Permaculture Livestock Feeding Systems
Animal Fodder and Pasture Plants for
Year Round Green Fodder.
Open range livestock feeding systems typically comprise rain-fed annual pastures. These conventional systems of animal fodder production are not as productive as Permaculture landscape design strategies incorporating perennial pastures, shrubs and trees.
Here we examine why, and show how perennials boost animal fodder productivity, using species adapted to the Mediterranean climate in the southwest of Western Australia as an example.
For recommendations on animal fodder plants suited to other climates consult your local government agricultural body or Permaculture consultant.
Great information on a wide range of plant species is also available at
Plants for a Future
and on the Practical Plants Database Wiki.
Why Not Rely on Annual Pasture Plants for Green Fodder in Livestock Feeding Systems?
Plants are either annual or perennial. Annual plants germinate, grow, flower and die within a single year or less. Perennial plants, on the other hand, are long lived, each surviving over several years.
Most paddock based livestock feeding systems rely only on annual pasture plants which have several limitations to their potential production:
• Annual Livestock Feeding Systems are Limited by Season
Because they only grow for part of the year, annual pasture systems are highly seasonal in the amount and quality of livestock forage available. This both necessitates supplementary feeding and limits peak productivity to when annual pastures are at their peak.
In the south-west of Western Australia, for example, pasture production does not begin until the onset of winter rains sometime between May and July each year, peaks in spring around November, then dies and rapidly loses forage quality over summer. By autumn there is no green fodder, and very little useful dry animal fodder remains.
• Annual Livestock Feeding Systems Use Resources Inefficiently
Annual pastures have relatively shallow roots, so only utilize a fraction of the soil and water resources available. Once water and nutrients percolate past their roots they are effectively lost to these livestock feeding systems.
Permaculture Livestock Feeding Systems
In Permaculture livestock feeding systems, high quality seed and green fodder can be made available year round for raising small livestock or larger animals.
Highly productive animal fodder production can be achieved through several means:
• Grass and Legume Combinations in Livestock Feeding Systems
What are legumes? They are plants capable of grabbing or “fixing” nitrogen from the air with the aid of bacteria that live in nodes attached to their roots. This ability works to increase the soil level of nitrogen, an important macronutrient, to other plants in the vicinity.
Legumes include pasture plants such as annual or perennial clovers, serradella, medics and vetches, as well as many fodder shrubs and trees such as tagasaste, acacias, albizias, pigeon pea, and casuarinas.
So growing nitrogen-fixing legumes and grasses together is a great strategy to create fertile, productive and sustainable livestock feeding systems.
• ”Stacking” in Livestock Feeding Systems
Because of their limited height and rooting depth, relying on pasture plants alone limits both the amount of sunlight harvested, and the depth to which soil nutrients and moisture is utilized.
With their greater height and rooting depth, introducing fodder trees and shrubs overcomes these obstacles. Better utilization of resources through adding additional layers comprising plants of varying heights and rooting characteristics is known in Permaculture as “stacking”.
With good Permaculture design shrubs and trees can offer other benefits as well, such as the creation of fire retarding windbreaks and shelterbelts, or alleys to limit wind erosion or funnel wind resources towards wind turbines.
• Annual and Perennial Combinations in Livestock Feeding Systems
In the perfect pasture livestock feeding system, annual pasture plants and perennial grasses, legumes, shrubs and trees would all be available to stock.
Annual pastures are great for in-season forage production, complemented out of season by the perennials.
• The use of Perennials vs Annuals in Livestock Feeding Systems
Perennial fodder plants develop more extensive root systems to support their longer lives.
Disadvantages of perennial livestock feeding systems:
• As a result they can be a little more difficult or slower to establish than annual plants.
• They are also often less resilient to grazing than annual pasture plants, and need careful management and lengthy periods of rest to recuperate and recover. Set stocking can therefore kill many perennial plants.
It is therefore necessary to graze them only periodically i.e. rotating your stock through a number of paddocks. Even annual pastures yield more green fodder if rotationally grazed. It therefore makes sense to divide your livestock feeding system into several paddocks – at least six – grazing each for a week or two, with a rest of six weeks before being grazed again.
Advantages of perennial livestock feeding systems:
• Once established the deeper roots of perennial pastures, shrubs and trees make more effective use of soil water and nutrients and also play a vital role in combating dryland salinity by increasing water use and by reducing groundwater recharge.
While the rooting depth of annual pastures range from 0.6m to 1.0m, the roots of perennial pastures go twice as far: from 1.5m to 1.8m (over 3 m for Lucerne and Chicory), and fodder trees even further, often over 3m.
