When we look at feeding animals as a function, we need to see it in that lens of finding multiple elements or systems to support it. Relying solely on outside inputs from monoculture grain production is analogous to erosion; a leak in the system. We make our designs more robust through using varying strata of plants that bring forth fodder crops for animals at different times of the year. This time and plant stacking principle breeds redundancy through diversifying the diet and leaning away from the industrial inputs. It requires us to be creative, to design from not just information, but also imagination. The infinite complexity of design reflecting the pattern of animal migrations to find a plethora of food sources at varying times of the years is indeed a worthwhile venture.
Furthermore, J. Russel Smith wrote his seminal book entitled Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture in 1929, which was paramount in the formation of Permaculture itself. He was writing at a time when the dust bowl was raging and rivers muddied with massive erosion becoming the norm year after year. Nearly 100 years ago, he credited this disturbance to annual agriculture for grain production with a focus on feeding animals. His remedy was to feed animals with tree crops as well as grain, but the grain being only a small portion of their diet. Humanity only made the situation worst with the advent of the Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFO’s) as grain became even more central to raising animals for meat, eggs, fiber, and dairy. The production of grain and concentration of animals has been catastrophic for the animals, the environment, and humanity. Yes it makes meat cheap, but concentrates manures, relies on monocultures, erodes soils, poisons waterways, decreases biodiversity, and gives the animals themselves sickening ways to live, literally and figuratively. They are so sick they are pumped with growth hormones and antibiotics making antibiotic resistant superbugs. In fact, a recent report on CNN (Nov 2018) stated 33,000 people a year die of these bugs in Europe alone. https://m.cnn.com/en/article/h_bd22a28dddb0e052cb545950d6f213f1
In all honestly, it’s almost impossible to eliminate grain inputs with domesticated animals but if you can reduce that dramatically with tree crops and insect farming, you are sure to save money and better the environment. Fodder crops come in a variety of forms and each animal, and even breeds, accept different fodders. A functional analysis can be expanded beyond just saying one of the needs is food. Write down what all the foods are that an animal will accept and design your way into a beneficial relationship with the animals, the systems in place, and the environment. Thus the list below will be general but does allow for further consideration in your permaculture designs. Fortunately, even if you don’t keep domesticated livestock, your local wildlife (if there is any) also often greatly benefits from tree crops like mulberries or burr oak trees.
Fodder Crops for Animals: Falling Fruits
The Mulberry maybe the greatest resource when it comes this category. Essentially they are blackberries on a tree and number in the thousands with a mature tree. Most importantly they fall when ripe making them accessible to chickens, ducks, and pigs as well as wild turkey and deer. Mulberry trees grow in many different climates and have been relied upon in the past for this reason of feeding animals. The mulberry grows quickly (even in degraded sites), bears fruit a young age, propagates easily, and has quite a few super abundant cultivars. And honestly if you shake a tree with chickens below the feeding frenzy is quite fun to observe, like piranha I always say. Also the persimmon trees fruit falls when it is ripe and is an excellent fruit resource for fattening pigs. Other animals will consume them as well. Another option is to allow chickens and pigs in mature food forests or orchards to clean fallen fruits like apples or mangoes. This is a viable way to integrate animals into the landscape on a temporal basis, rotating them to seasonal food suplies just like they would in the wild. This benefits the trees, the land, and the animals when rotated properly. Furthermore, in parts of Iberia that don’t get very cold in the winter, the apples often lack the sweetness that humans enjoy so they instead grow a large sized variety of apples that are meant for pig raising. So cultivar selection of fruits can be aimed directly at your given choice of livestock and its breed.
