Livestock forage plants are those plants that are grown for livestock to eat as they graze or browse on a property. Choosing the right forage plants for livestock can be a complex business, and there are numerous considerations to contend with.
However, in this article, we’d like to demystify this process and make it easier for you to grow your own forage plants for livestock on your property.
Growing Animal Feed on Your Property
If you are new to keeping livestock, or are considering a switch to more sustainable systems, then the first question you might ask is why it is so important to provide areas for animals to forage, rather than just keeping them contained and providing them with all of their food.
First of all, by introducing the right forage crops on your property, you can introduce livestock in free-range or rotational grazing systems.
Growing animal feed for your livestock on your own property:
Is Best for Livestock
Allowing livestock to forage on your property is, for one thing, better from a livestock well-being standpoint. Foraging for their own food, in the open air, is enriching for an animal’s mind and well-being, as well as for their physical health.
Livestock that has access to areas to roam in will be happier, as well as healthier.
Is Best for the Environment
Another key thing to consider is that when you introduce animals through your land in a sustainable way, taking care to provide adequate forage and avoiding overstocking and overgrazing, the land itself benefits from the fertilization the animals provide.
The animals might also provide a range of other ‘ecosystem services’ – aiding with a range of things from keeping vegetation down to promote healthy biodiversity, to keeping the ecosystem in balance by aiding in pest control.
All too often, in modern farming, livestock is de-coupled from feed production and arable crop production. Natural farming and agroecological farming solutions re-couple these things, allowing land to be used more efficiently and managed in a far more sustainable way.
By integrating rather than segregating livestock from the other growing systems on a farm or homestead, we can ensure that we work holistically for the care, not only of the animals themselves, but of people and planet.
The use of land is a key concern in the modern world and one that all land owners should be sure to consider. Land is a finite resource and one that we need to learn to use more wisely.
We need to develop strategies that allow us to meet our own needs, while also ensuring that land can do its job for the other creatures who share our planet home. The careful integration of livestock within food producing systems and joined up thinking in this arena are a crucial part of this puzzle.
Is Best for You as a Farmer
Of course, whether you are aiming for greater resilience and self-sufficiency on your homestead, or aiming to make a living from a farming business, cutting the requirement for external feed for your animals as much as possible is the only sensible course of action.
The more of the right forage plants we can introduce to meet our livestocks’ nutritional needs throughout as much of the year as possible, the less we will have to spend on costly feeds for our animals. The less reliant we are in external systems for animal feed, the more resilient we are and the less financial outlay will be required to run our systems.
Forage vs Fodder
The feed needs of livestock of various kinds is often met in two different ways.
The first of these is through forage – plants that animals can access and eat on their own as they travel through certain areas of a landscape.
The second is through fodder, which is feed taken from elsewhere (either external sources or from elsewhere on a property) and taken to the animals by the farmer.
Aiming for self-sufficiency in both of these areas is the best policy.
Choosing the right plants for our integrated farming systems often means (where sufficient land space is available) that we can grow all of the forage plants and fodder sources that we need to sustain our animals throughout the year.
Types of Livestock Forage Plants
Where animals free-range, or are allowed to graze in a rotational grazing system, there are several different categories of livestock forage plants that we might consider.
Pasture: Grasses, Legumes & Forbs
One of the key categories to consider for many types of livestock is pasture – a ground cover of grasses, legumes and wildflowers/ other herbaceous plants that can be grazed by a range of domestic and farm animals.
Creating good pasture is one of the key challenges for many livestock farmers, and this can be a complex business that will depend in large part on the location, its climate, microclimate conditions, soil type, characteristics and fertility, and the animals to be kept there.
Careful considerations are required to make sure sustainable systems are maintained. For example, it is important to:
- Select species (often ideally native species) suited to the soil and growing conditions of a specific site.
- Determine the rate of growth (replacement) of the pasture in a given situation, to determine stocking densities for livestock, rotational grazing timings and rest periods required to keep the ground cover vegetation in place.
- Ensure a rich biodiversity on the site, for greater stability and resilience over time. With a good balance of different types of forage plant.
- Choose the right forage plants for the safety and optimal nutrition of the specific type or types of livestock you keep.
Tree & Shrub Forage
While pasture grasslands are common areas for foraging livestock, trees and shrubs can also be important forage plants for certain livestock.
Goats are one obvious example that springs to mind when we think about livestock that will eat material from woody plant species. Browsing goats typically receive up to 60% of their diet annually from trees.
While we tend to think about ruminants like cattle and sheep eating grass, cows and sheep also eat leafy matter from trees and shrubs, more so when less grass is available, so integrating the right trees into livestock areas where they are kept can be beneficial in many cases, providing them with valuable nutrition when the right species are chosen.
Browse (material from trees and shrubs) can compare very well nutritionally speaking with grasses grown in the same environment. Trees can often contain certain beneficial minerals that may help with disease resistance, and condensed tannins that deliver high quality protein to the small intestine and help with gastrointestinal parasite control.
