Shrubs for Livestock Forage for Mixed Species Grazing

I’ve been flipping through this book online as I’ve been researching drought-tolerant plants suitable for creating a silvipasture system for goats and chickens. My plan is to design a management-intensive multicell pasture for dairy goats and a dual-purpose chicken flock that will increase soil fertility while providing excellent milk, meat, and egg production, support good animal health and happiness, and do so in a small space.

The rationale for this mixed-species management-intensive grazing plan is as follows: Goats and chickens are each vulnerable to different sets of parasites. Parasite load on pasture is a big problem for goats. Chickens, however, can consume goat parasites with impunity, and in fact actually benefit from being grazed on a pasture with mammal manure and the insects that feed on it, which in turn make good food for the chickens. For their part, the goats benefit from decreased parasite load and fewer flies. Both goats and chickens benefit from mixed pasture and browse although in different ways—goats prefer to eat shrub and tree leaves and bark, while chickens prefer the growing tips of new grass. But goats also eat some grass and forbs and chickens can benefit from the fruit and seeds of many shrubs. An ecosystem consisting of mixed grasses, forbs, and woody shrubs and trees tends to be more resilient and productive when impacted by animals than an ecosystem of grass alone. This is especially true when plants are selected with care for their mutually beneficial interactions. Animal grazing in such ecosystems benefits plants, animals, and soils most when animals are moved through the pasture, allowing enough time for the plants to rest and recover before they face grazing and browsing again. The benefits of management-intensive grazing are widely accepted and include more robust animal health as well as decreased carbon emissions and even carbon sequestration in soils. Factors to consider in developing a schedule for goat/chicken pasture rotation include grass and forb regrowth periods as well as fly larva and other parasite hatch cycles, factors that will vary depending on climate, plant selection, and season of the year. In some regions a combination of rotation and mixture of plant species may reduce the need for supplemental feed to virtually none.

Limiting factors to management intensive pasture systems include the expense of fencing and the variability of pasture regrowth, which creates the need for close supervision of livestock rotation by a skilled manager. While the former may be mitigated by the use of inexpensive portable electric fencing, there is no substitute for the latter. Limitations of mixing shrubs with grasses include possibly a greater expense to establish, the relative slow growth of some shrubs, and the potential to shade out desired grass and forbs. These limitations can be overcome by carefully selecting complementary shrubs and pasture species, using those that are affordable and suited to your site, and choosing shrubs that grow rapidly.

These are some shrub species I’ve been considering for our site and the benefits and challenges they offer:

Caragana arborescens
Siberian peashrub is a nitrogen-fixing leguminous shrub or small tree that grows rapidly and produces a protein-rich goat browse, edible seed pods and edible seeds. The seeds and pods should be cooked for human consumption, but chickens seem to eat them eagerly as they grow. The shrubs are thorny but this does not usually deter goats. It is both drought tolerant and extremely cold hardy, so much so that it is invasive in Alaska, while it does not grow as vigorously in areas of North America south of Nebraska. It is generally a fast-growing shrub. In places where it has the potential to escape cultivation, treating it to heavy browsing may help control its spread. In addition it is a superior bee forage and nectary plant. Cowpea-soybean-lupine rhizobia may be used as an inoculant for nitrogen fixation.

Amorpha fruticosa or californica
Amorpha fruticosa
is also an excellent nectary and insectary, with attractive purple flower spikes. It is likewise a legume, fixing nitrogen in the soil, and as there is a closely-related California native species it may have symbiotic bacteria already present in the soil of my intended site. Of the shrubs proposed here it seems to have the lowest livestock food value, but I will consider using it anyway because of its other desirable characteristics and to add diversity to the planting. In my experience, goats tend to develop cravings—they pursue some plants to the exclusion of others for a time, then suddenly move on to a new favorite. For this reason I prefer to develop a diversified hedge, and would like to include Amorpha fruticosa or californica.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey locust, another leguminous shrub, is reported to be an excellent forage species with high protein foliage and edible and tasty seed pods. It is also good for firewood and could be managed as coppice to produce both forage and fuel. It does prefer deep moist soils, however, so although it is also reported to be drought tolerant it may not do well on a dry slope. There are many selections from the naturally occurring thornless variety inermis, including some selected for prolific production of pods, and other selected for no pods at all. “Millwood” is supposed to be the best forage variety.

