Establishing Willow and Poplar Tree Fodder Blocks for Resilient Livestock Feed and Flood Mitigation in a Silvopasture Riparian Buffer

Progress report for FNE22-010

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,977.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2025
Grant Recipient: Wellspring Forest Farm LLC
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Steve and Elizabeth Gabriel
Wellspring Forest Farm LLC
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to answer two questions:

1.What is the cost and benefit of producing tree plant material on the farm vs purchasing it in?

2.What intensity of site preparation and tree protection is necessary for trees to thrive in a fodder block?


1) Harvest local sources of willow and poplar varieties to propagate in an on-farm nursery.Compare costs and growth rates with cultivars available from commercial nurseries. 

2) Prepare three planting blocks with varied intensities of site prep before planting. Install fencing and mulch strategies for each intensity.

3) Monitor and measure percent survival, growth rates, herbivory damage, and presence of disease for each tree monthly for two growing seasons

4) Compile data and report on costs in time and materials for establishing each combination of acquiring plants and site prep intensity

5) Develop a guidebook summarizing the findings and recommendations for farmers who are installing tree fodder blocks. Share publicly via online webinar and field days in 2023 and 2024.

The findings from this effort will provide other farmers with a better understanding of howdifferent potential outcomes from these strategies contribute to success of plantings and keep costs down, thereby, reducing their risk and making decisions easier.


The concept of tree fodder is an intriguing and exciting aspect of a holistic grazing system that can both benefit livestock grazing systems as well as meet environmental goals for small farms in the Northeast. Tree fodder blocks are dense plantings of trees that provide a strategic reserve of fodder for excessively dry, drought, or even overly wet conditions. Many species can be utilized, but Willow (Salix spp.) and Poplar (Populus spp.) are common staples.


With climate change emerging as a central challenge to maintaining good grazing forages for livestock, trees offer a critical solution to a future climate that is more and more unpredictable. One season may be excessively dry, and the next excessively wet. This leads to a lack of quality forage from traditional grass/legume/forb stocks, and unmanaged waterways (riparian zones) can flood and initiate pastures with excess water, sediments, and lead to erosion of these valuable pasturelands. The addition of trees to grazing systems (silvopasture) can provide shade, shelter, an alternative food source, and buffer many of the water issues present in farms throughout the Northeast.


Tree fodders are already established strategies in varying climates around the world (such as New Zealand and parts of Asia and Africa) that experience more challenging (excessively wet and dry) environments when compared to the historic trends in the Northeast. They are a clear strategy for increasing the stock of reliable food sources for animals in both wet and dry seasons, as woody plants and trees tend to be better adapted to these variable conditions.


While the nutritional and medicinal value of willow and poplar as tree fodder is well established in research, the process to effectively establish meaningful plantings on Northeast farms is relatively unknown. Questions remain about cultivar selection, seedling development, layout design, soil prep, planting, and protection of young seedlings with the specific purpose of providing reliable tree fodder for the farm.


Utilizing willow, and poplar in a riparian tree fodder block establishment has the potential for a win-win scenario that benefits not only the livestock but also the larger farm ecosystem. More specifically, many farms in the region have neglected and/or ignored riparian (water) pathways that would benefit from buffer plantings. Rather than grazing livestock right up to the edge of (and often within) a waterway, tree fodder blocks can offer an excellent solution to provide productive vegetation for livestock whilst also protecting the water way. The contribution of tree fodder to the livestock enterprise incentives the farmer to manage a riparian buffer.  These areas often border pasture and if strategically developed, can provide an easily accessible source of fodder just outside the fenceline. 


Even while the agroforestry practice of silvopasture is well documented as providing benefits to farm ecosystems and the productivity of livestock, adoption remains low. This is in part due to farmer unfamiliarity with tree planting and establishment, and in part because there is too much risk in experimenting with strategies to ensure an investment in trees pays off. Moreover, while techniques are well established for individual tree planting, there is not a well articulated process for specifically installing tree fodder blocks effectively and with efficient use of labor and materials. The Northeast needs “turn key” solutions for tree establishment that can work in many farm contexts. This project aims to test several pathways to success and report back on the best practices for establishing tree fodder blocks. 


