Hay Alternatives for Livestock

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Photo By Fotolia/mariavu
Use willow hay, weed hay, and winter pasture as hay substitutes for livestock.

These hay substitutes for livestock provide a shoestring way for you to forage food for your goats and cows during the cold months ahead.

Hay Alternatives for Livestock

It’s certainly not news that the past summer was an
exceptionally dry one in many parts of the country . . . so dry that a great many back-to-the-landers lost
all or a portion of the hay they intended to feed their
livestock during the coming winter. What is news to a lot
of folks, though, is that there still are at least three
possible shoestring ways for you to provide forage for your
goats, cows, and other beasts during the cold months ahead
. . . even if your summer crop of hay did burn out in the

For some time now, I’ve been feeding my goats baled hay
that I’ve “bought” with honey . . . simply because it’s a
lot easier for me to produce honey than hay, and three
pounds of my homestead sweetener buys a 75-pound bale
(enough dried vegetation to feed one goat for a couple of
weeks). “Why should I bother to make my own hay?” I’ve
always said to myself.

Always — that is — until last summer, when I started thinking:
What would I do if the local hay supply suddenly dried up?
Could I make my own? How much of a hassle would it be?
Being a firm believer in contingency planning, I decided to
answer these questions once and for all. In the process of
answering them, I came up with three highly satisfactory
alternatives to boughten fodder: willow hay. weed hay, and
winter pasture.

Willow Hay

Willow is an excellent forage crop: All kinds of
animals — goats, cattle, beavers, etc. — love it. Unlike grass,
clover, and other hay crops — which become woody and
unpalatable after they bloom — willow blooms in early spring,
then spends the rest of the summer sending out succulent
new growth.

It so happened that I knew of an excellent foraging spot
where — several years ago — my father had bulldozed a road
through a willow grove that’d grown up alongside a river.
To keep the weed-like trees from completely engulfing the
path, Dad had resorted to spraying the cleared area with
herbicide several times each summer. Aha! I saw the perfect
opportunity to do a good deed for my dad, my goats, and the
environment . . . all at once.

“If you’ll refrain from spraying this year,” I told my
father, “I’ll clear your road of willows at the end of the

Dad took me up on my offer and — come August — I found his road
lined with 8 foot-tall willow shoots. Could I harvest them?
There was an easy way to find out: I sharpened my hatchet,
waded into the cool, shady thicket, and started chopping.

The work went quickly. (The cool shade, nearby singing
birds, and gurgling water helped a lot.) All I did was
kneel down, grab as many shoots in one hand as I could, and
slice away. Each swipe brought down a sizable portion of
foliage, which I then piled to one side as I went along.
(Beats the old swing-the-scythe-in-the-pasture routine any

Whenever I got tired of chopping, I combined the piles of
fresh-cut willow at my side, hefted the foliage onto my
back, and carried the load to a goat-free pasture, where I laid
the stalks out to dry in the sun. After a couple days, it
was a simple task to carry the dried vegetation (which — by
then — weighed only a small fraction of what it had weighed
originally) to a shed for storage.

The goats had a feast! They eagerly consumed all the leaves
(of course) and the top halves of the stalks, leaving just
the woody butts behind. Eight hours’ work (spread out over
a week or so of cold mornings) had produced a two-week
supply of hay for my three goats . . . a pretty good deal,
if you ask me. Not that I relish the thought of gathering a
whole winter’s supply of hay this way . . . I don’t. But I
could do it if I had to. And that’s what I wanted
to know in the first place.

Weed Hay

Another excellent source of free hay, I’ve found, is the
tall-growing annual weeds (such as amaranth,
lamb’s-quarters, and wild sunflower). I let these
“volunteer feedstuffs” grow up good and tall, then — after a
hard rain softens the ground — yank the plants out by the
roots and lay ’em in a sunny spot to dry before passing
them on to my caprine friends.

It’s best to harvest as many of these weeds as you can,
because of the way they shrink as they dry. (Believe it or
not, an enormous 6 foot-tall amaranth — when dried — will occupy a
hungry goat for only about five minutes!)

Winter Pasture

The least expensive and easiest-to-provide hay substitute
of all, of course, is winter pasture. The main requirements
here are [1] plenty of grazing area (the more the better,
since grass grows slowly — if at all — during the cold months)
and [2] a mild winter climate.

The trick is to set aside a large pasture during late
summer, fertilize the area heavily, and let it grow thick
and lush during the cool, damp days of fall. Then — in early
winter, after the other pastures have begun to thin out — you
can turn your beasts loose in their special winter grazing
area. Providing you’ve let the grass grow good and thick,
your animals will graze on the pasturage well into the
winter (even after the grass has turned brown and dry from
the cold). If the field is big enough-and your animals few
enoughthe beasts will still be working on it by the time
spring rolls around.

This method of feeding livestock worked exceedingly well
for us several years ago, when we were living in the
Missouri Ozarks. Once, in fact, we wintered four goats this
way clear to spring on only three bales of supplemental
hay! Our nannies remained perfectly healthy the whole time,
and all gave birth to twins the following spring.

In Conclusion

It seems to me that with a little work and advance
planning, almost any homesteader who wants to can easily
supply his livestock with all the winter forage they need,
even in an exceptionally dry year, without buying (or
bartering trade goods for) baled hay. It’s certainly a good
feeling to know (as I do) that even if you have to make do
with willow and weed hay, you can. And, considering how dry
it’s been over much of the country this past summer, that’s
valuable knowledge to have.

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