Robinia pseudoacacia
Black locust has better feed value than Honey locust, and is more tolerant of dry soils. Its wood is also excellent firewood. There is not a commonly available thornless variety, and its bark has some toxic compounds, but these are said not to trouble goats. It is also a fast-growing legume.

Albizia julibrissin
Mimosa is reported to have a better feed value than Black locust, although lower productivity and perhaps less palatability. While it is listed as invasive in the Southeast, it does not appear to be invasive in Northern California. It is also an excellent bee forage and like all the aforementioned shrubs has the potential to fix nitrogen in the soil if associated with its symbiotic bacteria. It is likely to do well in the California oak woodland type environment.

Morus spp.
The mulberry genus is widely distributed, in part because it has been used to feed the nutritionally-demanding silkworm. The same nutritional characteristics that make it indispensable food for silkworms make it an excellent food for ruminants and monogastric livestock. In addition it is highly palatable and sought after in preference to other forage. For this reason it would be important to allow livestock access to only well-established mulberry plantations, as goats are likely to climb into the lower branches to access more of the tasty leaves. The tasty and nutritious fruit is of benefit to chickens and likely to be enjoyed by wild birds as well as humans and other animals using the site. The leaves could also be used to supplement rabbit food, reducing the cost of raising these small monogastric livestock. Mulberry is not a legume, and its yields are increased by nitrogen supplementation, so its plantation in a mixed hedge with nitrogen-fixing legumes mentioned previously will benefit both—the mulberry by added nitrogen released into the soil when the leguminous shrubs are cut and browsed, and the legumes by the relief of excessively-preferential browse pressure.

The next topic in this series will be the grass and forb species I’m considering. After that I’ll discuss how I’m contemplating putting them together into a working system.

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9 Responses to “Shrubs for Livestock Forage for Mixed Species Grazing

  • you’ve got plenty of legumes already, but have you thought about Lespedeza bicolor or another Lespedeza species? all the familiar legume benefits (bugs, nitrogen, browse) and it’s great for stove wood in short order (can be harvested the first or second year).

    the Elaeagnaceae is a great family, too. they’re like legumes plus delicious and nutritious fruit. livestock love the fruit, but there’s no reason not to include humans to the species you’re supporting, too.

  • Tel, I wasn’t thinking of Lespedezas as woody shrubs; thanks for suggesting them in that category as well. I’m familiar with them growing as soft-stemmed forbs, I think, or maybe that’s just the young growth.

    Eleagnus occurred to me and then I excluded it from this list. I’m not sure whether it was for its invasive potential or because I saw that deer don’t seem to like it and I wrongly assumed that meant goats wouldn’t either. But after some further research it looks like people are reporting that goats do like it, and this being the case I suspect that their invasive potential in a goat pasture would be somewhat controlled.

  • I’m concerned about your plans to use non-native shrubs in pastures. I agree that non-native plants should be used in permaculture food forests that are right around houses or very intensively used, but grazing, by its very nature, is extensive instead of intensive. I understand that you are trying to make grazing more intensive, to get more meat out of a given pasture area while restoring soil and creating a robust ecosystem, but I don’t understand why you can’t do this with native plants.

    I don’t know the plants you are talking about in particular, but you mention native relatives: why not plant those shrubs, instead? When you leave this land, you won’t be able to monitor the non-native species you’ve planted. For things like domesticated fruit trees and herbs that just don’t spread well on their own, that’s not a big deal. But you can’t realistically expect to be able to control plants that have been invasive exotics in other areas, and are spread out in a pasture area. I’m much less concerned about invasive natives: they will spread, but are likely to only take over disturbed areas and are extremely unlikely to prevent succession toward less weedy natives, as many invasive exotics do.

    I’ve decided to put this next bit in this comment instead of commenting on your previous post, because I don’t know anything about coppice firewood species, either, and it’s all on the same theme. If you plant your non-native tree that has been invasive in Australia and Hawaii, planting it away from riparian areas won’t keep you from introducing it to riparian areas: seed pods can roll downhill, and probably a lot more importantly, goats and pigs and birds can deposit feces in riparian areas. Although you are planning to only plant enough for your firewood needs, what about when someone else is using the land? Will they graze goats around the tree, use the tree regularly for firewood, and keep it from spreading? Since you can’t expect that, how will you keep the tree from re-growing after you leave? Cutting it down to a stump clearly isn’t going to work, and I’m quite certain you are disinterested in using herbicide to kill it. Coppice firewood seems to me like a permaculture use that must be native, because it’s a low intensity use that you simply can’t manage carefully enough to keep from introducing it to the area as a whole, and you are specifically choosing something that is robust enough to sprout from stumps.

