When you think of natural livestock feeding, what do you picture? A smooth, green pasture with animals grazing on grass and clover? That provides a large part of what’s needed. But trees and brush also can be valuable livestock feed. They have several uses.
Woody plants provide extra fiber/roughage and can help to settle digestions upset by too much rich food. Their deep roots bring vitamins and minerals up from lower levels of the soil and make them accessible to livestock. In dry years, these deep roots are especially valuable. During the long rainless summer of 2016, when my family ran drip irrigation on the gardens 24/7 and watched the pastures turning brown, the deep-rooted trees and bushes remained green and growing, giving us something fresh to feed our livestock.
Who Wants Brush?
Goats are champion brush-eaters, and they naturally prefer browsing to grazing. Sometimes, ours get diarrhea when they’re turned out on lush spring pasture. Feeding lots of branches gets enough fiber into their systems to settle their digestions. Sheep also enjoy a certain amount of browse. Some farmers report that heritage breeds of sheep are much more willing to eat browse than recently developed breeds. Horses and cows are primarily adapted for grazing, but some browse can be a useful fiber/vitamin supplement for them, as well. Rabbits should have some woody plants to add fiber to their diets and to keep their teeth from overgrowing.
What Can You Feed?
Willow (Salix spp) and mulberry (Morus spp) are particularly nutritious high-protein feeds. They can grow very rapidly in favorable conditions, which makes them easy to coppice for continual growth (mulberry is even considered invasive in some areas). Willow is also pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory; salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, was derived from willow bark. We feed plenty of this to our goats after kidding. Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) is a hardy legume with protein-rich leaves and seedpods. It’s supposed to cope well with drought, poor sandy soil and other challenging conditions.
Other palatable trees and shrubs include apple, birch (Betula spp — which also has mild de-worming properties), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina — do not ever feed your animals poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix), rose (another mild de-wormer), blackberry (also has some disinfectant and digestion-settling properties) and raspberry (beneficial to animals during pregnancy and soon after birth, and will do no harm at other times). Do not feed branches from stone fruit trees (peach, plum, cherry, apricot nectarine), yew, poison sumac, mountain laurel, or any type of laurel or rhododendron.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Check with your local Cooperative Extension and with your neighbors about what grows and what is palatable in your area. Be prepared for conflicting answers. There’s controversy over whether or not to feed some types of trees and brush. Some sources list maple as toxic; our goats sometimes eat dried sugar maple leaves as a treat alongside their hay and come to no harm. Some sources say to avoid feeding any kind of evergreens, but we give our goats small amounts of white pine branches when they suffer from worms, though we don’t feed pine regularly.
How Can You Offer Browse?
This depends very much on your animals and your land. Goats usually will eat any browse included in their pastures, so enthusiastically that they kill the plants — they’ll completely defoliate low shrubs, and girdle the bark of trees so they die. That can be useful if you have goats and you want a wooded/brushy area cleared; you can just remove toxic plants, fence the area and turn the goats loose in it. The other choice is to keep your goats on grass pasture, cut branches elsewhere and throw them in.
Browse, as well as grass, can be stored for winter. My family cuts willow early, when the leaves have just reached their full size and their nutritive peak. We then bundle the branches and hang them high in the barn rafters. After several months, they’re thoroughly dry and ready to go into a bin for winter feeding. We also bundle and dry raspberry plants.
For obvious reasons, browse for rabbits needs to be cut and put into their enclosures.
I haven’t raised cows or horses. Some sources say they won’t eat browse if they have access to plenty of graze. Others report that they will eat cut branches that are offered them and will nibble on trees or shrubs in their pasture without killing them. So far as I can tell from reading, sheep’s willingness to browse depends on the breed and the particular flock. In a dry year when fresh graze is less available, most natural grazers may show more enthusiasm for branches. I hope that some of you who raise horses, sheep and cattle will comment on this post and tell us about your herd’s eating habits.
Have you ever fed your livestock trees and bush? Share your tips for doing it in the section below: