Medicine Fields: The Benefits of Diverse Pasture
The WHAg Farmacy are delighted to feature a second blog from medical herbalist and shepherdess, Kate Scott, on Herbal leys and native plants for livestock health, productivity and diversity.
Kate has a unique heritage, being descended from generations of herbalists and drovers. She’s also an agricultural consultant, and currently furthering her knowledge with an MSc in Sustainable and Efficient Food Production. In her spare time she runs a small flock of grass fed Poll Dorset ewes.
I once ran a workshop for primary school children, I would ask them to look at the playing field and tell me what they saw. The answer was always “Grass!!”. I would arm each child with a hula hoop and take them outside, telling them to drop it randomly on the ‘grass’ and look carefully at the plants inside the hoop, counting how many they could see. Even on this municipal ground they would invariably find daisies, plantain, dandelions, yarrow, albeit tiny, stunted versions of their wild counterparts subdued by weekly mowing, but nevertheless they were there, playing their part in the ecosystem of the school field.
In the post WWII era, the government needed fast food production for a growing population, fields were ploughed to make way for quick growing rye grasses so livestock would ‘finish’ quicker, native breeds were bred up to produce bigger carcasses, and hedgerows were ripped out to make more space for grazing and crops. As machinery also got bigger it necessitated even bigger fields. We lost much of the diversity of our old pastures which supported the health of the stock and the soil, and which provided food for pollinator species and ultimately those above them in the food chain.
However, with research now strongly pointing to the benefits of the inclusion of more deep-rooted forbs in grazing pastures it is our responsibility as farmers and custodians of the earth to ensure and reinstate diversity in pasture. Without healthy soil we do not have healthy plants, and without healthy plants for forage the result can be loss of productivity (eg milk yield or quality) and/or health issues in livestock.
So where to start?
Firstly, know your soil type, sainfoin is an incredible forage herb but it much prefers free draining soil whereas lucerne, another valuable forb is perfectly happy with its roots in heavy clay. Whatever your soil type it will benefit from deep rooted grasses and forbs, and variety.
I am sure you are familiar with the ticket which comes with a bag of seed. On a typical herbal ley mix the species are listed with their percentage, generally a mixture of grasses first, (after all, fields are grass, right?), followed by legumes such as clovers, and then the herbs. On the mix currently in front of me the very first grass listed is cocksfoot – dactylis glomerata at 17.5%, a distinctive deep-rooted grass it helps improve soil aeration and is incredibly tolerant of drought, new varieties are easier to establish, and it can provide valuable early spring and autumn grazing (1).
Next are two rye grasses, in combination amounting to 11.25%, significantly lower than the cocksfoot. These are highly digestible to the ruminant, high in sugars with a high DM potential, they can however suffer in times of low rainfall. The next grass is timothy – phleum pratense at 18.38% generally well suited to cutting it does well in wet conditions and on heavy soil, then fescue – festuca pratense at 9.38% -(the Latin word pratense in a plant’s name means ‘of the meadow ‘) -highly palatable it is not fazed by wet conditions, does not respond well to excesses of nitrogen or overgrazing but lives happily alongside clovers in a hay crop. A festulolium is next at 6.25%, a hybrid between ryegrass and fescue designed to give added drought and cold resistance to the ryegrass whilst adding vigour to the fescue. A mixture of grasses such as this allows resistance to extremes of weather and grazing right through the season, with the added benefits of the deep-rooted varieties on soil health.
Now it gets a little more interesting as we move on to the protein rich legumes and the forbs which make up part of a herbal ley. Firstly, there are the clovers, ranging from 1.25% for the alsike, a once common plant which grows happily on more challenging ground, through to sweet clover, or melilot. A once common fodder plant, melilot has trifoliate leaves and drooping yellow flowers with a sweet scent attractive to pollinator species. The scent is due to a high level of a plant chemical called coumarin which smells like newly mown hay. It fixes nitrogen and is nutritious to grazing stock.
The red clovers, both early and late flowering are next on the list followed by birdsfoot trefoil at 5%. An extremely valuable pasture plant which thrives in poor conditions, it is rich in condensed tannins researched to reduce worm burden and bloat (2), its root nodules are an indicator of soil health as well as working to break up the upper layers of soil thereby increasing aeration and microbia, and it is the main food of several butterfly larvae including the Common Blue. Then there is sainfoin, which prefers well-draining soil and chalk downland, usually grown to cut, it makes a superb forage crop also helping to reduce bloat. Chicory with its tall, bright blue flowers is invaluable, its deep roots break up and aerate soil and, rich in tannins, it helps control worm burden. It has rough leaves which also help with parasite control as they ‘sweep’ the digestive tract.