  • Enuja, I’m glad you’ve posted. This is a preliminary list for now, and I’m not planning to use any species that are invasive in Northern California. So please let me know what you think about my logic here.

    Based on my initial research, Caragana arborescens hasn’t become invasive south of Nebraska because it is vigorous and prolific in cold environments that recall its native Siberia. I’ve personally seen it wilting in the summer heat in coastal Northern California; established plants seem to survive it well, but I suspect seedlings don’t tolerate it as well. Amorpha californica, the native species I mentioned, is naturally preferred for my site; I listed fruticosa first because it’s more commonly used for this purpose than californica and I am still researching whether californica has the same advantages as a forage plant—I suspect so, in which case I’ll use it. The Gleditsia and Robinia species I have the chance to observe at Emerald Earth to see how they’ll do, since they’re already planted there—they have Amorpha fruticosa as well. So far none of these species have showed signs of coming up in unplanted areas, but it’s early to tell yet. Mimosa is probably a species of concern in my area and I’ll probably end up ruling it out; even if it’s not becoming invasive right now, as the climate changes it may present a problem. As for Morus, black mulberry seems well-controlled in areas with cold winters which kill off tender seedlings, but I could use red mulberry for this application which is at least native to the continent if not to the state—however that might mean it’s more likely to escape cultivation rather than less.

    Whichever shrubs I do select will be planted in a relatively small area and subjected to heavy grazing—more details on the layout and plan to come. This plan is evolving as we investigate different sites.

    Coppice firewood management, as you say, presents some challenges because it is intended to be a low-intensity use. But rarely would you have a coppice woodlot that is only ever used for coppice; the fuelwood species should be interplanted with fruit and nut trees, and the shrub layer should be regularly browsed if it’s not going to be thinned by hand or burned. It’s not that it must be native, but that the species chosen should be proven to play nicely. Resprouting from stumps doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll spread to create new individuals; of species that commonly spread from seed, sterile cultivars can often be selected since the goal is to use the wood, not fruit or seed.

    Many factors naturally control plants’ growth. You don’t typically see a woodland invaded by apple trees running amok, because apples require the kind of intensive care that, as permaculture designers, we’d prefer not to lock ourselves into—we may sometimes have to sacrifice particularly needy species in order to live within our watershed or not have to add artificial fertility to our soil. So there’s a temptation to use weedier and weedier species, because the principle behind the design is to allow the plants to take care of themselves and each other. We need to be mindful that we’re designing not just our site, but its interactions with the whole local ecosystem over time. That includes both supports for our needier species and checks on our weedier species.

  • I’m very glad you are thinking about it, and love to have these types of discussions!

    I know I argued on my LJ that invasive exotics are quite different from weeds, but they are weeds plus: they are much more than just weeds, but they are (usually) weeds. If I were you, I’d try to go native with the weedy species you plan to use in permaculture, and keep your exotic choices to the needier species.

    It’s really hard to find species that have been “proven” to play nicely, because invasiveness often occurs after a lengthy delay. With a quick google search, this is the best source I came up with, which is about the research question “Can invasiveness evolve?” Shrubs and trees have routinely taken over 100 years, with multiple introductions, to become invasive. I know you aren’t going to be ordering plants across national borders, but more demand at nurseries does have a significant effect on nurseries ordering plants across national borders, and spreading exotics out where they can interbreed with individuals from different introductions really could lead to the evolution of invasiveness.

    Plants can come up in planted areas very far from where you planted them, because of the wonder of flying birds, so you might not have access to the places a plant is spreading to (although, admittedly, if a plant is spreading it is likely to spread near the initial planting first).

    Thinking about climate change and future good behavior of your plants is excellent, and it certainly sounds like you are doing the necessary research.

