grass vegetative while it is resting for 60 days or it will be low quality forage. Usually haying, clipping, or grazing with cattle or horses is suggested but all of those can be difficult, expensive, or impractical depending on circumstances.
    So I think it is worth investigating many tools for parasite management and working to breed sheep for parasite resistance.
    What is inacessible on one farm might be the ideal solution on another!

  2. Thanks for another interesting article on a fascinating topic.

    Could another possible benefit of grazing (browsing?) sheep on coppice be breaking up the parasite life cycle since the larvae ( of some kinds anyway) are found in the lowest several inches of grass?

    Regarding pollarding: You say the first pruning should be in the dormant season. Why is that, since I’m assuming subsequent prunings would all be during the growing season?

    It seems that species for intensive silvopasture need to be carefully selected so that they grow vigorously but not so agressively that they become a management nightmare. I’m finding that many shrub/tree species listed for nitrogen fixing ability and forage production are also listed as invasive and ecologically detrimental elsewhere.

    1. Great questions again Emily.

      Yes, I think parasite reduction could be a huge component here. Check out this article on an Australian study looking at acacia planted in pastures:

      I would have included info from that study in my article, but I literally just came across it. Here’s a quote form the study directly related to parasites:
      “Interestingly, during this trial, two sheep from the pasture paddock became ill due to parasite infestation, while no sheep in the acacia paddock displayed these symptoms. After the trial, 13 sheep from the pasture paddock died from Barber Pole worm. Sheep in the acacia paddock displayed some symptoms of illness, however none were fatally affected. This experience suggests that sheep with access to acacia browse are less susceptible to illness or death due to internal parasites.”

      Good question about pollarding in the dormant season vs in the growing season. The tree is going to prefer being pollarding in the dormant season, when its energy is being stored in roots rather than leaves. That’s when pollarding traditionally happens for basket materials, firewood, etc. However, in order to make the leaves available, we need to cut during the growing season.

      More ideal for the tree would be to have the leaves stripped without the limbs needing cut, so the tree doesn’t have to expend all that energy growing limbs. That’s one more reason I think keeping the browse within reach of the livestock will be the most advantageous way to go.

      You make a very good point about nitrogen fixing species. Most all of these species are strong, vigorous, and want to live! I like that in a tree, and find it much easier to work with trees and shrubs that want to live than ones I have to baby to hold on to life.

      I’m not as interested as many conservationists in drawing stark lines between species that are ‘bad’ and ‘good’. Most all species have their usefulness somewhere. Kentucky bluegrass, corn and autumn olive are all introduced species. We subsidize vast expanses of bluegrass and corn, yet I can say with high confidence that an acre filled with autumnolive, the ‘invasive’, will be ecologically more diverse, sequester more carbon, and filter more water than either of the other two. It’s just that people listing it as invasive don’t appreciate how it could be useful.

      I’d say this: If there’s an opportunistic species that’s not already in your area that you could accidentally spread, don’t introduce it. But if there’s already autumn olive and mimosa and black locust in the area, it might be worth experimenting with them as a resilient, nutritious source of browse.

      1. I think a more accessible way to break the parasite cycle is to regularly move your flock, and not return to a paddock for at least 21 days. More if you want to maximize pasture yield and quality. Breaking the parasite cycle is not a hard thing to do. That study effectively proved sheep forced to eat larval parasites and manure are more susceptible to parasites than those with access to tall forage.

        Also I agree with Greg about autumn olive. I like browse hight roses too. Sometimes it seems like my sheep prefer roses to clover after a move.

        1. After thinking about my previous comment I acknowledge that it would be more difficult to put the fencing in to control grazing to break the parasite cycle on a 5000 acre ranch in Montana than on my 50 spread out acres in Massachusetts.

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