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🇬🇧 Branching out: trees as fodder?

Beef cattle by trees

What is tree fodder?

Tree fodder is a valuable and often untapped resource. In years past, tree leaves were often used as hay for livestock before herb rich meadows became common practice for hay making. Trees, with their deeper and more substantial roots can still produce green leaves during drought when grasses may fail. Equally, cold wet summers that can destroy hay harvests aren’t likely to affect trees. They are more robust, coping better with the UK’s unpredictable climate and draw up and store minerals and nutrients from deep underground. This makes fodder trees more useful than ever and an invaluable backup for conserved forage. You can also grow them on farm to provide fresh browse for livestock as an alternative to grasses.

You can produce tree hay in the same way as meadow hay: cut the newer, younger, sapwood branches of the trees from the end of June through July. The trees are in full leaf at this time of year which contain the most nutrients even through the drying process.

To successfully pollard a tree, cut the branches when they are the diameter of your thumb. This encourages new growth. You can then bundle the branches and either hang them up to dry first or store them green. Stacked bundles of tree hay stored green can maintain their green leaves up to 2 years later.

Only 3% of the UK’s farmland is currently used for agroforestry. The types of agroforestry include forest grazing, wood pasture, and orchard grazing. The most common in the UK is orchard grazing which allows livestock to graze the grass between fruit trees in the orchard. Forest and wood grazing are more common with pigs and sheep which help turn the soil and promote sapling growth.

How does it help farmland?

Integrating the two farming practices has mutual benefits for the plants and the animals. Trees provide shade from the sun and shelter from the wind. The livestock provide substantial manure to enhance tree growth and natural tilling to improve germination of seedlings.

Which plants can we use and are they nutritious?

Cattle, sheep and goats naturally browse trees. It can incorporate as much as 12%, 21% and 60% of their diets, respectively. However, when grass is scarce and if palatability of tree fodder is high, these percentages can increase to 55%, 76% and 93%, respectively.

So which trees are not only safe for livestock to browse but also highly palatable?

Traditionally, ash, elm and holly were used as fodder trees for livestock. They are resistant to pollarding, are robust during droughts, and, in the case of holly, evergreen thus providing fodder throughout the winter.

But animals also readily browse the likes of willow, poplar, rowan, hazel, oak and hawthorn and most fruit trees. Palatability increases with the younger, fresher leaves. New shoots and leaves in the early season are highly sought after. Less palatable species include birch, beech, and alder.

Be mindful of what you nutritional impact.

Because of their deep root systems, trees can draw up nutrients and minerals from the soil that grasses cannot reach. They store these in their leaves, making them highly nutritious. Selenium, magnesium and zinc contained in willow help important physiological and metabolic functions. In a study on tree fodder, growing lambs fed solely on willow leaves had their zinc and cobalt requirements exceeded compared to those fed on oak leaves.

Copper in hazel and alder have been shown to protect against bovine TB. Higher levels of condensed tannins in tree leaves have gastrointestinal benefits and improve protein absorption in the small intestine. Willow is also known to contain salicin which is an anti-inflammatory and it is possible that livestock self-medicate if given the opportunity.

Hawthorn is a resilient tree that can be used for fodder.
Hawthorn is a resilient tree that can be used for fodder.
Ash tree in a field
Ash trees have been used traditionally for tree fodder.

What are the potential risks and draw-backs of using trees as fodder?

Although the nutritional benefits of livestock grazing trees or consuming tree hay are indisputable, the practicalities of implementing this system on your farm can prove challenging.

If farmers claim from the Basic Payment Scheme or Countryside Stewardship fund, then they cannot cut hedges and trees between March and August. This is prime time for harvesting tree hay. Of course, livestock can naturally browse hedgerows and trees but this requires management. Over browsing can damage or kill trees and branches may be out of reach. Hedgerows that contain blackthorn can also be dangerous to animals.

Management of browse and collecting tree hay can be costly and time consuming compared to allowing livestock to simply graze pasture.

In addition, you must be careful that there aren’t any toxic plants available to your animals. Yew, box (wood) and rhododendron are poisonous and hungry animals will consume them.

What are the benefits and are fodder trees practical?

Aside from the nutritional benefits of browsing fodder trees, planting a significant number of trees can make a farm more resilient through improved drainage and soil health.

Farmers can also claim payments from governmental schemes for planting trees. Funding for agroforestry through the Sustainable Farming Incentive is expected to be announced in early 2024. Other pots of money to be tapped into include the Woodland Trust’s Trees for Farms grant which can sponsor 100% of the costs for setting up an agroforestry system but competition is high.

The Woodland Trust’s 2022 Report details how agroforestry can deliver for nature and the climate. Models show that over 40 years, planting silvopasture with 400 trees per hectare, integrated with livestock, can sequester 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare per year. It is possible to use this approach to sell carbon credits or in applying for environmental grants.

Practicality of tree fodder depends on your system.

The practicalities of using trees as fodder can vary depending on the system. Farmers who are beginning to branch into agroforestry integrate it within their current farms. Cambridgeshire farmer Stephen Briggs planted 4,500 fruit trees on his arable land at a density of 80 trees/ha. In between the rows he grew his crops. Just 8% of his land was taken up by the fruit trees, leaving the remaining 92% as it was before. Return on investment was slow but he saw huge improvements in terms of winter soil drainage and reduced summer water loss. He makes an income on the fruit he harvests and has seen less stress in the crops he grows.

If livestock farmers could also grow fruit trees on just 8% of their land, then they would still have the space for their animals to graze. The added benefits to the soil and the nutrition the livestock gain from additional tree fodder could prove invaluable.

Is there more information available?

The Soil Association has produced a handbook (PDF) which provides information on how to branch out into agroforestry. They have also produced a blog which details how one farmer integrates livestock farming with agroforestry. There is also government guidance on how agroforestry works with the Basic Payment Scheme.

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