  • Our Willamette Valley climate is basically two-seasoned, flood from December to June, drought from July to November, with variants. In winter the grass becomes rather non-nutritious in the long rains, then the grass becomes super-good for about a month, then the drought hits it. When we had sheep here, it was important to supplement their diet of tough dry grasses, especially in August and September. One thing that helped was — cottonwood. I would cut a branch every day and throw it over the fence, where it was highly appreciated. We noticed the local deer eating up the Oregon ash saplings here, so we also offered ash branches to the sheep, and they were willing, though they clearly liked the cottonwood better. They would not sample maple leaves, we knew, but we would bring them flowering bigleaf maple branches in spring; they liked the bracts as much as we do, though we prefer ours stir-fried. But in spring there was plenty of everything for them.

    I’m going to mention an invasive now, because it was here when we got here eighteen years ago, and it would take someone either willing to use herbicides along a watercourse (we’re not), or able to dig down four feet across the entire patch to get all the roots (we’re not that person either), to get rid of it, but we have (shudder) Japanese knotweed.

    The sheep loved knotweed, not just the shoots, but the tougher adult stuff too. We fenced in as much of the patch with them as we could manage, and they did a decent job on it. This reminded me of the relationship between cows and kudzu in my native Georgia.

    So, I would not knowingly introduce an invasive but if it’s beyond the scope of my stewardship abilities to eradicate it, I’m going to study its possibilities at least. If you don’t look too closely, you won’t notice that most of our beanpoles are also knotweed … sigh.

  • I want to jump in on the invasive species discussion. the precautionary principle applies to a degree. a lot of ecologically-minded folks would like to preserve ecosystems exactly as they are. there is some wisdom to that, particularly in the case of intact ecosystems: temperate and tropical rainforests, old-growth boreal forest, mangroves, isolated islands with high endemic species concentration, &c.

    but I don’t live in a place like that. I live on land that has been dramatically disturbed for several generations by folks who didn’t give much thought to long-term stewardship. in the process, a couple of extremely productive and useful species were introduced that have spread only slightly and without forcing out native species. that land now supports my family and me. if my choice is between eating food produced elsewhere and out of my control, and risking releasing species into ecosystems where they didn’t exist before, I’ll choose the latter, though not recklessly. ecosystems aren’t static, even if we try to keep them that way. and there’s a difference between an informed choice to grow an imported plant or animal, and releasing any old species without regard to the consequences for existing systems.

    there isn’t sufficient public land in the area for me to forage for all my needs. native species are not productive enough to support my family on the land we have access to. the weak agricultural crops that can’t survive without constant cultivation and attention require more disturbance that I consider negative than I’m willing to provide.

    on the other hand, I don’t have any problem respecting folks who choose to only grow native species, though “native” is a fairly tangled up word without an easy definition. and I’m certainly open to having my mind changed about my own choices and I understand that it really isn’t a simple issue.

    regarding lespedeza: some are herbaceous, some are woody. lots of [i]Lespedeza[/i] species, and at least one other genus that is called lespedeza.

    Elaeagnaceae: I’ve got a few. I’ve never seen a bird eat the fruit, apart from foraging chickens. and I believe birds would be the vector for spreading these plants. they have a reputation for spreading, so I’m sure that they do cause problems some places. not where I’m at, though. and goats look a lot like slower deer. but they don’t act much like them.

  • Hi,

    i’m very interested by your post, as i’m designing a permaculture poultry fodder system for my home flock (south of France, steep slope, deers).

    About Lespedeza : “Published studies reported that consumption of sericea lespedeza, a condensed tannin rich forage, has offered control of parasites in sheep and goats” http://www.reeis.usda.gov/web/crisprojectpages/226193.html

    What about seabuckthorn ? Very promising berries for poultry, and great leaf fodder (for poultry in pellets, don’t know about consumption of leaves directly, and i don’t know about goats)

    Goji berries are very promising too, in terms of amino acids content (and it is said that goji brushes are browsed by every animal).

    I think also about persimmons/kaki to produce kcal for poultry (and goats? ) in winter

  • I’ve seen seabuckthorn used in a chicken run, and they did forage the leaves–it became a bundle of thorny sticks, in fact, without a leaf on it. I hadn’t thought of using goji berry that way mainly because the berries are so desired by humans, but if someone had a large number of goji bushes for market growing and suddenly the goji fad disappears and they’re left with an excess of bushes, running chickens and goats in them seems like a good solution.

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