Tannins are a naturally occurring plant chemical, they make a plant astringent or drying. Also present in tea, tannins bind to proteins which is why black tea makes your mouth feel dry whereas on adding milk the tannins bind to the proteins in that rather than to those in your mouth.
FACT: Tannins make the gut an inhospitable place for parasites because of this drying action.
Next in a herbal ley mix, you might find Burnet, yarrow and sheep’s parsley, all with their own unique makeup of vitamins and minerals, and other pollinator friendly or deep-rooted plants such as knapweed and ribwort plantain. Each playing their part in supporting the ecosystem and ruminant health.
There are many more plants native to our fields and hedgerows with their own incredibly special phytochemical and nutrient composition many of which have medicinal properties due to these little secondary metabolites they produce.
FACT: Around 75% of orthodox medicines are derived from a plant chemical extracted in isolation from the rest of the plant.
Meadowsweet and willow, for example, contain salicin, the precursor to aspirin. As a whole plant however, meadowsweet is used both for its painkilling properties and to treat stomach ulcers, (3) a common side effect of aspirin.
Dandelion leaves are a rich source of potassium up to 4.5% I fact (4) Its deep taproot enables it to unlock minerals from deep within the soil. In human herbal medicine it is used as a diuretic, one of the side effects of orthodox diuretics is potassium depletion. I have watched Herdwicks enthusiastically search for the leaves whilst on the same farm the commercial flock ignored them and instead bit off the sweet flower heads, as though they had lost some of their inherent ability to self-select beneficial feed plants.
The humble nettle, once cut to make nettle hay for winter feed is one of the richest sources of vitamins and minerals in our countryside. It contains calcium, chromium, magnesium, zinc, cobalt, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, protein, selenium, thiamine, Vitamin A and C. (4) A truly nutritive plant for both livestock and ourselves!
I feed handfuls of nettles, cleavers and ivy leaves to ewes postpartum, I am unaware of any research associated with ivy however it is traditional, and I was once told by an old farmer that if a sick goat won’t eat ivy its likely to die! Cleavers act on the lymphatic system, which makes them an ideal food source in convalescing animals helping to support the lymph glands which have been working hard to deal with illness.
There are many more native plants which are invaluable in grazing pasture, – plantain for example has soothing properties as does mallow, and both help calm irritated digestion, – but first and foremost a diverse combination of plants provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals which boost immunity and good health and prevent issues arising in the first place.
Hedgerow trees and shrubs are also an important food source, the bark of many trees including elder, oak and willow contain tannins and I have seen trees stripped bare overnight by native breeds. Working with a Shetland flock once the lambs would gorge on blackberries, which would have a laxative effect; however they also ate the leaves which are astringent and help stop scouring. It was a daily task to untangle them from the brambles however!
Unfortunately, although many forbs which form part of modern-day herbal ley mixes are professionally researched for their anthelmintic properties and ability to help prevent bloat, many of our hedgerow plants are un-researched for ruminant use, and information around them is based on ancestral knowledge (ie hundreds of years of experience passed down from farmer to farmer), from the work of those such as Juliette de Bairacli Levy (5), and on observation and good husbandry skills. Modern day human Herbal Medicine teaches phytochemical constituents of many plants, and how those chemicals behave in the body however, and much of this knowledge can be transferred to livestock husbandry.
© Kate Scott BSc (hons) 2021
- J Frame, AS Laidlaw (2014). Improved Grassland Management. England: The Crowood Press Ltd
- Lees GL. (2006) Condensed tannins in some forage legumes: their role in the prevention of ruminant pasture bloat. Basic Life Sci. 1992;59:915-34. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4615-3476-1_55. PMID: 1417702.
- D Hoffmann (2003). Medical Herbalism. Vermont: The Healing Press
- S Wynn, B Fougere (2007). Veterinary Herbal Medicine. USA: Mosby Elsevier
- Juliette de Bairacli Levy (1952, 1963). Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable London: Faber & Faber.
About the author: The WHAg team love to showcase farmers and supporters who epitomise the ethos of ‘Whole Health’. We live and breathe this approach, which flows through us in farming, work, and family.