Planting Trees for Livestock Fodder

If you’d asked me six years ago about the ingredients of a perfect weekend, I’d have listed partying, camping in the Outback, or a combination of the two.

Fast-forward to the weekend just gone, which we spent digging holes, moving bushes and planting Japanese fodder willows in freezing rain (Saturday) and heavy frost (Sunday). It was one of the most satisfying and productive weekends I’ve had all year.*

We’re trialling 60 of these willows as a feed source for our stock. If they grow well, we’ll plant another 300 next year.

Fodder willow cuttings ready for planting

Historical use of fodder trees

Growing trees and shrubs for livestock fodder stretches back centuries in some countries. It was a common practice in ancient Rome.

In England and parts of Europe, farmers fed their stock on elms, lindens and mulberries, among others.

Today, fodder trees and shrubs are still important sources of feed in South America, Africa, India and Asia.

Early use of fodder trees in New Zealand

New Zealand has grown to rely more on pasture than trees and shrubs but that wasn’t always the case. Many older farms still have stands of poplar and willow that were originally used to supplement feed during summer droughts.

Early Kiwi farmers also browsed their livestock on palatable native plants. Farmers on the South Island’s Banks Peninsula nicknamed mahoe (whiteywood) “cow leaf” because their stock loved it so much. Cattle also relish five-finger and seven-finger.

Our cows love broadleaf and our sheep will eat large-leaved coprosmas down to the ground if we let them.

With climate and rainfall becoming more unpredictable, interest in alternative feed sources seems to be growing here — the nursery where we bought our willows has completely sold out of them.

Growing Japanese fodder willow

Japanese fodder willow (Salix schwerinii “Kinuyanagi”) is a shrub variety that grows to 3-5m. Vigorous, hardy and deciduous, it can produce up to 10 tonnes of edible dry matter per hectare per year.

Its dry weight nitrogen content is similar to that of lucerne hay.

We ordered our willows as 40cm cuttings. We planted them 1 metre apart at a depth of 25cm in rows 1.5m apart. This high-density planting is known as a browse block. The aim is to eventually let stock in to browse on the shrubs or three times a year, rather than cutting and transporting the feed.

We’ve situated our trial block on our worst land.  This was originally planted out in hazelnuts and linden trees and neither is doing well. It’s badly-drained, so it should suit willows well.

Over time, these plantings will improve drainage in this paddock and encourage the growth of more legumes in the understorey.

Hares are a problem in our area, so we’ve protected our plantings with tree guards. All that’s now left to do is to mulch them to cut down competition from grass.

Ewan hammers in the second row stakes

Five reasons to grow fodder trees and shrubs

  1. Land that’s not suitable for pasture can be made productive.
  2. Access to a high-quality alternative feed source when the grass isn’t growing.
  3. Future-proofing your lifestyle block against fluctuations in climate and/or weather.
  4. Double duty in shelter belt plantings or as windbreaks.
  5. Less tillage for pasture equals less fossil fuel use.

* Don’t get me wrong. Partying and camping are still pretty awesome weekend pastimes in my book.