We are all familiar with the benefits of herbs for humans, whether they’re enhancing our food or used in health supplements. But what about our grazing animals? Read on to find out how herbs grown alongside grass and clovers can provide benefits for animals, the soils and other plants.
New Zealand livestock farming mainly relies on growing grass fed animals and we are lucky that with a mainly temperate climate, pastures can be grazed all year round with a little help from supplementary feeds in winter where grass growth slows.
When we talk about “grass fed”, perhaps we should classify it as “pasture fed”. Grazing animals, sheep, cattle, goats, camelids and horses don’t just eat grass. If there is a choice, they will also consume other plants, including herbs. In fact, animals like variety in their diet.
A brief history
The first pastures to be sown in New Zealand, were mainly brought over from England. After burning off bush to turn into grazing, our early pastoralists soon discovered grasses like Cocksfoot were ideal to establish in ash covered soils. Cocksfoot was hardy and its clumping nature meant it held onto the ground, even on steep slopes.
Through trial and error, pastures were established for sheep and more specialised fodder was introduced to keep up with the demand from dairy cows.
There were also native grasses, some that were palatable and some not so, these grasses became mixed with the introduced ones and over time pastures became varied in species which was good for stock.
There came a time when farmers were encouraged to grow only ryegrass and clover, with the view that it was highly nutritious and good for finishing stock.
The trouble is, grazing animals aren’t designed to eat just one or two types of forage. In their natural habitats, they would eat a variety of grasses, legumes, trees, and herbs. This mix provides all the nutrients needed along with balanced minerals.
Gradually though, there is a movement to provide grazing animals with variation in their diet and herbs like plantain - which farmers were once encouraged to spray out, are having a revival.
Plantain, when fed to dairy cows, can reduce the nitrogen output by up to 50%. It also has a high nitrogen uptake, so can act as a soil stabiliser to prevent nitrate leaching. Plantain is highly nutritious for weaning lambs and has a natural anthelmintic effect.
Chicory is being grown as a companion plant with grass, being grazed when the leaves are still quite young. It is highly nutritious and has the advantage, like plantain, of having a long tap root which makes it hold on in dry areas. This tap root allows the plant to access minerals deep in the soil, which aren’t accessible to the shallow rooting systems of most grasses. Lucerne is also great for fixing nitrogen and can have a tap root up to a metre long, so also good for growing in drought prone areas and an ideal feed for finishing stock.
While plantain and chicory are the main companion herbs planted with grass, there are other herbs that can be added to a pasture mix to bring even more diversification into the pasture. Herbs like burnet, parsley, fennel and yarrow help provide a more balanced diet in terms of minerals, trace elements and vitamins for grazing animals and are also full of natural medicinal benefits.
Mallow is another herb that grows wild and stock love to eat. With its long tap root, it hangs on in the dry. It has a beneficial effect on digestion and also has natural antibacterial and anthelmintic plus anti-inflammatory properties, so quite often, if an animal is feeling out of sorts and there is mellow available, it will go straight to this plant in preference to grasses.
Dandelions, in spring, dandelions cover paddocks with bright yellow flowers before making their fluffy seed heads. While a lot of people regard dandelions as a weed, this innocuous plant has a beneficial effect on the soil. Not only does it have a long tap root, but they spread out as well, which makes them an efficient soil aerator and will help break up compacted ground. The tap root draws up calcium and makes it available to other plants, so it actually acts as a natural fertiliser.
What to grow where
New Zealand soils are as diverse as its people and the type of land will dictate what is the best type of pasture or herb mix to grow.
Herbs like plantain and chicory will grow in most soil types, but they don’t like deep sandy soils or areas that don’t drain.
Where to source herb seeds
Most stock firms have their own seeds and there are also specialist seed companies.
If you are looking at growing new pasture with a herb mix, or adding to existing pasture, having a consultant from either a seed company or stock firm to visit your property is a good place to start.
They will be able to advise on not only what seeds will grow best - but also the sowing rate and whether the land needs to be sprayed out first and whether or not it needs to be direct drilled or cultivated.
Renewing pasture with a herb base isn’t an instant process, so it pays to bear in mind that once the paddock is newly sown, it will be out of action until it is strong enough to withstand grazing.
Paddocks with a good herb base are best if not grazed too hard and rotated frequently, this way, herbs will bounce back and keep their nutritional value.
As you can see, herbs in pastures offer benefits for both your grazing animals and the soil beneath them. Sowing herbs in your pastures can lead to healthier livestock, improved soil quality, and a more sustainable farming future.