Fodder Crops for Animals: Bean Pods
Tree crops from the Legume family, (Fabaecaea), that produce larger bean pods are extremely nutritious and quite often very prolific when the trees are mature. The pods are a blend of both a sugar resource and protein making it a fantastic feed along with the myriad of other vitamins and nutrients found in them. This is due impart to the trees depth of roots, a clear advantage over annual crops. In the temperate zone, Honey Locust is prolific and produces very large pods (especially those that have been selected and breed for this capability). Meanwhile in the Mediterranean, horses and donkeys are traditionally fed Carob pods. I love to eat the powder of this tree crop and some Iberians say it is not human food and think i am crazy. J. Russel Smith devoted a lot of time and energy into this particular type of tree crop for animals. He covers in quite detail the amazing amount of native plants around the world that have long been feeding wildlife and domesticated animals from this bean pod category. He goes into quite some detail about the mesquites, which the one from Texas I have also eaten as a powder like carob and it is very delicious. These trees are hearty, sometimes spiny, often pioneer trees, and grow well in association with animals if you keep them away from the trees when they are young as their leaves are often desired by animals as well.
Fodder Crops for Animals: Leaf Crops
Leaves from trees can also be supplemented into animals diets as again the tree itself will mine up a lot of diverse minerals and nutrients. The trees that are often used for this are from the legume family as they have a quite high protein quantity. Think about it, alfalfa is grown in incredible amounts across the world for feed, but we can get similar nutrition from trees. One in fact is called Tree Lucerne, or Tagasaste, which alfalfa is also called Lucerne. The legume leaf fodder crops are very fast growing and respond to coppicing/pollarding quite well in general. Some trees and shrubs that aren’t nitrogen fixers also take to some animals as well like willow and maple. Grasses and
forbs also feed our animals in general through fresh pasture eating or also through storage of hay or dried alfalfa. Other fleshy plants from aquaculture are also accepted by certain animals like pigs love for water hyacinth if you fish it out for them. Additionally chickens will take to duckweed and ducks are happy with it as well.
We employ the cut and carry system often in feeding leaf crops to animals or it is general grazing, hopefully on a rotational grazing basis. Each animal has its niche and we must fulfill that niche appropriately when it comes to this category. Having leaf tree crops, like tagasaste in the Mediterranean, allows us to use this tree layer in pastures to keep our animals thriving throughout the year. I have also seen massive landscapes of Savanahs in the Dominican Republic of an unknown nitrogen fixing species used for both shade and leaf crop for the animals. I only wish I had a picture as I would pass it on my bus rides and be absolutely amazed at what i saw. Furthermore there, the fence post were gliricidia or known there as madre de cacoa, and they would pollard them in the “winter” (slightly subtropical climate) to feed to the animals and allow more sunlight to come into the pastures.
Fodder Crops for Animals: Nut Crops
Nut crops, or mast producing trees, across the world have long been used to fatten animals in that period just before winter when humans have long looked to store food to last through the harshness that is winter. Pigs are the classic example relishing to eat acorns, hickory nuts (including pecans), chestnuts, and even hazelnuts. Other animals, including wildlife from deer to turkey to squirrel to wood ducks, will also take to
acorns. The trees that produce nuts, in general, are long lived and take time to mature making our native forest habitats extremely important as they are often found there. Of course planting anew and creating silvopasture situations for future generations is warranted in Permaculture systems. These nut resources all have their varying amounts of proteins and carbohydrates. Some people will prefer to harvest and process the nuts themselves, while others will let animals do the work then harvest the animal. Again when you get animals off of the grain train, its much more sustainable and in fact can help produce soils which grain production struggles to do.
How you give animals access to these crops and the management you are willing to commit to, is indeed the real key behind this. Native forests are delicate creation yet very few are in tact still. So letting goats clean non native plants or pigs quickly rotate beneath a overstory of say oak, hickory and walnut, like where I come from in Kentucky, USA can benefit the forest and its edge. Also setting up new systems allow you to decide what kind of silvopasture system
you use. Will the trees be in rows on the keyline pattern in an alley cropping type of system or will it be more of a savannah style with widely spaced trees like the classic savannah or Montado of Portugal with oak trees for black pigs. You can also do savannah like plantings but with blocks of trees forming widely spaced islands. The trees in those islands or groupings can be different species from each one of the categories above! How do you deal with fencing the animals away in new systems is also a tricky part. Furthermore, will you be using cut and carry to deliver the leaf crops from a coppice woodlot or from patches of invasives? It is a giant puzzle but animal integration is vital for design and management considerations. The principles of permaculture dictate to lean on diversity and to stack in space and time which on tree crops can really do.
Written by Doug Crouch
Header Art by Joana Amorim