• The deep roots also return nutrients from deep in the soil back onto the soil surface. This is especially so with deciduous fodder species, which drop the nutrient rich foliage onto the soil, boosting fertility and providing valuable mulch.
• An additional benefit provided by many perennial fodder plants is their capacity to take advantage of unseasonal rains to produce valuable ‘out of season’ feed for grazing or browsing livestock.
With their deep roots and long life, these plants are able to grow rapidly in response to rainfall events, either early in the season (early autumn feed), or in response to out of season rainfall (summer feed). This ensures an additional source of animal fodder at critical times during the year. Annual pasture species don’t have this capacity.
Perennial Fodder Shrubs in Livestock Feeding Systems
Perennial shrubs need a full year of unmolested growth before being exposed to occasional grazing.
Regular intermittent grazing is needed to keep shrubs bushy and short so that their foliage remains accessible to small livestock. If not grazed in a timely way they may instead develop into small trees out of reach of your stock.
They provide valuable, often high protein, green fodder, which is most valuable to livestock when accessed during late summer and autumn when there is little other green feed around.
As such they are best grown in fenced off belts or areas arranged to provide other benefits such as shelter or fire retardancy and opened up to livestock periodically as needed.
Tagasaste (Tree Lucerne)
Tagasaste originates from the Canary Islands. It is a nitrogen fixing shrub that is drought tolerant and fire retardant. Tagasaste grows best in loamy or sandy soils with good drainage, and a rainfall of 350 mm or more a year.
A new weeping cultivar of Tagasaste is now available, allowing better accessibility of foliage for paddock raising small livestock.
Saltbush is tolerant of salt, waterlogging and drought. Saltbush shrubs can be planted to make use of salty, seasonally waterlogged sites where productive pastures won’t thrive. It can be grown in such areas with herbages such as tall wheatgrass, puccinella and saltwater couch.
It has only moderate nutritional value, but is useful as a standing supplementary feed over summer and autumn. Many farmers wanting to take a break from the farm at such times simply open the gate to their saltbush areas so their sheep can maintain their condition with only minimal management needed while they are away.
River Saltbush, Wavy Leaf Saltbush, Old Man Saltbush and Blue Bush are useful varieties in areas receiving less than 450 mm of annual rainfall.
Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan)
A short lived shrub living up to 5 years, and normally grown as an annual.
It grows best in subtropical situations with annual rainfalls exceeding 600 mm in a wide range of soils, but is sensitive to frost, waterlogging and salinity.
In Asia the plant is grown for the peas that are used either green or dried in a variety of foods e.g. to make dahl. The same peas are very useful poultry food, hence the name. The leaves are high protein stock fodder but also high in roughage and low in carbohydrate, so should be fed with other species.
Wattles are nitrogen fixing Australian natives. They have similar uses and growing requirements to Tagasaste.
Useful varieties are Acacia saligna, Acacia longifolia, and Acacia microbotrya.
These Acacias do well in sandy, coastal plains, but also in seasonally swampy sites and riverbanks to small, rocky hills. They recover well from hard grazing and can tolerate very dry soil conditions
Perennial Fodder Trees in Livestock Feeding Systems
Carob (Ceratonia siliqua)
This nitrogen fixing evergreen tree can grow to 15 metres and does best in full sun in light (sandy) to medium (loamy) well drained soils. It will even thrive in limy, gravelly or rocky soils.
It is slow growing and frost sensitive when young, but drought hardy.
Mature trees in a suitable environment can yield up to 400 kilos of seedpods in autumn. The pods are high in sugar (about 55%) and also contain useful amounts of protein (10%) and fat (6%).
Albizia species are nitrogen fixing trees that provide high protein (around 20%) fodder useful for raising small livestock and large. However, the foliage is also high in fibre and lignin, and so has low digestibility and should be fed in combination with other species.
For dryland situations in Western Australia’s south west, two species are suitable: Albizia lebbeck and Albizia lophantha (now known as Paraserianthes lophantha).
A. lebbeck is slower growing than A. lophantha, and unlike the latter is deciduous and grows into a larger tree to 30 m in height. A. lebbeck handles rainfall down to 500 mm a year, and grows in a wide range of soils, tolerating frost, salinity and seasonal drought and waterlogging. It has shallow roots and coppices well.
A. lophantha is a WA native evergreen that grows rapidly to from 2 to 15 m. It is suited temperate conditions and most well drained soils, and handles rainfall down to 600 mm a year. It is relatively short lived and may die off after 6 to 8 years when it’s timber can be used as firewood.
Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Honey Locust is a legume but doesn’t fix nitrogen. It is a deciduous tree with a wide canopy and grows at a medium pace to 20 m height. It is drought hardy once established, and can grow on any deep soil, even tolerating mild salinity. Trees can be male or female (i.e. it is dioecious), and coppice readily when cut.
The leaves are an excellent source of high protein (20%) fodder and the flowers are a great source of nectar for bees.
Female trees produce around 40 kg of pods a year in late autumn that are high in carbohydrates (85%) with a useful amount of protein (12-24%).
The natural tree is quite thorny, but thornless varieties are available.
Australian Sheoak (Casaurina and Allocasuarina species)
There is a range of Australian Sheoaks, with species to suit any temperate growing situation, from arid dry to seasonally swampy. This fast growing, medium sized tree is a dioecious, evergreen nitrogen fixer. Many varieties sucker.
Cattle, goats and sheep enjoy the seedlings, suckers and high protein foliage, so weeping varieties are useful. The ground foliage has been used as an ingredient in chicken feed and also has value as a drought fodder.
Holly or Holm Oak – Quercus ilex
The holm or holly oak is a large spreading (20 by 25 m) but slow-growing evergreen tree. It will grow in most soils other than those that are cold and poorly drained.
Trees grown from fresh acorns planted directly in the ground often survive and establish without supplementary watering due to rapid development of deep roots.
The acorns it produces are small, but unlike most oaks is very often free of bitter tannins and can be eaten raw or cooked like sweet chestnuts. The sub-species Q. ilex ballota is cultivated for its sweet-tasting edible seed in Portugal and Spain.
The Mulberry is a deciduous tree that does well in Mediterranean climates with annual rainfalls from 1500 to 2500 mm or reticulation in drier climates. It will grow well on a wide range of soils if well drained and can tolerate some shading.
A very hardy cultivar is 'Illinois Everbearing', a cross between the red and the white mulberry having black fruit. A heavy bearing shrub-like Mulberry is the 'Hybrid Black'.
Aside from the fruit, the leaves are also highly nutritious and a valuable fodder for poultry and livestock, especially sick or high production animals such as dairy cows.
A fast growing decidious tree growing to 15m. All varieties of poplar grow foliage that furnishes good animal fodder. However, the Euphrates Poplar is one of the most hardy and thus suited to growing in a dryland situation in the south-west of Western Australia.
The Euphrates Poplar can tolerate a wide range of temperatures, from freezing to very hot, and very dry conditions. It is shallow rooted, the roots spreading widely, and can tolerate saline water and seasonal waterlogging. However, it does well in a range of well drained soils, and is particularly suited to rocky hillsides.
Perennial Pastures in Livestock Feeding Systems
Perennial pastures are more sustainable than annual pastures. The deep and permanent root system allows them to access more water, reducing the threat of salinity, and to recycle nutrients leached past the shallow root zone of annual pastures. The permanent ground cover reduces the risk of soil erosion.
When sowing a new perennial pasture, there is often merit in using a pasture seed mix of species and cultivars with complementary growth patterns. The benefits of using such mixtures lie in producing more feed over a greater proportion of the growing season.
It conventionally costs around $100 to $150/ha to establish a perennial pasture of which the seed component is often $50 to $60/ha. For more information, see the free ebooks accessible here.
You can also sow pasture seeds very cheaply using
even into established swards without the need for plowing or cultivation. We are trialling this method on our farm.
Perennial grasses and nitrogen fixing legumes suited to Mediterranean dryland farming situations in 460 to 500 mm rainfall regions are as follows:
• Phalaris - clays and loams or loamy sands.
Phalaris is a very productive and persistent temperate grass that even does well in areas of your livestock feeding system that is subject to winter waterlogging. It has high soil nutritional requirements and is not suited to poor, unfertilized soils.
Sirolan was one of the most productive cultivars and can achieve winter growth rates of between 30 and 40 kg/ha/day. On deep sands it should be combined with the cultivar Atlas PG.
When it is the only available feed under harsh dry season circumstances, it does have potential to cause sudden death in both sheep and cattle so should only be grown in a mixed pasture in combination with other species.
• Plantain - Best in deep, well drained soils.
The Plantain variety “Tonic” has superior out of season growth (i.e. strong summer and autumn growth). However it’s persistence past 3 years after sowing tends to decline sharply.
Plantain is not very competitive with other pastures, so does best when combined with similarly slower establishing species such as cocksfoot and fescues. When combined with ryegrass and clovers in a vigorous sward, shading limits production, but as the grasses and clovers hay off, production recovers to yield out of season animal fodder.
• Cocksfoot - Well drained sandy soils where clay is close to the surface.