Our project builds off of previous research on our farm to document the nutritional value of tree fodders by testing several tree establishment processes to determine their costs and effectiveness on tree survival and growth. Successfully established fodder blocks will provide the farm with a sustainable source of nutritious and medicinal forage, especially for resilience during periods of drought. While growing, the trees will support water quality and mitigate negative effects from flooding. Results from the project will be applicable in many northeast farms, and can offer a template for success in other locations. 


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  • Sean Dembrosky - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

Objective #1:  

 On farm and local sources of 3 willow and 3 poplar varieties will be identified in March 2023 and 40 cuttings taken from each of the 6 varieties (300 total). Cuttings will be between ½” and ¾” thickness and cut to 12” long. Cuttings will be stuck directly into irrigated nursery beds at a 4”- 6” spacing and mulched with sawdust. Labor hours and material costs for this will be recorded while the cuttings are monitored during the 2022 growing season. 18 of the best performing cuttings of each variety will be lifted in April 2024 and planted into each of the three fodder research plots so there are 6 replicates for each plot (54 trees total). 


Commercial sources of 3 named willow and 3 named poplar varieties will be ordered (30 of each or 180 total) to plant alongside harvested farm stock in Fall 2023 or Spring 2024, as conditions allow. Costs of these trees will be recorded. Each tree will be given a unique identifier and tagged with a metal horticultural tag for data recording purposes. There will be 6 replicates of 6 varieties (3 on site and 3 purchased) for two species, willow and poplar, in 3 test plots (low / medium / high intensity) for a total of 216 trees planted into research plots, with 72 trees per plot.


Trees will be planted on a 3’ x 3’ spacing and randomized in their arrangement within the plot. All trees will be dipped in a beneficial mycorrhizal root dip and planted with a tree spade to a depth appropriate to their root growth. 


Each plot will encompass a space that is 40 feet by 50 feet or 2,000 square feet of planting space, which allows for 12 rows of 6 trees at the above spacing. Given the variability of the riparian areas the plots may not be perfect rectangles but will contain the above parameters within +/- 100 sq feet. See the attached map for proposed test sites. Plots will be prepared in 2022 prior to planting, using machinery to address water erosion issues if present.


Once both sets of trees are planted, growth rates will be measured for each tree once per month from May 1 through October 1 for 2023 and 2024, along with recording survival and any observations on pest or disease issues. Growth will be measured in cm and recorded.


Objective #2:  


Each test plot will have a soil test conducted annually in the Spring of 2023, 2024, and 2025. Beginning In April of 2023, two of the three plots will be prepared for planting in 2023. Some previous erosion and disturbance in the treatment areas will be addressed with an excavator before plot prep.


The low intensity plot will be prepared just before planting in April 2024, where the site will just be mowed/week whacked prior to planting. The medium plot will be mowed/weed whacked and then covered with high density tarps for one year. The high intensity plot will be mowed/weed whacked and then tilled with BSC with an amendment of on-farm compost added and then mulched to a 3” depth with hardwood wood chips. (See table 1)


Fencing to prevent deer damage for each plot will be installed directly after planting in Spring 2024. For the low intensity plot, 8 foot T posts will be installed every 10 feet and three strands of non-electrified strand will be stung with flagging draped every three feet as a deterrent. The medium intensity treatment will include the installation of a “3D” fence system that includes one fence set at 6 feet tall with two strands (top and bottom) and a second run of fence set 3 feet outside the perimeter of the first fence at 4 feet with a single strand that runs 2 feet off the ground. All strands on the 3D fence will be electrified using energizers and baited for 2 months after installation. The high intensity plot fencing will consist of Premier One’s 19/68/2 Anti-Deer netting (two rolls) installed and electrified. 


