Living haystack

If you find
Keeping animals alive on bought fodder means “buying the animal twice”
Fodder conservation takes time, effort and money
Fodder conservation contributes to soil acidity while robbing the soil of fertility
Input costs cut into profits before the crop is harvested
Hay deteriorates while in storage
Having a Living haystack that you can harvest for your animals or they can harvest for themselves can save a lot of time, effort and money.

More importantly, it can save animals in drought or can be a Hungry gap filler. The hungry gap is the time when there is insufficient grazing for your normal number of livestock because of seasonal weather patterns.

Some species of fodder trees and shrubs suitable for growing as a Living haystack are discussed briefly below to give some ideas.

Your aims, type of stock, farm setup, local climate, soils and other factors can have a large influence on which species and management approach works best for you.

Some fodder tree species possibly suitable for Living haystacks are:

  • Tagasaste — or tree lucerne — Chamaecytisus palmensis. It is a legume (capable of Nitrogen fixation). It is grown in many parts of southern Australia as a Living haystack for the frequent droughts and the dry seasons as well as its other benefits of bee fodder, windbreaks and wildlife corridors. Poultry love its seeds and so it makes a good shelter as well.
  • Saltbush Atriplex nummularia and Atriplex vesicaria and others — are grown in the drier areas of inland Australia where they originated and in southern Africa. They are sufficient for a maintenance or better diet for sheep and cattle provided fresh water is available. There is little seasonal change in the quality of saltbush diets. Saltbush can send roots down 5 metres (16 feet) or more and can send them out wide, capturing light rains as well as water deep in the soil. It can survive on salty soils. There is a market for saltbush lamb among gourmet restaurant patrons.
  • Bluebush such as Maireana brevifolia and Queensland bluebush Chenopodium auricomum for example. From the livestock manager’s point of view, bluebush has a lot of similarities with saltbush. It grows in the drier areas of inland Australia where it originated. Some bluebushes are very deep rooted and this gives them great drought resistance. Some contain high levels of oxalates and this limits intake and can cause kidney problems. Hungry sheep should not be introduced to bluebush if it is the only feed source available. Make sure they have other feed and are able to accustom to the bluebush. Partly for this reason, it is often and best used with stubble or other feed sources. Well suited to lower rainfall regions (250-450 mm or 10-18 inches of rain. Some varieties can survive in 150 mm or 6 inches of rain).
  • Leucaena or Leadtrees Leucaena — or sub-tropical and tropical tree lucerne. It is a legume (capable of Nitrogen fixation) from the Americas from Texas to Peru. It is grown in many parts of tropical and sub-tropical northern Australia as a Living haystack for the annual dry season and the frequent droughts. Some varieties produce levels of mimosine that can lead to hair loss and infertility in some animals, particularly non-ruminants.
  • Thornless honey locust Gleditsia triacanthos inermis. Choose only thornless varieties because livestock are less able to graze the thorny varieties and that creates a major weed potential. The pods have a pulp that is sweet and nutritious for humans and animals. Because the pods are an annual item, it may be best to manage it for fodder by coppicing it. (In coppicing young stems are cut down to near ground level and allowed to regrow or for new shoots to take over. After a number of years the coppiced tree is ready to be harvested or grazed if that can work and the cycle begins again.) This would involve a regular program of slashing (flail mowing) or topping with a large circular saw (as used for citrus and other orchards) to prevent it becoming a tree and keep it at a size and digestibility that would appeal to stock. Because of the weed potential of even thornless honey locust, it is best not to plant them where there would be flood waters and definitely not near stream banks.
  • Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia. Although various farmers recommend this because their “livestock love” the leaves or the pods, I would not recommend it until we can be clear which varieties do not have the potential for poisoning. Because of the weed potential of robinia it is best not to plant them where there would be flood waters and definitely not near stream banks.
  • Wattles Acacia species in Australia. These provided my sheep with good drought fodder, though I suspect it was below maintenance requirements. We had several local species the sheep would eat willingly even when there was pasture available, so some species may provide some element that is low in their pasture diet.
  • Kurrajong Brachychiton populneus The trees are often trimmed with a chainsaw or a large tractor-mounted saw during droughts to provide survival feed for sheep and cattle. Grown extensively in dry areas of Australia and I believe similar plants are used this way in parts of Africa.

Even though tree lucernes and other fodder trees may not be as good as pasture, they are there when you need feed and the Living haystack can be set up to take minimal additional effort.

Plus it can build a store of fodder over the years that it is not being used and can then be available when a really big drought hits. By that stage it may have built enough fodder to get you through the worst drought.

And the establishment effort need not be great. For example:

  • Some farmers have had success with planting seed directly using a precision seeder or other equipment that they use in their other farming operations
  • There are manual planting systems for tagasaste and similar seedlings that allow one person to plant around 2,000 trees a day into prepared ground. The preparation is often just ripping a line to provide a planting line. The person wears the seedling trays on a harness and carries a planter with a tube the seedling is dropped down. The person walks along the ripline:
    1. Stops, pushes the tube into the ground and steps on one pedal to get to the right depth
    2. Steps on the opening pedal to open the jaws
    3. Drops the seedling into the tube
    4. Lifts the tube out of the ground with a twist to loosen any soil stuck in the jaws.
    5. Tamps the seedling firmly into the ground with a foot on each side and with a heel in front if needed.
    6. Closes the jaws.
    7. Takes a new seedling with the free hand and chooses the next transplanting site while moving forward.

    Follow-up irrigation can improve establishment as can pre-irrigation and that is usually easier. I discovered these planters existed just after we had planted all our tagasaste. One example is the Finputki or Transputki Planting Tube but there are others.

  • There are mechanical planting systems for tagasaste and similar seedlings that can plant 7 hectares(17 acres) a day. They are mounted on a platform behind a tractor and typically they are operated by two people on the planter, one person driving the tractor and one walking behind to ensure all roots are covered.

So, depending on your scale, you may be able to buy or hire a planter or have a contractor do the planting for you.

There is little need for maintenance and some layouts can be interplanted with crops so the land is not lost to production.

The only other effort comes at feeding out when almost any fodder takes effort.

And you can design systems for managing it that require even less effort.

Once it is established, it generally looks after itself.

In the southern wheat-sheep belt of Western Australia, some farmers plant tagasaste and other trees (not all of them fodder trees) in belts with wheat and undersown pastures between. The tree belts provide shelter from the wind for the crop and for livestock and in drought or during the summer-autumn (fall) hungry gap they can be used as fodder.

Living haystacks compared with conventional haystacks

  • Cutting and carting hay will possibly give you more fodder, but at a considerable cost.
  • hay has poor nutritive value and eventually decays to the point where it is only suitable as a mulch.
  • And all that effort, cost and time goes into something that you may never need.
  • Haystacks are very vulnerable to fire which may be the time when you most need the hay.


Cautions with Living haystacks:

  • Stock will usually take a little time to accustom to new sources of feed in terms of learning to eat it rather than avoid it. Young stock may need to be shown to eat it by older stock that have eaten it before
  • After eating the tree fodder as a supplement or as a side dish to some feed that the animals are accustomed to, they should develop an adequate population of rumen microbes to break it down and get maximum value from it
  • because these are successful species and most of them are capable of colonizing new areas, including barren ground for some of them, they present a risk of becoming weeds
  • There are definite problems with digestion of some species under some circumstances
  • There are poisoning issues, particularly with robinia.
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