Currie and Porto cocksfoot are high performing varieties in dryland temperate conditions. Currie Cocksfoot has good food quality with high levels of both protein and metabolisable energy (digestibility) in mid spring. Porto Cocksfoot shows the best ability to respond to unseasonal rains in summer and autumn.
• Tall Fescues - Deep sandy soils.
Tall fescue pastures perform strongly in the second and third years after sowing, with the winter active cultivars such as Resolute being most persistent.
Resolute also has the ability to respond to summer rainfall. Although not as productive as veldt grass, Resolute fescue pasture provides good forage on deep sandy soils.
• Veldt Grass - Deep, well-drained sandy soils.
Mission veldt grass has high nutritive value, and high crude protein content compared to other perennial grasses and superior persistence. It is also a variety that exhibits strong ability to provide out of season fodder in summer and autumn.
• Chicory - Deep sands and loams.
Chicory is a summer active “forbe” type pasture suited to areas with an annual rainfall in excess of 500mm. It has a deep taproot, allowing it to mine water and nutrients beyond the reach of many other plants.
However, it has high nitrogen requirements and does not fix its own. Thus it should be grown in combination with pasture legumes to maintain soil nitrogen levels and realize its high productivity potential.
Grouse chicory is an excellent out of season performer but shows declining persistence after 3 years. Puna shows similar strong out of season growth but is prostrate so yields less. Le Lacerta and Chico are other useful varieties suited to this dryland scenario.
Once established, chicory is extremely drought resistant, though like any plant needs some soil moisture to grow well. It is also resistant to many pests, including cabbage moth, cabbage white butterfly and wingless grasshopper.
• Perennial Ryegrass
Perennial ryegrass can be useful in wetter areas, but are not long term viable pasture options in this scenario.
Lucerne is a nitrogen fixing plant (i.e. legume) that grows well in the 350–550 mm rainfall zone. It has a long taproot and will flourish in most well drained soils.
However, it is intolerant of acid soils containing aluminium, and requires a soil pH of at least 4.8. It is active in both winter and summer, and both drought and frost tolerant.
• Salt and Waterlogging Tolerant Grasses
Tall Wheat Grass, Puccinellia and Saltwater couch are well suited to very wet and moderately saline areas and Distichlis appears to be an option for very saline soils receiving less than 400 mm of rainfall.
Dundas Tall Wheatgrass grows well in most soils. However, because it has significantly lower nutritive value than other species it is best used where its ability to tolerate moderate salt and waterlogging
can be exploited.
• Subtropical Grasses
Similarly, the subtropical grasses such as Gatton panic, Katambora Rhodes grass, Narok setaria and Whittet kikuyu are good options in wetter areas, but are difficult to establish and thus yield poorly in this scenario.
While Whittet kikuyu may establish successfully, significant summer rainfall is needed to realize its growth potential as it shows very little winter activity. Both it and Katambora Rhodes grass have high tolerance to frequent grazing.
Annual Pasture Legumes in Livestock Feeding Systems
Pasture legumes have the ability to “fix” up to 200 kg of nitrogen per hectare from the atmosphere, so are important to include in your pasture livestock feeding system.
In our dryland scenario in the south-west of WA, the following are highly recommended:
• Subterranean Clovers - loams and sands.
Dalkeith and Nungarin are good varieties for all areas with less than 600mm annual rainfall. Combined, Nungarin provides excellent early season growth, and Dalkeith good late winter and spring production.
On loams and sandy loams above pH 5.2…Serena burr Medic will do well in the lowest rainfall areas (less than 325 mm annual rainfall), combined with Santiago burr Medic in areas with more, as well as Orion Sphere Medic or Circle Valley where rainfall exceeds 400mm.
In similarly better rainfall areas, on heavy grey clays above pH 5.2… Santiago and Circle Valley are good choices, whereas Caliph is recommended on the heavy, red clay loams.
Serradellas are well suited to the highly acidic, sandy soils. Use Santorini or Paros combined with the early maturing variety Charano. Where annual rainfall exceeds 325 mm and soil pH is higher than 5.5 Madeira can also be used.
• Persian Clover
Does best on fertile soils (i.e. having a high clay content) of pH 5.8 or higher. Tolerates seasonal waterlogging and low levels of salinity. Late maturing variety Kyambro combined with the earlier Persian Prolific or Nitro Plus is suited to annual rainfalls of 375 mm or above.
One of the main Permaculture principles is to mimic nature in all its biodiversity.
This is why we utilize as many species of useful plants as possible in livestock feeding systems design, each with different growth habits and functions. Such diversity boosts productivity and adds resilience to our livestock feeding systems.
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