Mulching for each plot will follow planting as prescribed. For the low intensity plot, no mulch will be added and competing vegetation will be weed whacked 1 - 2x per season if and when vegetation gets at least 10 - 12” tall. For the medium intensity site, sawdust will be applied as mulch at a depth of 4 - 6”. For the high intensity site, 2 - 3” of fresh wood chips will be added at the time of planting. 






Site prep / planting

Mow or weed whack before planting

Tarping for 1 year before planting

Till / compost / mulch

Browse Protection 

Single strand fence

3D fence

Premier Deer fence


None, weed whack 1 - 2x per season



Table 1: Summary of plot treatments


Objective #3: 

Once the three plots are established, the bulk of the remaining work will be to monitor and observe the survival, growth rate, and any pest or disease issues that arise in the plots. Each plot will be visited weekly for observations, which will be recorded as qualitative findings along with any documented evidence of animal presence on the trail cams. Once per month each tree will be measured for growth rates and recorded as quantitative findings. Each plot will be equipped with two trail cams to capture any activity from deer. Observations and data collection will occur from May 1 - October 1 in 2024 and again in 2025 during the same timeframe. 


Objective #4


As data collection is completed for each phase, we can complete analysis. Our assumption is that any benefits for site prep and mulching will be reflected in tree survival and growth, while the browse protection in our assessment of damage to the plants. While we recognize we are compounding variables in this approach, we are not seeking to isolate any one aspect of tree establishment but rather explore the relationship of investing time versus money into a particular approach intensity. Some combination of these efforts may prove reasonable, for instance if deer browse is low in all plots but growth rates correlate to soil prep, a less intense method of fencing could be recommended as a conclusion along with a more intensive approach to soil prep. We will be able to break out labor and material costs for the different aspects of the treatments also, so we can utilize a wide variety of combinations in our reporting.


Objective 5:


Following analysis our project team will draft and develop a research guidebook of 5 - 10 pages that summarizes the efforts with pictures and graphics and breaks down our learning both in the quantitative data and qualitative observations of the project as experienced by the participants. This brief will be published to our websites (farm website and and shared during outreach activities, described below.

Research results and discussion:


The start of this project was delayed this year (2022) for two main reasons; 1) we encountered issues with our plans to restore the creek bed before planting fodder blocks because of slowdowns working with local NRCS / Soil and Water agencies, and 2) the outbreak of the Spongy Moth (Lymantria dispar) caterpillar led to almost 100% mortality of our willow cuttings. We'd never experienced such a devastating loss, as usually cuttings are quite easy to produce in previous years. 

As a result, we asked SARE to delay our end date and allow us to just push all research and activities back one year. We have changed the date in the above description to new targets. 

We did successfully collect cuttings and develop a procedure for starting them in "air prune" beds, which were also constructed and tested. This nursery elements proved to be a marked improvement over previous methods of propagation of cuttings (in ground beds)-- while almost all of the willow and poplar suffered at the hands of the spongy moth, we had elderberry cuttings in the beds that thrived and produced impressive root systems. We do think this will allow for a good strategy to propagate willow/poplar for next year and allow for healthy root growth. 

According to pest experts, the spongy month epidemic in our area should subside next year, as the cycle of intense impact of the population explosion tends to two years, and 2022 was the second season. Even still, we will plan on extra monitoring and treatment if necessary of the beds (using Bacillus thuringiensis kurtaki (Btk) approved in Organic production)


one willow made it, produced great roots for one season
one willow made it, produced great roots for one season
Impressive roots over 3 feet long from one season in air prune beds
Impressive roots over 3 feet long from one season in air prune beds
cuttings in air prune beds, before the destruction by Spongy Month
cuttings in air prune beds, before the destruction by Spongy Month
removing soil from air prune beds is super easy
removing soil from air prune beds is super easy
air prune beds constructed at Wellspring Forest Farm
air prune beds constructed at Wellspring Forest Farm


Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

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Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

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Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.