Trees and shrubs introduced in agroforestry systems sequester carbon and provide a range of other benefits within the environment, as well as potentially providing browse for livestock and other yields for us. So it is a very good idea to think about how trees and shrubs can be integrated into your designs.
Livestock might also be set to graze in arable fields after a crop has been harvested. In which case, the crops that were grown (cereal crops of vegetables) might also be considered forage crops. Though we are obtaining a yield first, the livestock can also potentially graze the area afterwards, which makes sense within integrated, natural farming systems.
Another interesting category of forage plants not always but sometimes of use are aquatic plants. Aquatic forage plants might be of use for water buffalo, or even just domestic ducks and other waterfowl… but several other forms of livestock might also be able to forage for food on and around ponds, paddies and other bodies of water.
Growing Plants for Fodder on Your Property
As well as considering plants that livestock can forage directly, those keeping different types of livestock can also consider growing plants to provide fodder for their animals.
One example of this might be growing grains to feed to chickens (whole and sprouted grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs etc.) on another parts of a property. Another example is growing hay, vegetables or tree hay elsewhere, that can be taken to livestock areas as needed.
Plants might also be grown on a property to provide source material for other common livestock fodder additions, such as molasses, oilseed press cakes, and biochar (trees and woody materials used to make biochar can help reduce cattle methane emissions and improve soils).
These are just a few examples that show how selecting the right plants to grow elsewhere on a property, as well as in foraged areas, can help farmers avoid the need to purchase feed/ fodder for their animals.
Key Considerations When Choosing Livestock Forage Plants
There are many different things to think about when choosing livestock forage plants and plants that can help produce fodder for animals too on the same site. But foremost among the key considerations are three things:
- Selecting the Right Species for the Site & Design Goals.
- Avoiding Potential Harm To Livestock.
- & Meeting the Nutritional Needs of Livestock.
Selecting the Right Species for the Site & Design Goals
It should not go without repeating that it is vitally important to understand your site fully before you can develop sustainable livestock systems and integrate forage crops into your designs.
We need to make sure that we understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of our own individual sites. And look at things like water availability, temperatures throughout the year, soil health etc… before we choose our plants and make our planting plans.
Soil health is something that is often overlooked in pasture or other forage system creation. Even experienced farmers may not realise that soil health is just as important on pasture or rangeland as it is in arable fields.
We cannot simply look at individual forage crops in isolation, but should think about creating whole ecosystems that can support our own needs, as well as the needs of the animals we keep. Holistic thinking and an integrated approach are key.
For example, we should not only select grass species for pasture, but think about the plant communities that can form effective and nutritious ground cover where we live.
We should not only think about tree species that might be used as forage or fodder, but about how we can create tree-based features for the landscape – perhaps tree rows within an alley system, but perhaps things like riparian buffer strips, shelter belts (aka living barns), and hedgerows that provide for livestock in other ways as well as just providing food.
Avoiding Potential Harm To Livestock
Of course, once we zero in on potential plant species, we need to know which plants might potentially pose a threat to the specific livestock we keep. Remember, certain plants might be beneficial for some animals, but toxic for others.
It is important to research each livestock forage plant that you are considering placing within your planting schemes, and also any wild plants that may pop up in the areas where you plan to allow your livestock to graze or browse. Check for any potential toxicity for any species that you are considering or which are already present in the ares where you keep your animals.
Beyond potential toxicity, there are also other risks to livestock to consider. For example, prickly and thorny plants from which animals may wish to browse may cause injury if they are planted densely and if animals are drawn to try to feed from them.
Another thing to consider is that like us, livestock can sometimes be led to have too much of a good thing. Bloat (frothy bloat in sheep for example) and other digestive issues can arise when livestock are able to feed too quickly on too rich a pasturage, dominated by legumes, in the spring. So providing a well-balanced species appropriate pasture or other foraging site is important.
Remember, forage plants can not only pose a threat if not properly chosen, they can also potentially prevent harm when the right plant selections are made.
A number of forage plants have properties that can help keep livestock safe from parasites, diseases or even certain pest species.
There are plant-based solutions to a range of common livestock problems that allow farmers to avoid the use of antibiotics and other treatments, and to keep an organic farm.
Meeting the Nutritional Needs of Livestock
Choosing the right livestock forage plants also involves developing a clear understanding of the nutritional needs of the animals you keep. Different species, of course, have different physiologies and different nutritional needs.
And it is also important to understand that the nutritional needs of different livestock vary through the course of their lives, and when they are at key stages (during pregnancy, lactation etc…). They also vary through the course of the year. There are of course numerous complexities to consider.
Those who have kept livestock before will also know that forage needs vary depending on our farming calendar, and why we are keeping the livestock in question. For example, there are different needs for laying hens, and meat hens, or dairy cows and cattle reared for meat…
Meeting the nutritional needs of livestock is one of the most complicated elements in any animal husbandry. But as long as you understand what you need to know, and the questions you need to ask, it is often relatively straightforward to find the specific answers you are looking for.