By Fran Southgate
Living Landscape Advisor
We can definitely say that it has been one of the driest summers on record this year. With fields and grasslands turning yellow and dry as early as June, it has been a fantastic year for early hay crops, but a bad year for grassland forage. With the heat wave now continuing into August, there are likely to be serious shortages in available grazing for a lot of livestock, which is also starting to eat into winter forage stocks.
It’s quite noticeable when you look around the countryside, that although the fields are still brown, the hedgerows and woodlands have stayed green. A traditional feed source that can offer some help to the lack of grass, is browse from trees and hedgerows. Surprisingly, despite a long history of use, tree fodder has somewhat fallen out of use in recent years, but particularly for smallholders it is well considering as part of an annual rotation of food for your animals.
Leaf fodder or “tree hay” was traditionally stored for feeding to stock during the winter, but can also be a vital source of animal feed in periods of drought. Especially in free draining soils, a tree with deep root systems and mycorrhizal fungi can access moisture and nutrients such as selenium and copper, and they can produce green leaves when other plants have dried up. In addition, many tree leaves such as willow have medicinal benefits (salicylic acid used for aspirin) for livestock, helping them to relieve parasite burdens, improve digestion and more.
Tree fodder can be harvested during the summer months and preserved as hay or silage, or it can be fed fresh to animals. If available, ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and elm (Ulmus minor) appear to be the preferred tree fodder species with holly (Ilex aquifolium) and ivy (Hedera helix) often cut in severe winters or after a poor growing season for grazing. Other species that are also readily taken by animals including willow, poplar, rowan, hazel, oak, hawthorn, and other fruit trees. Birch, beech and alder are edible but generally less palatable. Be aware that ash regrowth can be more susceptible to Chalara disease after cutting, whilst the regular re-cutting of surviving elm can keep its bark thickness to a minimum and thus useless to the bark beetle.
Considering the differing natural minerals, nutrients and trace elements the fodder contains there is certainly a very persuasive argument for the re-incorporation of tree hay into our farming systems, particularly during the current drought. There is also a relatively high water content in the fodder, which can help to reduce the animals need for water too.
So if your animals are struggling for food during the dry weather, then consider allowing them managed access to your woodland edges and hedges. Alternatively, if you are cutting your hedges, then you can offer fresh cuttings to livestock, or if you are coppicing or pollarding this autumn for fuel, you can offer up the cut wood to livestock to strip of leaves/bark/twigs before you process it. If you want to use tree forage overwinter, then planning ahead is important as it requires good storage facilities and knowledge of moisture content levels and mould development in both hay and silage.
If you would like more information on Tree Fodder then we can recommend the following resources :-
- AFINET – Agroforestry Innovation Network
- Agroforestry – Ted Green Article on Tree Fodder
- Organic Research Centre
Our resident landowner advisor, Fran Southgate can also provide advice if needed.